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'Hardball's' Chris Matthews admits he's Arctic softball

Craig Medred
Loren Holmes photo

Celebrity lefty journalist Chris Matthews came, saw and conquered the northern homeland of America “red states” on Saturday -- but then what would one expect? Matthews is an entertainer and political junkie. He talks politics the way Dan Patrick, Colin Cowherd and a host of others talk sports. And the solidly red state of Alaska isn’t as red as celebrity politician and former Gov. Sarah Palin’s conservative posturing might make it appear.

Alaska, in some ways, leans more toward the red of the former Soviet Union than the red of a Southern redneck state. It is a land where politicians think no one should be regulated or pay taxes except Big Oil, which should deal with a mountain of regulations, and pay South-America-size taxes for the privilege. A God-fearing, gun-toting, hard-drinking Republican state on one level, Alaska also remains home to a fair number of people who would prefer to form a breakaway republic.

Matthews asked his audience for a show of hands for Democrats, then Republicans, after which he tossed this out at the Arctic Imperative Summit in Girdwood: "How many people want to see Alaska (as its) own country?"

Hands went up all over the room.

“I sensed it,” said Matthews, who admitted he wasn’t all that familiar with Alaska’s internal politics or, for that matter, the Arctic.

In an interview with Alaska Dispatch before his speech, Matthews confessed to knowing little about the nation’s Arctic frontier. Or, at the very most, he didn’t know any more about the Arctic than most Americans: It’s a place where threatened polar bears live. The ice that used to cloak its northern reaches almost year-round is disappearing. And there might be some oil out there somewhere.

All of this has the potential to one day make the Arctic a hot political topic. With global warming still simmering, and Royal Dutch Shell facing off with Greenpeace over oil drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, the last American frontier does appear poised to move into the screaming arena of the country’s political consciousness. But it’s not there yet. Not by a long shot.

So Matthew’s, host of the political talk show “Hardball with Chris Matthews” on MSNBC can be forgiven if he hasn’t been paying attention to Arctic issues. He’s plenty busy tracking the pulse of the country as it moves toward the Olympics of U.S. politics, the once-every-four-years election of a president. In fact, Matthews left the summit in Alyeska, a ski resort just down the road from Anchorage, late Saturday to catch a plane to Tampa, Fla., where the Republican National Convention is getting ready to nominate Mitt Romney as its presidential candidate, despite momentary protestations from Mother Nature.

The convention that was due to start Monday is being delayed because of a tropical storm bearing down on the city. Before heading into the storm, Matthews took the time to handicap the presidential race between the former governor of Massachusetts and incumbent president Barack Obama. He had the crowd laughing and clapping as he described the difference between the two parties and what strategies he believes Romney and Obama must employ to win.

“Republicans do what they are told to do,” he said in defining the parties. “Democrats do what they feel like doing.” He described the latter as so disorganized “they can’t do a friggin’ balloon drop.” That got a big laugh out of the right-leaning crowd. Matthews described how the parties select their nominees this way:

“Democrats fall in love; Republicans fall in line.”

That got another laugh. When Republican candidates lose, Matthews said, they start gearing up for a comeback, like former and late Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan -- and even Romney, who first ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 and lost. Republican losers can come back to win, Matthews noted. Democrats are banished.

“Where is Michael Dukakis?” he asked.

That drew hearty laughs. Dukakis was the 1988 Democrat candidate for president. He once held a big lead in the campaign over Republican George H.W. Bush. Dukaksis, however, lost and fell off the political radar. A man who once stood close to winning the presidency, he’s now less visible on the national stage than a broken nail on the hand of celebrity politician Sarah Palin, the former, half-term governor of Alaska. She didn’t warrant a mention from Matthews, who is to be excused if he dismisses the now far-right governor as an important political figure.

“This country is the most pragmatic country in the world,” he said. “We don’t like too far left or too far right.”

The blond, tousle-haired Matthews, who remains charged with boyish enthusiasm despite being nearly 67 years old, reminded some in the crowd of the late Gov. Wally Hickel, the industrialist who pushed the idea of Alaska as “the owner state.” Hickel was also a developer who as Nixon's U.S. Interior Secretary shut down offshore oil drilling after the Santa Barbara, Calif., oil spill in 1969 and ordered the development of stricter standards for drilling. Hickel was driven by the same sort of energy for politics and ideas almost until the day of his death two years ago at age 90. And Matthews sounded a wee-bit like Hickel when he started talking about what is wrong with America today.

Those in the nation’s capital, Matthews said, don’t build anything anymore; they only “want billable hours” for shuffling paper. President Abraham Lincoln, Matthews went on to note, “built the transcontinental railroad.” President Dwight Eisenhower got the interstate highway system started. President John Kennedy helped put an American on the moon.

In a state starved for infrastructure -- roads, railroads and ports -- this was the sort of thing the crowd wanted to hear. And Matthews had some more advice for them: Don’t talk about infrastructure; talk about what you can build.

That talk has begun. U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, Friday night told the Arctic Imperative he is readying legislation to create an Arctic Deepwater Port Authority -- a public-private partnership to plan, finance, build and operate a deepwater port in northern Alaska. The Alaska Industrial Development and Expert Authority revealed the same day that it had signed a pre-development agreement with a “resource developer” to assess the feasibility of building a port along the Chukchi Sea.

Whether it’s all just entertaining talk, like Matthews’ speech, or real progress toward providing jobs in the north, remains to be seen.

The Arctic is one of the country’s most economically depressed areas. The unemployment rate in Northwest Alaska is near 20 percent and economists say that even that misrepresents reality. Jobs are so scarce, they say, that many people have simply stopped looking for work. 

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com