Hardball with Chris Matthews can be an odd mix of schoolyard bombast, offset with passionate expertise. It has also too often become wearying, as precious airtime treats politics as only A Game -- an ESPN wrap-up -- what the poll numbers are, who's got the most money, which player scored points.
Yes, an aspect of politics is a game, so fair enough. But it's just an aspect, part of a far more important whole.
Quality of guests is often solid, but too often that's secondary. When a Republican Congresswoman once did the near-impossible -- stunning Chris Matthews into silence -- by dismissing polls on Iraq, he still had her back. Brazen stupidity is okay, apparently "Good TV."
But fair enough with that, too. Some people like the circus.
However Chris Matthews crossed the line on Tuesday when he not only had Ann Coulter back on his program, but irresponsibly for the full hour.
To be clear, this isn't about Ann Coulter not being allowed to express her mean-spirited fantasies where facts don't matter. She's been allowed, relentlessly, and failed the test. Pro ballplayers get their opportunity, but if they can't hit the pitcher, they're let go. "Had your chance, hit .187, failed, sorry, goodbye, next."
Ann Coulter has been given her chance -- and chance -- and chance to be fair. To be credible. To have decency. To advance public debate. And she doesn't have it in her. Ann Coulter lasted about 12 seconds on Tuesday before her body had to interrupt Elizabeth Edwards with a personal slam. And one that was, of course, inaccurate.
But this isn't about Ann Coulter. It's about Chris Matthews and Hardball and MSNBC.
Putting a discredited Ann Coulter on the air for three minutes is bad enough, but putting her on for the full hour is inexcusable. And what was Matthews's rationale when he promoted her appearance the night before? "She can say some hot things!," he gushed. "She sells books!!!"
She has supported a war and president who have been dismissed by approximately 70% of the country. Who cares what she says?
Chris Matthews has confused insulting people with saying "hot things." Don Rickles insults people, but he at least does his gig on a Vegas stage. And even then he ends by saying how beautiful we all are. Saying "hot things" is easy. If Matthews wants a guest to say "hot things," just get Mel Gibson drunk and invite him on. Or a six-year-old who doesn't know better.
But ..."She sells books!!!"?? So does Michael Moore, but don't expect him on Hardball for an hour. (Note to Chris Matthews: I'll bet you can get Michael Moore to say some "hot things.") Al Gore sells books, and these days he's always talking about hot things. Judy Blume sells books. And J.R.R. Tolkein. (Okay, he's dead, but we've established that quality is not a standard for guests on Hardball.)
It's easy to figure out why Chris Matthews had the discredited Ann Coulter on Hardball for an hour. He figured she'd draw attention. The 26% of Americans who still support President George Bush might watch, and people who want to yell at the screen might watch. And maybe she'll say something so offensively hurtful (maybe?) that it'll get Hardball mentioned in newspapers. To be clear, that's just an explanation, not an excuse.
There is no excuse. There are serious problems in America -- Iraq, the deficit, global warming, poverty, Iraq -- and the Ann Coulters of the world have been wrong on all of them. For broadcasters who hope to lead the debate out of these sinkholes to allow Ann Coulter on the air for a full hour dragging the public further down into the quicksand demonstrates that Hardball and Chris Matthews have lost their hope for respectability. It's over, vanished, gone in 60 minutes.
Oprah Winfrey once explained that she used to have White Supremacists as guests so they could be exposed, but then she realized she was just giving them a platform which encouraged their supporters, so she stopped. Chris Matthews is a smart guy, he knows who Ann Coulter is and what she spews and divides. But he gave her an hour. Because "She sells books!!!"
Actually, he gave her much more. Because the next day, Matthews shamelessly spent yet another full hour talking about Ann Coulter. And he further provided her the credibility to go on CNBC and revel in more airtime. Her acolytes must be in heaven.
But Chris Matthews got what he wanted. Attention. Now, it remains to see if he gets what he deserves.
Perhaps Hardball can one day get its trust back, but that will take qualities they don't appear to have now. The show will no doubt do occasionally interesting things. Whether fewer people see them from this point on is a separate question. But it's off the list of shows that matter. Or shows that deserve interest.
When you stick a gun in someone's hand to see how wild their shooting is, you share the blame when they happen to hit somebody.
I admire that Chris Matthews enthusiastically loves politics. But I don't admire having a special platform and abusing it. The small abuses have been bad enough. The large ones are unacceptable, inexcusable and irresponsible.
Follow Robert J. Elisberg on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RobertElisberg