updated 1/19/2006 11:35:18 AM ET 2006-01-19T16:35:18

Guest: David Dreier; Mike Allen; Charlie Cook; Roger Cressey; Ed Rogers;

Dee Dee Myers

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR:  Front-runner blues: Hillary Clinton learns the pain of being on top.  What does it mean to accuse Republicans of running a plantation?  What does it sound like it means?  She stood by her man, should she stand by her words, or is this the vast right-wing conspiracy all over again?  Let's play HARDBALL.

Good evening, I'm Chris Matthews and welcome to HARDBALL.  Hillary Clinton set up a firestorm on Monday with a remark that you've all heard by now.  So let's go back inside the Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem and hear what led up to her now-infamous sound byte.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), NEW YORK:  I understand the frustrations that people have, but I would strongly argue for the fact that most of the progress we've made in this country in the last 100 years is because of the Democratic Party.  And when we look back on that progress, whether it's civil rights or human rights, women's rights, whether it's economic progress, tearing down the barriers to college education and homeownership, it is justice—the justice system.

The Democratic Party up until—this is self-serving to say—until January of 2001 had at least some power in our government.  We either had the presidency, but when we didn't have the presidency, we had one or both houses of Congress.  For the last five years, we've had no power at all.

And that makes a big difference, because when you look at the way the House of Representatives has been run, it has been run like a plantation, and you know what I'm talking about.  It has been run in a way so that nobody with a contrary point of view has had a chance to present legislation, to make an argument, to be heard.

The Senate's not that bad, but it's been difficult.  It's been difficult.  So here's what I'm suggesting.  If you don't like the way things are going now, the Democrats have to be given a chance to get back into power.  Because only then will we be able to get back to economic policies that lifted everybody up.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  When asked last night if she had any regrets about what she said there, here she is, the former first lady.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINTON:  I believe that it is an accurate description of the kind of top/down way that the House of Representatives is run, which denies meaningful debate, which has engaged in all kinds of shenanigans, keeping votes open, refusing to allow people to have the opportunity to present alternatives.  And I think some very bad decisions are being made for America.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  And today Republicans are pouncing on the Democratic presidential front runner.  Even first lady Laura Bush got in the action.  When asked about Senator Clinton's comments, she said “I think it's ridiculous.  It's a ridiculous comment, that's what I think.” 

Let's turn to former Clinton White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers and former Bush adviser and Republican strategist Ed Rogers.  Dee Dee, thank you for coming on tonight.  Hillary Clinton, she is sticking to her guns. 

DEE DEE MYERS, FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  She is sticking to her guns.  You know, a lot of Republicans are expressing outrage at her comments.  I personally think it was an unfortunate choice of words, given the setting. 

But let's be honest.  Newt Gingrich used the same words, other Republican members of Congress used the exact same words in the exact same context, which was to describe their powerlessness in the face of a majority in the House.  Which 10 years ago was controlled by Democrats, which is now controlled by Republicans, where the minority has no voice. 

That's the point Senator Clinton was making.  That's not the way it's being interpreted by Republicans.  But they should look back at the history of what their own members have said under similar circumstances and just, you know, give it a rest.

MATTHEWS:  Ed, why do you think she said it?  And she's defended—I mean, it's been let's explain it.

ED ROGERS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST:  Well, sure.  I mean, a politician named Clinton pandering in front of an African-American audience doesn't shock me anymore.  So I could work up some good mock indignation.  But the left, the liberal Democrats have now turned racism, Nazism, sexism, McCarthyism, into something almost blase.  So I just sort of dismissed it out of hand. 

What's interesting is she had nothing affirmative to say about what they would do if they could just seize power.  The Democrats don't have anything to say.  Their plan for the future is to hope for the worst and hope they get back in power.  The only thing they do—from the top down, the Democrat Party right now, they are calling names, they have personal accusations, they throw around these phrases.  It doesn't mean anything, and that's why they're not doing any better than they are.

MYERS:  Yes, it's a good thing the Republicans never call names or make personal accusations, because that would just be out of bounds.  Look, I mean, the Republicans have said exactly the same thing.  They have described the House as a plantation.  They have done it over the years many, many times.  There is numerous Google references to it.  Ed, I encourage you to go back and do that. 

ROGERS:  Well however many Google references there might be, I mean, Hillary Clinton taking on the House rules and that the House ought to have different rules, as if the Senate is a model of a functioning entity.  It's a broken institution.

MATTHEWS:  Let me try to figure out what's going on here.  Dee Dee, she is talking to an African-American audience up in Harlem, a very friendly audience.  They have to be sold on the importance of the Democratic Party, obviously.  It's not as easy as it might have been in the past.

She is making her case that the party is a good party.  It's been hamstrung in the last four or five years because of Republican control of the House and Senate and the White House.

The way she says it, she says, “Well, they run it like a plantation, and you know what I'm talking about.”  Like you people, especially, know what a plantation is.  Now, come on, that clearly was playing ethnically, wasn't it?

MYERS:  You know, look, I think she was in a room in front of an African-American audience on Martin Luther King Day.  Again, I think it was an unfortunate choice of words.  But as you reported, Chris, she went on to say about the House that's been run in a way so that nobody with a contrary view has a chance to present legislation to make an argument to be heard.  I think she was very clear about what the broader context of her quotation was.  And it's been taken out of context.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think a plantation is a useful metaphor for a place where you can't speak your mind?  I would think if I were a slave, and I have to imagine something as horrible, I would say the whippings were pretty tough.  Being told I couldn't get married would be pretty tough.  Being told to take orders until the day I die would be the hard part.  The freedom of speech part would probably not come to mind.

MYERS:  I don't know, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  It just seems an odd way to go after the...

MYERS:  ... For you, Chris?  The freedom...

MATTHEWS:  ... Well, maybe in my case.

MYERS:  Taking away your freedom to say what's on your mind?

MATTHEWS:  Maybe in my case.

ROGERS:  Chris, you're doing a good job.

MYERS:  Look, I think that—I always think Chris is doing a good job.  But I think the plantation...

MATTHEWS:  ... Well anyway, you already said it was an unfortunate remark, so let's move on.

MYERS:  Let me just make one point, that I think the kind of plantation analogy is often used to reflect powerlessness.  And I think the minority in the House, whether it's Democrats now or Republicans 10 years ago, have often felt powerless.  And I think that's what she was trying to bring to mind.  And yes, she was pandering to an African-American audience.

MATTHEWS:  Suppose your party, somebody in the Republican Party, had said, “You know, you Democrats run the Democratic Party like a plantation.  The blacks do all the work.  They raise all the votes.  They do all the work.  They get out the vote.  They show up in tremendous numbers.  They support all your candidates, and they never get to run the place.”  Wouldn't the Democrats raise hell about the use of the word plantation?

ROGERS:  Absolutely.

MATTHEWS:  I would guess.

ROGERS:  They would raise unholy hell for days.  And a lot of the media would cooperate.  Having said that, you know—you're doing your part.  Part of what ought to be critiqued in this, if you want to give it a more serious critique, is by any standard, the audience that she was talking to should fire their political leadership, by any standard.

More of the same for African-Americans out of the Democrat Party isn't just derelict, it's criminal.  The black Americans, African-Americans should fire their political leadership by any standard, and she has been part of the problem.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think that was a smart comment for her to make as she campaigns ultimately for the presidency, which would require her, like her husband, and he was successful in this regard—to pick up a good handful of Southern states, like Virginia, perhaps North Carolina, perhaps Louisiana, West Virginia.  Is she likely to pick up states like that by going after the Republican parties, a bunch of white guys running a plantation?

ROGERS:  We won't pick up those states, no matter what.

MYERS:  But once again, Chris, I mean, that's not what she was saying.  She wasn't making a—I don't think she was making a reference to the leadership in the House, which under both parties has been white and I think could stand a little more diversity.  But look, I think she is going to run extremely well among African-Americans, just as her husband did.

And I think she has a strong chance to pick up—you know, if she runs for president—we don't even know—but to pick up states around the country.  We've got to wait and see what she is going to do.  She is running for the Senate right now.  Everyone expects she is going to run for president, but I honestly don't think she has decided, and we'll see what happens. 

MATTHEWS:  What did you make of Laura Bush saying, regarding the Mayor Nagin thing of New Orleans, a very famous guy, obviously controversial, because of the way things went down down there. 

But Laura Bush saying, “No, Nagin was wrong when he said that God, whatever, is mad at blacks.”  He had a couple of comments which I think are a bit off the wall.  But then she came in with one that I think topped him.  She said, “God wants New Orleans to be rebuilt.”  How does she know?  Why are people talking for a deity?  We can argue whether there is a God, but then to be hearing voices.  This is the Joan of Arc stuff.

ROGERS:  There do appear to be a lot of people hearing divine calling right now.  I haven't read what Mrs. Bush said, but I'll give her the benefit of the doubt.

MATTHEWS:  She said God wants us to rebuild New Orleans.

ROGERS:  Well, maybe he does.

MATTHEWS:  Well, sure.  Maybe he hasn't give it any thought, I'm not sure.  I just don't know, but I wouldn't presume.

ROGERS:  I don't want to pick on Mrs. Bush.  I don't know what she said.  I give her the benefit of the doubt. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, I just told you what she said.  But you can hide behind ignorance. 

ROGERS:  Ignorance is bliss. 

MATTHEWS:  I know.  I've heard that before.

Dee Dee, what do you make of this godliness on the part of political figures like Nagin, like Robertson talking about how Sharon got sick because he wanted to cut a deal on land and peace?  And now the first lady, who everybody likes—I like her—has jumped into the thing and she's talking for God now. 

MYERS:  I certainly don't look to political leaders of either party to interpret God's intentions for me.  And I hope most Americans—and I don't think most Americans do either. 

MATTHEWS:  I'd like to know where they were last night, let alone tell me where God is.  Just give me the basic information—how did they vote and how much they collected.  And, by the way, who at the White House has been entertaining Jack Abramoff?  Is that a fair question? 

MYERS:  Now that is a fair question and one that I think we need to get to the bottom of. 

ROGERS:  Was anybody entertaining Jack Abramoff?  Is that not an allegation?

MATTHEWS:  The White House put out the statement yesterday that the White House staffers had been meeting with Jack Abramoff.  And I just think that's worthy of further discussion. 

MYERS:  Absolutely...

ROGERS:  Is it worthy of discussion whatever Democrats met with Jack Abramoff or met with a Jack Abramoff employee? 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, they're on trial. 

(LAUGHTER)

The stink has already reached Capitol Hill.  Now the stink bomb is moving to the White House. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  And what's good for the goose is good for the gander, right? 

ROGERS:  Sure.  Look, this is going to come out.  Nobody is going to keep it a secret.  Jack Abramoff is so radioactive—I've got Jack Abramoff fatigue already.  I mean, good grief, he didn't kill anybody.  Maybe that one guy in Florida.

MATTHEWS:  The perfect time to get that fatigue, as the smell heads towards the White House.   

But here's the question:  Do you think the White House should have to explain what he was doing there? 

ROGERS:  I think that everybody in town is going to have to account for their dealings with Jack Abramoff. 

MATTHEWS:  Very well said. 

We'll be right back with Dee Dee Myers and Ed Rogers, a moment of partisan-bipartisan truth. 

You're watching “Hardball” on MSNBC.  Thank you, Ed, for that.

Thank you, Dee Dee.  You were very honest in saying it was an unfortunate...

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We're back with former Clinton White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers and Republican strategist Ed Rogers. 

This fight over language, what does it say about the country, that we're so sensitive about the first lady saying “plantation”—Ed Rogers?  Let's get the history—why this would tag the Democrats with a problem. 

ROGERS:  Well, because they're using language that, in the past, has been despicable and has suggested something despicable about the person you're applying it to. 

Like I said, now the Democrats have become so unhinged, they are so personally disgusted and they hate Bush so much, they throw around Nazism, racism, sexism like it was nothing.  And it's become blase and it's losing its effect. 

And that's an insult to the people that suffered as a result of racism. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think they were making a shot—Hillary Clinton was taking a shot—at the fact that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which has been controlled by Republicans for a decade now, is heavily Southern white guys?  Is that the point? 

ROGERS:  Oh, I don't go that far.  She was pandering in front of a black audience.

MATTHEWS:  What do you think she was actually saying? 

ROGERS:  She forgot for—I don't know.  I mean, she's arguing about the rules in the House. 

MATTHEWS:  Then why are you (inaudible) if you don't know what she was saying?

ROGERS:  Well, like I said, I could work up some mock indignation. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, tell me what you think she was saying.  You can't be offended and not know what she's talking about.

ROGERS:  I think she was pandering to a black audience. 

MATTHEWS:  By doing what? 

ROGERS:  By saying something that she thought they could relate to. 

MATTHEWS:  Which is? 

ROGERS:  By appealing to a base instinct that she believes they have that is a revulsion to all things race. 

MATTHEWS:  The Republican Party is a white Southern party. 

ROGERS:  Yes.  But then they are conducting themselves...

MYERS:  Wait a second, Ed.  Wait a second, Ed.

ROGERS:  ... as a bunch of bigots.  That's what she was saying.

MYERS:  Are you saying that Newt Gingrich was making the exact same point and other Republicans have used the exact same language?  Are you saying...

ROGERS:  What point do you want to make about Newt Gingrich? 

MYERS:  He used “plantation” to describe the Democratic House leadership 10 years ago, as did other Republican members of the House.

ROGERS:  Well, I don't know if he did or if he didn't or what the context was...

MYERS:  He did.  I promise you he did. 

ROGERS:  I mean, that's not what...

MYERS:  I can read you the quote. 

ROGERS:  We can talk about that some time.  I don't know.

MYERS:  I can read you the quote if you'd like. 

ROGERS:  I know what Hillary said.  And I think she was pandering to a black audience. 

MYERS:  Ed, I'm telling you...

MATTHEWS:  Your turn. 

MYERS:  ... for a fact that Newt Gingrich and other Republican members used the exact same language as did Bob Novak...

(CROSSTALK)

ROGERS:  ... how about that?

MYERS:  ... a Republican columnist.  And I just wonder if you think that they were hearkening to racist past?  Was Ms. Clinton...

ROGERS:   I'll give you the benefit of the doubt.  If they said that, they shouldn't have said it. 

MYERS:  OK, well they did say it.  So they shouldn't have said it.

ROGERS:  OK, well they...

MYERS:  As I said, I think Hillary made an unfortunate choice of words.  But let's be clear what she was talking about.  The leadership of the House, the Republican leadership, has run it in a an undemocratic way...

ROGERS:  She was pandering. 

MYERS:  Let me finish my point, Ed. 

I acknowledged it was an unfortunate choice of words now five times.  She was saying the Republican leadership runs the house without allowing  the Democratic minority any voice, without allowing them to do their due process, to do all the things that the minority and all members of the House ought to be able to do. 

It's not about rules.  It's about the culture created by the Republican leadership. 

ROGERS:  For whatever it's worth...

MYERS:  And I think her remarks stand for themselves. 

ROGERS:  For whatever it's worth, a little civics lesson here.  Yes, the rules in the House have always been the same.  The Republicans didn't invent these rules.  The majority rules in the House. 

MYERS:  Come on, Ed.  You know the facts better than that.

ROGERS:  And that's a fact of life. 

MYERS:  But this leadership has worked very hard to shut the minority down. 

ROGERS:  In your opinion.  In your opinion.

MYERS:  In the opinion of...

ROGERS:  The good old days of Jim Wright, are you suggesting that minority was a privileged, respected entity at the time?  Come on. 

MYERS:  No, I think the minority was frustrated then, too and, I think, with good reason. 

ROGERS:  And Hillary Clinton is taking up the fight about the House rules.  And I hope it's what she's going to run on in '08. 

(CROSSTALK)

MYERS:  ... about a Republican culture that she called especially corrupt that is especially prevalent in the House of Representatives.  And I think...

ROGERS:  They all call names.  That's all they do.  They don't have anything affirmative to say. 

Like I said, it's a good thing the Republicans don't call names. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, bottom line here:  If Newt Gingrich said it and Hillary Clinton said it, Hillary is no worse than Newt, right? 

ROGERS:  Hillary is a lot worse than Newt. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Well what are you saying if they said the same words?

ROGERS:  Hillary was pandering to an African American audience. 

MATTHEWS:  Who was Newt pandering to, if you're using that term? 

ROGERS:  I don't know the context of what he said and when he said it.  I don't know.  I know what I just saw Hillary Clinton say.  She was pandering to an African American audience and she ought to know better.  She ought to know better. 

MYERS:  And I've ever seen Republicans pander to their base either. 

That would never happen. 

ROGERS:  Show the clip. 

MYERS:  Goodness, goodness. 

MATTHEWS:  Dee Dee, you're great to come on.  Ed Rogers, same to you. 

Thanks for the party the other night.

ROGERS:  Enjoyed having you.

MATTHEWS:  (inaudible) Brown and her husband about to be.

When we return, that missile attack in Pakistan may have killed one of al Qaeda's big guys.  We'll get an update after this.  You're watching “Hardball” on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Pakistani intelligence officials say that al Qaeda's leading bomb maker and chemical weapons expert—that's al Qaeda's weapons expert—was killed in last week's Predator attack in Pakistan. 

For more on this al Qaeda figure, we turn to NBC News terrorism expert Roger Cressey who is on the phone.  Roger, that was a bloody attack by U.S.  forces last week.  We took a lot of heat for it, eighteen people killed.  Did we get a bad guy? 

ROGER CRESSEY, NBC NEWS TERRORISM ANALYST:  We got a very big bad guy, Chris.  Abu Khabab al-Masri ran the poisons camp for al Qaeda at Durunta in Afghanistan.  He was the guy who was looking for chemical, biological weapons, trained a number of al Qaeda's senior people and foot soldiers, someone who has been on the U.S. radar screen since the late 1990's.  So to kill him is a very good thing. 

MATTHEWS:  How close was he—until this attack that we succeeded with, I suppose, to this extent, how close was he to bin Laden? 

CRESSEY:  Well, you know, he's part of the broader inner circle, if you will, around bin Laden.  He escaped from Afghanistan after the Taliban fell.  He has been on the run now for a number of years. 

And as we continue to atrip the remaining members of al Qaeda's leadership, someone like al-Masri becomes even more important to bin Laden and al-Zawahiri.  So to eliminate him is a pretty significant achievement.

MATTHEWS:  Where is he from?  What country?

CRESSEY:  He's from Egypt, and he ... 

MATTHEWS:  Boy, that's the thing that gets to us about the fact that we're fighting people from Egypt, an ally.  We're fighting people—the worst enemies we have are from Saudi Arabia.  What does that tell us, that they don't come from Iraq, they don't come from Afghanistan originally. 

CRESSEY:  No, the original members of al Qaeda were predominantly Saudi, were predominantly Egyptian.  And now, of course, what we have seen is the evolution of al Qaeda from just this organization into global movement, where you're getting jihadists from all around the world that are partly empowered and energized by the war in Iraq, partly supportive of bin Laden's broader message, are now taking up arms and supporting jihad as bin Laden envisioned it. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, I can see the “New York Post” tomorrow saying shish kabob.  The guy is dead.  But what's this—give me the baseball card on this guy.  What did he do against us?  Was he part of 9/11?  Was he part of any terrorist attacks against U.S. sites? 

CRESSEY:  No, he wasn't an operational guy in the sense of planning and directing.  What he was was a trainer.  So he, at his Durunta camp, was experimenting with the type of poisons that ultimately he and others hoped that al Qaeda would use against us and our allies.  So ...

MATTHEWS:  What about Zawahiri, the guy you mentioned?  He was the target here.  He got away, apparently.  He didn't come to dinner that night.  That's the latest we got on that, isn't it? 

CRESSEY:  Right, I think that's correct.  But what's important here, Chris, is that we did eliminate a very important member of the al Qaeda organization.  So despite the heat we're taking, it looks like this was very good intelligence, and we did achieve a significant victory, even though there was a lot of collateral damage. 

MATTHEWS:  Did we get him on purpose or was he an accidental pickup? 

CRESSEY:  We don't know that yet.  It's safe to assume that Zawahiri was the primary target.  And if we believed he was traveling with an entourage, and it looks like Abu Khabab was part of that entourage, then he was just an additional pickings, if you will. 

MATTHEWS:  Bloody business.  Thank you very, Roger Cressey. 

When we return, much more on Hillary Clinton's comments that the House leadership runs like a plantation.  NBC's Andrea Mitchell and David Gregory will be here to hash that one out. 

And plus, why won't the Bush administration say how often disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff was visiting the White House?  You're watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(MARKET REPORT)

(NEWS BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  What a difference a guilty plea makes.  Until recently, members of Congress couldn't resist accepting money and gifts from super lobbyist Jack Abramoff.  Now that Abramoff has pleaded guilty to bribery and conspiracy, lawmakers are trying to pass lobbying reform as quickly as possible.  But as they scramble to convince voters they care about the smell coming from Abramoff and his associates, the scandal continues.  HARDBALL correspondent David Shuster reports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Two weeks ago, the White House acknowledged that convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff may have met President Bush a few years ago during holiday parties.  Today the president's press secretary added that Abramoff also attended White House staff meetings.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  With regard to Abramoff, can you give any more specificity on those meetings, when they were, years, time?

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  No, this is sticking with our past policy.  We're not going to engage in a fishing expedition. 

SHUSTER:  This was the second straight day McClellan refused to provide details about Abramoff.  On Tuesday...

DAVID GREGORY, NBC NEWS CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  Was it senior staff he met with?

MCCLELLAN:  I'm sorry?GREGORY:  Would you qualify it as senior staff that he met with here? 

MCCLELLAN:  Staff level meetings is a way I would describe it.  I mean, if you have anything specific, I'll be glad to take a look into it.  Well, if there's any reason for me to check into it, please bring it to my attention. 

GREGORY:  He pled guilty to some serious charges.

MCCLELLAN:  And so are you insinuating something? 

GREGORY:  I'm just trying out the facts.

MCCLELLAN:  Well if you've got something to bring to my attention, do so and I'll be glad to look into it.

GREGORY:  That's not a fair burden to place on us.  I mean, this guy is radioactive in Washington and he knows guys like Karl Rove.  So did he meet with him or not?  Don't put it on us to bring something specific.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SHUSTER:  One adviser outside the White House to President Bush and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove is anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist.  Norquist and Jack Abramoff are friends from their days as college Republicans. 

MSNBC has confirmed that Norquist helped Abramoff bring at least two tribal chief clients into the White House to meet President Bush four years ago.  On April 19, 2001, an e-mail from Grover Norquist to Jack Abramoff was forwarded to the Coushatta's Indian tribe. 

The e-mail invited the tribe to attend a luncheon dinner at the White House and described the May 9, 2001 get-together as a meeting with, quote, “the president and congressional leadership.”  Norquist has denied this $25,000 check the tribes gave him was his fee for the White House visit. 

Still, the connections between the White House, Karl Rove, Grover Norquist, and Washington influence-peddlers have been issues the Democratic group moveon.org has been trying to draw attention to for months.  And today, group protesters took to the sidewalk outside where Norquist's lobbyists and part of the Republican Party's brain trust conduct a regular weekly meeting.

One senator who often attends the meetings is Pennsylvania Republican Rick Santorum.  Last month when “The Washington Post” reported that Santorum met with the lobbying firms and associations “to discuss Republican candidates for job openings,” Santorum told the “Pittsburgh Post-Gazette” it was part of his leadership role as the Senate's third-ranking Republican.

“The K Street project is purely to make sure we have qualified applications for positions that are in town.  From my perspective, it's a good government thing.”

Yesterday Santorum joined John McCain in introducing lobbying reform and spun hard.

SEN. RICK SANTORUM ®, PENNSYLVANIA:  I'm not aware of any Senate liaison job that I do for the K Street project.  What I have done is, I do host meetings once or twice a month with members of the—who represent a variety of different groups in Washington D.C.

SHUSTER:  And so today they rolled out a lobbying reform plan named after Republicans, including Norquist and Abramoff.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MINORITY LEADER:  These people with the bad ideas, the K Street project and others, have infiltrated our government.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SHUSTER:  And the White House is now the latest part of the government to get snared by this story.  With Bush administration officials refusing to provide any details about Jack Abramoff's access to White House staff meetings, the stench, critics argue, is getting worse.  I'm David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, David Shuster.  NBC News White House correspondent, chief White House correspondent David Gregory is with us, and also NBC's chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell.  Let's start with David.  You had a tussle with McClellan.  Is he giving anything?

GREGORY:  Not at all.  And today he only hardened that line, saying that they are not going on a fishing expedition.  Look, this is a tactic that press secretaries working for President Bush have used going back to Ari Fleischer, which is to say that unless we, members of the White House Press Corps, have something specific to bring to them, they are not going to look into any of this.

No. 1, as I tried to make clear to Scott McClellan, the burden is really not on us to provide specifics.  We ask questions.  We gather information.  We're not insinuating anything, we're not campaigning against the White House, no matter what people out there may think of the press corps.  And it's a diversionary tactic. 

No. 2, the notion that they don't provide specific information about staff-level meetings is not true.  Go back, as I was covering this White House at the time, the Enron story when there were a lot of questions about Ken Lay and his relationship to the president. 

Then-press secretary Ari Fleischer ultimately did provide information about phone calls and meetings between Enron officials and then-Secretary of Commerce Don Evans and the Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill.  So they provide the information when they have it and when it suits them.

And furthermore, to make the point that unless you have something specific to bring to our attention, then we won't address it, I suppose that invites all of us to get leaked information, which the president says he so deplores.  Because otherwise what they're saying is unless you get some sort of leak out of here about meetings, we're not going to dignify it with a response.  So that's where they are at the moment.  And we'll see if it changes.

MATTHEWS:  Andrea Mitchell, I remember reading in another regard that the White House guards, the security folks, would get a big kick out of watching Monica Lewinsky, the former president's friend, arrive at the North Gate and then watch how fast it took Bill Clinton to get over to the West Wing.  If we can track someone like Monica, can't the White House dig up logs right now and say when Abramoff came to the White House and who he met with?

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT:  The White House knows exactly when Abramoff came.  He had to be cleared in through those gates with an absolute list of who invited him, who he was going to see, where he was, and when. 

But any time Scott McClellan can make the White House Press Corps the enemy in the eyes of the viewing public, he has had a good day.  And memo to White House staff, leak to David Gregory, because if you're offended by this, as many people are, get your story out, and Gregory is right there and knows more about this than anyone.

MATTHEWS:  I think Gregory can beat out Jack Abramoff in the cleanest department.  Go ahead, David.

GREGORY:  But I think it's also important to throw into this mix that there really isn't be any insinuation.  Karl Rove, no doubt knows Jack Abramoff, but that doesn't mean anything.  I mean, Democrats like to bring up Karl Rove's name just to get applause with a partisan group. 

Everybody suspects Karl Rove of everything.  The point is it's simply a question about whether Jack Abramoff was representing any business, any client interest before staff members of the White House.  He certainly is within his rights to do that, but this guy is now somebody who has admitted to committing crimes.

MATTHEWS:  Did somebody—David, did somebody pick up $25,000 to get that meeting?

GREGORY:  I don't know the answer to that.

MATTHEWS:  Because that's interesting.

MITCHELL:  But David is absolutely right.  When David says that Jack Abramoff is now radioactive, he is.  And if he came to the White House, the White House really ought to just put this out and release it.  And if they don't release it, it does raise the question.

David and the other reporters are doing their jobs.  They are not insinuating anything, as he says.  But if the White House stonewalls this, then they are going to only add more fuel to this.

MATTHEWS:  Can we go to a somewhat broader question?  This back and forth between Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush, the first lady present and first lady past.  Why do you think she allowed herself to be drawn into this dispute, David?  Laura Bush?

GREGORY:  Because I think that she has allowed herself and, frankly, has a fair amount of leeway to do that on controversial topics.  And you have seen it before.  I mean, she fueled speculation about Condoleezza Rice, the secretary state running for president just the other day, while she was traveling. 

So I think that she sees it as part of her role now, which was kind of an evolution in her role, to defend the president, to defend policies against critics like in this case, the former first lady Hillary Clinton.

MATTHEWS:  You're covering this, Andrea.  Give us a sense of this whole thing, how it evolved.  The word went out that Hillary Clinton got in trouble for saying that the white boys basically running the Congress are all running a plantation. 

We all got the imagery.  And everybody knows the imagery she was engaging in here.  First lady Hillary—does first lady Laura Bush have to get approval from Karl Rove or someone else when she goes on and takes on a Democrat like Hillary?

MITCHELL:  Well I don't think she has to get approval from anyone.  She is the most-potent political weapon that they have got.  And she has the advantage of saying things that are very political, very partisan when she chooses to and not appearing partisan.  She is absolutely bulletproof.  And she does it with a gentle touch.  And she is so popular and so effective, very effective in foreign policy context on this trip. 

This was a terrific trip for her.  And Hillary Clinton, in contrast can say things that other people have said.  Newt Gingrich has said the exact same thing in 1994 about the plantation, that the Democrats were then running on the Hill, and the slave mentality of the Republicans then, when he was the revolutionary leader taking the Hill in that mid-election year.  And he can say that and get away with it at the time, but Hillary Clinton can say the same thing—and anything she says that's at all controversial will be taken up and used to bludgeon her. 

So she has to be extra special careful because she is the opposite of a teflon first lady. 

MATTHEWS:  And I can't figure this out, David.  Do they want her to be the nominee in 2008 or not?  Sometimes I think the Republican operatives, the smart guys are cleverly building her up as this Goliath politically and we'll never be able to beat her and we're scared to death of her.  Then at other times I don't know what they think.  What do you think they think? 

GREGORY:  You know, I'm of two minds about it as well, because I think that—you know, I remember President Bush saying early on in 2004 that, in a small group that a guy had pulled him aside in Arkansas and said, you know—when he was running against John Kerry—that the sounds of “Massachusetts liberal” has a pretty good ring to it.

So it's kind of fundamental political strategy.  And I think that they've got that on Hillary Clinton as well.  Whatever modifications she had made going toward the middle from the Iraq war and other subjects, she is still going to be painted that way. 

And so I think there is a lot of conservatives and Republican operatives who are looking for that opportunity. 

MATTHEWS:  She is an Illinoisan, Arkansan, New York liberal. 

GREGORY:  Right.  Exactly. 

MATTHEWS:  Last word, Andrea. 

MITCHELL:  The original instinct was that she was trying to attack left and sort of do a course correction after having been such a centrist. 

I don't think that's the case.  I think she got swept up in it.  She was with a friendly audience.  And this was, as Ed Rogers suggested earlier, a Clinton in Harlem before an African American church, sort of feeling very comfortable and speaking what they thought the audience wanted to hear. 

MATTHEWS:  It's happened to me.  I know exactly the feeling. 

You play the crowd.  Some of us are like that. 

Anyway, thank you, David Gregory. 

GREGORY:  Sure.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Andrea Mitchell. 

When we come back, more on the Abramoff scandal.  Just how many times did Jack Abramoff visit the White House—God?  And did he ever meet with Karl Rove? 

This is “Hardball” on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We are back—here we are—to make sense of all the latest developments in the Abramoff scandal, plus Hillary Clinton's plantation comment.

NBC News political analyst and editor of the Cook report, Mr. Charles Cook, and Mike Allen of Time magazine, one of the great reporters in this city. 

Gentlemen, Hillary, I want you to give me a Richter scale reading on this.  Hillary Clinton, is this going to be something we're still talking about next week, her plantation remark, or has it got a three- or four-day shelf? 

MIKE ALLEN, TIME MAGAZINE:  I think it's going to pass.  These things do. 

MATTHEWS:  Will it be used against her when she tries to grab Southern states next time? 

ALLEN:  Well, Senator Clinton—she's been a little bit like Scott McClellan was earlier today.  She didn't back down at all.

She said, I've said this before.  Republicans have said this before.  No African American is complaining about it.  In fact, black leaders today have been endorsing this comment.  Senator Obama of Illinois came out and said that he understood what she meant. 

She said she was talking about top-down leadership. 

But the problem with this is, for Senator Clinton—and I think she's also saying here, “I'm not going to be held to a higher standard, I'm not going to participate in your feeding frenzy.”

But she has done so well in the last few years about emphasizing effectiveness, about showing her sense of humor, about actually being likable.  And this—fairly or unfairly, whatever the context was—this brings back the context of the harder-edged Senator Clinton, the one the Republicans like to run against. 

MATTHEWS:  The I'm-not-going-to-make-cookies Hillary?  The Brittle cookie maker?

ALLEN:  Right.

CHARLIE COOK, THE COOK POLITICAL REPORT:  I winced when I heard her say that. 

MATTHEWS:  You're a Southerner, is that why? 

COOK:  Yes.  Well, I think anybody would. 

MATTHEWS:  You're from down there with the tall trees and those big old mansions in Louisiana. 

COOK:  My family certainly didn't own a plantation.  But I winced when she said it.  I think she could have found a better metaphor. 

But she said exactly the same word in the same context that Newt Gingrich did in 1994.  And the thing is they were both right. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... talking about it? 

COOK:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  She was talking to a home crowd, saying “you know what I'm talking about.”

COOK:  Yes, she was trying to relate to the audience. 

But the thing is, when you look at how the House was run back in the early '90s when Democrats were in charge, how it's run now, closed rules, the minority can't offer an amendment.

Look, the fix is in on all the stuff in the House.  I mean the House, that's just the way the House is operating these days and the way Democrats ran it back then. 

It was right when Newt Gingrich said it, and it's right when she said it.  But she should use a different metaphor. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think anybody should be judged by one sentence?  I mean, we've had the (inaudible) experience, we've had Howard Cosell, people make comments.

I think people generally ought to just never talk about race, period, ever, ever, ever—because it seems like we're so sensitive because of our history in this country.  It's very hard not to screw it up. 

ALLEN:  Right.

Chris, some people are going to say:  Why are we beating this dead horse?  But it just is a fact, in the television age, you are stuck with particular phrases. 

If Charlie or I said something outrageous tonight, we'd be stuck with it.  And we might have a whole body of work that might contradict it, but that is what—we would rightly pay for that. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, Ray Nagin.  Mixed bag, obviously.  Mayor of New Orleans.  But he's got people behind him. 

ALLEN:  When you said mixed bag I was thinking of something else.

MATTHEWS:  Well, mixed bag.  Probably most politicians are mixed bags.  Most reporters are mixed bags.  Most people are.  That's fairly safe, isn't it? 

He's saying he wants to bring back a chocolate city—a clear ethnic

reference, a racial reference if you will, although race means we're all of

the same race.

ALLEN:  Well, he presumed to speak for God which, I think, is a mistake for any of us. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, what about Laura Bush doing the same thing today, saying God wants to rebuild New Orleans.

ALLEN:  Today...

MATTHEWS:  Or is that just general lunch-time Christianity, just the kind of thing you say—we know God wants us to rebuild our city, we know God roots for our downtown booster club, we know God—that sort of generalized sort of Kiwanis-type (ph) of religion, you know?

ALLEN:  I think a good rule for living—in fact, I just saw this on a billboard the other day—it said “If you want to know what God's thinking, stop talking.”

And maybe that's a good rule for all of us. 

MATTHEWS:  The silence of God.

COOK:  You know, I mean, as a Louisianian, Louisiana politicians should never say anything that plays into the stereotype of either a banana republic or this sort of clownish caricature of a place.  And if Mayor Nagin wants to maximize the amount of money that's coming down to rebuild the state, he ought to stay away from statements like that, he really should. 

MATTHEWS:  Chocolate city, or chocolate. 

COOK:  Chocolate city and the Iraq thing.  I mean, that was just goofy. 

MATTHEWS:  What was that? 

COOK:  Oh, that this was God's punishment ...

MATTHEWS:  For going to Iraq. 

COOK:  ... for going into Iraq.  I mean, it was goofy when Pat Robertson talked about Sharon, and this is goofy, too.  And people ought to stay the hell away from that stuff. 

ALLEN:  Right, and Chris, the mayor said that that was a mistake.  He said he was speaking to a friendly crowd.  But it's a reminder—and Senator Clinton knows this better than anyone.  You're never talking to just your people.  You're always talking to the larger crowd, especially when there is a camera there. 

MATTHEWS:  Maybe that's because certain people always go back to the Old Testament God, the God of fire and brimstone.  They always like to talk about we're being punished for something.  It's always punishment.  We'll be right back with Charlie Cook and Mike Allen. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Congressman David Dreier is chairman of the House Rules Committee and he's the Republicans' point man in rewriting the rule on lobbying. 

Congressman, thank you very much, Mr. Chairman, for joining us.  When we were just talking about that, I can't get past the Hillary comment about the plantation.  She said your leadership is running down there, over here in Washington.  Your response? 

REP. DAVID DREIER ®, CALIFORNIA:  Well, you know, I heard Charlie talk about the fact that things are done now under Republicans exactly the way they were done under the Democrats.  And frankly, you know, the Republican Party stood for reform when we, in 1993, were working on major institutional reforms. 

We implemented them when we came to majority 1994, and we did some things that guaranteed we would not be running the House of Representatives the way the Democrats did.  For example, Chris, we were often, when we were in the minority, denied even one bite of the apple.  And you know from having worked up there for Tip, the motion to recommit is something that the minority Republicans were up to in the 90s.  We guaranteed that right. 

And I will tell you, also, that while we constantly hear we're not giving a chance for Democrats to have their ideas considered on the floor, guess what, Chris?  Contrary to what many people believe—and in fact, for you, the guy right on the camera right here was saying to me that he doesn't think our message is getting out.  We have actually made more amendments the Democrats have proposed in order on the House floor than we have Republican amendments. 

And so it is just a specious claim to argue that we somehow are just doing exactly what the Democrats did or worse, which some are claiming.  I mean, we've been more open.  We've been more deliberative and we're continuing to pursue that vigorously. 

MATTHEWS:  So, just to make it clear to everybody who doesn't know the rules about the rule to recommit, you're basically opening the Democrats, every time you have a major vote for their opportunity to form an alternative. 

DREIER:  Exactly.  You've got it, Chris.  Gosh, I can't believe you remembered after all those years. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  My Jefferson's manual. 

DREIER:  I need to get you an updated one, too, I think.  But on the issue of reform which, you know, the speaker and I talked about yesterday, and we'll tell you, I take my hat off to Speaker Hastert for having vigorously pursued this. 

You know, you remember very well that the Democrats were very slow to respond in dealing with these kinds of challenges.  And this has been an issue that has impacted both political parties.  And I know an attempt is being made to paint it as one party.  But without getting into names, we know it affects both parties in Washington. 

And I think that stepping up and being very bold here.  This week we marked Martin Luther King's birthday.  And in one of his letters from Birmingham Jail, he talked about the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”  And it seems to me that the opportunity for us to be bold is upon us. 

And that's why we're going to be proposing things like a ban on privately funded travel, making sure there's greater accountability and deliberation.  As we look at this, transparency is key, empowering the American people, Chris, with as much information is a very important reform and we're dedicated to pursuing it. 

And we're also dedicated to working in a bipartisan way.  Joe Lieberman said to me that this is a once in a generation opportunity.  And I think that working with Democrats, we can come up with a package that will really enhance the place. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, can you make lemonade out of a lemon?  I mean, can you turn this Abramoff catastrophe into something that's going to improve the workings of the House? 

DREIER:  Absolutely.  And, you know, that's why—listen.  I joked that I made the mistake of wishing the speaker a happy new year on I think, the third of January.  And as I do at the end of every call, I said hey, Mr. Speaker.  I said, what can I do for you?  And he said well, why don't you take this thing on, David? 

And I kind of swallowed hard and for a few days, I thought this wouldn't be that great a task.  Now, I'm buoyed, enthused and optimistic about doing something in a bipartisan way to address institutional reform, to make us more accountable, more deliberative, to allow sunshine to come in, and to decrease this tremendous influence that lobbyists have had in a wide range of areas. 

And I'll tell, you know, I've been listening to people.  I've been listening to my Republican colleagues.  The speaker and I had an hour and a half conference call yesterday listening to the input of a lot of members.  And I've been listening to people outside Congress and from across the country as well. 

And I think that we're on the right path hear.  And I just want Democrats to join with us.  I know they're trying to stir this thing up, had some event today that I heard about.  I was on a plane flying back out here to Los Angeles, but, you know, I welcome them.  We welcome them.  The speaker welcomes them.  We want to make sure we're on the same page, because I think we can walk ahead and do this reform thing. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, I just checked the records here.  I was looking at a Congressional research document—Research Service document the last time we talked.  And it said that you wouldn't include refreshments with the price of a meal, only the food itself. 

And now I'm looking at a more recent example of the House document which comes from the House itself.  And it says that you do include food and refreshments as part of the $50 limit.  So some reform has been going on long before we spoke.  And I want to thank you for coming on. 

DREIER:  We know that you don't like to drink anymore, Chris, so ... 

MATTHEWS:  I don't drink at all anyway.

DREIER:  So, you know, obviously it's not going to ...

MATTHEWS:  I passed my limit years ago.  Thank you very much, Congressman David Dreier.

DREIER:  Thanks, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Join us again tomorrow night at 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern for more HARDBALL.  Right now it's time for the “ABRAMS REPORT” with Dan.

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

END   

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