Chris Matthews addresses firestorm

On the January 17 edition of MSNBC's Hardball, host Chris Matthews addressed the firestorm sparked by his comment about Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) 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. That's how she got to be senator from New York. We keep forgetting it. She didn't win there on her merit.”

From the January 17 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:

MATTHEWS: Good evening, I'm Chris Matthews. Welcome to Hardball. Well, we're in a time of a lot of frustration in this country -- Iraq, of course; the lack of health care for people who work every day; gas prices going up; the weakening economy that scares us every day -- and 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 we've ever elected before. And of course, we always treat things here with hope -- our uniquely American hope that we can actually make things better, that we can make the greatest of countries, not only survive, but as [author] William Faulkner once said, “prevail.”

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. I've accepted all of this as part of the business I have 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 thinks they 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. I've always felt that no matter how tough I got, how direct, how provocative -- how purposely provocative -- people out there watching would know I was not out against them, that it was them I was rooting for, that while I was tough on individuals who sought to lead the country, I was not against the hopes we all have for a fair shake, in fact, a better deal for people who have been held back before we came along.

Some people whom I respect, politically concerned people like you who watch this 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. They point to something I said on MSNBC's Morning Joe the morning after the New Hampshire primary, that her election to the U.S. Senate, and all that's come since, was a 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. She might have well gotten that far by another route and through different circumstances, but this is how it happened.

The rest is history: how Hillary went up to New York, listened to peoples' concerns, and beat the odds, as well as the Republicans, to become a respected member of the U.S. Senate. 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 a 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 goodwill toward people trying to make it out there, especially those who haven't before.

If my heart has 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, I'll try to be clearer, smarter, more obviously in support of the right of women -- of all people -- the full equality and respect for their ambitions. So, I get it.

On the particular point, if I had said that the only reason [Sen.] John McCain [R-AZ] has come so far is that he got shot down over North Vietnamese -- by North Vietnam, and captured by the enemy, I'd be brutally ignoring the courage and guts he showed in bearing up under his captivity. Saying that 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, it comes across just as nasty, worse yet, just as dismissive.

Finally -- 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 public approval so that they can lead our country. And that goes for Hillary and [Sen.] Barack [Obama (D-IL)] and John and all the rest who are willing to fight to take on the toughest job in the world.

So, let's get on with the show. Whoa.