updated 3/27/2006 10:08:23 AM ET 2006-03-27T15:08:23

Guest: Christopher Hutchens, Al Sharpton, Nicolle Wallace

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST:  Come back kid?  Can George Bush keep selling a war policy to a country already suffering from a trillion dollar case of buyer's remorse?  Let's play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I'm Chris Matthews.  Welcome to HARDBALL.

Tonight, more reminders this week that being president is hard work.  Just as Iraq, Katrina, and the late ports deal pulled the president's numbers to new lows, the threat to behead a Christian in Afghanistan showed how fragile Bush's base is in this critical election year. 

The political crisis seems to be averted, however, as a diplomatic source tells NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell that Abdul Rahman, the Afghan man who faces a possible death sentence for converting from Islam to Christianity, will be released this Monday. 

But, meanwhile, the White House unleashed Vice President Dick Cheney to defend the honor of the president and crushed Democratic critics who questioned his fitness to protect the country. 

Tonight, we'll kick off our weekend, your weekend too, with another round of our Friday night “Hotshots.”  MSNBC's Rita Cosby, Tucker Carlson, and Ron Reagan—they're all in the house for last call.  But first we're joined by White House communications director, Nicolle Wallace. 

Nicolle, thank you for joining us.  You're over there at the beautiful White House, the executive mansion. 

NICOLLE WALLACE, WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR:  Yes, thanks for having me.

MATTHEWS:  It's nice to have you.  When you're in the White House with the team trying to deal with the political challenges facing the president as well as the international problems that he faces, why do you folks on the inside think he's suffering from this high 61 percent disapproval of his Iraq war handling? 

WALLACE:  You know, Chris, the president understands, I think, better than anybody that the country is feeling, I think, the toll of the difficult things we've taken on and the difficulties that we face as a nation.  We're a nation that endured a terrorist attack, we're a nation that is fighting the war on terror on the offense. 

We're a nation that has been through a lot, and he has a great sense and a great intuition about some of the angst that is created.  And I think that's why he feels so compelled to make the case, and to take his case directly to the people, and to travel, and really spend a lot of time talking about the complexity of what we're doing in Iraq and explaining why he feels optimistic.

And I think you're one of the few people who actually spends the time to really explain some of the complex issues and some of the three steps forward, two steps back way that we make progress in Iraq, but it's very important for the president to give the kind of speeches that he's giving now, especially at a time when people need to be reassured that we're making progress. 

MATTHEWS:  Was it intentional on the president's part to say that it would take future presidents to decide on our remaining troops over there, after 2008, which does, of course, suggest that we'll still be involved in a difficult situation beyond this presidency? 

WALLACE:  Well, I think it's always his intention to speak as frankly and honestly as he can, and I think the point he was making was that he will not set any timeline or deadline for our mission in Iraq, that the timetable there is success, so when we are successful, when we have completed the mission, when the Iraqis can protect themselves—this is something you and I have talked about, the progress they're making there.

And they actually were tested during the bombing of the mosque.  You know, last weekend General Casey talked about how they performed generally very good, so we are making progress on all these fronts.  And the president's intention was to speak very honestly about the fact that, you know, we will be there until the job is done and that could fall to other presidents to make that determination. 

MATTHEWS:  I was surprised—well, I wasn't.  I was taken with the fact that today the vice president, who is a tough political guy, said that he was going out to defend the president against charges of incompetence. 

That's an odd tactic to admit the opponent's criticisms and then say I'm going out to challenge them, because it gives a lot of weight, doesn't it, to the charge that the president is incompetent, that his V.P. has to go out and defend the charge.  I find that, again, an odd thing to do.  I'm sorry. 

WALLACE:  Well, you're a Washington insider.  It's an odd charge for a commander-in-chief of a nation at war.  Now to call George Bush incompetent is to essentially indict a military strategy that, in many ways, is dictated by people in the theater, diplomats in the theater, and generals in the theater.

And I think it's an alarmingly reckless charge from the Democrats, and if you look at the messages and the themes that the Democrats are rallying around, that's more odd to me.  They're rallying around an almost boastfulness about killing the Patriot Act.  They're rallying around a platform of immediate redeployment. 

You have got more depth and detail on the Murtha plan for Iraq than I do.  I know you've spent a lot of time questioning him about that.  They're rallying around this charge that the president of the United States of America is incompetent.  He's the leader of a nation at war. 

They're rallying around the Feingold plan to censure the president for listening to conversations overseas with terrorists, a program that, in fact, not a single Democrat has suggested we halt.  So I think their tactics are proving a little more strange than anything coming out of this side. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, is your concern that the White House and the Communications Office, which you direct—that these charges of incompetence are reaching into the voters' vocabulary.  We have a new poll out that shows 48 percent of the American people using terms not just like incompetent, but far more personal charges like idiot in describing the president of the United States. 

It's in the vocabulary out there in the opposition.  Is that the Democrats' fault or is it the bad times that are causing people to look for someone to blame, like the president? 

WALLACE:  You know, I don't know that it's anyone's fault and I don't know that it's a very good use of time to assign blame, but I think it's always important to gets your side of the story out, to explain why the president is doing what he's doing, to explain how and specifically what we are doing in Iraq to make progress and to keep Americans safer at home. 

It's also important—and Senator McCain talks about this a good deal

·         to remind people of the choice we face.  This was not a choice—and you do a good job talking about this, Chris.  This was not a choice between leaving a benevolent leader like Saddam Hussein in power or engaging him and removing him. 

This was a choice about removing someone who represented a threat to America, and the president talked about it in his press conference on Tuesday, how the choice that he promised to make after 9/11 was to never leave a threat in place. 

MATTHEWS:  Does it dismay you as someone who has worked so hard for this administration to see that under the new constitution, as amended in Afghanistan, it allows Sharia law to prevail and on the books, at least, that they can behead someone or execute someone for changing religions to Christianity? 

WALLACE:  Well, sure, and I don't have the confirmation I heard at the top of your report that Andrea Mitchell has some news from there, and we certainly have communicated very directly and clearly at the highest levels of the government that freedom of religion is one of the tenets of a democracy, so I think you've seen everybody make very clear how we feel about that. 

MATTHEWS:  I think we all agree on that one.  Let me ask you about bringing back some gray heads to the White House. 

WALLACE:  I'm getting gray I think.  A few more months. 

MATTHEWS:  No, you're far too youthful for this.  What do you think about my friend Don Evans, the former secretary of commerce?  I hear his name popping around.  Is he coming back to be sort of a liaison with the Republicans on the Hill? 

WALLACE:  We adore Secretary Evans.  Everybody ...

MATTHEWS:  We all do too here.  And we're wondering if you're going to bring back somebody that everybody likes, because he might, you know, help out. 

WALLACE:  Well, look, I think we rely on his help in a lot of ways still.  I think a lot of us still get a lot of good advice and wisdom from him, but the president addressed this, this week.  At this point, there are no plans to make any staff changes. 

We're fortunate to have the president's confidence, and I think that to a person, everybody here is deeply committed to the agenda.  We all see ourselves as public servants and you know that having been one yourself. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, let me ask you about the president, very—well, I don't want to grade him exactly, but it was a compelling thing he said this week.  And I don't know whether it's something he thought to say just now, but—and maybe it's meant to be a bit rhetorical, but he said, “if I didn't believe we could win this war in Iraq, I wouldn't be putting our kids in harm's way.” 

Could there be a time when he would say, hey, look, we've done everything we could, we got rid of Saddam Hussein, we de-Baathized that country as much as possible, we built some things up that were blown apart.  But we can't be referees between the Sunnis and Shias because we can't even speak their language, we don't even know why they don't like each other and we're damn well never going to make them friends with each other, so it's not our job. 

Secretary—Chairman John Warner, a former military man himself, in the Navy, said today that our job in Iraq shouldn't be to try to be referee between the Sunnis and the Shias.  We shouldn't be on that front.  We have another job. 

My own view is we should be attacking the terrorists that have come into that country and killing all of them and let the Sunni and the Shia settle their fish over time.  What's the president's view of the role of the military?  Should they be is shooting the Sunnis for shooting at Shias, and Shia for shooting—there's a tongue twister—for shooting at Sunnis? 

WALLACE:  Well I think we've had a couple of instances where we had some good indications of how this is going to proceed in the country.  Now, when the mosque was attacked, I think there was a moment there in Iraq, and I think we all watched very closely on pins and needles to see how that country would react.  And we were very heartened that the political, the military, the religious leaders all called for calm. 

And in a civil war, obviously, that would not have been the case, so we're seeing some very encouraging signs.  And I know some journalists have been spending time with our extraordinary ambassador over there. 

I know you have him on the network and on the show, and I think that if you listen to the signs that he's hearing and seeing, there is a deep commitment to doing just what you said:  to going after the terrorists and to sitting down at a table and hammering this all out. 

It's difficult, it's messy, and that is the beauty of democracy, and that is where they are heading.  But have they faced some difficult moments that make your question entirely legitimate?  Absolutely. 

I think the first part of your question is real important and perhaps we assume too much, but certainly, certainly this is the president who meets with so many families who have made the ultimate sacrifice.  I mean, here in Washington, we call it public service when we get to work at a place like this. 

But service, service is serving your nation, and the ultimate sacrifice is dying for your nation, so I think that this president clearly, clearly believes in and continues to adapt and improve upon the strategy for victory.  And as he articulated this week, if he didn't believe in his heart and know from the generals in the field that we were on a path to win, that he wouldn't have the troops there. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you very much, Nicole Wallace, President Bush's chief of communications. 

When we return, can President Bush win back support for the war in Iraq?  The Reverend Al Sharpton and “Vanity Fair's” Christopher Hitchens are going to be here to argue.  And later it is Friday.  It's “THE HARDBALL HOT SHOTS” with Rita Cosby, Tucker Carlson and Ron Reagan.  You don't want to miss this one.  You're watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

We just heard from Nicole Wallace, the communications director for President Bush.  The president spent a lot of time this week, of course, defending the Iraq war and his decisions in it.  In an effort to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis, has the president lost the hearts and minds of us?

Christopher Hitchens is a contributing editor and a great writer for “Vanity Fair” magazine.  The Reverend Al Sharpton is president of the National Action Network and a former Democratic presidential candidate. 

Are you running again? 

REVEREND AL SHARPTON, NATIONAL ACTION NETWORK:  I haven't decided. 

MATTHEWS:  Oh yes.  Come on.  You're back in there.

Let me go right now to this question.  Can he win back support for the war, Christopher?  I know you support the war.  Can he win it back?  He had it.  He's losing it in the polls. 

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, VANITY FAIR COLUMNIST:  There are two images that—or impressions you can give in this circumstance.  One is that you change your mind according to the last person you spoke to.  You change your mind according to opinion polls and to bad news bulletins.  And the other is that nothing would un-convince you that you were right in the first place and that you were doing something just and necessary. 

Over time I'm sure it is much better tactically as far as strategically and morally to give the second impression, to say no, I am not going to be.  Remember when Clinton...

MATTHEWS:  But is it real?  Can the president say I am what I am, I was right from the beginning?  Is that true?  Does he believe that? 

HITCHENS:  Let me try an example.  I won't take a second.  When Clinton ran first for president, he said what was going on in Bosnia, neglected by then President Bush, it reminded him of the German attempt to the final solution.  You make a statement like that, you can't very easily take it back. 

When he became president, he didn't find it convenient to live up to the promise to the Bosnians, and he said, hey, I just read this great book by Robert Capford (ph) that says they are hopeless you can't do anything.  They just want to cut each other's throats.  It is a lost cause.  He didn't do anything until he was finally forced to do something too late.

Bush doesn't give me the impression of a man who talks to—or rather is swayed by, I mean to say, the last person he spoke to or the last article he read.  And I think over time that's the right impression to give is that I'm not going—say, we've met the enemy...

MATTHEWS:  But what about he's swayed by the first book he has read? 

HITCHENS:  Well, it would depend on which one that was. 

MATTHEWS:  Some neo-conservative diatribe that talked him into the war. 

HITCHENS:  I wish he had read my own book on Iraq, but I can swear to you that he's not.  He doesn't read for pleasure anyway, which I like to think the experience of encountering my book is. 

But he says we've met the enemy and it is not us.  We did not bring this war on ourselves.  We have nothing to apologize for to these people.  We're looking straight down the gun barrel into the face of Mr. Zarqawi and Saddam's goons and Saddam.  One of us is going to lose and it will not be our side.  I think that is exactly the right policy to take.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  That is an argument for the administration that we are facing in effect a coalition of people which include the Baathist remnants of the last regime over there, the Sunnis who don't like the Shias taking over and these Zarqawi elements, this five, 10 percent of the fighters on the other side, whatever they are they are there and they are trouble.  Is that fair to look at them, the enemy? 

SHARPTON:  I think that he's going to have his party crash and burn because the facts are not as simple as that.  The facts are he told the American public he was going to war because of weapons of mass destruction. 

He told the American public, he was going to go and get bin Laden.  There are many things that you can go through this thing of he's being heroic and courageous with his beliefs, but you have to then hold him accountable for what he promised the American public.  And his party has got to bear the brunt of that. 

So he can be obstinate and call it courageous or he can come and say, you know what?  I did mislead the public.  Maybe I was misled by my intelligence, and I've taken care of them.  I fired this one.  I've severed ties with that.  He's never said that. 

He's never came back to the American public and explained how things that he claimed to be facts were in fact not true.  That's his problem.  His problem is not whether he believes the last person he talked to.  His problem is what they stated to be a fact was not a fact. 

MATTHEWS:  Christopher? 

HITCHENS:  Well, I've hate in a way to agree with this, but rMD+IT_rMDNM_I've said it to you many times.  I can't understand why Mr.  Tenet was allowed to resign and wasn't fired, for example.  I can't understand how Secretary Powell was allowed to retire and wasn't fired. 

MATTHEWS:  Because of the claims they made about WMD.

HITCHENS:  Well, no, and not only that but for leaving us under open skies on September 11, as did the FBI.  All of these people are still working there.  I have been banging on about this for ages.  That is all true.  That would have happened to any president though after 9-11.  It was independent in a way of the confrontation with Iraq. 

The president, I think, has given too much away on the WMD.  I mean there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, we just didn't find them. 

MATTHEWS:  How do you know?

HITCHENS:  Well, look the Iraqi regime claimed to them, and they gave their list to the U.N.  And we said well where are they?  They never showed where they were.  We can say this though, the Iraqis are disarmed now.  We can certify they are disarmed.  And we will find... 

MATTHEWS:  Wait a minute.  If we don't know where the weapons where when we went in, how do you know where they are now? 

HITCHENS:  I don't know where they are now. 

MATTHEWS:  You said they're gone now. 

HITCHENS:  No, my assumption is that the Iraqis may have been correct in having said that they destroyed them, but to destroy them was illegal.  Iraq was not allowed to destroy the weapons.  They had to turn them into the U.N. government, have them bagged and tagged. 

MATTHEWS:  This is all speculation.

SHARPTON:  There is no evidence.

HITCHENS:  It was speculation, but it is not true to say that there was no WMD threat from Iraq.  That's now become a conventional view that's entirely false.  It was a regime with a proven record of using and concealing them. 

If you did not agree with President Bush, you had to say you were taking Saddam Hussein's word for it.  And I don't remember the reverend saying that. 

SHARPTON:  No, I don't say that I take his word for.  You saying you take his word for—you are saying because they said they had weapons to the U.N. therefore they had it.  I am saying that before you lose 2,300 American soldier's lives, you should know what you are talking about.  And obviously we didn't.

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me ask you this.  Let's move onto the future. 

HITCHENS:  The evidence of the weapons was compelled from them by the United Nations.  They gave it under duress.  And there was no reason to doubt it.  They had used them and possessed them in the past.

MATTHEWS:  Let's talk about the future, what we got here.  We are about halfway through this game.  OK, let's say it is a nine-inning game.  We are fourth inning right now, right, in this war.

HITCHENS:  I don't know about games.

MATTHEWS:  Well, fifth innings.

HITCHENS:  Don't do games.

MATTHEWS:  I'll do the games.  All right, fifth inning.  Halftime. 

Ok. 

HITCHENS:  There's a stretch in the seventh inning.

MATTHEWS:  If, during the first four or five innings, your batter gets up to bat and he strikes out on the WMD, he strikes out on the fact that it was going to be a cake walk, strikes out on the fact that we were going to be greeted as liberators—

HITCHENS:  No, no—we were greeted as liberators.  I saw it myself. 

MATTHEWS:  Pictures. 

HITCHENS:  No.  I was there I saw it myself.  American soldiers and British soldiers were greeted by hundreds of thousands of people with real joy.  I saw it myself.  I can't believe people say it didn't happen. 

MATTHEWS:  The image is that of France in 1944, where we were greeted as liberators and treated as liberators. 

HITCHENS:  The French unfortunately would be fighting on the other side. 

MATTHEWS:  Why should we believe the people who have been wrong, have struck out in each one of these cases?  Put them at bat and ask for a homerun? 

SHARPTON:  We should.  And I think that that's the problem and I think for the Cheney statements today and others to try and act as though they can shift this to the competence of the Democrats, when they were in charge not only of the White House but of the Congress, is what's going to come and burn them in the midterm election. 

There's never been in recent times such a consolidation of power in this town. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you a tough one:  Who would be better to run this war in Iraq right now, Commander-in-Chief Bush, or Commander-in-Chief Pelosi?  Who would be a better a commander-in-chief?  You have a Democratic leader who has been chosen by the Democratic party in the House of Representatives to be their leader.  Would you put that person up there as commander-in-chief?

SHARPTON:  She was chosen to be a congressional leader, she was not chosen to be a military leader.  You would have to ask about someone who was running for president that we said—Commander-in-Chief Kerry would have been better than Commander-in-Chief Bush.  Pelosi was never nominated to be commander-in-chief. 

HITCHENS:  Senator Kerry did say—it's the only reason I'm sorry he didn't win, is that his claim, elect me and I'll show you my program for complete military and political victory in Iraq.  I would have loved to have seen what that was going to be.  I would have been prepared to back him on it, too.

MATTHEWS:  You think it was an empty promise? 

HITCHENS:  I'm not so sure.  It's like Clinton's promise on Bosnia, comparing it to the final solution.  A remark like that once made cannot be taken back.  It's to serious to be withdrawn. 

MATTHEWS:  Are you confident we should stay in Iraq permanently? 

HITCHENS:  Mr. Clinton—

SHARPTON:  You should have voted for him.

HITCHENS:  Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore urged the Senate to pass the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998.  They said they would settle with Saddam Hussein because co-existence with him was impossible. 

MATTHEWS:  We'll be right back.

HITCHENS:  The Democrats didn't do it, and now the Republicans have got to do it for them. 

MATTHEWS:  I have to take a break.  We'll be right back with the Reverend Al Sharpton and Christopher Hitchens.

And you can read about the Republican outrage over the potential execution of the Afghan man who converted to Christianity on our web site, MSNBC.com. 

You're watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  We're here with former presidential candidate, Reverend Al Sharpton, and “Vanity Fair” columnist Christopher Hitchens. 

Let me ask you about this Cheney thing.  Cheney is an interesting guy.  Many people think he's the most powerful vice-president in history.  But then he goes out today with a mission which he announced himself—I've never heard a vice-president do this—he said I'm going out to defend the president of the United States against the charge of incompetence.  I just find that so ironic and so almost disloyal to Bush because it makes it look like, yes, they make a charges against him and I have to defend him. 

Reverend?

SHARPTON:  I think if anything, it hurts Bush even more.  Here is the president at his lowest numbers, and now it looks as though the vice-president, who is supposed to be at best, a shadow of the presidency, now I'm going to go and I'm going to lead the charge in all of MY controversy.  By the way, you couldn't have had a more controversial vice-president.  So I'm going to lead the charge to help you understand that my friend is competent—and who's talking?  The guy who you've got all these questions about. 

MATTHEWS:  I'm going to vouch for him. 

SHARPTON:  I'm going to vouch for him.  Me, with my ethics concerns, all the way to my hunting.  Believe me, there couldn't be a worse defender for Bush.

MATTHEWS:  Does the president need a character witness?  I mean, the vice-president coming out—his numbers are believably, incredibly, 10 points lower than the president's.  He's down in the 20s. 

HITCHENS:  I'm in enough trouble as it is, I might as well add to that.  I have always thought—I must be very honest (ph) -- I have always thought Dick Cheney is quite funny, and often intentionally so. 

MATTHEWS:  So this is a riot.

HITCHENS:  You remember when he was interrupted by applause during the last campaign, and he glared at the audience and said, “Do you want to hear the end of this speech or not?”  Everyone thought, God, what a shark-like figure, what a brute!  I think he was trying to be funny.

I think he was trying to be funny today, when he mentioned “American Idol.”  I think he may even have been trying to be funny when he says—

MATTHEWS:  Let's watch that.  I think we've got that, as you said. 

HITCHENS:  Oh, we got this?

MATTHEWS:  As you say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  With that sorry record, the leaders of the Democratic party have decided to run on the theme of competence.  If they're competent to fight this war, then I ought to be singing on “American Idol.”  I don't know why that's funny. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  It's kind of Lion's Club humor, isn't it, Rotary humor. 

It's all right.

HITCHENS:  It's (INAUDIBLE) --

MATTHEWS:  It's not Don Rickles.

HITCHENS:  -- but I like my humor dry, to be quite honest.  And he's not dumb either.  Unfortunately today he was defending the indefensible position that the administration takes on wiretapping.  That's what he set out to do. 

I'm a plaintiff in the lawsuit earlier that says they can't do that, they're breaking the law and trampling the Constitution.  But while we're having this life and death argument, we might as well have a few laughs, I suppose. 

SHARPTON:  And I think that that is something that will help the Democrats because it's nothing to laugh about, the wiretapping issue, as well as other issues.  And you couldn't have had—if we had a meeting at Democratic headquarters to choose who we could get to defend Bush, Dick Cheney would have won.  So I think that they gave us one.  He would be by far the one I would want to help Bush at this point. 

MATTHEWS:  Who is funnier, you or Dick Cheney?

SHARPTON:  I'm really funny.  Dick Cheney—there's a difference in being funny and being the fun, and Mr. Cheney is the fun at this point. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you.  Happy Friday to both of you, even though we're in Lent.  And thank you to Reverend Al Sharpton and Christopher Hitchens of “Vanity Fair.”

Up next, the HARDBALL Hot Shots take aim at the week's biggest and best stories—that is always fun.

And this Sunday on “MEET THE PRESS,” Tim Russert interviews Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. 

You're watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(MARKET REPORT)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

It's time for our special Friday feature, “HARDBALL Hotshots.”  My MSNBC colleagues this week, as always, Tucker Carlson, Rita Cosby and Ron Reagan, get set to nail the winners and the losers, the heroes and the villains from the past week. 

First up, blame the messenger.  This week the White House went after the reporters covering the war in Iraq.  Faced with sinking poll numbers on his handling of the situation in Iraq, the president sought to rally his base by bashing the press.  And he got by with a little help from his friends.  Here's radio talk show host Laura Ingraham lashing out at the press this week on the “Today Show.”

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) 

LAURA INGRAHAM, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  Well, with all the resources of networks like NBC, the “Today Show” spends all this money to send people to the Olympics—which is great, it was great programming—all this money, for where in the world is Matt Lauer.  Bring the “Today Show” to Iraq, bring the “Today Show” to Tal Afar. 

Do the show from the 4th I.D. at Camp Victory, and then when you talk to those soldiers on the ground, when you go out with the Iraqi military, when talk to the villagers, when you see the children, then I want NBC to report on only the IEDs, only the killings, only the reprisals.  When you guys ...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Wait a minute, Laura.  Wait a second.  If you want to be fair ...

INGRAHAM:  No.  No, let me finish this.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  ... first of all, the “Today Show” went to Iraq, Matt Lauer was there.  He reported there.

INGRAHAM:  Did you do a show?  Did you do a show from Iraq? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  And we have got a bureau there. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Let's go to Tucker first.  Tucker, is she right or wrong? 

TUCKER CARLSON, HOST, “THE SITUATION”:  Well, look, the press hates Bush.  On the other hand, there are reporters living in Iraq with very little protection which is a lot more than you can say for George W. Bush or Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld or members of Congress who can't even spend the night there. 

Iraq is really, really, dangerous so it's incredibly hard to cover the good news, the success stories, because you can get killed getting to them.  I would like to see very specific examples of all this good news that supposedly we're not covering.  I think fundamentally it's an unfair attack. 

MATTHEWS:  Rita, what is it that we're not getting from over there that would tell us more about how the war is going?  Because it's the warrMD+IN_rMDNM_ in Iraq we care about. 

RITA COSBY, HOST, “LIVE AND DIRECT”:  You know, I do think we could cover some more of the good news.  I do think traditionally the press goes after the bad news, but I agree with Tucker.  I think it is so unfair, I think we are doing a pretty good job of what is happening.

And, look, our role, Chris, is not to be P.R. machine for the administration, whether it's a Republican or a Democrat.  Our job is to report the facts.  And I'll just say this as a reporter, because I've been a reporter for years. 

I was in places where the bombs were flying, where the bullets were flying and anybody who is over in Iraq right now deserves, you know, just a medal.  I mean, this is really brave stuff and I think it's really an insult.  I like Laura Ingraham a lot.  I think what she said was terrible. 

rMDNM_                MATTHEWS:  Well, rMD+IN_rMDNM_let me go to Ron.  I just want to know—I'm sure there are nice things we could be reporting on, human interest stories, but is there something we're missing that will be determining of how the war ends up, whether we win or lose what we're trying to do over there? 

RON REAGAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  No, not really.  Listen, Chris, somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 to 80 journalists have been killed in Iraq since the war began.  That's more than in the nine years of Vietnam, as I understand it. 

You know, I don't know how many tours of duty Laura Ingraham has done over in Iraq, but I do know that our colleague Richard Engel of NBC has been over there since before the war began and he remains over there. 

I have seen footage of Richard under fire, and at the time he was going out to report a good news story, the army, you know, rehabing a school out there.  And he came under fire and that became the story.  This is the reality of war over there.  There is not a lot of good news to report. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, Laura, Ron was over there.  I don't know what she did over there.  She met with the troops.  I think she thinks one of the things we should be doing, if not the only thing, is talk to the troops. 

REAGAN:  Well, you know, our reporters over there talk to the troops all the time.  They're the easiest people to talk to most of the time.  They can't just wander around at will out on the streets.  It's too dangerous, and what does that tell you if it's too dangerous. 

MATTHEWS:  Speaking of dangerous, holy war.  This week, several stark reminders of the deep cultural and religious rifts between the Middle East and the West.  Three Christian peace activists taken hostage in Iraq were released, and Christian activists around the world rallied around an Afghan man who faced execution under Sharia law for converting from Islam to Christianity.  It all raises the question, do Arabs if increasingly believe we're in a holy war in the Middle East? 

Let's go to Rita on that.  Rita, it seems like every time something is done, one way or the other, it has got a religion attached to it.  Here's a guy who we figure ought to be left alone, they figure ought to be taken care of. 

COSBY:  Yes, and you know what?  There's some new word, in fact, in just the last two minutes, Chris—there's some word that he might be released in the next few days, so there might be some good news finally coming out of this ...

MATTHEWS:  Yes, but only by declaring him insane and deporting him. 

That's hardly kid gloves. 

COSBY:  Absolutely.  Right, well that's the problem with it, and you hit it right on the head, Chris.  I mean, the problem is—and that's why we're in such an intense, long fight, I believe, because we have such different values. 

We're looking at it from, you know, a strategic, military perspectives.  They're looking at it from religious perspectives and they're not after us just for religious reasons.  Look, they're after us for cultural and economic reasons.  I think we're, unfortunately, in for a long fight.  But we have to see it from their perspective if we're ever going to win this fight.

MATTHEWS:  How can you—Tucker, how can you imagine people believing in religious tolerance if their belief is sound or solid that a person should be beheaded for changing from Islam? 

CARLSON:  Well, they don't believe in religious tolerance or pluralism or democracy, as we understand it, and that is the key problem, in my view, with our strategy over there.  It's one thing to invade a country to defend yourself.  I think every American would agree that's a valid, a morally just reason to invade someone. 

Quite another to invade a country to improve it, so if you're going to

·         there's an irony here and a contradiction.  If you're overthrowing a dictator to impose your own values, go ahead and impose them, right?  In other words, don't allow them to make Sharia law the law of the land, to enshrine it in the constitution, as we've done. 

MATTHEWS:  How do we stop them?

CARLSON:  You can't go halfway.  Well, we've blown it in both cases, Iraq and Afghanistan, by allowing them to make Islamic war the core of their civil law.  We never should have allowed that.

MATTHEWS:  How can you stay that they're are sovereign nations and say here's what we're going to tell you to run your country? 

CARLSON:  Well, I'm not interested in saying they're sovereign nations.  No, but I'm serious. 

COSBY:  Then how are you going to win?  Come on, Tucker.

CARLSON:  Thousands of our men and women have died in order to secure those countries, right? 

MATTHEWS:  I know.

CARLSON:  Our job is not to make the countries better but to keep us safe. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  There's a name for such relationships.  It's called colonialism. 

(CROSSTALK)

CARLSON:  That's actually not true, because we're not there to exploit the mineral wealth of those countries.  Maybe unfortunately.  But we're not and we've proven we're not.  We were there, ostensibly anyway, to defend ourselves.  We have no obligation to make sure they have a better form of government.  Only an obligation to our people to make certain we're more safe, period. 

MATTHEWS:  Ron, your thoughts on this question of sovereignty and religious right over there, their own notion of religious right. 

REAGAN:  Tucker raises a very important point, and that is that liberty and freedom don't mean the same to everybody all over the world.  They may be universal values in some sense, but they don't have the same meaning everywhere. 

You know, the behavior around Mr. Rahman in Afghanistan would be entirely familiar to somebody living in middle ages, medieval Europe and that's the profound difference between us and many people in this part of the world.  It's not just religion.  They're living in the middle ages.  We're living in the 21st century. 

So of course they want to chop somebody's head off for being a Christian instead of a Muslim.  We would have behaved the same way in 14th century France. 

MATTHEWS:  But the problem is we're riding shotgun guard on the executioner.

REAGAN:  Exactly, yes.

MATTHEWS:  And that doesn't feel too good.  We'll be right back with more “HARDBALL HOT SHOTS.”

Why are Jesse Jackson, Bill Cosby and Harry Belafonte storming the south right now?  Plus, Katherine Harris gets to spend $10 million, her own entire bank roll, to win that Florida Senate seat.  You're watching “HARDBALL HOT SHOTS” only on HARDBALL only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to “HARDBALL HOTSHOTS” with Tucker Carlson, Rita Cosby and Ron Reagan.  Next up, Katrina rears her ugly head.  Jesse Jackson is crisscrossing the south, campaigning to delay elections in New Orleans because so many voters have been displaced by Katrina.  He's joined by Bill Cosby, Al Sharpton and Harry Belafonte.  Here's the Reverend Jesse Jackson. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REV. JESSE JACKSON:  The governor called an election for which there was not adequate infrastructural preparation, and the Department of Justice has cleared the annual election that is beneath the standards of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)             

MATTHEWS:  Well, there you hear it.  You have Jesse Jackson who is involved now heavily in these elections coming up in April.  Let me ask Rita, you start again, Rita, is this troublemaking by him or a legitimate complaint? 

COSBY:  You know, I actually think it's a legitimate complaint.  Because, you know, we all spent a bit time down there in New Orleans, and the last time I was down a couple months ago it looked like nothing had changed.  To think that they can have a legitimate election now when they still can't even get FEMA checks, half the people are still displaced, they are setting up polls in different cities, different states because everyone is everywhere. 

What has the city accomplished?  I mean, nobody really has a record to even talk about that they can even go after to put, OK, good, I like his policy, I like this.  I think it's way too early, and I think that they should wait until there's some people with a real plan that's going to work, and then voters know what they're voting on. 

MATTHEWS:  Tucker, excuse my—what's the right word—skepticism, but it could be because the Jesse Jackson and the other minority figures that went down, African-American leaders, are afraid that Ray Nagin, if this election is held too soon, is going to get a bomb blast from the voters that he might be able to cool down over the next couple months and have the election later and maybe win the baby? 

CARLSON:  That's exactly what it is.  And let me just point out that New Orleans doesn't have legitimate elections in the best of times, right?  It's New Orleans.  OK.  So, no, this is about race politics.  Needless to say, Ray Nagin said in public on tape, God wants this to be a black-run city. 

And that is, I think, the belief of the people you just mentioned who were agitating to change this election.  And in fact, you know, no group has the right to any city or the levers of power in place at any time.  It's an America city. 

MATTHEWS:  But let's throw the race card out of this deck.  Ron Reagan, throw the race card out of the deck.  They're just people.  They're all the same.  They all look the same.  It's not different ethnicities.  Is it fair to hold an election where so many people are out of the city? 

REAGAN:  No.  I don't think it makes sense right now.  Look, this is about the future of New Orleans and there are two basic competing visions here.  On the one hand, there are people who want to bring New Orleans back more or less as it was, improved, safer levees, of course, but more or less as it was configured as it was.

And then there are the people that want sort of a Disney-fied version of New Orleans that will have Dixie Land jazz.  It will have crawfish.  But none of those unsightly poor people. 

MATTHEWS:  But how about above water?

CARLSON:  Well, wait a second.  I just think that is an unfair thing to say.  It is the poor people in New Orleans who suffered through some of the worst schools in the country, some of the grimmest housing projects in the world.  I've seen them.  They're horrible.  I know you have too. 

REAGAN:  And now they can suffer through that in some other town. 

CARLSON:  OK. OK.  But I am just saying, it would be better if those things were improved for everybody. 

REAGAN:  Sure it would be.  But listen a lot of people don't want the folks that left coming back.  You know, admit that.  They don't. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you a question that is geography rather than race.  Should they rebuild any houses below sea level? 

COSBY:  No. 

REAGAN:  No. 

MATTHEWS:  Have I heard a group three on that?  Because I think that is going to become the issue. 

CARLSON:  I think they absolutely should.  I mean, you know, we have the technology, as the $6 million man used to say, to secure those levees. 

COSBY:  Not until they figure it out.  You guys when I was back in New Orleans, they were talking about building the levees so it could sustain another maybe Category 3.  Come on, that is ridiculous. 

REAGAN:  Exactly.  They were talking about making it as strong as they used to be.  Wasn't that the problem in the first place?

COSBY:  Exactly.  Exactly.

MATTHEWS:  Well, but I don't think anybody can withstand a Category 5 no matter what the technology.  Anyway, next up, money for nothing and the votes for free.  Florida Senate candidate Katherine Harris has vowed to spend her own personal fortune, up to $10 million, to win her election this fall to the Senate. 

She wouldn't be the first candidate to buy votes with boat loads of cash.  Mayor Mike Bloomberg of New York spent almost $100 million of his own money.  (INAUDIBLE) over $40 million running for president in 96.  And Jon Corzine ponied up $60 million from his own bank account to win his Senate seat in 2000. 

Can Katherine Harris follow the green build road all the way to the United States Senate?  Tucker? 

CARLSON:  I don't know.  I mean the first phrase that comes to my mind when I hear this is Al Checchi.  Remember Al Checchi, the airline executive out in California, who was going to buy his seat, now forgotten by history?  Money does not equal success in politics as you well know.  It makes television stations rich, you know.  All of that ad money is great for our business, but it does not translate into success.  And I think Katherine Harris, sweet person though she is...

MATTHEWS:  I hate to say that.  That was another Bob Shrum campaign.

CARLSON:  Exactly.  I'm not even going to comment on that, but nice of you to notice.  But I will say, Katherine Harris, awfully nice person, very sweet person, I'm not sure she's a great candidate.  I don't want to be mean, but let's be real. 

MATTHEWS:  Rita, do you want to defend your fellow woman political figure? 

COSBY:  What the heck, I will.  In fact, I just saw Katherine Harris last weekend in Florida and she was talking to me about her campaign.  I think her base likes her.  I mean, if you've seen some of the money that she's gotten independently, it hasn't been a whole lot, but she has strong name recognition.  She sort of has the Hillary factor—either you love her or you hate her.

MATTHEWS:  I love the idea of Katherine Harris having a base.  Are you talking about the pinks and limes? 

COSBY:  The pinks and limes and the salmons and taupes, all of those.  Look at what she represented during the 2000 campaign.  She certainly did get a lot of fans for that and I think because of that and the money and the name recognition, I think she has a good shot. 

MATTHEWS:  I think she's a celebrity.

Ron, your thoughts on Katherine Harris' electability, even with her 10 million (dollars).

REAGAN:  Chris, if I were Katherine Harris' financial advisor, I would tell her to take that 10 million (dollars) and invest it in a dog track down in Florida.  In fact, I would tell her, she would be better off betting it at the dog track; that's a safer bet than her election. 

MATTHEWS:  Ron, how about jai alai? 

I'll be right back with much more.  You're watching the ?Hot Shots on HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL—Hot Shots with Tucker Carlson, Rita Cosby and Ron Reagan are back again.

Next up:  the writing on the wall.  George Bush hates polls, but he loves signs.  Since the beginning of the war, the Bush administration has gone through a slew of slogans.  Let's take a stroll through mad, bad memory lane:  in May of 2003, after the Saddam statue fell, the president spoke on an aircraft carrier bearing the sign, “Mission Accomplished.”

In early November, 2005, with trouble on the ground in Iraq, that sign changed to “Strategy for Victory.”  But at the end of the month, yet another morph—this time it was “Plan for Victory.”  There are others, too:  last month, “Securing America;”  in the summer of 2004, “Protecting America.”  What has this got to do with running the country?

Let's go to Ron Reagan, symbolism? 

REAGAN:  Symbolism is important.  I'm always trying to be helpful, Chris, and I've come up with a few other slogans that he could have behind him.  For instance, “Nobody's Perfect” might work.  Then “A Higher Father Made Me Do It.”  And finally, all-purpose, “Ask Dick.”  Just a thought. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to Tucker Carlson.  PR:  does it require an actual signage?  Does there have to be these obvious captions to what's going on?

CARLSON:  That's the point.  I'm all for symbolism.  This is not symbolism; this is literalism.  This is spelled out for the morons in the audience.  And this is what happens when you allow a former local news reporter from Texas to help run the government, Karen Hughes.  These are Karen Hughesisms.  Karen Hughes is convinced we are so dumb we can barely breathe unaided and we need these signs in order to explain what the speech is about. 

She is the one who also pushes Bush, instead of saying men or women or Americans, to call the audience moms and dads.  It's the most patronizing style of communication I've ever seen.  It's a shame; it detracts from his message.  I wish they would knock it off. 

MATTHEWS:  Rita, should the signs say, “Smart President?”

COSBY:  That might be the next one.  But I would also say, in fairness to the president, a lot of presidents have done this.  If you look throughout history, you've seen different signs, different implications.  And no matter what the sign is—I'm going to defend the president on this one—no matter what sign he puts behind him, the other side is going to take pop shots at him.  It doesn't matter what you—if you look at history, they have all done this. 

MATTHEWS:  One thing I'll say, among others, for Ronald Reagan was that he never put a sign under the Statue of Liberty that said, “Statue of Liberty.”  And when he went to Normandy, he didn't have a sign that said, “Normandy.”

Anyway, let's go—next up: list of demands.  Rock star make big backstage demands, as we know, before they agree to perform.  Jennifer Lopez requires a white room with white flowers and white tables, white drapes, white candles and white couches.  Also, green seedless grapes.  Brittany Spears demands a fresh deli platter with, quote, “appropriate dressings,” one bag of WOW Doritos and grape and orange Gatorade.

But low and behold, Dick Cheney also has his own travel demands.  This week, the SmokingGun.com exposed the vice president's rundown of requirements for his downtime suite.  When travelling, here's what he needs: queen or king size bed and a connecting room to the parlor; desk with chair; temperature set to 68; four cans of diet caffeine-free Sprite; all lights turned on; coffee pot in the suite with a special note to brew decaf prior to arrival; hotel restaurant menu, and best of all, all televisions in the suite tuned to Fox.

Ron Reagan, if it was us, I would be surprised, but Fox—does he have to have it on in every room?  Does he have to have it set to the dial and playing, as he comes in, like background music? 

REAGAN:  This explains why he thinks things are going so well in Iraq, I guess—all the TVs are turned to Fox.  This does answer the burning question, though, Is the vice president a Sprite or a Seven-Up guy?  We now know—he is a Sprite guy. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to Rita.  This lifestyle, it reminds me of a lot of movies like “Carnal Knowledge,” where the guy wanted it the same way every time—remember him—with the prostitute.  Had to be exactly the same way every time. 

What do you make of this guy's determination for uniformity in his life and no surprises? 

COSBY:  I think it says a lot about Dick Cheney, that he wants it his way and that's the way it is.  And I think people around, if you look like a quail, get out of the way, because clearly you want to abide by by his wishes.  A lot of presidents do this, and I'm not surprised about the Fox News.  Look, I worked for Fox News for 10 years.  And I remember, in the early days when I would also go to the White House covering Clinton, he was watching CNN. 

MATTHEWS:  Tucker—

(CROSS TALK)

MATTHEWS:  -- being body man for this guy is a full-time job.

CARLSON:  The Fox stuff is obviously wrong and immoral, in my view, but the rest of the demands are pretty modest, kind of embarrassingly modest.  I want him to demand the brown M&Ms be taken out.  But he didn't.

(CROSS TALK)

COSBY:  Where's the champagne, you guys?  Champagne and escargot?

MATTHEWS:  I think he likes the room temperature at 68 and the TV temperature about 105.

Thank you, Tucker Carlson, Rita Cosby and Ron Reagan.  Join us again Monday night at 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern for more HARDBALL.  Right now, it's time for the ABRAMS REPORT with Dan.

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

END   

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