'Hardball's' Matthews Backtracks on Clinton Comment

MSNBC's "Hardball" host Chris Matthews issued an on-air apology yesterday after a comment he made about presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton enraged several leading women's right's groups who said the remark was sexist.

The apology followed a protest outside his studio yesterday by a group of women's right advocates who also sent a heated letter of complaint to the network's top executive.

During a guest appearance on Joe Scarborough's MSNBC show "Morning Joe" last Wednesday after the New Hampshire presidential primary -- in which Clinton prevailed over Democratic competitor Sen. Barack Obama -- Matthews made a comment that some interpreted as attributing Clinton's political success to her husband's infidelity.

"The reason she may be a front-runner is her husband messed around," Matthews said.

In the following days, women's rights groups -- namely the National Organization for Women and the National Women's Political Caucus -- decided to speak out, saying that the statement was the latest in what they believe to be a string of sexist comments Matthews has made about the Clinton candidacy and other female politicians.

"There was a movement building with all of our groups about the way that Chris Matthews has been treating Hillary Clinton," said Claire Giessen, executive director of the National Women's Political caucus, one of the four groups to sign the letter that was sent to Steve Capus, president of NBC News.

"We'd been writing about [Matthews] as far back as last March in regard to his sexist comments about female politicians," said Kim Gandy, president of NOW. "Finally it came to a head in the days leading up to New Hampshire and then afterward."

On "Hardball" last night, Matthews spoke at length about the comment, acknowledging that what he said wasn't right and emphasized his "good heart." He also emphasized how proud he was that his show and his commentary remain both "blunt" and "tough."

"Was it fair to imply that Hillary's whole career depended on being a victim of an unfaithful husband? No," said Matthews. "And that's what it sounded like I was saying, and it hurt people who I'd like to think normally like what I say; in fact, like me."

Matthews went on to say that he understood what he had done wrong, and he even offered an analogy to Clinton's potential Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain.

"If I'd said that the only reason John McCain has come so far is that he got shot down over North Vietnam and captured by the enemy, I'd be brutally ignoring the courage and guts he showed in bearing up under his captivity," said Matthews. "Saying Sen. Clinton got where she is 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."

MSNBC declined to comment directly to ABCNEWS.com and noted that Matthews had already spoken for himself when asked for an additional comment.

Does Matthews' Apology Mean He's Changed His Ways?

Matthews is not the only outspoken political commentator prone to making biting statements about presidential candidates or public figures.

"Chris Matthews, like a lot of commentators, says what he feels," said Chris Ariens, managing editor of media news Web site TVNewser.com. "I don't think he has a filter that a lot of journalists have and need to have."

With cable TV and radio airwaves becoming more crowded with political pundits and personalities in recent years, some commentators may feel the need to make more outrageous statements to stand apart from the crowd.

"They know the mileage that making a provocative comment will get them, whether they want the mileage or end up having to apologize for it," said Ariens.

"Matthews will continue to say controversial things that get people talking and engaged in a larger discussion -- but I do think he sometimes forgets when he speaks," Ariens said. "It's not uncommon for other commentators to do that, on the left or the right or the middle, but Matthews is in a unique position because he has an hour every night and guests frequently on other shows, and is on air over the weekends."

Even women's rights advocates Gandy and Giessen, who acknowledge Matthews apology last night as a "victory for all women," aren't expecting Matthews to turn over a new leaf.

"We weren't really looking for an apology, we were looking for a behavior change," NOW's Gandy told ABCNEWS.com. "We'll have to wait and see if we'll get what we want. He's a repeat offender, so I'm not sure how much he'll change."

"We're going to take Matthews at his word," said Giessen. "But we're going to continue to monitor him and frankly all of the media in terms of their treatment of women. And if [Matthews] doesn't change, we'll go after him."