Chris Matthews' mea culpa

The "Hardball" host swallows his pride -- or saves his hide -- by getting all contrite about his treatment of Hillary Clinton.

Published January 18, 2008 1:30AM (EST)

The Internets have been on fire this week with a lengthy catalog of Chris Matthews' offenses against women, specifically in light of his post-New Hampshire primary declaration that "the reason [Clinton] may be a front-runner is her husband messed around." This observation was especially bittersweet given that the night before, after having spent four hours looking like he was about to soil himself in shock over Clinton's surprise victory, Matthews had at last vowed to "never underestimate Hillary Clinton again."

I wrote about the Matthews effect on Clinton's campaign the morning after New Hampshire, and sites like Media Matters and DailyKos have been all over the Matthews-on-Clinton and Matthews-on-Women hate, providing useful compendia of his many infelicitous remarks about the senator and her phallically challenged sisters. Highlights of their collections include Matthews calling Clinton "witchy"; telling Republican pollster Frank Lutz that a "barn-burner" speech by a woman "can grate on some men when they listen to it -- fingernails on a blackboard"; his assertion to CNBC's Erin Burnett that because she is "beautiful" and "a knockout," it is "all right getting bad news from [her]"; his musings about whether Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi would "castrate Steny Hoyer"... oh, the list goes on and on!

So intent have critics been on getting Matthews to admit his little woman problem that David Brock, head of liberal media watchdog Media Matters, on Jan. 16 sent a letter to NBC head Steve Capus calling Matthews' on-air behavior "appalling," and arguing that his "degrading attacks on women constitute a broader and more troubling pattern that has unfolded over the years." A letter from feminist organizations, signed by leaders including Gloria Steinem and NOW president Kim Gandy, asserted that "Matthews' history proves that when discussing prominent female figures, he is prone to overt sexism rather than civil political discourse."

And so on Thursday, Jan. 17, Matthews was forced to eat a feminist crow.

He opened his daily episode of "Hardball" with a mea culpa, and it was a doozy. Displaying all the heartfelt remorse of a kid being dragged by his ear to apologize to an old lady for sending a baseball through her window, Matthews began by explaining that it's hard out there for a pundit. "We're in a time of a lot of frustration in this country," he said, mentioning Iraq, the lack of healthcare for working people, rising gas prices and a weak economy. Matthews continued, "I come on here every night and try to wrestle with these frustrations and also the changes in our country: We might soon have the first woman president, the first African-American president, or a man older than any we've ever elected before.

"In the midst of talking about all of this, almost always without a script, and almost always on tricky subjects of gender and race, and right and left, and what's in our country's interest, and who I think is telling the truth and who I think isn't, I know I'm dealing with sensitive feelings," Matthews said. He did not specify whose "sensitive feelings" he was referring to. Maybe all those chicks on the rag who've been sending him goddamn hate mail all week?

But, Matthews soldiered on, he's accepted the fact that he's gonna bust skulls and deal with sensitive feelings as part of the business he's chosen.

This program, I am proud to say, is tough, fearless, and yes, blunt. I want people to react when I say something. I don't like saying things so carefully, so politically correctly that no one even thinks I even said anything. What I've always counted on in all the wild speeded-up conversations on "Hardball" and elsewhere on television, is my good heart.

He's a veritable tin man on the road to Oz!

"No matter how tough I got, how direct, how provocative, how purposefully provocative," Matthews said, "people out there watching would know I was not out against them, that it was them I was rooting for." Except if they were Hillary Clinton supporters.

But despite his best efforts to make his pure intentions clear, Matthews continued, "Some people I respect, politically concerned people like you who watch the show so faithfully every night, people like me who care about this country, think I've been disrespectful to Hillary Clinton. Not as a candidate, but as a woman."

Actually, that's not it at all. The complaint has in fact been that Matthews has been disrespectful to her as a candidate because she's a woman. No one is wringing their hands over Clinton's bruised femininity.

Matthews continued:

They point to something I said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" ... that her election to the New York Senate and all that's come since was the result of her toughness, but also the sympathy for her because her husband embarrassed her by the conduct that led to his impeachment. Because he, in the words I used, messed around. The truth of course is finer, smarter, larger than that. Yes, Hillary Clinton won tremendous respect from the country for the way she handled those difficult months in 1998. Her public approval numbers spiked from the mid-40s up to the 70s in one poll I looked at. Why? Because she stuck to her duty. She performed strongly as first lady, she did such a wow of a job campaigning for Senate candidates, especially Chuck Schumer of New York, that she was urged to run for a Senate seat there herself.

Matthews conceded that Clinton might well have "gotten that far by another route and through different circumstances, but this is how it happened."

And here, Matthews performed a triple-axel non-retraction by restating his original claim and then renouncing it:

So did I say it right? Was it fair to say that Hillary Clinton, like any great politician, took advantage of a crisis to prove herself? Was her conduct in 1998 a key to starting her independent electoral career the following year? Yes. Was it fair to imply that Hillary's whole career depended on being the victim of an unfaithful husband? No. And that's what it sounded like I was saying. And it hurt people I'd like to think normally like what I say, in fact normally like me. As I said, I rely on my heart to guide me in the heated, fast-paced talk we have here on "Hardball," a heart that bears only good will toward people trying to make it out there, especially those who haven't before.

Matthews, unbelievably, was not done, and next aimed to broaden his appeal not only to Clinton supporters, but to all those who believe in women's rights to equality. "If my heart had not always controlled my words, on those occasions when I have not taken the time to say things right or have simply said the inappropriate thing," Matthews vowed, "I'll try to be clearer, smarter, more obviously in support of the right of women, of all people, to full equality and respect for their ambitions." Thanks, Chris!

Then, like he was drinking Ipecac, Matthews spit out, "So I get it."

Finally, Matthews said, "As if anyone doesn't know this, I love politics. I love politicians. I like and respect people with the guts to put their name, their very being out there for our approval so that they can lead our country. And that goes for Hillary and Barack and John and all the rest who are willing to fight to take on the toughest job in the world."

Looking like he himself had just completed the toughest job in the world, Matthews went on with the show. Media Matters' David Brock promptly released a statement calling Matthews' protracted but gentle self-flagellation "a step in the right direction" and challenged him to keep his promise, going forward, "to be more supportive of the right of women to full equality and respect for their ambitions. That is a pledge MSNBC has a responsibility to hold him to in the weeks and months ahead. Media Matters certainly will."

As will we all.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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