Chris Matthews and Newt Gingrich: The Most Entertaining (and Reptile-Centric) Political Interview Ever

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On Hardball, the former presidential candidate finally meets his match in Chris Matthews' similarly childish enthusiasm for history -- and animals.

By the time the interview had finished, Chris Matthews had done his best black mamba impersonation and Newt Gingrich had, in the course of explaining his support for the Republican nominee, called Mitt Romney a liar. There was a debate over the legacy of Eisenhower, a discussion of George Washington's wealth, and a sincere heart-to-heart about reptiles. Gingrich's interview on Thursday's edition of Hardball was, without a doubt, the most compelling political television in recent memory, though that is a notably low bar. Take this exchange:

MATTHEWS, pivoting from a veepstakes discussion of Sen. John Thune: OK, last question, animals. Because you and I -- in a different way, maybe -- share a tremendous interest in animals .... What's you and animals about?

GINGRICH: I love the natural world. I love animals, whether they're out in the wild, I love animals in zoos, I love paleontology --

MATTHEWS, interrupting: OK, we're going to make news now. Best zoo in the country?

GINGRICH, without hesitation, looking deadly serious: Oh, San Diego.

MATTHEWS: For big animals, all kinds of animals?

GINGRICH: If you take the wild animal park and the -- it's just huge.

MATTHEWS: OK, best animal, favorite animal to go watch?

GINGRICH, looking sincerely conflicted: Favorite animal to watch? Uh, hard to say. Maybe elephants.

MATTHEWS, avidly: Me too, me too. I'm with elephants.

GINGRICH: They're just remarkable.

MATTHEWS: Listen, you like the reptile house? Why do you like the reptile house? Most people are afraid of them.

GINGRICH: They're astonishingly successful. They do it in a totally different way than we do. And they've been successful for a very long time.

MATTHEWS, impatiently: OK, favorite snake.

GINGRICH: Uh, probably a python.

MATTHEWS: Why? It's a constrictor, right?

GINGRICH: It's big and passive. It sits there.

The whole interview was like that: two battle-weary political veterans, grown men of indiscriminate, childish enthusiasm and boundless ego, enjoying themselves -- and the spectacle of themselves -- immensely. In Matthews' instinctive, emotional, hectoring style, Gingrich -- the man who never met an idea too grandiose -- seemed finally to have met his match.

As a tryout for Gingrich in his new role as Romney supporter, the interview was somewhat rocky. Gingrich said he respected Romney for having beat him: "You have somebody who's tough enough to look you in the eye and run over you," he said.

"Did he tell the truth about you?" Matthews asked.

"No," Gingrich replied. "But he did what he had to do."

As a recommendation of Romney, it was far from ringing -- but refreshingly honest. Later, Gingrich described himself as "a team player," with a big, can't-touch-this grin.

"HAH!" barked Matthews, emitting his signature one-note guffaw. "You know, when you smile, I know what you are." Gingrich just grinned even wider.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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