Rating - 4: worth reading multiple times (buy it)
Reading about Richard Darman inspired me to re-read this. Contemporary political discussion is too locked into hating or worshipping contemporary icons (or hating the haters). Looking back a couple of decades gives perspective, especially comparing conventional wisdom at the time to what happened to those folks immediately after.
Hardball describes rules for politics, illustrated with examples from Washington. There are fourteen rules, from the best known "all politics is local" to spin and the power of positioning.
Mine is the 1989 HarperPerennial edition, with commentary on the 1988 election. I should check out the 1999 revision sometime.
Richard Darman was a Reagan administrator, so his comments were mostly about executive branch Republicans. Chris Matthews was a Tip O'Neill staffer, so his comments are mostly about legislative branch Democrats.
The stories, however, range all over the map in a very conversational style. The writing suggests a group of pols sitting around the bar trading stories. It is weak as logical structure but excellent as storytelling. The book moves quickly and smoothly.
If anecdotes are not your thing, this is not your thing. There are no references, and you are taking Chris Matthews's word for the accuracy of a story distilled down to a paragraph or a page. If you know him from television, you might question that. Does it help that this comes from before those days?
"Where are they now?" is an interesting pastime while reading the book. Several of Mr. Matthews's peers went into broadcasting with him, so you see the overlap between former Democratic staffers and the current media covering Washington. You see other names that went on to higher office, failed campaigns, and terrible scandals in later years.
The book is relentlessly amoral. There are a few shots taken, but Mr. Matthews appreciates good tactics from anyone. The strongest example is probably President Franklin Roosevelt against Ambassador Joseph Kennedy. Mr. Kennedy was opposing the administration on the grounds that it would get them embroiled in World War II. FDR bought his endorsement with a promise to support Joseph Kennedy Jr. for governor. FDR was re-elected, the US entered the war, and Joseph Jr. was killed in action. Another author might have mentioned Faustian bargains at this point.
While most of the anecdotes relate to Congress, which makes sense since there are so many of them with chances for good moves and grand mistakes, the defining bookends are Presidents Johnson and Reagan, demonstrating politics on the individual and popular scales. Understanding these styles is the heart of the book. President Reagan was great at communicating grand themes to wide audiences, using rhetoric and imagery to move issues of substance. President Johnson worked one-on-one with the fine details that moved critical decision-makers. President Reagan especially keeps re-appearing, the result of many years Mr. Matthews spent studying the enemy.
Which brings us to the subtitle: "how politics is played, told by one who knows the game." For the players, it is a game, more about their careers than your trillions of dollars of tax money. They appreciate good moves.
Whatever organization you are in, you face politics. Good moves are still good moves. It is worth reading to navigate the minefields that lie ahead. If you are not interested in playing politics, events will be dictated by those who are.