Dennis J. Kucinich avoided him. John F. Kerry jabbed with him at a distance.
But Phil Griffin, the executive producer of “Hardball” and an MSNBC vice-president, steps into the ring five days a week with his notoriously pugnacious star, Chris Matthews.
“The pre-show meeting is like a trainer might spar with his fighter,” Griffin says. “In Chris’ gut is so much information, but you have to get him to break a sweat before the show.”
Griffin gives up a few inches and more than a few pounds to Matthews, but it’s his job to get the big guy riled up. Rocky had Mickey; Matthews has Griffin.
Matthews’ schtick is impatience. He whines, shouts and questions away, cutting off guests when he gets bored of their answers.
On television or off television, there is an excitement and a constant fidgeting about Matthews that calls for a moderating influence—a Griffin.
Griffin and Matthews have been traveling to Harvard on Mondays this fall to broadcast “Hardball: Battle for the White House” live from the JFK Jr. Forum.
On Monday, before Democratic frontrunner Howard Dean took Matthews’ hotseat, the former Vermont governor’s 12-year-old niece waited for Matthews alongside her father in the hallway below the Forum. She wanted to know if the interviewer would go easy on her uncle. The big guy considered it for a moment, and then agreed.
The act of mercy might not have been apparent based on Matthews’ aggressive style of inquisition, but when he sat across from the diminutive Dean, it was clear that Matthews could have physically crushed Dean had he so desired.
That’s where Griffin comes in. His job is to ensure that this almost—but never actually—happens.
“I tell him to ease up here, push there. I moderate him. He trusts me,” says Griffin.
Although Griffin whips up his fighter at the prep session before the show, he has to rein him in during the show. Griffin’s is the voice in Matthews’ left earpiece offering advice sparingly throughout the show, and particularly during commercial breaks.
He warns Matthews about how much time he has. He suggests when to move on from a line of questioning and when to abandon it.
He keeps his fighter focused as best as he can from inside a giant truck in the parking lot.