Never one to shy away from controversy (or John F. Kennedy), "Hardball" host Chris Matthews brought his acerbic tongue to American University on Wednesday night to head a panel discussion on Kennedy's legendary 1963 AU commencement speech.

"I came a long way to get here tonight -- across the street," Matthews joked, having trotted over from the nearby NBC studios.

In the speech, which AU is celebrating with a series of events this year, JFK announced the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and called for a suspension of atmospheric arms testing, as long as other nations would follow suit.

But while the AU speech will be remembered for its overtures to peace, Matthews managed to offend some audience members.

During questions from the audience, a female speechwriter noted the lack of women on the all-male panel -- which included veteran newsman Marvin Kalb, who covered the speech in 1963 -- before asking whether they believed speeches had been "dumbed down" in recent years. She said speeches are now written at a ninth-grade level.

Matthews asked her who she read and where she got the "ninth-grade" figure from, before dismissing her question as "hearsay, hearsay."

Panel member Bob Lehrman, former chief speechwriter for Al Gore and professor at AU, came to her defense. "Well, she's right about that," Lehrman said to applause and some cheers.

They should have been prepared, though. "If there's an argument, I'm in heaven," Matthews said, encouraging audience members to approach the mic.