Chris Matthews P’05 had a message for students Friday evening, and it had nothing to do with politics: Do something in your twenties that will be worth remembering for the rest of your life.
Best known as a political commentator, Matthews, host of MSNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews,” delivered the Parents Weekend keynote lecture to a packed Sayles Hall audience made up mostly of visiting parents.
A distinguished journalist, political commentator and best-selling author described as a “cultural icon” by President Ruth Simmons during her introduction, Matthews shared his experiences as a trade development advisor in the Kingdom of Swaziland during his stint with the Peace Corps in the late 1960s, emphasizing to students the importance of the experiences of their twenties.
“What are you going to do?” he asked the students in the audience. “It’s how you’re going to grow up and how you’re going to make the decisions to make you grow up. You’re always going to look back on your twenties as the times when you did the big things, the life-changing things – not just grad school and law school and things – the wild things you’re going to do in your twenties.
“I can tell you, if you’re lucky, your twenties will be wild – wild as hell,” he said.
Matthews said that experience and “finding stuff that memories are made of” are an integral part of growing up. He recounted a trip he took with his sons to meet a friend in Vietnam and a brief stop they made in Berlin.
“I’m a student of World War II and realized I knew where Hitler had his bunker. I took (my sons) to where I knew Hitler had committed suicide,” Matthews said. “And we all took a leak. I want my kids when they’re 90 years old to remember when they were in their teens they pissed on Hitler’s grave. Those little memories make all the difference.”
Matthews said there was a “bite in the air” during the 1960s - ”the bite that things matter.” He attributed the “bite” to the looming draft.
“You knew that even your dad wasn’t going to protect you,” he said. “How’s that for a feeling? Nobody was going to protect you. You were going to get drafted, you’re going to Vietnam and your name would end up on a casket list.”
Because of the draft, Matthews said he was confronted with a decision: becoming an enlistee, a draftee, a resister or a Canadian or going to federal prison. “Those are the decisions people actually made in my era,” he said.
Matthews recalled sitting on a park bench in Montreal one day and making a list of things he could do. “I made a decision which changed my life,” he said. “And for two years between the ages of 23 and 25, I spent a good part of my time riding around the dirt roads, the remote bush, the African bush, of Swaziland in Africa on a Suzuki 120 motorcycle. I was teaching 200 people how to be better businessmen, African traders.”
Matthews had decided to join the Peace Corps and began work as a trade development advisor. “I would just walk into their stores and tell them, ‘Let’s learn how to do business better.’ And on my more romantic moments, I thought of myself as a bourgeois Che Guevara. He was selling revolution in South America; I was selling bookkeeping and capitalism in Southern Africa.”
During his two years in the Peace Corps, Matthews traveled around in his Suzuki motorcycle teaching business in Swaziland, hitchhiked alone through Africa, went on a 26-hour bus ride with chickens and goats, fell in love with Indian cities, spent a day fishing in a lake “so big you couldn’t see land,” closed the bar one night with friends in Zanzibar and spent “days in the perfect sand, just hanging out.”
He said the experiences shaped the rest of his life.
“It was, in a way, a rite of passage for me. It got me out of my world and into another,” he said. “My grandmother looked into my eyes a couple years after I got back, and she saw me coming to Washington and getting these jobs and everything. She looked me in the eyes and said, ‘It was Africa, wasn’t it?’”
After his speech, Matthews took questions from the audience.
“That was softball,” he said. “Now we go to hardball.”
While he successfully avoided the topic for the most part during his prepared lecture, politics quickly became the subject of interest during the brief question-and-answer forum.
Matthews said many Americans are voting misinformed, calling this year’s election based on “bad intel,” but said he does not think the Bush administration deliberately misinformed the public – he said he thinks Vice President Dick Cheney believed he was telling the truth when Cheney suggested there was a connection between Sept. 11 and Iraq.
Matthews said Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., would be a better vice presidential running mate for John Kerry than John Edwards is, noting that Kerry and Edwards are not likely to win any states in the South, including Edwards’ native North Carolina, but are in close competition with President George W. Bush in the industrial Midwest, where Gephardt is popular.
He also praised Howard Dean, telling a self-proclaimed “Deaniac” in the audience that her candidate’s clear position against the war in Iraq, rather than his infamous “scream” following the Iowa caucuses, was the reason he failed to win the nomination. Matthews said he liked Dean so much because he had “clarity” and “guts.”
“Say what you believe and let the country catch up to you,” he said. “Don’t try to catch up to the country, because then you’ll just be another spinner. And you might as well go in my business.”