Playing Hardball at Morristown festival: Matthews on RFK, Trump, Armageddon, and the power of books

Chris Matthews, right, host of MSNBC's 'Hardball,' discusses his new Bobby Kennedy biography at the 2018 Morristown Festival of Books. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Chris Matthews, right, host of MSNBC's 'Hardball,' discusses his new Bobby Kennedy biography at the 2018 Morristown Festival of Books. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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When Soviet nuclear missiles were discovered in Cuba in October 1962, Robert Kennedy urged his brother, President John F. Kennedy, to bomb the Communist island.

But both men had just read a new book, The Guns of August, about cascading events that sparked World War I. Upon reflection, RFK bucked other hawks in the Cabinet and endorsed a measured response that averted Armageddon.

It was standing room only for Chris Matthews' talk at the 2018 Morristown Festival of Books. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
It was standing room only for Chris Matthews’ talk at the 2018 Morristown Festival of Books. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“Bobby saw the chain reaction coming, and saved us,” Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s Hardball and author of Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit, told a standing-room-only crowd Saturday at the fifth annual Morristown Festival of Books.

Matthews worries about President Trump in a global showdown. Books are part of that equation, too.

“What will he be when we hit a crisis? What will he do with our nuclear weaponry? We don’t have any idea, because he shows no understanding of consequences down the road.

“To have understanding, you have to have a little bit of deliberation. You have to read stuff,” he said, as laughter echoed inside St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. “You have to understand history.”

New Jersey Monthly Editor Ken Schlager, left, poses questions to author Chris Matthews at the 2018 Morristown Festival of Books. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
New Jersey Monthly Editor Ken Schlager, left, poses questions to author Chris Matthews at the 2018 Morristown Festival of Books. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Matthews’ observations also included some pre-midterm tough love for Democrats, in a free-wheeling 50-minute talk, on a day of engaging discussions by more than 50 writers. 

Former Secretary of State John Kerry, author of Every Day is Extra, got the festival off to a provocative start with a Friday night keynote warning how Trump’s “con jobs” are leading America down a dangerous path.

Ann Curry interviews John Kerry at the Mayo Performing Arts Center, Oct. 12, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Ann Curry interviews John Kerry at the Mayo Performing Arts Center, Oct. 12, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Other authors dealt with climate change, racism, health issues and the new space race.

“We want to talk about things that ought to be talked about,” said book fest founder Linda Hellstrom. 

That was possible, she said, thanks to more than 300 volunteers, along with authors and moderators who appeared gratis. Corporate sponsors kept Saturday’s lectures at St. Peter’s, the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, the Presbyterian Church in Morristown, and the Morristown & Township Library free to the public.

The turnout on a crisp autumn weekend was especially gratifying to Hellstrom.

Author Joyce Carol Oates at the 2018 Morristown Festival of Books. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Author Joyce Carol Oates at the 2018 Morristown Festival of Books. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“It warms my heart to see people on the streets saying, ‘What did you see?’ ‘This was great!’ ‘Oh, you should have heard it!’ I couldn’t be more thrilled.”

Choices ranged from Joyce Carol Oates on the art of suspenseful short stories, to tips on self-publishing. History buffs could delve into Valley Forge or the life of Hamilton’s bride, Eliza (wooed by Gen. Washington’s aide-de-camp in Morristown).  Cooking and cocktails were covered as well.

“I want to find more must-reads,” said Jennifer Schrankler, 28, of Chatham, a first-time book fest visitor along with her friend Kim Kelly, 30, of Randolph. They were curious to hear novelist A.J. Finn (The Woman in the Window).

“I want to see if anything piques my interest, something that I wouldn’t have thought to read before,” said Kelly, who works for an insurance company.

Jennifer Schrankler of Chatham, and Kim Kelly of Randolph were first-time visitors to the Morristown Festival of Books, Oct. 13, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Jennifer Schrankler of Chatham, and Kim Kelly of Randolph were first-time visitors to the Morristown Festival of Books, Oct. 13, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Amy Lewis and Kiersten Smith in the book-signing line at the 2018 Morristown Festival of Books. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Amy Lewis and Kiersten Smith in the book-signing line at the 2018 Morristown Festival of Books. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Basking Ridge homemaker Amy Lewis and Kiersten Smith of Albany, NY, struck up a friendship waiting in line at the book-signing tent.

“I just love discovering new authors. Last year I came and heard them speak and it was so inspiring. I always find new books,” said Lewis, 48, clutching hardcovers by Kate Morton (The Clockmaker’s Daughter) and Fiona Davis (The Masterpiece).

Smith, 50, queued up for an autograph from Diane Chamberlain (The Dream Daughter).  This was her first Morristown Festival of Books.

“It’s an awesome opportunity to learn about the writing process. I find it fascinating, hearing people who are creative—because I’m not!” joked Smith, a human resources manager.

‘I LIKE READING’

Grownups weren’t the only ones making discoveries. Outside the KidFest at the Presbyterian Church, third-grader Claire Palumbo was speechless after meeting Dan Gutman, author of the My Weird School series.

Wilhelmina Switzler, 8, of Morristown, with Rory Wheeler and Geoffrey the Giraffe, and author David Ezra Stein, at 2018 KidFest. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Wilhelmina Switzler, 8, of Morristown, with Rory Wheeler and Geoffrey the Giraffe, and author David Ezra Stein, at 2018 KidFest. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“We love KidFest, and the variety of authors for all different ages. They give really good talks that stimulate kids to read,” said Claire’s mom, Jackie Palumbo, a veteran of three KidFests. They were joined from Bloomfield by Claire’s grandmother, Terri Pirone, and her friend, Dorothy LaRosa.

Wilhelmina Switzler, 8, of Morristown, was pleased to meet David Ezra Stein (Interrupting Chicken), though her favorite is Goosebumps creator R.L. Stine.

“I like the mysteries, and seeing what’s going to happen,” Wilhelmina explained.

Kennedi Washington, 11, came from Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley to see Jessica Love (Julian Is a Mermaid). The 6th grader promotes literacy via her Instagram site, BooksThroughMyEyes. She enjoys talking to writers.

Kennedi Washington, 11, promotes literacy on her Instagram site, BooksThroughMyEyes. Her mom brought her from Pennsylvania to the 2018 KidFest in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Kennedi Washington, 11, promotes literacy on her Instagram site, BooksThroughMyEyes. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“I want to know how they experience life, since I’m not an author,” Kennedi said. Maybe someday? “I don’t think so. I like reading.”

One-year-old Palmer Schmidt appeared happy to meet author Laura Numeroff (If You Give a Mouse a Cookie), but not as happy as his dad, Michael Schmidt. He asked Numeroff to sign If You Give a Bear a Bagel — an homage he penned at age 8.

(His spelling and illustrations need work. But the story holds up.)

Olympic medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad inscribes her autobiography for 10-year-old Alyssa Cioffi of Morristown, at the 2018 Morristown Festival of Books. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Olympic medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad inscribes her autobiography Alyssa Cioffi, 10, of Morristown, at the 2018 Morristown Festival of Books. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Back at St. Peter’s, the Morristown High School fencing team clamored for autographs and selfies with Ibtihaj Muhammad (Proud: My Fight for an Unlikely American Dream), the first Muslim-American woman in hijab to compete in the Olympics.

Then came 10-year-old Alyssa Cioffi’s turn.

“I want to be a gold medalist, too,” said the aspiring Morristown gymnast, clutching her copy of Muhammad’s book. The inscription:

“Alyssa, may your faith be greater than your fears.”

 

KidFest 2018: Slideshow photos by Bruce Frazier and Kevin Coughlin. Hover/click on images for captions:

Young fans wait in line to meet a favorite author, at the 2018 Morristown KidFest. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Children's author Jessica Love speaks at Presbyterian Church for 2018 KidFest. Photo by Bruce Frazier
Palmer Schmidt,age 1, with his new book, at the 2018 Morristown KidFest. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Rory Wheeler and Geoffrey the Giraffe at the 2018 Morristown KidFest. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Stephen Dent, 9; Kennedi Washington, 11; and Wilhelmina Switzler, 8, watch a balloon man at the 2018 Morristown KidFest. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
'If You Give A Mouse A Cookie'...here's what happens! From the 2018 KidFest. Photo by Bruce Frazier
Book inscription by Olympic medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad, at the 2018 Morristown KidFest. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Kennedi Washington, 11, promotes literacy on her Instagram site, BooksThroughMyEyes. Her mom brought her from Pennsylvania to the 2018 KidFest in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Cody Dominguez, 5, of Morristown, at the 2018 KidFest. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Cody Dominguez, 5, of Morristown,with his mom, Clare, at the 2018 KidFest. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Children's author Sayantani Dasgupta speaks at Presbyterian Church for 2018 KidFest. Photo by Bruce Frazier
Children's author Christian Robinson speaks at Presbyterian Church for 2018 KidFest. Photo by Bruce Frazier
Olympic medalist and author Ibtihaj Muhammad, at the 2018 Morristown KidFest. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
John Gringeri's Morristown High School fencing team with Olympic medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad, center, at the 2018 Morristown KidFest. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Olympic medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad, left, chats with Morristown High School fencers, at the 2018 Morristown KidFest. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Children's author Jessica Love speaks at Presbyterian Church for 2018 KidFest. Photo by Bruce Frazier
Jackie Palumbo shows off a 2018 KidFest purchase for daughter Claire; the 3rd grader's grandmother and friend look on. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Author Laura Numeroff, right, signs books for Michael, Palmer and Kacie Schmidt at the 2018 KidFest. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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KENNEDYS AND KUSHNERS

Fifty years after his assassination, Bobby Kennedy remains a complex character.

The runt of the Kennedy clan, Bobby was such a gloomy “Debbie downer” that his older brother Jack didn’t want him around, recounted Matthews, whose eight books include a biography of JFK.

bobby kennedy book by chris matthewsBut Bobby gained confidence playing football at Harvard, and became an indispensable confidant, strategist and fixer on his brother’s political campaigns.

“He became the best s.o.b. (JFK) ever met, and was brilliant,” said Matthews, a former newspaper reporter and Peace Corps volunteer.

During the Communist paranoia of the early 1950s, Bobby worked for Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the hard-drinking demagogue. Bobby left after clashing with McCarthy’s combative young deputy, Roy Cohn, who decades later mentored Donald Trump.

As counsel for a Senate subcommittee, Bobby tried to take down union boss Jimmy Hoffa. After managing JFK’s 1960 presidential campaign, President Kennedy ignored critics’ cries of nepotism and appointed Bobby as attorney general.

Moderator Ken Schlager of New Jersey Monthly suggested a comparison to Trump naming son-in-law Jared Kushner as an adviser. Matthews laughed.

“That’s the difference between the Kennedys and the Romanovs,” Matthews said, to a roar of laughter. “There’s a difference.”

Audience listens to Chris Matthews, in St. Peter's Episcopal Church at the 2018 Morristown Festival of Books. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Audience listens to Chris Matthews, in St. Peter’s Episcopal Church at the 2018 Morristown Festival of Books. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

What has fascinated so many biographers is Bobby Kennedy’s evolution from ruthless political operative to anti-war crusader and champion of the oppressed. Most historians say his empathy grew from the deep despair inflicted by JFK’s murder.

Yet Matthews said Bobby’s prep school chums remembered his generous attitude toward the poor.

“I wonder where he gets that from?” Joseph P. Kennedy, the family’s wealthy patriarch, once mused.

Asked about Trump and the looming Congressional midterm election, Matthews said Democrats must play to their traditional strengths, addressing “the regular needs of regular people” as Kennedy and President Franklin Roosevelt did.

“Think about how average, real people live. And keep thinking like that. And stop chasing after glittering objects. Same-sex (marriage) is great. Abortion rights are great. They’re all part of the Constitution now. They’re there. Okay. Focus this time around on why people vote the way they do,” said Matthews, predicting Democrats regain control of the House next month, gaining 30 to 40 seats, while Republicans keep the Senate.

People care about Medicare and Social Security for their old age, he said, and jobs local enough so their children can come home to visit.

“The Democrats are elitists. I’m sorry. They act like it. They spend all their time at fundraisers hanging around with people whose values have nothing to do with what I was just talking about,” Matthews said.

It’s time for them “to stop having Carole King concerts, stop celebrating themselves on Martha’s Vineyard, stop saying how great they are, stop hanging around with Hollywood celebrities, and identify with the working, regular people” who supported the party for generations.

MORE COVERAGE OF THE 2018 MORRISTOWN FESTIVAL OF BOOKS

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