Matthews Favored in Zell Duel

Our favorite unscripted moment of Republican National Convention coverage was Sen. Zell Miller’s (D-Ga.) meltdown on MSNBC’s Hardball. It's not often journalists are challenged to a duel, although there are no statistics on how often people would like to challenge them.

Host Chris Matthews drilled Miller about his dig at freedom of the press in his convention speech. "You wanted to get an applause line against the media at a conservative convention," Matthews shouted. Miller was outraged. "Get out of my face," the senator barked. "I wish we lived in a day when we could challenge a person to a duel."

A duel? The U.S. hasn’t had a high-profile duel since 1804, when Vice President Aaron Burr killed his political rival, former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, in Weehawken, N.J.

At the time, duels were common among "bitter, failed politicians who were trying to rehabilitate their political reputations," says Ron Chernow, author of the best-selling Alexander Hamilton (Penguin Press). But it’s another thing for a senator to challenge a journalist to such an aristocratic contest.

"Zell Miller didn’t realize that, in historical terms, he was paying Chris Matthews a compliment," adds Chernow. "A duel implied social equality."

In a real-life match-up, Chernow favors the hardballer. Yet both might have some trouble handling the old-fashioned pistols. "You need strong hands and wrists to aim them accurately," Chernow says. "It’s interesting to imagine Zell and Chris squaring off with a couple of Saturday-night specials."

Maybe, instead, it should be spitballs at 10 paces.