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Has MSNBC 'Hardball' host Chris Matthews gone soft with new Bill Clinton special?

February 18, 2011 |  6:30 am

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Chris Matthews hasn't exactly been on the Friends of Bill list. Why, just three years ago, the host of MSNBC's "Hardball" landed in hot water when he suggested that Hillary Rodham Clinton owed her political career to her husband's infidelities.

"I'd been a pretty tough critic of Clinton over the years," Matthews said in a phone chat Thursday afternoon.

So what's he doing making a fawning special on Bill Clinton, complete with worshipful comments from celebrities such as Ben Stiller, Kevin Spacey and Mary Steenburgen?

Matthews says that "President of the World: The Bill Clinton Phenomenon," the special he hosts at 10 p.m. Monday on MSNBC, is no whitewash. Rather, it's a look at Clinton's charitable work since he left the presidency -- work that Matthews says has been nearly universally praised.

And he doesn't ignore the bad stuff, he says.

"I think I hit the points of fact that had to be hit in terms of the past," Matthews said of his interviews with Clinton. "We talked about Marc Rich, we talked about the Whitewater stuff, we talked about the impeachment.... This treatment was to look at a story that had not been covered.

"What is the negative? Tell me what I missed! I don't think I underreported something I had an awareness of."

Matthews -- who in his spare time writes presidential biographies; he has one due on John F. Kennedy later this year -- said he spent some time working on getting access to Clinton, with especially heavy attention on Doug Band, a close aide.

"They were very open to me," Matthews said.

Once he got access, Matthews said he was surprised by how seldom Clinton talks about the old days. "The guy does keep his mind going.... He doesn't tell old stories about what it was like to be president," he said. "He carries this satchel around with him, like an old-time 19th century satchel.... He started going through his book selections with me."

But there were limits to how close Matthews could get. He wanted to film Clinton going through some paraphernalia at his presidential library in Little Rock, Ark. But that request was ultimately denied.

"They got mad at me ... he didn't like something I said on the air," Matthews said with a chuckle. "I'm not in the business of getting liked. Obviously."

-- Scott Collins (Twitter: @scottcollinsLAT)

Photo: Chris Matthews interviews Bill Clinton on "President of the World." Credit: MSNBC.