By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 18, 2008
Under pressure from feminist groups and his own bosses at MSNBC, Chris Matthews apologized yesterday for remarks about Hillary Clinton that he now admits sounded "nasty."
For 10 days, the "Hardball" host had doggedly insisted he was just reciting a bit of history when he said on the air that "the reason she's a U.S. senator, the reason she's a candidate for president, the reason she may be a front-runner is her husband messed around."
But protests against those and other remarks by Matthews reached a peak yesterday when the presidents of such groups as the National Organization for Women, Feminist Majority and National Women's Political Caucus sent a joint letter of complaint to NBC News President Steve Capus.
On last night's program, Matthews defended the substance of his remarks that Clinton's political career in New York was launched because of public sympathy stemming from her husband's much-investigated affair with Monica Lewinsky. But, he said, "was it fair to imply that Hillary's whole career depended on being a victim of an unfaithful husband? No. And that's what it sounded like I was saying."
Noting that it would be just as unfair to attribute John McCain's political success to having been shot down in the Vietnam War, Matthews said: "Saying Senator Clinton got where she's got simply because her husband did what he did to her is just as callous, and I can see now, came across just as nasty -- worse yet, just as dismissive." He said he would be "clearer," "smarter" and more respectful in discussing women.
Kim Gandy, NOW's president, said last night that "Chris Matthews is a repeat offender when it comes to sexist attitudes toward women politicians. . . . I wasn't really looking for an apology. I was looking for a behavior change, and for him to treat female politicians the same way as male politicians."
In the joint letter, also signed by author Gloria Steinem, the women cited other examples in which Matthews referred to Clinton as a "stripteaser" and called her "witchy." When Nancy Pelosi was in line to become House speaker, the letter noted, Matthews asked a guest if Pelosi was "going to castrate Steny Hoyer" if the Maryland congressman was elected majority leader.
About 30 people affiliated with the National Women's Political Caucus picketed NBC's Nebraska Avenue NW bureau yesterday afternoon as a protest against Matthews's remarks.
"This is a victory for all women. We are pleased that Chris Matthews has shown remorse," the caucus said in a statement last night.
Earlier this month, when Matthews attended a Clinton campaign event in New Hampshire and repeatedly tried to press her on the Iraq war, she smiled and said: "You know, I don't know what to do with men who are obsessed with me. Honestly, I've never understood it."
When the former first lady approached him afterward, Matthews pinched her cheek, and she gave him a brief hug.
As criticism from liberal bloggers and others mounted over the past week, top MSNBC officials urged Matthews to apologize, according to network officials who would not be identified discussing internal deliberations. But Matthews dug in his heels, deciding to deliver the mea culpa only after he had returned from a Democratic presidential debate sponsored by the network in Las Vegas.
In an interview last week, Matthews, a onetime Democratic operative, insisted at length that he was right in describing how Clinton was launched on a path that would carry her to the Senate and a presidential campaign. "I thought what I said was unexceptional about what happened back in '98," he said. "She was facing a trial by fire, and the fire was her husband. I knew I was speaking bluntly, but does anyone disagree?"
Only toward the end of the interview did he acknowledge: "It came over as dismissive, and that's my fault. Maybe I should have said it was an irony."