Last night, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, to use Atrios’ words, went “nuclear” on Matthew Dowd, a senior Bush-Cheney strategist and Hardball guest.

And it was about time.

Here are the circumstances:

Matthews played a segment from a video produced by the Republican National Committee that included Matthews himself asking John Kerry during the Democratic primaries: “Are you one of the anti-war candidates?” and Kerry replying, “I am, yes.” It is this clip, Matthews noted, that President Bush seems to be using as a basis for his recent claim that Kerry “declare[d] himself the anti-war candidate” after voting “for the war in Iraq.”

Trouble is, Kerry’s actual, full reply was: “I am, yes, in the sense that I don’t believe the president took to us war as he should have, yes. Absolutely. Do I think this president violated his promises to America? Yes, I do, Chris. Was there a way to hold Saddam Hussein accountable? You bet there was and we should have done it right.” (And Matthews’ full question was: “Do you think you belong in that category of candidates who more or less are unhappy with this war? The way it’s been fought? Along with General Clark, along with Howard Dean, and not necessarily in companionship politically on the issue of the war with people like Lieberman, Edwards and Gephardt? Are you one of the anti-war candidates?”)

Twice last night Matthews played the full question-and-answer exchange and asked Dowd whether the RNC video “was a fair cropping of what [Kerry] had to say,” pointing out that the clip “cut [Kerry] off…” Matthews even scolded Dowd, saying “…you’re not letting [people] judge it for themselves because you cut off the tape” and later, “Would you like to have your sentences cut down like to a third of their length and let people decide on the first three or four words what you meant by the 20 words?”

Could it be? Was Matthews taking a political campaign to task on-air for misleading the public? Was the Hardball host rushing to the aid of confused voter/viewers everywhere by attempting to expose one small bit of campaign tomfoolery?

Well…sort of.

But what truly got Matthews’ goat was not that the RNC video (and Bush’s related claim) was a distortion, but rather that the distortion hinged on a carefully abridged clip from Matthews’ own show.

To wit, Matthews said: “This [clip] is being used to show that Kerry is a flip-flopper, and whether he is or is not is not my concern. But my concern is that this show is being used to say that he is…what I disagree with you is that you guys have accurately represented what was said on our program. That’s what I’m concerned with.” By the segment’s end, Matthews was vowing to post the full clip on MSNBC’s web site “for people out there who want to judge for themselves…[and] look at the whole exchange not just the cropped version put up by the Bush people.”

We understand Matthew’s urge to defend Hardball’s honor, and we applaud his taking on one bit of campaign spin in the process of protecting his show.

Now, if only the campaigns would routinely use selective Hardball clips to misrepresent their opponents. Maybe then Matthews would — as he and his peers should — challenge campaign spin as a matter of nightly routine.

Liz Cox Barrett

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.