updated 2/21/2006 11:28:35 AM ET 2006-02-21T16:28:35

Guest: Paul Hackett, Chuck Todd, Douglas Brinkley, Paul Pillar

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR:  Tonight, will the 2006 election let voters vote on the Iraq war?  Will the opposition party offer candidates ready to oppose the Bush policy?  We'll talk to a well known Iraq war vet who says he was bounced by the Democrats from a U.S. Senate race.  Let's play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I'm Chris Matthews.  Happy President's Day and welcome to HARDBALL.

Marine Corps reservist Paul Hackett, Major Paul Hackett, fought for his country in Iraq but returned home to find one of his most difficult battles right in his home state of Ohio. 

The Iraq war veteran, a Democrat and fierce critic of the Bush administration policies, captured the nation's attention last summer when he almost won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in a Republican district. 

Hackett became a political star in the party and was aggressively recruited by Democrats to run for the U.S. Senate in Ohio, but last week Hackett dropped out of the race saying he was pressured by bosses in the Democratic Party. 

Tonight in his first national television interview, Paul Hackett will tell us about his rise and fall in American politics and why he says his 11 months running for office in Ohio is far bloodier than his tour of duty in Iraq. 

And later, a new “Time Magazine” poll shows almost two-thirds of Americans think Vice President Dick Cheney should have immediately taken public responsibility for the shooting incident, so why didn't he?  We'll talk to “Newsweek's” Howard Fineman.

But first, HARDBALL'S David Shuster with this report on Major Paul Hackett. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)      

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice over):  From the moment he returned from combat duty in Iraq and declared his candidacy for Congress, Paul Hackett lit up Democratic Party activists.  The lawyer and Marine reservist is young, charismatic and outspoken.  He called President Bush a chicken hawk and worse, a SOB. 

PAUL HACKETT, IRAQ WAR VETERAN:  Any president who has young men and women fighting for this nation, who says bring it on, is a cheerleader for the insurgents.  That's dangerous.  It's disrespectful. 

SHUSTER:  In a special election last August, Republican Jean Schmidt urged voters to punish Hackett for his criticism of the president, and the national GOP poured in half a million dollars in anti-Hackett television ads. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  He supports raising Social Security taxes.

SHUSTER:  The heavily Republican district stayed Republican.  Jean Schmidt won. 

REP. JEAN SCHMIDT ®, OHIO:  Well, ladies and gentlemen, we passed the test. 

SHUSTER:  rMD+UL_rMDNM_But the GOP did not pass it by much.  Schmidt beat Hackett by only four points.  It was the closest any Democratic congressional candidate had come to beating a Republican in the district in more than 20 years. 

“The Cincinnati Enquirer” called the narrow margin, quote, “nothing short of astounding,” and Hackett told his supporters... 

HACKETT:  Knock off the crying.  There's nothing to cry about here. 

This was a success.  We should all be proud, so let's rock on. 

SHUSTER:  With attention from the media, a following among anti-war bloggers and encouragement from national Democratic leaders, Hackett soon declared his candidacy for the U.S. Senate. 

Twelve-term Democratic Congressman Sherrod Brown had declined, and Democrats thought Hackett would fare well against Republican incumbent Mike DeWine.

But in December, Congressman Brown changed his mind, wanting a Democratic primary battle with Hackett.  Meanwhile, Hackett's style began creating waves.  On HARDBALL, he stood by his allegation that President Bush was once a cocaine user. 

HACKETT:  There are many who have come forward and documented that and said they saw it happen.  I take that at face value.  I think it's probably quite factual, and given the fact that he works so hard to avoid service in his generation's conflict, it seems consistent to me. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, it's been widely reported.  I guess it's been

charged, and some people have suspected it because of the way he's denied

it, but, you know, for a fact that President Bush, the commander-in-chief -

·         because you're running for the U.S. Senate—was a cocaine user?  You know that for a fact? 

HACKETT:  Well I've read the reports, as you have read the reports. 

MATTHEWS:  Well they're not reports.  They're charges.  I wouldn't say I read it in the Associated Press or “The Wall Street Journal” or “The New York Times.”  I may have heard the arguments made by people who I may not think have got a firm grounding in journalism, but I have never heard a major or a quality newspaper make such a charge like that. 

HACKETT:  I think that's a fair criticism.  I'm relaying what I have heard and what you've heard and what I've read and you've read. 

MATTHEWS:  But that doesn't make it a fact having heard it, does it? 

HACKETT:  Point well taken. 

SHUSTER:  In another memorable moment, Hackett said the Republican Party, quote, “has been hijacked by the religious fanatics that, in my opinion, aren't a whole lot different from Osama bin Laden and a lot of other religious nuts around the world.”

When asked by Republicans to apologize, Hackett refused, saying I meant it.  All the while, Senator DeWine was moving to the center, joining the moderate gang of 14 on judicial nominations, and in the Democratic primary, Congressman Brown was far ahead of Hackett in fund-raising. 

In January, Brown had $2.3 million in cash on hand, almost 10 times as much as Hackett.  Last week, Hackett withdrew from the Senate race, accusing national party leaders of squeezing him out by telling fund-raisers to stop sending Hackett money. 

Many Democrats are urging Hackett to run again this fall against Congresswoman Schmidt.  She's even more vulnerable now after apologizing for this floor statement about anti-war Democratic Congressman John Murtha. 

SCHMIDT:  That cowards cut and run, Marines never do. 

SHUSTER:  But last fall, Hackett promised three other Democrats in the district targeting Schmidt that he would not run. 

(on-camera):  Hackett says he is keeping his word and so his political honesty is over, at least for now.  Republicans paint his status as a blow to Democratic chances in November.  Democrats acknowledge that Hackett stands as a reminder of the wide Gulf in the party between old regulars and mavericks and between cynicism and idealism. 

I'm David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)      

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, David Shuster. 

Joining me now is Paul Hackett in his first television interview since ending his run for the U.S. Senate in Ohio. 

Major Hackett, thank you for joining us. 

HACKETT:  Sir, thanks for having me on. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, I, as a journalist and as a person who loves to watch big debates in this country, was hoping that your race would be one of the races in that country we could all watch this November and say now there's a guy who thinks the war in Iraq is wrong, the wrong policy.  He's taken on the policy.  The voters are going to get to vote on this war. 

Now they don't get that chance, do they, because you pulled out? 

HACKETT:  That's true I suspect.  I think obviously the voice I would have brought to it would have been unique, and it certainly would have been exciting.  And the reality though is I had to make a tough decision based on the amount of money it would take to close the race in the ensuing three months. 

MATTHEWS:  Why didn't you go down shooting?  Why didn't you just run and even if you risk losing, everybody risks losing, why didn't you? 

HACKETT:  Well, I have to ask myself what does that achieve in the end, what does it achieve for my party, the Democratic Party, which I me to be successful in November.  And I have to ask what it achieves for my staff and for my family personally.  And, you know, I didn't see anything positive coming out of that. 

MATTHEWS:  Did you see yourself losing? 

HACKETT:  What we found was if we were able to raise the money, we would have been successful in the primary, but that's $3 million. 

MATTHEWS:  To win the primary? 

HACKETT:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Over the general question to win. 

HACKETT:  Total of $15 million is what I am told.

MATTHEWS:  To win? 

HACKETT:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  And if you hadn't had that money, you wouldn't have been able to win? 

HACKETT:  No, I wouldn't have been able to get my message out.  I would have been responding to somebody else's message, and I didn't relish the idea of being on the receiving end of somebody else's attack without being able to swing back. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  So you pulled out of the race under pressure from the Democratic leaders. 

Say it your way. 

HACKETT:  Yes, sure.  I was encouraged to get into this race, and I answered that call.  And I was asked to step aside in this race, and I answered that call too.  It doesn't make me happy, but in the final analysis, I pride myself in being a team player.  But, you know, there are times when you get asked to sit down and you're not necessarily happy about that. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, I've watched politics for 30 some years now and I have never heard of a candidate being urged by party leaders to run and then told not to run once they told him to run.  What happened here?  Tell me the sequence.  When did you get to asked to run for the United States Senate?

HACKETT:  Shortly after the congressional race.  I was called by Senator Schumer.  I was called by...

MATTHEWS:  Chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.

HACKETT:  Yes.  And I was called by Senator Reid and...

MATTHEWS:  The leading Democrat. 

HACKETT:  Right.  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  And they both said...

HACKETT:  They called my wife too. 

MATTHEWS:  And they said Paul Hackett, run for the Senate in Ohio. 

HACKETT:  Yes, you know, they actually—you know what they said is they said your country needs you, and for a guy like me with my military background, you know, that's like waving drugs in front of an addict. 

MATTHEWS:  Sure.  Did both the Democratic leaders that called you, Chuck Schumer of New York, the chairman of the campaign committee, and Harry Reid, the minority leader of the Senate—did both say they would back you?  Did you hear those words? 

HACKETT:  Yes.  Yes, absolutely.  Financially and otherwise. 

MATTHEWS:  And how many months later did you get the notion that they weren't backing you? 

HACKETT:  Well, it became pretty clear shortly after Sherrod Brown announced that he was getting into the race.  The phone calls stopped coming, and at that point, you know, there was...

MATTHEWS:  Did you call home and say are you guys still with me? 

HACKETT:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  And what did they rMDNM_sayrMD+DN_rMDNM_? 

rMDNM_HACKETT:  And the response was we're going to be neutral in a primary. 

MATTHEWS:  So they went from endorsement to neutrality. 

HACKETT:  They went from endorsement to neutrality to eventually pecking sides, which, you know, that's politics. 

MATTHEWS:  But why did they do that?  You're talking about the leadership of the Democratic Party nationally.  Did you have the support of Howard Dean, the chairman of the party? 

HACKETT:  He was always very supportive. 

MATTHEWS:  Is he supportive of you now? 

HACKETT:  In the sense that yes, I mean, he...

MATTHEWS:  But did he pull the rug out from under you like the other guys did? 

HACKETT:  No, my take on it is I don't think he really had the ability to influence the... 

MATTHEWS:  So he's a figure head? 

HACKETT:  I didn't say that. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, what is he if he's the chairman of the party and he can't endorse a candidate?  What is he? 

HACKETT:  I think he's a voice of the party.  I think he is an important fund-raising element in the party.  But I don't necessarily think that he is able to control elected officials.

MATTHEWS:  When you look around the country, Major Hackett, do you see any other people on the Democratic side or on the Republican side making an issue of the war in Iraq as a campaign issue for the American people to address this fall?

HACKETT:  I think most of the veterans who have come back from Iraq and Afghanistan are making that an issue.  At this point, they don't have the same notoriety if you will, or infamy.

MATTHEWS:  No it's not—you had a lot of people out there on the people who don't think this policy is good for America and didn't think so from the beginning, but there are very few clear candidates out there that said, “No, this war has been wrong from the beginning.  I didn't vote to authorize the war.  I don't think it's good U.S. policy, I'm a patriot.  This is not helping our position in the world.”

The country, I think, needs a kind of debate like that.  I would argue because we didn't have one before we went to war.  It's healthy to debate and it's especially necessary to debate war and peace, I think.  Do you agree? 

HACKETT:  Obviously.

MATTHEWS:  Well then why did you quit the race?

HACKETT:  Three million bucks, $3 million.  I mean, that is the ugly reality—it's the ugly...

MATTHEWS:  ... You can't get on the—in other words, you can't win.

HACKETT:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  Because the other side can waste you.

HACKETT:  Exactly.  I mean, to put it in military terms, I can't shape the battlefield.

MATTHEWS:  Schwarzkopf's words. 

HACKETT:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  Because the other side can waste you and then you have to spend money to defend your good name.

HACKETT:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  We'll come back and talk about that.  I want you to give us a lesson in civics here, for the people watching on President's Day.  It's a good patriotic holiday, and they may have not agree with you on the war.  Half the country agrees with you, half doesn't.  But I think they ought to hear about how politics works and you ought to give them your benefit—by the way, you still probably should run for office somewhere.  More with Paul Hackett after the break.

And later on in the program, I'll talk to a former CIA intelligence officer who says the Bush administration cherry-picked information to make its case for war in Iraq.  You're watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Coming up, more with Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett in his first national interview since quitting that Ohio Senate race, when HARDBALL returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We're back with Iraq war veteran and former Senate candidate Paul Hackett.  Major Hackett, let me ask you about the decision to pull out of this race.  You went in with the endorsement of the chairman of the Senate Democratic campaign committee, Charles Schumer of New York.  It's his job to recruit candidates like you, he recruited you, right?

HACKETT:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  And then recruited by Harry Reid, the party leader. 

HACKETT:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  So you were a recruit going into a new mission, you thought.

HACKETT:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  I'm serious, you were called into the mission by the top guys, you wouldn't have done it without their call, right?

HACKETT:  Absolutely correct.

MATTHEWS:  So you were recruited, you were a volunteer in this army of the Democratic Party against the war?  Right?  You're smiling, but it's what happened.  You're taking this too easy.

HACKETT:  Like a good attorney, I'm trying to see where we're going here.

MATTHEWS:  Where we're going is why you think they buckled.  Did you make too many comments that were hard for them to defend?  Was anything you did after the recruitment of you that justified their loss of faith?

HACKETT:  Not from my perspective, but I'm sure that my outspokenness on the war issue and many other issues that I believe in made them nervous.

MATTHEWS:  Did you call Bush a coke head before or after they endorsed you? 

HACKETT:  That's a good question.  I don't remember.  Actually, it was

before, but it was—it was published subsequently, but you know back then

·         he hasn't denied it.

MATTHEWS:  Don't get into that.  I will not do that on this show.  I have no evidence the president has ever used coke.  He's admitted having an alcohol problem, I used to have one, I admit it.  Don't get into this if you can't prove it.

HACKETT:  Right, got it.

MATTHEWS:  Accept that as a condition?

HACKETT:  All right, yes, yes.

MATTHEWS:  Three months in the stockade.  OK, let's talk about this here.  When they told you to get out, because they never answered your calls, what was the final straw you decided, “I cannot wage an anti-war candidacy in a middle of the road state like Ohio, I can't wage one,” because I'm curious why we're not really going to see one this year in this country.

HACKETT:  Well I don't agree with the premise that—first of all, that I was waging solely an anti-war campaign.  I mean, I was talking about a lot of important issues, not the least of which is the economy.

And I think that the anti-war campaign if you will, can be effective if articulated correctly and accurately.  And obviously I think that somebody who had served as I have in Iraq has the ability to have that discussion, and have a little bit of insulation against the Karl Rove attack, which is going to come obviously against all Democrats running in 2006.

I mean, he made no secret of it that he will attack Democrats in 2006 for being unpatriotic, for being weak on defense and national security.  I actually think that my service in Iraq insulates me from that because there aren't...

MATTHEWS:  ... They weren't going to swift boat you?

HACKETT:  Well, with the Republicans, I anticipated the Republicans why going to swift boat me.  I didn't anticipate that the Democrats were going to swift boat me and that was the surprise.

MATTHEWS:  Who was doing that on the Democratic side?

HACKETT:  You know, the word came from many Democratic chairs in the state of Ohio that my primary opponent was spreading rumors about my service in Iraq.

MATTHEWS:  What was he saying?

HACKETT:  I don't know.  He never said them to me, but I would hear back from Democratic chairs that I had...

MATTHEWS:  ... What are these photographs they're talking about?  What do they have of you doing?

HACKETT:  I have no idea.  I can only tell you that I served my country honorably.

MATTHEWS:  But there's no such thing as photographs out there showing you playing around with parts, human body parts.

HACKETT:  Absolutely preposterous.

MATTHEWS:  But you've heard these stories.

HACKETT:  I have heard those stories and they're absolutely preposterous.  I invite anybody who wants to make those allegations to come onto your show.  I'll meet them here.

MATTHEWS:  Did Sherrod Brown make those accusations?

HACKETT:  That's what I'm told by make county chairs.

MATTHEWS:  Do you believe it?

HACKETT:  It came from...

MATTHEWS:  ... Based upon the people you heard it from, do you believe that Sherrod Brown, the likely Democratic nominee for the Senate in Ohio, attacked—was whispering about an opponent in the—potential opponent, in fact, at the time, an opponent—was an Iraq war veteran who was behaving in a dastardly way with a victim of the war?

HACKETT:  Do I believe that it came from his campaign?  Yes, I do believe it came from his campaign.

MATTHEWS:  And you have reason for believing that?

HACKETT:  My reason for believing it?

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

HACKETT:  From the multiple different sources throughout Ohio, all consistently pointing in that direction.

MATTHEWS:  Have any of those sources gone on the record with newspapers or T.V. or anywhere?

HACKETT:  Some of them have been interviewed by “The New York Times” and some other sources.

MATTHEWS:  And they haven't been pick up then, that they haven't been trusted, or what?

HACKETT:  I think that they have not specifically said to them what they specifically said to me.

MATTHEWS:  Would you swear on a stack of bibles right now that Sherrod Brown has told untrue things about your war service?

HACKETT:  Well I would swear that many people have come to me and said that, because that is a fact.

MATTHEWS:  Have you ever asked him?

HACKETT:  No, I have not spoken to him or anybody on his staff literally in months.

MATTHEWS:  Well, when you do, let us know. 

HACKETT:  I will, indeed.

MATTHEWS:  Major Paul Hackett is not running for the Senate—will you ever run for office again?

HACKETT:  Probably not.  I want to be a part of politics as you may know, I've joined the IAVA, the Iraq Afghanistan Veterans of America.

MATTHEWS:  Are they anti-war?

HACKETT:  Yes, in the sense that they want to bring a swift and quick conclusion to the war on Iraq.

MATTHEWS:  I'm sorry, Major—who do we have—who do you have out there that you have faith in as an anti-war critic, a critic of the war who's running for office this November?

HACKETT:  I think all the IVA's.  Andy Horn down in Kentucky, there are a number of others around.  Eric Massa up in New York.  There are a number of candidates around who have served their country in combat and in other conflicts, who have the same belief that I do, that the military was misused in Iraq.  And that's really what—that's what the conclusion is.  The military was misused in Iraq by this administration. 

MATTHEWS:  Thanks for playing out here in Washington and happy President's Day. 

HACKETT:  We didn't even talk about civics. 

MATTHEWS:  It wasn't George Washington and Abraham Lincoln but we still know who we're really talking about, those two guys.  Thank you, Paul Hackett. 

Up next, was Paul Hackett pushed out by the Democrats?  If so why, we'll ask “Newsweek's” Howard Fineman.  He is going to come in and judge this guy.  You're watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  We just heard Iraq war vet and former Senate candidate Paul Hackett tell HARDBALL why he's no longer running for office.  The staunch war critic says the Democratic leaders who once courted him crushed his campaign.  Here to dig into the story is “Newsweek's” chief political correspondent Howard Fineman.  Is this the Democrats squeamish about running an out and out war critic? 

HOWARD FINEMAN, NEWSWEEK:  If they want an out and out war critic, they were afraid of this particular one because he's so outspoken and somewhat unpredictable as he demonstrated again on your show.  I think he wanted to be collegial, he wanted to be a good soldier here, pun intended, instead he took a shot right between the eyes at Sherrod Brown, who is going to be the Democratic nominee, basically saying it was Brown's campaign that was leaky nasty stuff about him to help get him out of the race.

So it's too bad in a way because I think the Democrats nationally would be helped if they can find somebody who can really properly frame a national message for them in 2008 on the war, and you need the midterm elections as a kind of laboratory in which to do it.  If you find somebody who does it right, then all the other Democrats can say, we'll follow that person. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, but they don't seem to have one now in the whole country.  I keep thinking of the race in Pennsylvania, we always talk about, the Bob Casey versus the incumbent senator.  Nothing on the war really.  You know, you think about where the war is going to be fought. 

Here we have the biggest issue of our time, we argue about it here all the time.  Most Americans argue about it over the dinner table, I assume, it's casualties, it's cost, it's a trillion dollars and nobody argues about the policy in elections. 

FINEMAN:  I think it's mystifying at this point.  We sat around here hat this table and said this is one of the biggest decisions any president would ever make on the war in Iraq and it's either right or it's wrong and the Democrats need to find a way to frame a message and I think they need war heroes to do it. 

MATTHEWS:  The stunning thing is the latest Gallup poll, the oldest poll we have in the country, 56 percent of the people say they don't think the war is something we should be fighting.  They don't like this war.  They don't believe in it, they don't think it was smart, and yet it's still treated as a weird marginal minority weirdo issue, like, oh, you're anti-war, you're kind of out of it.  It's a strange disconnect. 

FINEMAN:  It's because if you ask the question, do you want the Democrats to take over the handling of the war, you probably get a somewhat different answer. 

MATTHEWS:  You mean a lower number? 

FINEMAN:  Probably a lower number. 

MATTHEWS:  Well because they can't decide.  We'll be right back with Howard Fineman.  In a moment, we'll also be joined by Chuck Todd of “The Hot Line.”  He writes everything about politics.  You're watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWSBREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

More than a week after Vice President Cheney shot a man in the face, one big question still looms large.  What does the public have a right to know and when should they know it?  And has the press been fair in covering this administration? 

Here's Cheney confidante Mary Matalin doing battle with NBC's David Gregory and “The New York Times'” Maureen Dowd yesterday on “Meet the Press.”

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID GREGORY, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  If the vice president did everything right of disclosing it the way he did, why did you do a big national interview this week? 

MARY MATALIN, POLITICAL STRATEGIST: Because you went on a jihad, David.  For four days you went on a jihad. 

GREGORY:  That's an unfortunate use of that word, by the way.  And that's not what that was. 

MATALIN:  OK.  All right.  Were you saving up for that line?

MAUREEN DOWD, THE NEW YORK TIMES:  Mary, it isn't only the press.  He blows off the FISA courts.  He blows off the Geneva Convention.  He blows off the U.N. to go to Iraq.  He wants to blow of everything.  He's got a fever about presidential erosion just the way he had a fever about going into Iraq. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)             

MATTHEWS:  We're back with “Newsweek's” chief political correspondent Howard Fineman.  And joining us now is Chuck Todd of “The Hotline.”

I know that was disputatious, and everybody who watches has their own POV, point of view, to watch it.  You had a number of journalists there.  You had a flack there, somebody standing in—I shouldn't say flack, public relations expert.  Mary helping out the vice president.  And she's a loyalist, give her that.

But I thought that was an interesting admission she made, which is the only reason the vice president went on television because NBC News, its correspondent in the White House, pushed and pushed and pushed for three days.  And they finally said OK the vice president of the United States will address the public. 

I thought that was an amazing confession by her that the only reason they brought the vice president out to meet the public and explain what had happened in that shooting was that a news reporter pushed for it. 

FINEMAN:  Well, I think NBC News should put out a press release.  You know, we forced the veep to talk.  I mean, I think Mary there in her own rather snide way was admitting that the heat had gotten too intense.  And they had to put Cheney out there, and they chose Fox News to do it.  She was basically admitting despite all the other careful crafted answers she gave. 

MATTHEWS:  But she's doing her job.  She's a loyalist.  That's her job.  I will give her that.  And in fact, you know, being a loyalist is a good thing.  I think David went out there and tried to get the truth out. 

And I thought it was an interesting admission, even though he apologized for his roughness in getting it, the White House's agreement that the vice president—and by the way, the president nudged him to get out there. 

CHUCK TODD, THE HOTLINE:  That's clearly what happened here is that Cheney wasn't going to do this because the press was pushing Cheney.  It was that, you know, other circle of power.  I mean, I think the lesson I took from this entire story is that there really are two circles of power in the White House, and the vice-president...

MATTHEWS:  What's the stronger circle? 

TODD:  Well, that's what is not clear.  Apparently, the vice president's circle is still fairly strong even without Scooter Libby and Steve Schmidt.  You know, that's the other thing though some people do wonder if Scooter Libby and Steve Schmidt are still sort of running the political operation. 

MATTHEWS:  Could Dick Cheney have been elected president? 

FINEMAN:  No.  Absolutely not. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think Chuck? 

TODD:  Fifteen years ago he could have been.  After he was defense secretary, there was a time he could have been. 

FINEMAN:  The other thing about the two circles—and Chuck is right

·         is that they barely overlap.  In other words...

TODD:  They don't overlap at all. 

FINEMAN:  ...they barely overlap, and I don't buy that George W.  Bush's—our colleagues of “Time” reported this that George W. Bush finally leaned on the vice president and said Dick, you'd better get out there and deal with this matter. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, what do you know?  Well, what do you know? 

FINEMAN:  Well, what I know is that it didn't happen that way, according to our reporter, but what's interesting about it is that the Bush aides, the ones in that circle, are saying that it happened as a way of distancing themselves further and dissing Cheney. 

(CROSSTALK)

FINEMAN:  They've been doing that a lot. 

MATTHEWS:  This is the “Time Magazine” quote to which you just alluded kindly I thought, “Whatever Cheney's reasons, his reticence was frustrating the president, said an official involved in deliberations between the two.  Yet even now, Bush made a very soft sell to the partner to whom he often defers.  Bush and Cheney had a quiet talk.”

TODD:  So I guess this is the email probably between Rove and Matt Cooper, right?  Because we all know that they have each other's email. 

(CROSSTALK)   

MATTHEWS:  But, you know, two-thirds of the American people say the vice president should have come out right away and publicly acknowledged his responsibility.  But, you know, the polling is interesting too. 

And I always look at debates.  I never care whether people say this guy won or that guy won.  What I look at is where they stand afterwards compared to where they stood before.  Because people don't always admit what caused them to change their mind. 

The vice president is at 29 percent now.  He continues to go down in job approval.  That to me is the acid test of how this effected him.  In a “Time Magazine” poll taken after his very effective speech, I thought, on Wednesday, he was lower than he started. 

FINEMAN:  Yes, I think that's true, and I think the other indicator besides the polls are credible Republican people, elected officials, spin doctors of various kinds, whether it's Torie Clarke or even Ari Fleischer saying look, this was badly handled.  They're looking at the midterm elections coming up. 

In how many places—for example, in Pennsylvania, other than to raise money now, at a closed event is, say Rick Santorum going to want to campaign around the state of Pennsylvania with Dick Cheney.  I don't think there's that many places.

MATTHEWS:  What's your feeling?  He will not be a happy warrior. 

TODD:  Oh, I agree.  I think Cheney is not going to be very popular. 

MATTHEWS:  Will he be used a lot by Democratic candidates as a whipping board? 

TODD:  I think more so probably than Bush because of these different polling. 

MATTHEWS:  Howard, do you see the weak link in the popularity chain here? 

FINEMAN:  Weaker than the president who is not all that strong either. 

MATTHEWS:  Somebody yesterday said they were equal.  That's wrong. 

FINEMAN:  You can still spirit Dick Cheney in under cover of darkness.

(CROSSTALK)   

MATTHEWS:  I'm going to ask you, who has met all these guys a hundred times, reported on them.  If you had to take a long trip to Australia, just in of the enjoyment of the trip, who would you want sitting next to you, George Bush or Dick Cheney? 

FINEMAN:  George bush. 

TODD:  See, I go the opposite.  Cheney in this kind of setting is—

A. he is fascinating.

MATTHEWS:  Would he talk to you? 

FINEMAN:  The guy does talk to people. You know what I would talk to him about?  I would talk about Ford administration stuff.  I would talk about the Ford-Reagan primary, you know.  Because he was right at the center of that stuff. 

MATTHEWS:  You would take Dick Cheney?  You would really mine for gold here.

TODD:  That's all it would be. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about this in the long run, I like to ask this whenever I have a problem I worry about it and I almost can't sleep over this, will this affect my life a month from now?  Will this affect the life of the president, the vice president or the nation a month from now, Howard? 

FINEMAN:  No, I don't think so.  I really don't, because I frankly think Cheney is about as low as he can go at this point. 

MATTHEWS:  I think we will never forget it.  I think it's smaller than it can be argued it is.  It's one of those moments, that you say I forget the energy task force, I forget even the torture stuff, but I remember that guy shot somebody in the face and didn't tell anybody about it in the press until the next day or for two days. 

FINEMAN:  It crystallized what was already out there so in that sense, yes.

TODD:  And the another thing it is going to do, it is going to change the way this press covers this White House. 

MATTHEWS:  Are they going to pull back?

TODD:  No, they're going to push harder now. 

MATTHEWS:  So David Gregory is the lead dog? 

TODD:  I think they are going to push harder.  And we've heard rumors that, you know, the vice president—there isn't an official pool that follows the vice president wherever they go.  We've been hearing rumors that will likely change. 

MATTHEWS:  Will they stake out the observatory now? 

TODD:  I think you are going to see some stakeouts of the observatory. 

MATTHEWS:  So in addition to that guy out there who said he was molested by the priest, he is standing out there for five years in front of...

(CROSSTALK)

FINEMAN:  He was there with Gore too don't forget.

MATTHEWS:  Next to him will be a bunch of cameras watching the veep. 

FINEMAN:  Cheney is an incognito person in the Bush administration. 

That's over with as a result of this. 

TODD:  And so that's a big deal.  I think that's a big deal.

MATTHEWS:  You know, I came across a great old quote from Churchill, my hero, the other day that said he talked about John Foster Dulles as being the only bull that carries his China shop around with him, Dick Cheney.

Anyway, thank you, Howard Fineman.  Thank you, Chuck Todd.

Up next, how will history remember Cheney's shooting incident?  I say they will.  We'll ask presidential historian Douglas Brinkley.  You are watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to this President's Day edition of HARDBALL.  President Bush's supporters and critics agree that the government's response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina will be a big part of his legacy. 

Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley was one of the thousands of New Orleans residents evacuated during the storm and catastrophic flooding that followed.  He is now back there teaching again at Tulane University and his new book, there always successful, this one is called “The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.” that's going to be out in April.  Douglas, we'll have you back when it comes out.  Good luck with the book.  It's a story people want to read and fast writing, sir. 

Let me ask you about this fight over the presidency and the vice presidency.  What had struck me, we didn't get to it in our previous conversation but will always strike me was the decision by the vice president in this case, forget his relations with the press and the public not to call the president all weekend, the weekend he shot someone in the face. 

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN:  Well, particularly when it said shot in the face, it's—that's what's going to be remembered.  Look, there's no question about the fact that the Bush administration isn't handling the media very well.  They for a long time, up until the last election, you had Karl Rove and the neocons having the media on the run. 

I think Katrina blew the lid off things.  I think the hubris factor with the media now and tracking and staying on Bush and, as you just mentioned, they may be doing that now with Dick Cheney is just going to increase. 

It's always a mistake to take on The New York Times in the kind of fashion that the Bush administration has and Richard Nixon learned that the hard way. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about it.  It seems to me you made a point there.  People can never in the near term gauge the success or the confidence of our campaign in Iraq but they can quickly gauge the failure here at home.  And you're saying that because they see the failure of Katrina which is manifest, they're much more willing to say, yes and my hunch about the war over there, is it's not going well. 

BRINKLEY:  I think so.  I think here in New Orleans, all the media—

NBC, right where I'm sitting, was just everywhere and they witnessed the fact that FEMA wasn't coming, that supplies weren't coming, that the White House was saying something else and some of the first responders were journalists. 

This lives on in whether it's FOX News, or CNN or ABC or any of the print reporters, they know that the White House had a credibility break down, that President Bush was not on the job and we've just heard Republicans bringing out reports saying the same. 

So they're not going to give this president any kind of slack, if when Dick Cheney doesn't report immediately something like that hunting accident, which is a human mistake. He must feel terrible, we all know that, but that failure to report it, they're going to come at him like the Johnstown Flood and you get this sort of situation where now I think Dick Cheney is going to be remembered in history and popular imagination for this the way Dan Quayle is for potato.  Sometimes you remember it for one thing.

In truth Cheney is a very important figure from Ford, Reagan, onwards.  A neocon leader, a major person in Bush's biography, but for the popular imagination, the hunting accident is what people are going to remember. 

MATTHEWS:  That's what Jack Kennedy said when he was president in a private conversation.  I did that book on him.  He said that people only remember for like one thing they do, like Arthur Godfrey, the great old broadcaster, buzzing a radio tower, an airport tower, in Virginia once.  That's all they remember you for. 

What about the journalists like Brian Williams and Anderson Cooper going down there from various networks all showing sympathy, in fact a bit of outrage, about the failure of the government to deliver?  Is that going to be part of the legacy of Katrina? 

BRINKLEY:  Absolutely is.  I mean, Brian Williams went into The Superdome, he was the one that first, using his cell phone, captured the hole in The Superdome roof.  Shepherd Smith, of FOX News was standing on the Gretna Bridge when the Gretna police weren't allowing people to evacuate from the Convention Center. 

Anderson Cooper now has become a household name because of Katrina.  Interestingly enough, Cooper was born in New Orleans, Shepherd Smith from Mississippi.  They had a sensibility to this region and had good contacts.

But many other journalists, NBC, a reporter—or camera man for NBC Tony Zimbato (ph) broke into the Convention Center and filmed it and you guys at NBC have footage of Katrina not shown yet on the air that will be historic documentation of some of some of the things that occurred.  It was too gruesome to even air at the time, but the media is not going to forget what happened down here and they're going to be bringing it up on the one year anniversary, two year anniversary, and I think it maybe a tipping point for Bush's legacy was what occurred during katrina. 

MATTHEWS:  And that was extraordinary.  I though Tony Zimbato, I was at The West Bank with him and what a great character he is.  What a gutsy guy.  Of course I forgot to mention Sherrod Brown. 

So let me ask you about how this thing is going to come down.  You have a lot of elections coming up down there for governor, for mayor, how are they going to shake out in terms of politics of what went wrong? 

BRINKLEY:  Well, Chris, the mayor is the big one here in town now, but we have all these people in diaspora.  You've got a Mayor Nagin who has been largely discredited, most people give him a D for his handling of Katrina and the aftermath, and then the “Chocolate City” remark.  But he's the sitting mayor, people are going to judge him on that. 

He's trying to create a vision for the future, but you have Mitch Landrieu, the lieutenant governor who is going to be running, and you have a man named Ron Foreman, who is the C.E.O. of Audubon Institute, which is the zoo and the aquarium, a very popular businessman, then a Reverend Watson, African-American minister coming from the left, Peggy Wilson, a Republican, former city councilwomen from the right. 

Bottom line is you have a lot of candidates in April, a lot of visions are going to go forward and I believe will probably end up looking like right now it may be headed into a runoff. 

MATTHEWS:  Landrieu and Nagin in the runoff? 

BRINKLEY:  I don't think Nagin.  I think it's Landrieu and Foreman or Landrieu-Nagin.  Landrieu right now is the odds on favorite because he carries the Democratic Party in the state with him.  The sister is in the Senate.  But mainly, the Landrieu family, starting with his Dad, Moon, were real civil rights advocates. 

MATTHEWS:  So they have good support in the Black community.  It's great having you, Doug.  A real New Orleans guy.  Please tell us how your book is doing when it comes out.  We want to read about that.  NBC is very much invested in that effort to try to tell that story down in New Orleans. 

When we come back, a former CIA intelligence officer claims the Bush administration cherry picked information in the runup to the Iraq war.  This is HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Vice President Cheney said last week that he has the authority to declassify intelligence, information like the kind that led to us to war in Iraq.  Now retired Paul Pillar worked at the CIA for 28 years.  From 2000 to 2005, he was in charge of coordinating the entire intelligence community's assessment of Iraq.  He recently wrote that the Bush administration cherry-picked intelligence before the war to support the decision they had already made to go there. 

We asked the CIA for comment today and a spokesperson told us, “Mr.

Pillar is free to express his personal opinions as a private citizen.”  That's nice of them.  Mr. Pillar, thank you very much.  You're now free to speak.  Let me ask you to take a look at this claim by Vice President Cheney in August of 2002 before he went to war.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  But we now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  That was the build-up to war and it was to scare a lot of people in the middle who hadn't decided on the war, that we would face a nuclear attack from Iraq to here on the territory of the United States, if we didn't go to war.  What was that claim based on by the vice president?  What intelligence?

PAUL PILLAR, FMR. DEPUTY CHIEF, CIA COUNTERTERRORIST CENTER:  There was an assortment of human and technical intelligence, mainly human.  But you have to remember, how much was analysis?  That is to say, inference.  We really didn't know anything.  If you take the vice president's statement after the word “know,” then that was the judgment, mistaken as it turned out, of the intelligence community.

MATTHEWS:  How much of this was just put together by people who wanted us to go to war?  The Iraqi National Congress, Chalabi, who's now going to be oil minister over there.  They just wanted their country back.

PILLAR:  I wouldn't put too much emphasis on that, Chris.  I mean, all the analysts around town were reading all of the available information and Chalabi and the INC people had an angle.  But most of the difficulties in the intelligence, the errors that were highlighted in the Silberman-Robb Commission, went well beyond just the INC and Chalabi's people.

MATTHEWS:  Bottom line, do you believe there was a nuclear threat from Saddam before we went to war?

PILLAR:  I believe and the community believed that he was in the process of reconstituting a nuclear weapons program.  The judgment was that Iran—or Iraq rather, was probably several years away from that.  The vice president in a separate statement that he made, a major speech in August 2002, basically disagreed with that by saying he thought that they would get nuclear weapons fairly soon.  That was not the community's decision.

MATTHEWS:  What about the lingo that came out of the then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice when she said if you wait for a smoking gun, you'll get a mushroom cloud.  Was that a fair assessment of the immediacy of the threat?

PILLAR:  Well that's rhetoric.  As I said, the judgment of the community was the program was being reconstituted, which turned out to be an erroneous judgment.  But erroneous or not, it was probably, Iraq was probably still several years away from having a weapon.

MATTHEWS:  OK, let's take a look at another claim.  A warning, rather, from the vice president, also given before the war in December 2001, right after 9/11.  Here he is, the vice president talking about a connection between Iraq and al Qaeda.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHENEY:  It's been pretty well confirmed that he did go to Prague and he did meet with the senior official of the Iraqi Intelligence Service.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  There's the vice president saying, Mohammed Atta, the lead killer on 9/11, having met with an intelligence officer of the Iraqi government, the March of 2001, before the attack on the United States.  Is that accurate?  Was there any grounding in that?

PILLAR:  It was never confirmed and in the subsequent investigation of that particular lead, shall we say, it did not pan out at all.  Now the judgment of the FBI and the community and the 9/11 Commission, no such meeting took place.

MATTHEWS:  And by the way, although we saw that tape, and he truly did make that claim on tape, as we saw, the vice president subsequently denied that having ever made that statement.  Let's take a look at another one.  Here's how Cheney thought we would be greeted, our forces once they arrived in Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHENEY:  I think things have gotten so bad inside Iraq from the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will in fact be greeted as liberators.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Was that your best intelligence, that there wouldn't be an insurgency?

PILLAR:  The judgment of the intelligence community, and this is very much a judgment, since you're talking about trying to anticipate a future, was that the view toward the foreign occupation forces would depend above all on how successful they were in those first few weeks and months after invading Iraq, in restoring and establishing safety, security, a growing economy.

Of course, we did not succeed in doing that.  And our anticipation was, if we did not succeed in doing that, that the foreign troops, that is to say, U.S. coalition forces would be seen as occupiers and would be seen as adversaries.  And part of the response could take the form of guerrilla warfare.

MATTHEWS:  Did you expect the Sunni population, which had benefited from the regime of Saddam Hussein, to resist our occupation?

PILLAR:  We certainly expected and highlighted in prewar intelligence community assessments, that the sectarian and ethnic splits among the Sunni, the Shia, the Kurds, were deep rooted.  They were intense.  And that the process of trying to turn Iraq into a stable and unified democracy partly for that reason, would be long and difficult and turbulent.  And if an occupying force weren't sitting on it, civil war would be a possibility.

MATTHEWS:  Has there ever been a country that's allowed itself to be overtaken, to be occupied without some kind of nationalistic resistance?

PILLAR:  That is always the natural tendency.

MATTHEWS:  Why didn't we predict it?

PILLAR:  Well in the community assessments I talked about we—well, I eschew the word prediction, since so much would depend on what the United States itself did.  Certainly the clear anticipation of the community was that Iraq was no different from, indeed at least as good an example of what you just mentioned.

MATTHEWS:  Well people like me predicted it based upon history.  We didn't have all the intelligence needed.

PILLAR:  Good for you.

MATTHEWS:  I'm sorry, I think you may have well, too.  Let me ask you, with all this, putting it all together, the three big cases for war, it would be relatively smooth.  In fact, a slam-dunk effort to cake walk as it was said to be, that there was going to be a nuclear threat if we didn't act.  And of course there was some connection to 9/11.  Putting it all together, was that a firm basis for going to war?

PILLAR:  I don't believe so.  So much attention was given to the weapons of mass destruction given the judgments of the community, that we were still at least several years away from the most important thing, a nuclear weapon.  I don't think the urgency was there.  And although there, as the president and others have rightly said, there was a very widespread misperception about the state of not just nuclear weapons, but other weapons of mass destruction program.

That other issue that you touched on, relationship with al Qaeda or alleged relationship, was much more of a manufactured issue.  There really wasn't anything there that the intelligence community saw that remotely resembled an alliance or something that they expected to become an alliance.

MATTHEWS:  Were these elements we talked about, the nuclear case, the connection to 9/11, were they basically—were they the reason for going to war with Iraq or were they the sales pitch?

PILLAR:  Well I think we've had some statements from the likes of Mr.  Wolfowitz and Mr. Feith that they were not necessarily a real reason to go to war.  I personally believe, and trying to just look at this as a student of American politics and looking at what some of the decisionmakers had written before, that the main reason for going to war was the desire to shake up the politics of the Middle East.  And the hope that Iraq with this change force of the military invasion would bring about big change not just in Iraq but elsewhere in the region.  I think that was the main reason.

MATTHEWS:  Why didn't they admit it?

PILLAR:  Because that was a lot harder to sell to the American public than the specter of mushroom clouds or dictatorial regimes giving weapons of mass destruction to terrorists.  I mean, that has a resonance, a rhetorical value, that political sciencey type theories about political change do not.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much.  Everything you have said I thought was happening, and I'm glad to hear it really did.  I like to be right once in awhile.  Thank you very much, Paul Pillar.  Join us again tomorrow night at 5:30 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.

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