References to Machiavelli festoon this book. Matthews defines hardball as "clean, aggressive, Machiavellian politics," and he opens the book with a quote from the master recommending the study of "the actions of great men who have excelled in the achievement of some exploit." The exploit here is successful maneuvering in Washington politics; the great men are the people Matthews has observed during a career in the capital as a journalist, speech writer (for Jimmy Carter) and spokesman (for Tip O'Neill). This is a guide to the care and feeding of power. Matthews has a style with bounce and comes up with such catchy sentences as: "What gas stations are to small Southern towns, cloakrooms are to the Capitol."
Chapter headings state the principles of Machiavellian hardball, such as: "Leave No Shot Unanswered," "Only Talk When It Improves the Silence" and "Always Concede on Principle."
Anecdotes of politicians who have mastered (or failed to master) the principles illustrate Matthews' lessons. Lyndon Johnson is portrayed as a consummate player; his genius lay in being able to co-opt people by paying complete attention to them--at the right moment. Ronald Reagan would have fared better with the Iran-Contra affair had he learned from his predecessors to "hang a lantern on his problem"; John F. Kennedy's popularity, Matthews points out, reached its peak when he took full responsibility for the Bay of Pigs. Nancy Reagan, on the other hand, demonstrated mastery of that trick when she defused criticism of her clothing by singing "Secondhand Rose" at a dinner.