NEW YORK - With protests rumbling, MSNBC's Chris Matthews said Thursday that he was wrong to say last week that the reason Hillary Clinton is a senator and a candidate for president "is that her husband messed around."
Matthews discussed those remarks at the opening of his show "Hardball" Thursday, the same day feminist leader Gloria Steinem and the heads of four prominent women's groups complained in a letter to his boss that Matthews had shown a pattern of sexism.
"Was it fair to imply that Hillary's whole career depended on being a victim of an unfaithful husband? No," Matthews said. "That's what it sounded like I was saying and it hurt people I'd like to think normally like what I say (and), in fact, like me."
He said that while he has not always taken the time to say things right or be appropriate, "I will try to be clearer, smarter, more obviously in support of the right of women, of all people, to full equality of respect and ambition."
Matthews made the remarks about Clinton on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" program Jan. 9, the day after the New Hampshire primary. Clinton's surprise victory in the primary was ascribed, in small part, on women angry that the press corps seemed to write her off after losing in Iowa.
On the program, Matthews said: "Let's not forget, and I'll be brutal, 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 that her husband messed around."
He explained in a later interview with The Associated Press that it was a reference to New York Democrats asking her to run for Senate when she showed dignity in the face of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. He called it an "unexceptional statement."
But now, Matthews said Thursday, "I get it."
"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," he said. "Saying Sen. 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."
Besides Steinem, the letter to NBC News President Steve Capus was signed by Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women; Lulu Flores, president of the National Women's Political Caucus; Carol Jenkins, president of the Women's Media Center; and Eleanor Smeal, president of Feminist Majority.
Last week's Clinton comment was the trigger for their protest, but they said Matthews' comments over the years "demonstrate a larger pattern of overt sexism when discussing women."
Capus wasn't immediately available on Thursday, and a spokeswoman said NBC had not yet seen the letter.
Matthews was also in the crosshairs of the liberal media watchdog Media Matters, which wrote to Capus on Wednesday to express concerns about the fast-talking political analyst.
David Brock, president and CEO of Media Matters, called Matthews' statement on Thursday a step in the right direction.
"Matthews said going forward he will try to be more supportive of the right of women to full equality and respect for their ambitions," Brock said. "That is a pledge MSNBC has a responsibility to hold him to in the weeks and months ahead. Media Matters certainly will."