updated 3/24/2006 10:38:52 AM ET 2006-03-24T15:38:52

Guests: Ben Ginsberg, Bob Shrum, Kent Taylor, Gayle Taylor, Tony Perkins, Harold Ford Jr., Howard Fineman

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, “HARDBALL”:  Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?  The old Groucho Marx gag is now a pro-Bush applause line.  Does America believe the pictures of hell in Iraq or do we think there’s a nicer picture the media is keeping from us?  Let’s play HARDBALL.

(MUSIC)

Good evening.  I’m Chris Matthews, and welcome to HARDBALL.

For almost a week, President Bush has been on an aggressive campaign to win back the hearts and minds of the American people.  Polls show he has his work cut out for him, with most Americans now rapidly losing confidence in his ability to lead this country in a time of war. 

Iraq remains a dark cloud that follows the president wherever he goes.  This week, he seemed determined to reverse a fate that seems all but inevitable. 

Wednesday, President Bush held a town hall meeting with military families, taking questions from the audience.  Later, you’ll meet a woman who seized the moment on a national stage to criticize the media on its coverage of the war in Iraq. 

And later, several stark events this week remind us of the deep cultural and religious rifts between the Middle East and the West.  Does an Afghan man really risk execution for converting to Christianity?

But first, HARDBALL’s David Shuster has this report on the attacks against the media coverage of the war in Iraq. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Pleased by the recent attacks on media coverage of the Iraq war, the president and his staff now face a new dilemma:  how to keep shooting at the press without being caught with the gun.  Today, White House spokesman Scott McClellan was careful. 

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  There are horrific images of violence that we see on our TV screens.  Those are newsworthy items to cover, and we have made that clear repeatedly.

But there’s more to the situation on the ground, and if you’re going to have a complete picture, it’s important to look at the progress that’s being made.  There’s real violence that is occurring, and the situation remains tense, but there’s also real progress that is being made toward victory. 

SHUSTER:  Privately, White House officials and supporters believe they can rally the president’s base with media critiques like this. 

KENT TAYLOR, ARMY NATIONAL GUARD:  There’s more going on than what people know.  The average person in this country doesn’t have a complete picture of what’s really happening. 

SHUSTER:  Kent Taylor served in the Army in Iraq; it was his wife on Wednesday who made this high-profile statement in front of the president. 

GAYLE TAYLOR, WIFE OF ARMY NATIONAL GUARDSMAN:  ... because it seems that our major media networks don’t want to portray the good.  They just want to focus...

SHUSTER:  President Bush kicked off the theme earlier this week, when he said that American television organizations, by showing the stepped-up violence in Iraq, play into the hands of insurgents. 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  They’re capable of blowing up innocent life so it ends up on your TV show.  

SHUSTER:  This was the same news conference where the president, for the first time in four years, took a question from the feisty columnist and war critic, Helen Thomas. 

BUSH:  Excuse me.  Excuse me.  No president wants war.  Everything you may have heard is that, but it’s just simply not true. 

SHUSTER:  Conservatives seized the opportunity to label Thomas and her colleagues as rude.  Meanwhile, talk show host Laura Ingraham targeted the coverage in Iraq by NBC News. 

LAURA INGRAHAM, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  To do a show from Iraq means to talk to the Iraqi military, to go out with the Iraqi military, to actually have a conversation with the people, instead of reporting from hotel balconies about the latest IEDs going off. 

SHUSTER:  Reporters did cover some violence this week from a balcony, because a bombing and shootout happened directly in front of their hotel.  And several news networks have done shows with the Iraqi military and have seen action.  Just in the last week, correspondents in Baghdad interviewed Iraqi officials, visited hospitals, playgrounds, and Iraqi homes.  All of this comes in the midst of an increasingly dangerous environment. 

Targeting the news media, though, has been tried before, and sometimes the strategy works.  In 1988, George H.W. Bush inoculated his presidential campaign from the Iran-Contra scandal when he turned the tables on an aggressive Dan Rather. 

GEORGE H.W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  It’s not fair to judge my whole career by a rehash on Iran.  How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York? 

SHUSTER:  In 1973 in the midst of Watergate, President Nixon repeatedly portrayed the media as unfair or worse, and when asked about impeachment... 

RICHARD NIXON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Well, I’m glad we don’t take the vote of this room, let me say.

SHUSTER:  For President Bush, whose approval ratings are lower than any president since Nixon, it may be a tough sell to argue that the media is not giving the president’s war a fair shake. 

(on camera):  And that’s because polls show the public trusts the media more than President Bush to give an accurate picture about Iraq.  Still, the press is back in the cross-hairs.  And this administration, which is trying to turn around perceptions about the war, now finds itself in the position of hoping the public blames the messenger instead of the president for the bad news that keeps coming. 

I’m David Shuster for HARDBALL, at the White House.

(END VIDEOTAPE)  

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, David Shuster. 

Kent and Gayle Taylor, who you just saw in David Shuster’s report, join us now.  Gayle Taylor criticized media coverage of the war in Iraq at the president’s town hall meeting with military families just yesterday.  Her husband, Warrant Officer Kent Taylor, served in Iraq for a year with the Army National Guard’s mobile public affairs detachment from Ohio and was a broadcast journalist for the Army National Guard. 

Welcome to you, both. 

I have to start with Gayle.  What moved you to make that very strong statement at the meeting yesterday with the president? 

G. TAYLOR:  I was moved to make that comment with the president because I have been on both sides of this, and I have firsthand knowledge that things aren’t as bad as what has been portrayed. 

And I am in no way saying that things aren’t bad; I am in no way saying that things don’t get edgy.  We are in a war, but I also know that there is so much good coming out that does not get shown. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask Kent.  Thank you, sir, for serving for our country.  And I mean that.

K. TAYLOR:  It’s an honor. 

MATTHEWS:  I mean that a lot.  That’s a lot of guts to go over there, no matter in what capacity.  And it’s gutsy for reporters to go over there. 

I want you to give me now an account of your experiences over there with reporters, when you took them around to dangerous places, and you showed them what was going on positively, and they also saw the negative, what was your—give us an account of what was that like?

K. TAYLOR:  Well, as a member of the 196 Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, there were 20 of us.  And part of our mission was to escort media.  And when we were supporting the First Infantry Division, we had a very good relationship with reporters. 

If they needed to go somewhere, we would arrange transportation for

them, through either Army helicopters or vehicles.  If they were embedded -

although we knew our mission wasn’t primarily to support them—every commander, every patrol commander knew that the media was there, that, if things were happening, they made arrangements, said, “This is what we’re going to do, this is what we need you to do, and this is how we’re all going to get through this safely.” 

Our relationship was really a very good thing over there.  My experience—I had privilege of going out to different locations and finding stories, just by talking to Iraqi people, or to the soldiers and airmen, Navy, sailors and airmen, Marines, who were doing their job. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.

K. TAYLOR:  There was a story I did with the Ohio engineers—or the engineers from Ohio and the Marine Corps engineers, building...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  But, Sergeant, that’s been going on for a long time, in World War II and in Korea.  Guys I’ve known have had jobs, even in peacetime, to make sure good stories about the personnel serving overseas and what they’re up to, the good work they’re doing. 

That’s a normal role for a PIO, a public information officer, for one of the services, isn’t it?

K. TAYLOR:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Is that the job of the commercial media, as you see it?  Should somebody on NBC, or CBS, or ABC, or FOX, should that be their job to do what you’re describing? 

K. TAYLOR:  I believe that the commercial media, as you’re describing, has an obligation to report everything that’s going on in a truthful way, no spin, no political decisiveness.  I believe that just a small part of what’s going on and repeatedly reporting that as the only thing going on, I believe, that that scares families; it’s a disservice to our service members. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think there’s a political motive or a career motive behind that?  What is the motive for what you see as distorted reporting? 

K. TAYLOR:  In some aspects, I believe there could very well be a political motive.  I know, for a fact, that there are members of the media who are bitterly opposed to our president, the Christian values that he believes in, the decisions he makes, and even the party he stands for.  I knew that was also...

MATTHEWS:  Did you hear that firsthand from any reporter who you toured around with? 

K. TAYLOR:  Oh, nobody’s going to say that, and...

MATTHEWS:  Well, how do you know it? 

(CROSSTALK)

K. TAYLOR:  ... the record.  Well, I’ve talked to people.  I’ve watched TV.  I watch news a lot.  I enjoy the news most of the time. 

MATTHEWS:  But from your firsthand experience in the field, have you got any evidence of any reporter having a secret agenda to hurt the president, who doesn’t share your and his Christian values?  Any evidence of that? 

K. TAYLOR:  Not specifically details, but, again, I know that it’s apparent. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, any evidence of any kind, any anecdotal stories you could tell of a reporter making a wise-guy comment or an anti-Bush slur? 

G. TAYLOR:  On the nightly news. 

MATTHEWS:  No, I’m talking about your experience in the field, sir. 

K. TAYLOR:  I can’t say that I did, because when we were over there in Iraq, we talked about hometowns; we talked about families; we talked about doing our job; we talked about the potential in Iraq for the people who have, for centuries, known nothing by tyranny...

MATTHEWS:  Right.

K. TAYLOR:  ... and the freedom that they could have...

MATTHEWS:  So your firsthand’s experience, Kent, are that reporters sort of share your attitudes and your values? 

K. TAYLOR:  My firsthand experience also was with the people here in this country who I have talked to when I got back, saying—I let them know that I was a broadcast journalist over there, and I saw things that the nightly news did not report very much of.  And almost every one of them was in agreement; they need to see and want to see better things coming out. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, so you’re reporting now on what people in America want to see. 

K. TAYLOR:  Well, I’m not in the media business anymore. 

MATTHEWS:  No, but you’re just recounting to me what your friends at home are saying they’d like to see on the nightly news rather than what they’re seeing.  It’s a point of view.  It’s fair enough, but it is, in fact, an account of what people...

K. TAYLOR:  Well, yes, and 2,000 people at the music hall gave Gayle a standing ovation when she asked that very simple question, so obviously there’s a significant number of people that agree with her idea that we need to see the good things. 

MATTHEWS:  For sure, I agree.  I agree.

K. TAYLOR:  And if that many people would do a standing ovation...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  That’s a legitimate sentiment. 

Let me go back to Gayle.  The sentiment you have, as a wife, as a spouse of someone who served over there courageously, I can only assume, being the fact that everybody is getting blown up in different places over there, Gayle, tell me what moved you?  Was it the feeling of your fellow community members back in Ohio or was it something you knew from Kent?  What was it that made you—it’s very courageous to stand up and face the president. 

G. TAYLOR:  I think, to answer your question, it was from both aspects.  I know people that served with my husband.  We’ve had discussions; we’ve had discussions just in our private circles, as far as friends that I have, organizations, jobs, things of that nature.

And, you know, when I posed that question, I wasn’t doing it for any other reason than I’m very serious about this.  I think that there are problems there.  I think that the reporters that are embedded in Iraq are doing a fabulous job.  I am not criticizing them.  I’m not trying to be critical; I’m just asking for more balance.  That’s all we need.

MATTHEWS:  Do you believe that the war—do you believe, Gayle, based upon your conversations with your husband—because obviously your sentiments are powerful here—do you believe the war is going better than it’s being reported?  In other words, there’s a good likely we’ll have a stable government over there in a couple of years, that we’ll be able to come home?

G. TAYLOR:  I can’t say a couple of years, but, yes, to answer your question, I absolutely do believe in our effort that’s being put forth. 

MATTHEWS:  No, but do you believe it’s going better than it’s being reported, not what you believe in?

G. TAYLOR:  Yes, I do. 

MATTHEWS:  Why do you believe that?  Why do you think we’re going to have a better outcome than that’s being reported? 

G. TAYLOR:  Because I am a part of a military family, and I have information from the military and from conversations that we have that isn’t reported. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, I want to go—we only have a minute, Kent.  I want you to tell us, if you can, within the rights you have as a service person, what’s going on over there that makes the war more likely to end with a good result for us than it’s getting reported? 

K. TAYLOR:  Most of the Iraqi people are simple, family people.  They want the best for their children; they want to be able to provide; they want their kids to get educated; they want medicine; they want to be able to have freedom that they’ve never had.

And a great number of the people I talked to that live there and have experienced the regime are certainly in favor of all the good things that every service member is doing over there. 

MATTHEWS:  Are they going to fight for the side for peace and for the majority rule, or are they going to stand back and...

K. TAYLOR:  Well, certainly.  Certainly.  I mean, you report on the suicide bombers that goes up to a line of people standing at a police station looking for jobs.  The bomb goes off, the incident is cleared, and they get right back in line to go to work for the police. 

They get right back in line to join the military.  Our base in Tikrit had a training facility for the Iraqi National Guard.  That’s what they were called at that time.  And I talked to a lot of them, and they were so thrilled that they could serve their country and bring freedom to their family and choice that we’ve had. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Last question:  Will we win this war, Kent? 

K. TAYLOR:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Gayle? 

G. TAYLOR:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much.  You’re great Americans.  Thanks for coming on HARDBALL.

G. TAYLOR:  Thank you.

K. TAYLOR:  Thank you.

MATTHEWS:  Gayle and Kent Taylor.  Is the media getting the story right in Iraq and will President Bush’s blame-the-press strategy take the heat off him and his team?  We’ll be joined by Ben Ginsberg and Bob Shrum. 

And later, being a Christian a crime?  An Afghan man could face the death penalty, potentially, for converting to Christianity under Islamic law.  That is a capital crime.  Is this the democracy Americans were fighting for?  You’re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

So has President Bush’s town meetings and press conferences moved the public’s view of the war in Iraq?  I’m joined now by Ben Ginsberg, who was counsel to the Bush-Cheney campaign back in that successful re-election, from Ohio, by the way. 

You owe that state your re-election.

And Bob Shrum is a HARDBALL political analyst. 

You hard-hearted Bob Shrum.  I thought those people were salt of the earth.  I thought they were great Americans, whatever their politics.  I thought they were very effective in making a case.  What do you think, Bob? 

BOB SHRUM, HARDBALL POLITICAL ANALYST:  I don’t think they made much of a case about what’s actually happening on the ground in Iraq.  This is a strategy that’s always adopted when people are in trouble. 

I mean, this happened during the Vietnam War.  William Westmoreland complained about it, and said reporters didn’t understand that there was light at the end of the tunnel, and then came the Tet Offensive. 

What’s happening here, as we hear from our own former prime minister that we helped choose in Iraq, is that there’s a full-scale civil war under way in that country, and that’s the real problem; the bombs and the bullets are more powerful than reassuring speeches. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me get to the point here.  You pick up on this, Ben.  People watch television, and they are taken by violence.  Let’s face it:  A lot of people like violence in the movies, let alone violence the news.  It is the most compelling fact of our life. 

When a semi turns upside-down on the Beltway out here in Washington, it’s news.  If somebody gets home safely to their family, that’s not news.  That’s what news is; it’s bad news. 

How do you get the reporters to say, “I’m covering a war, but meanwhile there’s a hospital being built here, meanwhile we’re passing out medicines”? 

BEN GINSBERG, FMR. BUSH-CHENEY ‘04 COUNSEL:  Well, how you get reporters to do it is different from the essential question of:  Should they be doing it?

MATTHEWS:  Well, is it part of the war story, is the key question? 

GINSBERG:  Both are part of the war story.  I mean, I think what Scott McClellan said today is absolutely right.  The violence is part of what’s going on there, but what’s not being reported enough, according to the administration and people on the ground, is the good news parts of improvement. 

It is a tough process to bring democracy to a country, especially one that was ruled by somebody like Saddam Hussein for so many years, and it is a terrible price to pay. 

MATTHEWS:  When is media, or the news media, or news reels from the old days in the movies once a week, since when has anybody covered the soft side of a war?  They’ve always covered the hard, dangerous side, haven’t they? 

GINSBERG:  Well, this is a little bit of a different war. 

MATTHEWS:  I mean, did Lowell Thomas cover—I mean, did Ernie Pyle focus—actually, Ernie Pyle did focus on the individual soldier.  But the war news that came home to us in World War II when we were fighting Japan and Germany, the war news was always about, you know, who won the Battle of Midway, who lost Tobruk, who lost Singapore, who won at Normandy.  Isn’t that always the story?

GINSBERG:  Well, that doesn’t mean that’s always all of the story.  And now, when you have more voices out there who can look at a story and communicate, thanks to the Internet and the other means, you know that there are other aspects to the story.  And the point is, they’re not being told adequately in this story.

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me go to Bob.  This is the question of politics where you guys are on because you’re not because you’re military experts, but I’m sure you are.  It’s because you know something about politics, and I’m going to ask you a simple question.

In the past, presidents have tried blaming the media.  I think it’s a dangerous game because the media are always there and making it personal doesn’t help, and I think everybody over there who is risking their life—and we’ve lost 80 lives, foreign correspondents, altogether in that war scene.

It’s a dangerous war to cover for the same reason it’s hard to cover these human interest stories, because you have to go out street by street, and you can’t go door to door like David Broder, a political reporter, and interview people.  You got to go embedded with the military to save your life, because they’re gunning for us over there.  How do you get the full story, if there’s a full story? 

SHRUM:  Well, look, the administration seems to want the news editors from the networks to move their editing desks into the White House.  I don’t believe that’s going to happen.  The real problem here is that the facts on the ground have been miscited again and again and again by this administration. 

MATTHEWS:  Give me an example.

SHRUM:  For mission accomplished, mission accomplished.  Everything was fine.  Then we had the first election, everything was fine.  Then we had an election in January, we were going to form a stable government. 

MATTHEWS:  But those are all true statements though, Bob.  Everything you’ve said that the administration said—there were elections, there were people who showed up.  Even the Sunnis showed up. 

SHRUM:  Right, I agree with that.

MATTHEWS:  That’s all true. 

SHRUM:  Right, but what I’m saying is, this was cited time and again as he evidence that there was significant progress, and that the United States was actually succeeding in this endeavor.  It is then followed by something like the incredible wave of violence that erupted in Iraq, just a month ago, and people see that on television.  Now it’s not fair to the news media because actually they report both. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me lay on something that’s tough here.  I’m not going to get tough here, Ben. 

(CROSSTALK)

GINSBERG:  You notice that Bob is chuckling when you say that. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Jessica Lynch was portrayed as an amazing hero, an incredible “G.I. Jane” kind of person.  It turns out that incident she was involved in wasn’t quite as heroic.  Pat Tillman was portrayed as a victim of enemy shooting.  He was shot by the enemy. 

Those stories turned out to be very different on reporting.  The reporting showed they were very different.  But the PIOs in the military aren’t going to tell us about those stories.  You have got to get it from hard nose reporters who question.

We’re not allowed to show pictures of the bodies coming back at Dover, Delaware.  For the administration to say they want the whole stories told, shouldn’t they show the story of people being killed in that war? 

Are they honest when they say I want the whole truth and nothing but when they say this?  Does the president now want to direct our cameras into Dover, Delaware, to show the 2,500 guys who are dead coming in the door?  Does he want us to show that, the whole story?  How come he doesn’t let us?   

GINSBERG:  Glad we’re onto talk about politics, instead of being military experts.  

MATTHEWS:  No, this is a P.R. question.

GINSBERG:  It’s a serious question that you raise.  The point is, is that the progress that’s being made in Iraq is not being adequately shown.  You can take, as the news media, the issue of whether you should be allowed to show the bodies in Dover, Delaware, but that’s ...

MATTHEWS:  No, also tell the whole story of when these military stories are put together by public information officers over there, telling us that Jessica Lynch is some incredible—she probably is an incredible person, but building the story beyond reality, saying that Pat Tillman was killed by enemy fire.  There’s—reporting plays a tough role and reporters are not going to be popular, but they do straighten out stories occasionally. 

GINSBERG:  Well, and neither are presidents who takes stands they believe in, then turned out to be unpopular wars but are still the right thing to do.  Now what you’re asking are questions about how to essentially micromanage the P.R. aspects of that war. 

You have a legitimate point if you want to question certain stories and were they portrayed accurately.  I think with both Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman, you also had part of the fog of war involved and a desire to, indeed, portray both of them ...

MATTHEWS:  Find heroes.

GINSBERG:  Find heroes—sure, absolutely.

MATTHEWS:  Fair enough. 

GINSBERG:  Which is also a traditional part of war. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Fair enough.  We’ll be right back with Ben Ginsberg and Bob Shrum.  You’re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We’re back with Ben Ginsberg, a former Bush/Cheney counsel, and HARDBALL political analyst Bob Shrum. 

Bob, you first.  Let’s talk about how everything here that we’re talking about is affecting the polling, and how it’s affecting the likelihood of a Democratic takeover of Congress this year.  Where do you see it?

SHRUM:  Well, I think the Democrats will take the House and do better in the Senate than most people assume right now.  I think the country does want to move on.  I think the election is going to be a referendum on Bush, but the problem here isn’t just Iraq and the president can’t fix it just by talking about Iraq. 

He is now being criticized after Katrina, after the Dubai ports deal, by people on the right as well as the left, and the word that’s being used over and over again is incompetence.  Fundamentally, I think the Bush presidency is over.  They’re not going to pass a single other major domestic initiative while he’s president. 

MATTHEWS:  What happens if he spends the last months of this campaign after the summer is over, and when people are beginning to pay attention, regular people who are non-political, and all of a sudden they watch the president going from state to state blasting away at the Democrats saying hey, if you guys get in power, all you guys want to do is censure me or waste our time with some other partisan activity.  And, you know, we’re going from the frying pan if to the fire with your crowd.  What happens if the topic becomes the Democrats? 

SHRUM:  Well, first of all, I think Democrats are going to go out there and make it clear that we don’t want to impeach or censure the president. 

MATTHEWS:  They haven’t done it so far, Bob.

SHRUM:  I will be happy—I will be happy or I would be happy if I had enough money, to pay for him to go around and campaign in the country.  I will bet you that George W. Bush appears in more Democratic commercials than he does in Republican commercials in 2006. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Ben, what’s the plan?  Are you going to hold the House?

GINSBERG:  The plan is—we’re going to hold the House, the president fights the war on terror, the Democrats look, sort of taking Bob’s talking points, like they’re trying to win the next election.  There’s substance, a man of principle who fights for something, who he believes, and then there’s all the political tactics that are going on on the Democratic side. 

(CROSSTALK)

SHRUM:  Don’t blame me for talking about the election when Chris asked about it.  I actually think on the merits the Iraq war was wrong and Chris was one of the people who, at the very beginning, one of the few who was smart enough to see it. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, I saw the problems.  Anyway, thank you Ben Ginsberg, and thank you for that advertisement for action, Bob Shrum. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  An Afghan man could face the penalty under Islamic law, for what?  For converting to Christianity.  I guess a lot of us would be in trouble over there.  Anyway, is this the kind of democracy Americans are fighting for, dying for?

You’re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(STOCK MARKET REPORT)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  This week, several reminders of the deep religious and cultural rifts between the West and the Middle East.  Three Christian peace activists taken hostage in Iraq were just released. 

That’s good news. 

Meanwhile, Christian activists around the country are rallying around an Afghan man who could potentially face execution under Sharia law, that’s Islamic law, for converting from Islam to Christianity.  Two days ago, the State Department said the case was a matter for Afghan authorities, but yesterday President Bush said the U.S. needs to act.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH:  We have got influence in Afghanistan, and we are going to use it to remind them that there are universal values.  It is deeply troubling that a country we help liberate is—would hold a person to account because they chose a particular religion over another. 

We can solve this problem by working closely with the government that we’ve got contacts with and will.  We’ll deal with this issue diplomatically and remind people that there is something as universal as being able to choose religion.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Here to tackle these epic religious conflicts is the president of the Family Research Council, Tony Perkins.  Thank you, Tony, for joining us again.  What does this tell us about Islam, that they could have a precept that you must be killed if you convert to another religion?

TONY PERKINS, PRESIDENT, FAMILY RESEARCH COUNCIL:  I think it challenges us in our attempts to replace one regime with another.  I mean, you cannot have democracy unless you have the very fundamental aspect of religious freedom.  And I think this is questioning whether or not how successful we will be unless we can ensure these most basic of human rights.

MATTHEWS:  Well that’s the key question.  We are a liberating country, we’re told, we’re liberating Afghanistan.  We put if Karzai, who seems like a wonderful man, a Victor Laszlo right out of “Casablanca,” a real hero.

And yet we’re told that sometime after the Constitution was ratified, it was amended to throw back in this deferral to Islamic law that included this duty perhaps to execute someone for switching religions.  I mean, that says a lot about the culture we’re dealing with, doesn’t it?

PERKINS:  Well I think it does, but I think more than all of these issues of clash between religions, I think you’re right at it.  This clash of civilizations, and it’s—it’s much more difficult than I think we envisioned of taking democracy that we’ve enjoyed and transposing that to these troubled regions of the world.  But, I’ll have to say again, democracy is critically important to be successful, that it must have the most basic of human rights.  Now I...

MATTHEWS:  ... What happens if the majority of the people, you say democracy—we throw that term around.  But that means majority rule.  You say democracy will save us from tyranny and maybe it will.

But it doesn’t save us from the denial of human rights as we know them because a majority of people in Afghanistan may well believe that someone who gives up their religion should be executed and then where are we at?  Then where are we?

PERKINS:  Yes, I’m not sure that they do.  I think those that may be in charge of the regime may.  But I think what we had there was we had an oppressed people.  We went over to relieve them of their oppression, set up another administration, another regime, it appears now that is just as hostile to religious freedoms or just as hostile to human rights. 

We bear responsibility for that.  And what is concerning, Chris, about this, is that their constitution and the wording of giving deference to Sharia law is very similar to what is in the Iraqi constitution. 

Let me be clear, I served in the Marine Corps, I re-enlisted for the first Gulf War, but I would say that the resolve of the American people will not long stand if they know that they’re giving their sons and daughters to die for just changing the names of regimes and that kill Christians and those who want religious freedom.

MATTHEWS:  You know, Tony, this is a great country.  I live about two blocks from a big circle, Chevy Chase Circle, right on the border with D.C.  and you have a Catholic church, a Presbyterian church, I think we have a Baptist church, you have an—all around the circle.  It’s like they all joined together to show some sort of communion and you can choose and people seeing each other going to different services wave to each other.  I mean, this is America.  Can we sell America?

PERKINS:  Well, I think that it—I’m not saying that Islam cannot be compatible with other religious freedom.  I mean, Turkey, it’s a more secular in its approach to Islam, but there’s more freedom in that country. 

I think it is much more difficult, I think we’re a little naive in thinking that we can easily transport the concepts of democracy to these troubled regions of the country that are dominated by Islam.  Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, by I think we should use every influence we can to make sure that in this case, of this gentleman Abdul, I think he represents many, many more like him that are being persecuted for their religious faith, whether it be Christian, Jewish, or another religion.

MATTHEWS:  What do you think of Hillary Clinton, Senator Clinton from New York, talking about it being un-Christian, not to give aid to punish a person for aiding an illegal immigrant in this country?

PERKINS:  Well, first off, I think we have—No. 1, they call it illegal immigration because it’s illegal.

MATTHEWS:  Right, it’s definitional.

PERKINS:  That’s true.  I don’t think churches should be put in that position.  They wouldn’t be if the government did more to enforce the laws on immigration.  I think what you have here, I guess I hope you have, is Hillary acknowledging one, that churches, faith-based organizations have a role to play.  And two, the government hasn’t done its response—hasn’t done due diligence in its responsibilities.

MATTHEWS:  I think you’re being kind to Hillary.  I haven’t heard her come out against illegal immigration.  She says she’s against mistreatment of illegal aliens.

PERKINS:  That’s what I’m saying.  If she’s acknowledging that the churches are being put into this position, then she would realize—she must be acknowledging that the government hasn’t done its job to pursue illegal activity in terms of immigration.  That’s all.

MATTHEWS:  Well, we’ve got an immigration bill moving to the Senate.  We’ll see how she votes.  It’ll all be transparent.  Thank you very much, Tony Perkins.

PERKINS:  I hope she practices what she preaches. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, we’ll see in everyone’s case in that regard. 

Anyway, up next, can the Democrats win back control in Congress?  We’ll go inside a hot Congress race in Tennessee with the Democratic contender, Congressman Harold Ford. 

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  There’s a hot race brewing in Tennessee for Bill Frist’s Senate seat.  He’s retiring and Democratic Congressman Harold Ford Jr. is hoping he can shift the political tide in that state that currently has two Republican senators, and help send President Bush to the White House. 

I recently talked with the Ninth District Congressman in his hometown of Memphis. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Gentleman from Tennessee is recognized. 

REP. HAROLD FORD JR. (D), TENNESSEE:  Thank you, Mr. Conyers, and Mr.

Speaker. 

MATTHEWS (voice-over):  There has been a Tennessee Ford in Congress for over three decades.  Harold Ford Sr. served the Ninth District that includes greater Memphis for 22 years.  His son, Harold Ford Jr. won his dad’s Congressional seat in 1996, while still in law school, at the age of 26. 

Now in his fifth term, the popular Democratic has higher aspirations. 

Today he’s setting his sights on Bill Frist’s Senate seat in November.  Frist, who was eyeing the White House in 2008, is not running for reelection in Tennessee. 

FORD:  How are you all doing?  Hi, Harold Ford.  Nice to see you.

MATTHEWS:  I recently caught up with the charismatic 35-year-old Congressman at his favorite watering hole in Memphis.  He’s a smart and handsome, Generation X, African-American who describes himself as moderate on social issues and fiscally conservative.  His political foes call him Fancy Ford, claiming on their Web site that he lives a glittery lifestyle with contributor money. 

But he certainly is a celebrity in these parts.  He says all this goodwill has him ready for the battle of winning a Senate seat in Tennessee, a state that currently has two Republican senators, a state which overwhelmingly voted for Bush over Kerry in the last presidential election, and a state that all but forgot Al Gore in 2000. 

MATTHEWS (on camera):  So Congressman, why are you running for the Senate? 

FORD:  The country is facing probably its biggest set of challenges that my generation has ever seen, from fighting two wars at one time, trying to reclaim our moral authority, combined with the fact we have got to get off of all of this Middle East oil and find new energy sources, balance our budget, and help students like these here from the University of Memphis and students all across the country get better prepared for a world that is changed. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, you and I both know America.  And it’s ethnically conservative.  Let’s put it that way.  It just is.  Do you think you can beat that hurdle? 

FORD:  Yes.  You know, and I’ve got great faith in people in this state and if people decide they want to go to the polls and not vote for me because of something that I was born with, and something that I’m proud of, then I’ve got to live with that. 

God has blessed me and I’ll do something else, but I’ve got great faith that people are going to—not rise above it but look to what I’m talking about.  And my opponents are already trying to raise it.  I mean, shame on the state Republican Party and the national party for some of the code words they’re already using in this campaign. 

MATTHEWS:  Like what? 

FORD:  Just that I’m from Memphis and I’m a liberal from Memphis.

MATTHEWS:  I got you.

FORD:  It’s all code and ... 

MATTHEWS:  Those are permission slips. 

FORD:  Yes, I mean, I know what they’re doing and you know what?  So do the voters. 

MATTHEWS:  What’s the difference between Harold Ford now, you right now sitting here, and who you were when you first came to the House as a young guy?  I mean, what have you learned?  How have you shifted politically, ideologically?

(CROSSTALK)  

FORD:  I mean, I’ve grown up. 

MATTHEWS:  Are you more conservative than you were? 

FORD:  I don’t know.  I don’t know if the word conservative has changed.  When I arrived in Congress, I believed in balanced budgets and I assumed that was a conservative, Republican principle, the way—at least the world I grew up in and the time I grew up. 

And now it appears that seems to be more Democrat than Republican when we look at the size of government.  I like low taxes.  We now live at a time where middle class people pay a higher share of their taxes than billionaires do in the country, so I don’t know if it’s conservative or liberal. 

I just know that politics, I think, over the last nine years, in my little observation, has become more right and wrong than Democrat-Republican.  And I just try my hardest to be on the side of doing what’s right. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you.  I saw you in an ad here the other night on television, hitting the president for the security of the ports, this whole issue of Dubai. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FORD:  President Bush wants to sell this port and five others to the United Arab Emirates, a country that had diplomatic ties with the Taliban, the hope of two 9/11 hijackers, whose banks wired money to the terrorists.  I’m running for the Senate because we shouldn’t outsource our national security to anyone. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Why did you stick your neck out and take a position on that one?

FORD:  Well, the United States Senate—you know as well as all of us, the Congress and the Senate, we vote on these patterns.  And if New York is attacked, we in Memphis and we in Jackson and we in Nashville, we don’t think of that as some distant country, that’s our country.  The purpose of that ad, however, was to say we shouldn’t outsource our security. 

MATTHEWS:  Where do you stand on the tax you have to pay when you die, the death tax?

FORD:  If there’s a way to eliminate it, I want to eliminate it. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, you said you were against millionaires and they

shouldn’t get any special tax breaks, and that’s the ultimate millionaires

... 

FORD:  I think the people that own this bar here, as they pass it on to another generation, should be protected.  We should have an exemption that protects the first $5 million of an asset.  Anything above that should be, I think, taxed at perhaps the capital gains rate.  I think eliminating it altogether is foolish.

MATTHEWS:  From the populist, liberal Democrats who make a lot of noise want to get rid of that or want to keep that tax?

FORD:  I think that may be slightly—a lot of Democrats believe the

blue dog, which I’m a member of, believe you raise the amount that you

protect, and you’ve got to tax some of it.  I mean, I don’t have a lot of -

don’t take this the wrong way, but people worth 150, 200, $250 million, they’re going to be all right. 

I’m worried about this kid paying for his college education and not taking money to give a tax cut to people who have net worths of $200 million or more. 

People trying to pass on an asset like this place here, worked hard, a lot of sweat equity.  A lot of Democrats should be proud of this because I think one of the reasons this bar and small businesses like it do well, because Democratic policies have helped them and we shouldn’t punish people with they pass on...

MATTHEWS:  ... Are there any—I’m trying to find areas where you separate from sort of the classy, 100 percent ADA liberal.

FORD:  One of the great things about being from where I’m from is I think my faith and the role of faith in society is a big thing and it’s hard for me to separate the two.  And wherever you can find instances where people of faith can have an impact in changing things, in improving lives, in touching people’s lives, we should be in the business of doing it.

MATTHEWS:  Do you have a lot of problem with liberals in your base or anti-war people for having authorized the action back in 2003 against Iraq?

FORD:  I think rightly so, everyone has questions.  There’s no doubt.

MATTHEWS:  Do you wish you hadn’t done it?

FORD:  If I knew what I know now, naturally I wouldn’t have done it. 

But I can’t go back and re-live those decisions.  I’ve got to now figure out how we correct what’s been done.  The reality is, I don’t think we can leave Iraq today and it’s because if we do, there’s a country next door to it that would dominate it.  Iran would dominate.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think it’s possible for the United States to be economically independent in that part of the world?

FORD:  Kennedy inspired your generation by saying we’re going to figure out how to get this space, we’re going to organize our talents and resources to do it.  We don’t have a choice but to do this.  If we make the investment in higher education, make the investment in our universities and research centers, I have no doubt that we can accomplish it.  As a matter of fact, we have to.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  That’s Harold Ford Jr., running for the Senate.  And don’t forget, HARDBALL’s coverage of the 2006 midterms and the 2008 presidential race and on fire on your Web site—right now our Web site, hardblogger.MSNBC.com.  And you can cast your vote for your favorite Republican presidential contender in our virtual straw poll.  When we return, “Newsweek’s” Howard Fineman handicaps the 2006 and the 2008 elections.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Will the 2006 election, which is coming up quick, only be about Iraq, or could it be about something else we haven’t thought about?

And with President Bush saying the future presidents are going to have to decide about Iraq, what does that do to the Republicans and Democrats trying to win in 2008? 

Howard Fineman is chief political correspondent for “Newsweek” and an MSNBC political analyst.  So let’s get right down to the short question here.  We just had Harold Ford Jr. on.  I saw you interviewing him down in Tennessee, walking down Beale Street with him, talking to people.  Do you think he’s going to be helped by a national swing?

HOWARD FINEMAN, CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, NEWSWEEK:  He’s going to have to be helped by a national swing if he’s going to win down there.  And that’s what the Democrats are hoping to do. 

They think they benefit from nationalizing, quote on quote, this race, making it a national theme about Democrats, which will have to do with the economy, I think.  It’ll have to do with jobs.  It’ll have to do with cultural issues, perhaps. 

But I’m not sure it’s going to be about the war because what George Bush did at his press conference by essentially taking the topic of withdrawal of troops off the table for this election and the next one is I think dare the Democrats to make withdrawal of troops the centerpiece of their campaign.  And if they have half a brain, they won’t do it.  So I guess I can’t answer the question.

MATTHEWS:  That’s interesting.  In other words, the reason he said—we all thought it was a faux pas, a mistake in saying future presidents will have to decide—in which he’s basically saying we’re going to be stuck over there for a couple more, three more years.  You’re saying by doing that, he’s saying—he laid down the marker and said, “OK, Democrats, let’s fight on that line.”

FINEMAN:  Well he’s trying to take it off the table, I think, because he’s saying the troops are going to remain there.

MATTHEWS:  Unless you beat me.

FINEMAN:  Unless you beat me, so I dare you, make withdrawal of the troops the centerpiece of the ‘06 elections.

MATTHEWS:  At some point, won’t that work for Democrats?

FINEMAN:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  Sooner or later the day will come, that rainy day will come and people will say, “OK, let’s get out now.”

FINEMAN:  Well, it may happen.  It may happen.  That’s why I say, you know, I don’t know what the Democrats are going to do.  They’re going to be tempted.  It depends on what happens in some of these Democratic primaries.  If all these anti-war Vietnam—anti-war Iraq vets win their party’s nominations, if they decide to make it a centerpiece. 

We’ll know it when we see it.  What Bush is trying to do is not run as Tom Cruise anymore, not run as “Top Gun,” because that’s not going to work anymore.  I think he’s trying to run as Jack Bauer on domestic security.

If it’s going to be nationalized on the Republicans terms, they want it about domestic security, about the Patriot Act, about surveillance of terrorists, etc.

MATTHEWS:  Isn’t it wonderful to see how Democrats are so clear cut on issues like abortion rights?  We’re for them.  No complications.  The war in Iraq, well, I don’t know. 

Let me ask you about 2008.  One of the guys that I’m watching is a dark horse and I don’t think he would have passed muster at the Memphis meeting we were covering because it was so culturally conservative, is a guy I believe who would win if we didn’t have political parties.  If we didn’t have a Democratic Party and we didn’t have a Republican Party, we just had a big vote, I think Giuliani would be unstoppable because he’s a big-city guy and he’s a guy that’s dealt with horror and he’s tough on crime and he’s smart and he’s with most people on the social issues.

FINEMAN:  Well I happen to think the way Karl Rove and George Bush are trying to redefine the issue, which is about domestic security—they don’t want to talk about the war, because the war’s a mess.  They want to talk about protecting the homeland.  The natural inheritor of that definition of the presidency...

MATTHEWS:  ... Is Winston Giuliani Churchill.

FINEMAN:  Is the Jack Bauer figure, from “24,” is Rudy Giuliani, the big-city mayor, the crime fighter.  B-U-T- pro-choice, pro-gun control, pro-gay rights, you name it.

MATTHEWS:  Married three times.

FINEMAN:  It may just be too much, plus he’s got a lot of business interests that he’s making a lot of money at.  And there are some people who think he’s doing this as a lost leader, he’s keeping his name in circulation as a lost leader. 

I don’t think so.  I think he’s waiting to see if there’s a moment.

MATTHEWS:  I think he’s waiting to see whether John McCain can make the distance.  If he can’t, he’s going in.  And by the way, he’s the most imperfect candidate by that accounting, I agree, and also the most perfect.  What a wonderful combination.

FINEMAN:  He’s powerful at any audience, Republican, Democrat, otherwise.

MATTHEWS:  Biggest audiences in the country, this guy draws.  Thank you Howard Fineman, I’m scared when we agree.  Join us again tomorrow night at 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern for the HARDBALL Hot-Shots.  It’s always fun on Friday night here. 

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