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Some hardball at Plant High

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By ERNEST HOOPER

© St. Petersburg Times,
published December 3, 2001


Chris Matthews, author and popular host of CNBC's Hardball, wondered aloud what the headline would read in today's paper.

The possibilities were plentiful:

County commissioner welcomes political pundit

Matthews speaks to Plant High students

CNBC host forces local columnist to miss Bucs

Matthews was betting on another, however. After his engaging appearance before a small but spirited group at the Tampa Yacht & Country Club, he was guessing the headline would focus on one of his predictions.

Pundit predicts 2008 battle royale between Bush, Clinton

Matthews' belief that Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush will square off for the White House in 2008 was just one of the many observations he offered during the informal gathering, billed as a book signing party for his latest effort, Now, Let Me Tell You What I Really Think.

Matthews did just that, but his demeanor was pleasant, his thoughts were insightful and, darn it, I liked him. He just came across as more genuine than he does on television. Doesn't everyone?

He spoke of the positives that have come from the hell that was Sept. 11, the importance of getting even with the terrorists and the need for Democrats to return to being the party of positive hope for America.

On the 2000 presidential race, he noted, "George W. Bush spoke to us like English was his second language, but Al Gore spoke to us like English was our second language. We really hated that."

Matthews was introduced by Plant High's Christina Hernandez. She began by saying everyone in her advanced placement government and politics class had a Matthews quote they liked and a quote they didn't like after reading his first book, Hardball, as a summer assignment.

She did not get much further because Matthews, naturally, interrupted her wanting to know which quote she didn't like. Hernandez blushed and was finally able to continue after Matthews relented. She concluded the introduction by noting Matthews has a reputation for interrupting his guests on Hardball. Smile.

Matthews already had spoken to a group of about 100 Plant High students, parents and teachers earlier in the day. Both speaking engagements were thanks to Mark Johnson, a Plant High teacher who, like Matthews, used to be a top congressional aide in the 1980s (Matthews with Tip O'Neill, Johnson with Tony Coelho).

"He was my best man at my wedding and my best friend when I got divorced," Johnson said of Matthews.

Johnson gave up his political career, but not because he was weary of life as a Washington insider. He moved to Tampa to be closer to his daughter and took a job teaching ninth-grade special education at Plant.

One of the best moments of the afternoon came when County Commissioner Ronda Storms asked Matthews a lengthy question about minorities and their impact on national politics. Matthews may be known for interrupting, but Storms interrupted him more than once in what turned out to be a healthy exchange.

Why was I not surprised it was Storms getting a little feisty with Matthews?

Others in attendance included County Commissioner Stacey Easterling, County Attorney Emmy Acton, potential mayoral candidate Francisco Sanchez and talk show host Syl Farrell.

So as I walked away Sunday, I didn't feel so bad about missing the Bucs game. Plus, I thought, the Bucs probably killed the Bengals. When I turned the key and heard Gene Deckerhoff utter the words "overtime," I was even more relieved to discover I had missed one of those patented, maddening, too-close-for-comfort Bucs victories.

Thanks, Chris.

-- Ernest Hooper is a columnist for the Tampa edition of the Times. He can be reached at (813) 226-3406 or Hooper@sptimes.com.

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