During the presidential debate in South Carolina on Tuesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren used some of her speaking time to remind voters that former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg allegedly once told a pregnant employee of his to “kill it”—“it” as in the fetus. Longtime MSNBC host Chris Matthews was, by all indications, appalled by what he heard. But it wasn’t the part about Bloomberg’s alleged discrimination that seemed to disgust him—it was that Warren was making such a fuss about how she believed the woman was telling the truth.
When Warren joined Matthews live after the debate, he directed the conversation toward Warren’s comments about Bloomberg’s alleged discrimination and essentially asked her the same question over and over. He let her answer only to then ask it again in different words: “Do you believe that the former mayor of New York said that to a pregnant employee?”; “You believe he’s that kind of person who did that?”; “You believe he’s lying?”; “You’re confident of your accusation?”
Matthews’ shock, coming more than two years after the beginning of a supposed national reckoning for men’s understanding of the sexism women face in their daily lives, was something to behold—it played as if he had never before considered not automatically believing a man he considers respectable over a woman with less power. One women’s advocacy group is already calling for Matthews to be fired for his behavior and comments in the clip. (It also bears mentioning, as activist and congressional candidate Brianna Wu pointed out, that Matthews is not without a dog in this particular fight: In 2017, NBC paid a settlement to a producer who accused him of sexual harassment.)
When Warren shot back at Matthews with statements like “Pregnancy discrimination is real,” he responded with phrases like “Sure, I agree that …” and “Yeah, I know,” but you’ve got to wonder: Does he know? This dynamic was perhaps most striking when Matthews asked, “And why would he lie?,” referring to Bloomberg. Matthews quickly went on to answer his own question: “Just to protect himself?” Suddenly, a realization appeared to flicker somewhere in Matthews’ brain, one that had never dawned on him before, that if women sometimes lie, couldn’t it be true that men do, too?
But the real value of the clip is that it neatly showcases Warren’s deft ability to stand up against male bluster. When Matthews asked her the same thing repeatedly, her eyes said “DAFUQ DID I JUST SAY, CHRIS?,” but she resisted. Instead, she answered his incredulity with reason, frankness, and an elegant allusion to how the issue intersects with her own story: “Well, a pregnant employee sure said that he did. Why shouldn’t I believe her? You know, I’m just really tired of this world, this one is personal for me. It really is.” She displayed irritation without crossing over into anger that would surely give her critics reason to dismiss her, at least in their minds: “We have gone on and on and on where people say, ‘Oh, I can’t really believe the woman.’ Really? Why not?” She was composed—“And why would she lie? That’s the question, Chris”— and she didn’t back down. She answered Matthews plainly: “I believe the woman. Which means [Bloomberg]’s not telling the truth.”
Several times in the clip, Warren referred to those “people [who] say, ‘Oh, I can’t really believe the woman’ ” and the “men all across this country [who] say, ‘Oh my gosh, he never would have said that.’ ” But this time, it wasn’t just “people” and “men” saying this doesn’t happen—it was the man right next to her, a man whose platform on a major news network ensures that his retrograde attitudes continue to reach millions of viewers. Warren was too savvy and strategically tactful to say it, but I’m not: Chris Matthews, you need to shut up.
Correction, Feb. 26, 2020: The photo caption on this image originally misidentified when it was taken. It was from last week’s debate in Las Vegas, not Tuesday night’s debate.