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It’s a process many Americans treasure and other countries envy — the American democratic system. On the outside, our government could be perceived as a well-oiled machine, but insider Chris Matthews has a very different view in his book, “Hardball: How Politics is Played — Told by One Who Knows the Game.” Read an excerpt — about the imperfect people who run the United States government.

Be warned. This is not a civics book. It is not about pristine procedures, but about imperfect people. It is not an aerial judgment of how leaders of this or any country ought rightly to behave, but an insider’s view of the sometimes outrageous way they actually do. Its subject is not the grand sweep of history, but the round-the-clock scramble for position, power and survival in the city of Washington.

Let me define terms: Hardball is clean, aggressive Machiavellian politics. It is the discipline of gaining and holding power, useful to any profession or undertaking, but practiced most openly and unashamedly in the world of public affairs.

When the preceding words first appeared, I had no idea this book would become a classic, that many hard-nosed politicians would employ it as their bible, that CEOs would be caught carrying it in their briefcases, that young people set on bright careers would cherish their tattered copies as if they were treasure maps, that political science professors would assign it as required reading, that the word “Hardball” itself would so penetrate the country’s vocabulary.

More important to you, the reader, is how the basic rules of Hardball have proven true. The wisdom I gleaned from the gamesmanship of John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, then witnessed first-hand from Ronald Reagan and rival Tip O’Neill sparkles with even greater clarity today. Bill Clinton has given us frequent lessons in spin. South Africa’s Nelson Mandela has shown the advantage of getting ahead over getting even. Less fortunate leaders like Newt Gingrich have been taught to only talk when it improves the silence.

As I wrote in 1988, this book is also meant to entertain. Lived to the hilt, a political career is a grand and exuberant experience. In the following pages you will enjoy some candid glimpses of how well-known figures achieved their ambitions. You will meet some very unlikely success stories, people who learned the game, played hard and won.

Those who watch me on TV and read my newspaper column know my relish for this great life’s game. George F. Will called me “half Huck Finn and half Machiavelli.” Indeed, I have learned as much from adventure as from observation. You only truly believe, let’s agree, what you discover yourself.

For me the grand journey began a quarter century ago when I came to Washington thinking I knew something about politics. I had been an addict of the electoral game, a true political junkie, since high school days. Even then I was rooting for and against candidates, cheering their victories, grieving with them on election night. When I went away to the Peace Corps in my early twenties, I maintained the romance from afar. With my late-arriving copy of The New York Times “Week in Review” and a few scattered magazines, I would strain to make my picks in the year’s congressional elections, even though the results reached my little town in Swaziland days after Americans had gone to the polls. So I should have been prepared for my immersion in the political world. For years I had stood in awed attention at the grand debate, the daunting personalities, the big-picture spectacle of national politics.

But in terms of political Hardball, I came to Washington as a neophyte. I entered a world that was as anthropologically exotic as the one I had just left in southern Africa. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that the “very rich” are different from you and me. So, I came to learn, are the very political.

Behind those vaunted closed doors lies not only the paraphernalia of power but a distinctive language, which I myself have learned to speak. It is a world of tough old alliances, Gothic revenge and crafty deal-making, but also of marvelous state-of-the-art tactics such as spin and positioning.

Old or new, the machinations of the hardened, dedicated pol would strike most people as offbeat. Indeed, by the layman’s standard, there is little in this book that would be categorized strictly as on the level.

In the following pages you will read of raw ambition, of brutal rivalry and exquisite seduction. If the tone is tongue-in-cheek, if some portraits and situations appear too comical for such important affairs, you have caught my attitude precisely: with all its nuclear-age centrality, politics is the only game for grown people to play.

“Politics makes strange bedfellows,” wrote the nineteenth-century humorist Charles Dudley Warner. That, we will see, is only the beginning of the strangeness. I have learned firsthand that the notions we harbor of political men — and women — are a poor guide to reality. Not even the cynic is prepared to understand the wheeling and dealing of the true pol:

Expect a raging egotist, entranced by his own affairs, and you are seized with the unfamiliar pleasure of having someone probe with quick interest at your own most intimate longings, plotting your course even before you have done so yourself. Expect to be wooed with favors, and he captures you instead with a breathtaking request. His real knack, as Machiavelli taught him five hundred years ago, lies in getting you to do things for him. Eerily and against your will, you discover that the more you do for him, the more loyal you become, the more you want to invest in his career.

Expect a figure of dark passions, fired by revenge, and you meet someone with cold-blooded shrewdness, an uncanny bent to bring the most hated enemy into the tent with him. Expect an argument, and you are blinded by the quick concession; yes, you are right on the larger “principle” — it is the smaller, more tangible points that seem to interest him.

Expect a swell, born to well-placed connections, and you meet someone heir to another sort of legacy: the inner drive to meet those he needs to meet. Expect a narcissist, and you meet a person who not only exposes his faults but has learned, adroitly, to brandish and exploit them.

Such curious, even quirky behavior sets the political animal apart from the pack. And it’s what gives certain men and women decisive power over others.

How many times have you heard a colleague complain that he failed to get a promotion because of “office politics”? Or someone say that she turned her back on an opportunity because she “couldn’t hack all the favoritism”? What about the “backstabbing” and the “sharks” who haunt the corridors of business and professional power? But we all know people who have succeeded swiftly and magnificently while others plod along one yard and a cloud of dust at a time. The fact is, there’s a great deal of politics in everyday life.

For twenty-eight years I have worked in an environment where politics is the name of the game. As a U.S. Senate aide, presidential speechwriter and top assistant to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, I have seen men as different as Ronald Reagan and Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill play the game with gusto and win. I have gained something even more valuable than a healthy Rolodex of connections: the knowledge that success is only rarely based on the luck of looks, money or charisma. There is energy, of course. All great pols have that. But what drives this energy is the willingness to learn and do whatever is necessary to reach the top. The more they succeed at their trade, the zestier they become. John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon were rivals for office, but they had one great love in common: the contest itself.

Like others before me, I have been fascinated with the towering legends: Lyndon B. Johnson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln. I have heard the tales of how these great politicians learned to forge alliances, make deals, manipulate enemies and bolster their reputations, all the while building strong networks of alliances.

Yes, there are rules to the game of power, part of the political lore passed from one generation of leaders to the next. This unwritten code accumulates year by year, like the morning-after cigar smoke in Capitol Hill cloakrooms. You hear it invoked behind the scenes, when someone does it right and pulls off a victory or does it all wrong and pays the price. One of the old-time guys, the fellows who have won for decades, offers the quiet verdict: “Just goes to show that...” Then comes the sacramental intonation of the rule itself, dredged from the archives of those whose lives depend on winning every time.

I was standing one day in the Democratic cloakroom, that narrow hideaway just off the floor of the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol. The room is equipped with a snack bar, banks of telephone booths and two rows of worn leather couches with pillows so that members can take afternoon naps. It was lunchtime and the smell of steaming hot dogs filled the air. A small crowd of congressmen, escaping the Capitol’s chandeliered formality, were lined up munching sandwiches at the stainless-steel lunch counter. The talk, as always, was of politics. Quietly, I confided to one of the members that I was writing a book about the rules of politics, including all the tricks I had overheard in off-the-record hideaways like this. He looked at me, a crease of pain crossing his forehead, and said with dead seriousness, “Why do you want to go and give them away?”

My answer is that such trade secrets are valuable not just to the aspiring pol. There are enduring human truths in the rules that politicians play by.

In every field of endeavor there are people who could easily be successful but who spend their entire lives making one political mistake after another. They become so absorbed in themselves that they ignore the very people they would most like to influence. Rather than recruit allies, they limit their horizons to missions they can accomplish alone. Instead of confronting or seducing their adversaries, they avoid them. In making important deals, they become obsessed with intangibles and give away the store. They become crippled by handicaps when they could be exploiting them.

Some might say these tendencies are only human. But such tendencies that pass for human nature, our hesitancy to ask for things, our unease in the face of opposition, are instincts for accommodation rather than leadership, the reflexes of fear. By following them, we trap ourselves. We teach ourselves to stay in line, keep our heads down: the age-old prescription for serfdom.

The premise of this book is straightforward: To get ahead in life, you can learn a great deal from those who get ahead for a living. Climb aboard Air Force One and you will find a world not all that different from your own workplace. People are jockeying for position, all the while keeping an eye on the competition across the aisle. Spend some time in the Oval Office, and you will find it much like any other office, much as the Congress is like other large, complex organizations. There are friends and enemies, deals and reputations being made. And there are gladiators, people who keep score by the body count around them. Once you learn the rules, you will have the street smarts not only to survive the world of everyday politics, but to thrive in it.

There is nothing partisan about the right way to get things done politically. As the great mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia, used to say, “There is no Republican way to collect garbage.” What we are discussing here is not political philosophy but practical method, not why but how.

When President Richard Nixon faced the imminent prospect of impeachment in late 1973, he took a careful reading of the situation in Congress. The House of Representatives, he realized to his sorrow, was controlled by a Democratic majority leader whom Nixon had come to recognize as a fierce adversary. “I knew I was in trouble,” the fallen President said from the ruins of his career, “when I saw that Tip O’Neill was calling the shots up there. That man plays Hardball. He doesn’t know what a softball is.”

Hardball is not a collection of political pinups. You will find some of the masters immediately appealing: Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan. It is easy to figure out how the debonair Jack Kennedy succeeded. He had only one handicap, his religion, and managed to turn even that to his advantage. It is harder to discern how Richard Nixon remained at the center stage of American politics for three decades or to explain how Lyndon Baines Johnson, a man with no apparent public charm, could so effectively dominate the United States Senate for eight years. Here it took more than good fortune to offset the awkwardnesses, the odd appearance, the strange temperament; it took a master’s passion for strategy and tactic.

Bill Clinton is another intriguing case. Watching his rise to the presidency it is easy to spot the craft. Whenever he stumbled, he was quickly back on his feet. When he gave that terribly overlong speech at the ’88 convention, he fixed the problem with a breezy turn on The Tonight Show. He showed himself a bigger man than his snafu.

In 1992, Clinton proved he could spin with the best of them. By crowning himself “the Comeback Kid” he converted a second-place showing in the New Hampshire primary into a triumph! In 1994, he salvaged his presidency by positioning himself as a third force in American politics, tied neither to the diehard Democratic liberals on Capitol Hill or the conservative Republicans who’d just beaten them.

As this new edition shows, the rules of Hardball continue to govern. Followed carefully, the code pays dividends. Violated, it makes the politician pay.

Say what you will about how “politicians” score low in polls of public esteem. There is a Big Casino flavor to their lives that interests even the most disapproving observer. Perhaps it arises from the crackling clarity when the count comes in, when dreams are made and humiliation is dispensed with mathematical exactness. I have known the simple, clear elation of victorious election nights when political careers were born. But I remember as well the bleak, claustrophobic feeling on President Jimmy Carter’s helicopter as it flew him to Plains, Georgia, that morning of November 2, 1980: it was like being on the inside of a huge, lumbering bird that was dying.

There’s a magnetism to this world of make-or-break. I don’t know how many times I have stood in the back of a grand hotel ballroom and watched a roomful of adult business executives sit in rapt attention to what some politician had to say. When the time for questions arrives, the crowd dutifully asks about upcoming legislation or the next presidential campaign. But what’s really on their minds is what they smell: power. What’s this guy’s story? How did he get where he is?

Those are good questions. This book is filled with the surprising answers.

Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 1988 by Christopher J. Matthews. All rights reserved.

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