updated 4/3/2006 10:11:25 AM ET 2006-04-03T14:11:25

Guest: Richard Reeves, Jon Huntsman

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Three-ring circus.  In the center ring, Arlen Specter holds a hearing on a Democratic measure to censure President Bush for NSA spying.  In the sideshow, Cynthia McKinney, the Georgia congresswoman, may face arrest for slugging a Capitol policeman.  And yet another Tom DeLay aide pleads guilty. 

Let's play HARDBALL.

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

While President Bush wraps up his spring break summit in Cancun, it's Congress gone wild back on Capitol Hill.  Watergate veteran John Dean testified today in support of Senator Russ Feingold's move to censure the president for authorizing the NSA's once-secret domestic wiretapping program. 

Did the president break the law?  So far, three Democrats say, yes, he did, and all Republicans say it's nuts. 

Meanwhile, Capitol police may be preparing an arrest warrant for U.S.  Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney.  The Georgia Democrat hit a Capitol police officer this week who didn't recognize her at a security gate. 

And the Abramoff scandal spreads.  A former DeLay aide pleaded guilty today to conspiracy in the ongoing probe, this just a couple of days after a Florida federal judge slapped Abramoff with six years in prison and $21 million in restitution for fraud. 

And in the spirit of bipartisan cooperation—rather, corruption—six aides to Louisiana Democrat William Jefferson were subpoenaed in a bribery investigation.

As the immigration battle resumes and threatens to divide both parties, we'll talk about it all with the Washington Post's Dana Milbank and NBC's Mike Viqueira.  Plus, it's our Friday night special, the HARDBALL hotshots, Joe Scarborough, Rita Cosby and Ron Reagan will be here. 

But first, here's HARDBALL's David Shuster with more on today's Senate hearing on whether to censure the president. 

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Well, Chris, this was the hearing today that Democrat Russ Feingold wanted and that Republicans were eager to grant, thinking that a censure attempt of President Bush is a political overreach. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD (D), WISCONSIN:  The administration has refused to provide...

SHUSTER (voice-over):  The Democrats argued today that President Bush, through his domestic spying program, broke the law by bypassing the courts. 

FEINGOLD:  If we do not assert ourselves as a Congress at this point, it will go down as one of the great losses for our system of government. 

SHUSTER:  Republicans countered that it's up to the president during a time of war to decide how to conduct it. 

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R-PA), CHAIRMAN OF THE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE:  You have this long resolution, not a word about bad faith.  And if you don't assert bad faith, there's just no basis, it seems to me, for a censure resolution. 

SHUSTER:  The hearing's most memorable moment came when a former Justice Department official asserted that President Bush had relied on credible legal advice from the attorney general. 

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT:  But we don't know what the credible legal advice was.  Nobody has talked about it; nobody has shown it to us.  And the one person who could tell us what it is refuses to answer the question!  Do you understand my frustration? 

SHUSTER:  The hearing's star witness was former Nixon White House counsel John Dean, who said the history of the Watergate scandal is repeating itself. 

JOHN DEAN, FORMER WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL:  We've entered a period where a president is pushing the envelope.  He is actually defying the Congress. 

SHUSTER:  Republican Lindsey Graham said the comparison is wrong. 

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM ®, SOUTH CAROLINA:  Isn't there a big difference between knowingly breaking the law, burglarizing somebody's office, and having a real debate about where authority begins and ends?

DEAN:  Nixon didn't authorize the break in. 

GRAHAM:  Oh, he didn't.  OK.  So did you authorize it? 

DEAN:  No, I did not. 

GRAHAM:  Did you know about it? 

DEAN:  No, I did not. 

GRAHAM:  Did he ever know about it?

DEAN:  After it happened.

GRAHAM:  What enemy are we fighting when you break into the other side's office?

(CROSSTALK)

DEAN:  Senator, if you'll let me answer, I'll give you some information you might be able to use. 

GRAHAM:  Please. 

DEAN:  He covered it up, not because of what had happened at the Watergate, where I think he would have cut the reelection committee loose, he kept them covered up because of what had happened while they were at the White House, which was the break-in into Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist office, and that he believed was a national security activity. 

SHUSTER:  The Bush administration has argued it needed to bypass the special surveillance court because of speed and workability, but constitutional expert Bruce Fein noted...

BRUCE FEIN, CONSTITUTIONAL EXPERT:  It was the Department of Justice itself, in July 31 of 2002, who said FISA works beautifully.  It's not a problem with going too slow. 

SHUSTER:  And Senator Feingold pointed to the president's statements during the 2004 election campaign. 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Everything you hear about requires court order, requires there to be permission from a FISA court, for example. 

First of all, any action that takes place by law enforcement requires a court order.  In other words, the government can't move on wiretaps or roving wiretaps without getting a court order. 

FEINGOLD:  He knew when he gave those reassurances that he had authorized the NSA to bypass the very system of checks and balances that he was using as a shield against criticisms of the Patriot Act and his administration's performance. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SHUSTER:  Still, on the Democratic side, only Senators Feingold and Leahy bothered to attend today's hearing, another sign that the censure resolution of President Bush is going nowhere.  Nonetheless, senators on both sides acknowledged today that nobody in Congress has any idea how many Americans have been spied upon or what kind of intelligence the president's surveillance program has generated—Chris? 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, David Shuster. 

For more, we turn to the Washington Post's Dana Milbank and NBC News congressional producer Mike Viqueira. 

Let me go downtown to Dana, first of all.  This issue politically is going to be used by Republicans as an example of Democrat overreach, right? 

DANA MILBANK, REPORTER, “WASHINGTON POST”:  Yes, that's true.  I mean, your report there points out there were only two Democratic senators there for most of the time.  There were four or five Republicans.  If that was any indication, they seem to feel they had more to gain from being there than the Democrats did. 

The other thing that I found pretty striking there, Chris, was that the spectator gallery was less than half full, so if we're talking about some sort of a grassroots movement towards censure, it wasn't sort of evident in the energy there in the room today.  It was pretty darn quiet.  In fact, it seemed like sort of everybody was pretending they were doing a 1973 reenactment with John Dean. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.  Dean certainly evoked memories of the past.

But Dean always told the truth, whatever you think about him, whether he ratted out Nixon or whether he's a party loyalist or not.  He always turned out to be telling the truth.  And I remember that from Watergate.  He had almost a photographic memory, and I thought he was pretty well against our friend, Lindsey Graham, there.  He did a good job of rebuking him because he knew the facts and Lindsey didn't. 

Let me ask you this, Mike:  The question here is—you cover the Hill

·         why would a senator of the majesty of Arlen Specter, knows all the games and all the business of the Senate, with all the trappings and history, why would he call one day of hearings on a Friday, which is supposed to be a dead day around here, if he's serious about investigating the possibility of the censure? 

MIKE VIQUEIRA, NBC CONGRESSIONAL PRODUCER:  Well, I think Arlen Specter would say that this is a fourth in a series of hearings about the NSA spying program, and he does have legislation that he wants to put forward.

But as Dana and Mr. Shuster pointed out, there were only two senators there, outnumbered by Republicans.  One Republican showed up to call it surreal and completely out of touch with what the American people are all about and what the American people are interested in.  So perhaps Chairman Specter had a little bit of mischief up his sleeve. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, because a lot of people on the liberal side of things are very upset with the NSA spying.  A lot of Americans are upset with it.  And doesn't it seem like they're giving short shrift to this, to dump it on a Friday, when half the members are—in this case, three-quarters of the members aren't there? 

VIQUEIRA:  Well, I think a lot of Democrats, including Nancy Pelosi and other leaders, say, hey, let's put all of this aside, for crying out loud, and let's concentrate on winning this coming up election in November.  All this talk of impeachment and censure is changing the subject, not doing them any favors politically. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, one person who wasn't changing the subject on the Democrats and the way they behave on Capitol Hill was Cynthia McKinney.  Cynthia McKinney of Georgia was elected to Congress for several terms, knocked off by I think a concerted effort to knock her off, came storming back.

And now the other day, was upset with a Capitol policeman for not recognizing her as a member of Congress and did something physical to that guy, because now there's talk—let me go to you, Dana—of the U.S.  Capitol police bringing charges against the congresswoman. 

MILBANK:  There's talk of that.  And McKinney seems to be uncharacteristically shy right now.  She's never been one to hide from the microphones, but she called off a plan to give a press conference today.  She's obviously realizing that's in a no-win situation.

Now, the Capitol police have had their share of troubles, from when they agreed to pull all the Democrats out of a Ways and Means hearing, to the State of the Union address when they kicked out Cindy Sheehan and the wife of a prominent congressman, so they're being—they've had a rough time of it.

But there is a possibility they're going to actually ask for McKinney to be prosecuted for this. 

MATTHEWS:  What would be the charge?  What would be the charge, Dana? 

MILBANK:  I believe the technical charge is slugging an officer.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me ask you about Cynthia McKinney.  I mean, I always sort of root for her because she's got a lot of spunk and maybe because she has a nice smile.  I don't know what it is, but I don't know her, but I always root for her. 

But listen to this.  She does make these racially charged commentaries occasionally.  Like, she goes up to the White House one time or down to the White House and she says the following:  “I'm absolutely sick and tired of having to have my appearance at the White House validated by white people.” 

Well, maybe most of the White House police are white, although I'm not sure what the ratio is.  You're laughing, Mike.  Are these charges by her super-sensitivity?  Are they porcupine behavior?  What would you call it?  Or it just a woman who's had a bad time in her life with race and she sees it where it may or may not be?

VIQUEIRA:  Congresswoman McKinney has, as you point out, a number of -

·         had had a number of run-ins with both the White House uniformed Secret Service and the Capitol police in the past.  We should point out... 

MATTHEWS:  Are these fake fouls or real fouls that she's calling? 

VIQUEIRA:  Listen, she is a very volatile personality.  And I think the voters of her district recognize that, as did a woman named Denise Majette, who ran against her in the Democratic primary, another African-American woman in 2002, and beat Cynthia McKinney.  Majette then ran for the Senate, and McKinney won her old seat back.

But one thing we need to point out, by the way, is Cynthia McKinney will be having a press conference in just a few minutes down the street at Howard University with the actor, Danny Glover, who's there for some inexplicable reason. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, because he's a firebrand in many ways.  He place nice guys, but he is a politically committed guy...

VIQUEIRA:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  ... and you might say a pretty far over.

VIQUEIRA:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  Dana, is this going to end up in an arrest or what?

MILBANK:  Oh, who knows?  And, you know, I mean, the Democrats are doing what they can to sort of try to move on from this issue, as you'd expect. 

I mean, it's not just the racial politics, but she's been tied up in what many people would regard as anti-Semitic remarks, particularly made by her father, which people have coupled with a pretty strong record against Israel, so she has been something of an embarrassment to the Democratic Party for a variety of issues, so that you don't expect them to really stand up there and defend her. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, thank you, Mike Viqueira.  Great night the other night, by the way.

VIQUEIRA:  Thank you. 

MATTHEWS:  You ran the correspondents dinner.

VIQUEIRA:  Thank you very much.

MATTHEWS:  Anyway, Dana Milbank. 

Up next, Utah Governor Jon Huntsman just back from Iraq tells us what it's like on the ground.  We like to get those reports.  You're watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Utah Governor Jon Huntsman just returned from Baghdad where he toured the country as part of a bipartisan delegation led by Senator John McCain.  He met with members of the Iraq government and spent his 46th birthday having lunch with Utah Marines in Fallujah. 

Governor Huntsman, welcome, sir. 

GOV. JON HUNTSMAN ®, UTAH:  Thank you, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you, as a political person, how do you see the politics of Iraq getting there or not getting there so we can come home? 

HUNTSMAN:  Well, they're very complex right now.  And I've got to tell you that the military is doing a great job securing the environment and protecting Iraqis for their purposes of pursuing democracy and building democratic institutions. 

Right now, it's a very confused situation politically.  And our message was one very loud and clear, and that is:  You need a unity government as quickly as possible. 

We met with both the prime minister and the president, and we went on to say that it's been three months after the elections.  It's been since, I think, February 17th that the elections were validated.  And still, we have nothing to show.

And the longer this situation goes on, it gives rise to the insurgency.  And the stronger the insurgency goes on, it becomes more difficult to put a unity government together.  So...

MATTHEWS:  Do the majority of people, the Shia, want to a unity government or do they want to run the show? 

HUNTSMAN:  It's hard to know.  The early evidence would be that they want to run the show, but they've got to divide up the political pie, and they've got to do it in a way that brings the factions together.

And public opinion isn't going to wait forever in order to allow for them to come together politically.  That was our message, and we have to hope for the best. 

But we also went on to say:  It's more than just putting a government together; it's also having a 100-day plan.  You've got to know what you're going to do once you get a unity plan together. 

Moreover, it is important they have a competent foreign ministry; it's important they have a competent defense ministry; and it's important to have a very good interior ministry, as well. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about our troops.  Tell me about the Utahans out there, the guys fighting for us on our side from your state. 

HUNTSMAN:  We've had about 4,000 rotate in and out during the duration of the conflict.  We've got about 1,000 over there right now. 

And these are men and women, Chris, who are not sitting in the hangers of Kuwait City.  They're right in Ramadi.  They were in Fallujah before that.  They're giving it their very best. 

They're working hard.  They come in tired, and dirty, and bedraggled, and dedicated to mission.  Their spirits are high, but increasingly we're going to have to explain why the Iraq government can't seem to get their act together. 

And over a period of time, that's going to become increasingly difficult to do, not only for the soldiers, but the parents, as well, who ask all the time how their sons and daughters are doing. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, the soldiers are doing amazing work—we know that -

·         and have suffering tremendously.  We've seen their amputees and the suffering they have endured, even the ones who make it back. 

And I want to ask you a political question.  When the history books are written in this era and our decision to go into Iraq—not the war on terror, but our decision, particularly, to go into Iraq—will the historians say it was a smart move, a necessary move by the United States, or a diversion from the effort to get bin Laden, to try to track down Al Qaeda and destroy the international terrorists? 

HUNTSMAN:  That's a hard question to answer, Chris.  I think we will be seen as a country that has done its best to promote democracy in a region that hasn't seen it. 

We'll also, I think, be remembered as a country that tried to somehow make sense out of Iraq, which wasn't necessary meant to be a country in the first place, going back to the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1920, and then under British control until 1932, and under Baathist control since then.  It's a very complex, confusing situation. 

One thing we cannot let happen though, and that is for civil war to occur.  Right now, you're looking at sporadic fighting as opposed to systemic fighting.  Once it becomes systemic, I think you've got a civil war on your hands, by the technical definition. 

Once that occurs, you've then got a political vacuum.  And what happens when you have a political vacuum?  Look what happened in Lebanon when Syria invaded or in Cambodia in the late 1970s when Vietnam invaded. 

Iran is the likely power to take advantage of that vacuum.  And if ever there was a challenge that we faced in the post-Cold War world that we really ought to be concerned about, it would be a nuclear-armed Iran that has a weapon, most likely, the ability to deliver that weapon, and with political leadership, moreover, that is crazy enough to use it against Israel and the United States. 

MATTHEWS:  They would use a nuclear weapon against the United States, Iran?  You believe that? 

HUNTSMAN:  Well, there is certainly talk at the political level...

(CROSSTALK) 

MATTHEWS:  What would be the reason for them to attack us with a nuclear weapon, besides suicide? 

HUNTSMAN:  Well, I think it's just promulgating terrorism. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  But you don't think—you want to take that back?  Do you believe that Iran would attack us with a nuclear weapon? 

HUNTSMAN:  Well, let me say that Israel would certainly be on their list. 

MATTHEWS:  That's a different situation.  I agree with you on that. 

HUNTSMAN:  And that would be...

MATTHEWS:  That's also suicidal. 

HUNTSMAN:  That's an extension of our interests, though.

MATTHEWS:  But that's also suicidal.

HUNTSMAN:  Absolutely.

MATTHEWS:  Anyway, thank you very much, Governor Jon Huntsman, who's just back from Iraq. 

Up next, the Ronald Reagan mystique.  Why it endures and how it evolved.  I'll talk to author Richard Reeves.  You're watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  This week marks the 25th anniversary—I think it was yesterday—of the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan right outside the Hilton Hotel here in Washington.  And all us reporters were over there the other night, right there we were on that sidewalk, my wife and I, trying to figure out—there it is.  They built a little house there to make sure it doesn't happen again, for the president. 

President Reagan was 70 years old at the time and 70 days into his presidency with when a 25-year-old guy—I won't use his name—shot him, Press Secretary James Brady and two others.  Reagan had a bullet lodged near his heart and his full recovery was nothing short of a miracle. 

We have with us now, Richard Reeves, author of the new book, “President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination.”  It's an investigation of the details of the assassination attempt and how it transformed Reagan from politician into an international hero.

Good evening, Richard.  You're a great writer:  you've done Kennedy, you've done Nixon.  Here you are with another heavyweight.  How did the assassination affect the Reagan presidency?

RICHARD REEVES, AUTHOR, “PRESIDENT REAGAN: THE TRIUMPH OF

IMAGINATION”:  It made—as your former boss, Tip O'Neill said, it moved him from politician to hero, and almost to legend.  And he got—that 70-year-old man, 28 days later is in giving a joint speech to both houses of Congress. 

MATTHEWS:  I was there that night. 

REEVES:  And they went crazy. 

MATTHEWS:  When he read that letter from the kid who said, Don't show up in your pajamas, that brought the house down. 

REEVES:  Everything brought down the house.  When it was over, Reagan said, God, that was almost worth getting shot.  But from then on, he also saw himself as a man of destiny.  He was a believer and believed that God made—he didn't go to church often, but that God made things happen and that left him there for a reason. 

MATTHEWS:  A lot of people are religious and don't go to church much. 

I understand that completely.

REEVES:  A lot go to church that aren't religious too. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about the end of the Cold War.  When we were growing up, you and I, we thought it would never end.  The '40s, the '50s - - we'd go to a Catholic church every Sunday and pray for the conversion of Russia, but it was sort of a dream, not a real hope.  And here this guy who was a man of the right, an anti-communist since the '30s—since the '40s at least—battled them in the unions, knew what communists looked like face-to-face, he's the guy that cuts the deal that ends the war.  How did he do it? 

REEVES:  He always believed that communism would fall of its own weight; that it was illogical.  And he had the great good fortune that six years into his presidency, when he was at the bottom with Iran-Contra, along comes a Russian leader who believes the same thing.  And the two of them, by then, are both in trouble at home, with their military, their advisers saying, Don't do this deal, this guy is going to cheat you.  And they go from friendship to a kind of trust and then to a dependency—one guy is trying to save his presidency and his ideology and the other guy is trying to save his ideology and his country.

And it was as if it were two, out of the three billion people, made this deal all by themselves.  Reagan is important—I don't think any other American politician could have done what he did. 

MATTHEWS:  Because he was big enough to be the anti-communist movement.  He could speak for the movement because he was the leader of it. 

REEVES:  Yes, and he was an old man—it was like Nixon and China.  He was an old man who was—I learned a lot about being old writing about him—tremendously focused, he had tremendous self-confidence, that he could deal with this Russian.  And now the transcripts are out for the first time in this book of their conversations, and it shows he was right, he could deal with the Russians.  He took them. 

MATTHEWS:  You're an historian, and we always want to know who's going

to make the final list.  Is he going to make the list of great presidents -

·         nobody makes the first echelon any more; Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt, that's done.  But will he make that second list? 

REEVES:  Yes.  He's made it now.  Now the one thing—he made it on this.  I mean, he didn't end the Cold War, but he certainly brought it to an end more closely.  But if the debts—this is a guy who got to power by attacking tax-and-spend Democrats and then invented borrow-and-spend Republicans.  And the question of his greatness, which he's looking pretty good right now, what will happen when the bills come due and can our grandchildren pay for them?

MATTHEWS:  Doesn't the current president make him a piker, with the deficits we're running now? 

REEVES:  He's a miniature version of Reagan.  Reagan had a sense of history, he had a sense—

MATTHEWS:  Nancy Reagan's role in your book, did she play a part in helping you write the book? 

REEVES:  Yes, she was great.

MATTHEWS:  Did she give you access?

REEVES:  Because, of course, you have to have her permission in a way. 

A lot of people you want to talk to, call her first.

MATTHEWS:  She's sharp as a tack, isn't she?

REEVES:  She's sharp as a tack.  She's a terrific, terrific lady. 

MATTHEWS:  Would he done this with a normal, brand X wife, just another person, or did it take somebody with real ambition, for history's sake, to be his partner. 

REEVES:  Well, I hope Nancy forgives me, but I think actually he could have.

MATTHEWS:  Without her?

REEVES:  He was an extraordinary man who believed a very few things, but was willing to go for the line.  He gave up detente, he gave up containment, and he went ahead by himself.  He really was a kind of cowboy in that way and I think she was a great help to him, because this was not a guy who had a lot of friends.  And he called his staff “the fellas” because he couldn't remember their names. 

MATTHEWS:  They were interchangeable, but Nancy wasn't interchangeable. 

REEVES:  He was not wife-driven, but he was certainly wife-dependent, like some of us. 

MATTHEWS:  You will agree that he was good to be survived by her. 

REEVES:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  I think so to.  She's a great woman. 

Anyway, thank you, Richard Reeves—great book.  You've done it before.  Very documentary, always documents, facts, right?

REEVES:  Yep.

MATTHEWS:  That's your speciality—lot's of hard work in the library.

Up next—the book is called “President Reagan:  The Triumph of Imagination.”

Up next, the HARDBALL Hotshots take aim at the week's biggest and best stories. 

And this Sunday on “MEET THE PRESS,” Tim Russert interviews Senator John McCain and retired General—I love this guy—Tony Zinni. 

You're watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL Hot Shots with Craig Crawford, Rita Cosby and Ron Reagan.  Next up, I'm one of you.  In the past few weeks, John McCain has geared up for his obvious 2008 campaign for president by cozying up to the commander-in-chief, of course.

Bush on the war, A-OK, Bush on Dubai ports, A-OK.  Conservative voters watch McCain with a wary eye.  But now the maverick of 2000 wants to be the insider of 2008.  This week, Liberty University, home of religious conservative Jerry Falwell, announced that John McCain would be speaking at this year's commencement.  Back in 2000, McCain sang a very different tune.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN ®, ARIZONA:  I am a pro-life, pro-family, fiscal conservative and advocate of a strong defense.  And yet Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and a few Washington leaders of the pro-life movement call me an unacceptable presidential candidate.  They distort my pro-life positions and smear the reputations of my supporters.  Why?  Because I don't pander to them, because I don't ascribe to their failed philosophy that money is our message.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Ron Reagan, let's talk about the politics of this.  John McCain won the love of a lot of Americans, especially in the middle, politically, Independents, for standing up to the religious right and for challenging President Bush in the first place and taking a licking in a very unfair way, many would say, down in South Carolina six years ago.

Is he going to lose some of that maverick quality if he continues to move toward the religious right and sign on with people like Jerry Falwell? 

REAGAN:                  Yes I think he's making two mistakes here.  One is that  he is courting voters who are never going to vote for him, no matter what, at least not in the primaries.  Maybe in the national elections against Hillary Clinton, OK.

But social conservatives know their own and they know that John McCain isn't one of them?  And they're not going to vote for him in the primary when they have an alternative who they view as authentic.  And the other mistake he's making involves authenticity.  The people who really love John McCain, his loyal followers, like him because they see him as an iconoclast, a maverick, as you've said, and he's forfeiting a lot of that by sliding over to the right and cozying up to Mr. Bush.

CRAWFORD:  Those are great general election arguments, but to win the party nomination in the Republican side, look, the last three Republican presidents counting this one have been pro-life conservatives, social conservatives, or at least pretended to be long enough to get the elections and the nominations and that's what he's got to do.  I think McCain has to do this to win his party's nomination.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think we'll be calling him Dr. McCain when he receives his honorary degree down at Liberty University?  Rita, I want to know, are you going to address Dr. McCain based upon his new PhD from Liberty University?

COSBY:  Well you know what I find striking, Liberty University, Virginia Beach, Virginia—and as Ron was talking about, there's sort of this golden child of George Allen, the senator from Virginia.

I mean, it's interesting that he was not asked to speak at the commencement, so I also agree with Craig in the sense that I think he has to do this to get in to that base and I also think as much as an ultra-conservatives in that wing does not embrace John McCain right now, if they think he's the winning candidate, I think ultimately they'll get behind him.

REAGAN:  But will they vote for him in the primary if they've got an alternative?

COSBY:  And I agree with you.  It depends how much steam there is, Ron.  I think if there's so much steam for him...

CRAWFORD:  ... Well if they can just keep him from turning him into a tirade against him, which is what happened last time.

MATTHEWS:  Ron, I love Ron's point there, because you know, after he went down there and did suck up to what's his name, Falwell to some—why do I use terms like that?  Make friends with Falwell.  Falwell then said, he still has a lot more fence mending to do, in other words, bow lower.

REAGAN:  Yes, you can never bow low enough for those people, that's the problem.

MATTHEWS:  I don't know, the one that gets to me is Pat Robertson, the guy who went to Yale Law School, he's obviously a very sophisticated guy and he talks in language to his followers as if he's playing down to them.

CRAWFORD:  I think Robertson's lost a lot of credibility with a lot of the comments he's made.

MATTHEWS:  All that he had?

CRAWFORD:  Even among a lot of the people who have followed him.

MATTHEWS:  I think guys that we've had on the show, I certainly like people like Tony Perkins and Reverend Sutton.  These guys are real leaders of flocks.  But I think these T.V. guys sometimes, I think, sometimes are showmen. 

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  I'm back with the HARDBALL Hot Shots—Craig Crawford, Rita Cosby and Ron Reagan.

Congresswoman hits a policeman tonight:  when a Capitol police officer stopped Representative Cynthia McKinney of Georgia at a security checkpoint, she slugged him in the chest with her cell phone.  In McKinney's words, quote, “Unfortunately the police officer did not recognize me as a member of Congress and a confrontation ensued.”

It doesn't end there.  Capitol police say they may press charges against the congresswoman.  And tonight the congresswoman held a presser --  a press conference—she said “Apparently the case against me may be referred for prosecution, therefore I've been advised by attorneys not to discuss the facts of this case.  This whole incident was instigated by the inappropriate touching and stopping of me, a female black progressive congresswoman.”

By the way, she's putting together a press operation with Danny Glover and Harry Belafonte.  So this is going to World War III, this is going to DefCon, instead of just being a local dissing sort of thing in a schoolyard. 

Ron Reagan, you're a liberal man, of liberal sensibilities.  Is there any way to get out of this can of worms without somebody being a fool, here?

REAGAN:  Cynthia McKinney, it seems to me, just needs to apologize and explain herself, just as Dick Cheney needed to explain his peppering of his friend.  There's no excuse for swinging at a police officer who's merely trying to protect the Capitol.  If he had known that she was a progressive black congresswoman, he wouldn't have grabbed her.  He just didn't know who she was. 

(CROSSWALK)

MATTHEWS:  She's laying it down to—and it's always—we live in a society where race has been an issue since we've all been born, and when we all die it'll still be there.  So is it fair for her to assume, as a person who's lived her life in Georgia—down in Georgia—to assume that this guy was treating her differently than he would a white, middle-aged congressman? 

CRAWFORD:  Let's admit, we're talking about a—

MATTHEWS:  -- a guy like that?

CRAWFORD:  We're talking about a very lively congresswoman, here, who gets in the news quite a bit.  Sometimes she reminds me of Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction,” “I will not be ignored.”  (LAUGHTER) 

REAGAN:  Rabbits, be ware!

CRAWFORD:  But to call this “inappropriate stopping”—this phrase “inappropriate stopping”—I mean, that's what a security guard does, is stop you.  It's always appropriate when a security guard stops you.

MATTHEWS:  I think “inappropriate stopping” may make the list here of phrases we have learned around here.  Anyway, she said, “I deeply regret this incident occurred and I'm certain that after a full review of the facts, I will be exonerated.”  She's also put herself in the position of a defendant already. 

I'll tell you, when I first saw this story, I wasn't sure—I don't think this is an easy one, because when I was a Capitol cop years and years ago, one thing that the cops did, we'd make a real effort to recognize the faces.  And you'd sit there for hours—a lot of the guys who were lifer, and they would sit and study the books day after day, to get the faces right, so you could treat these people appropriately.  But it isn't easy, when you change your hairstyle and look a different way, I can see where a guy may be a little off pace. 

CRAWFORD:  I was a page in the Senate and we had to memorize all the photos, as well.  I was a high school kid; I managed to do that. 

MATTHEWS:  But I think, Rita, I think the thing here is to realize that the Capitol is not what it was years ago.  People are scared to death of a bomber, scared to death of an assassin, of an al Qaeda getting through, and anybody that might cause trouble. 

COSBY:  I think you hit it right on the head, Chris.  Years ago, remember when that guy got through with the gun, and that was such a big issue.  And rMD+IT_rMDNM_I think in this post-9/11 world people are very, very conscious and the only thing I haven't seen is, we don't know how long this guard was working there.  He may not have been on the job all that long.

The other issue, too—and I want to show a quote—this is interesting.  Cynthia McKinney has also complained about this before.  We were doing some research.  In 1996 she complained about White House guards and even pulled a quote saying, “I'm absolutely sick and tired of having to make my appearance at the White House validated by white people.”  So there's been some issues here before in her history. 

MATTHEWS:  It's also campaigning—I hate to be blunt—she's campaigning. 

COSBY:  Absolutely, at this poor guy's expense.

Next up, the 2008 presidential prospects:  our weekly head's up of who made news, who's looking smart, and who's not.

In this news this week, Bill Frist said that being majority leader is, quote, “terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible, if you have hopes of becoming president,” which he does. 

George Allen told HARDBALL that he disagrees with President Bush on illegal immigration.  No amnesty programs for him. 

And John McCain is getting set to speak with Jerry Falwell at this year's Liberty University commencement. 

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton could be poised for a big reelection in New York:  she has twice as much support as either of her Republican challengers. 

And “Roll Call”—that's the Hill newspaper—reports that in 2005 John Edwards, unlike other White House wannabes, didn't give away any money to any campaigns in the country. 

Craig, who's the big winner this week?  Is this John Edwards storing his nuts for the winter?

CRAWFORD:  John Edwards, I think, is almost an underdog in this race.  Washington pays no attention to him because he doesn't come around here very much, but he's all over the country.  I talk to people around the country—he does the J.J., the Jefferson-Jackson dinners.  And I think he's going to run as an outsider and not play the usual political games.  And that's one reason he's not doing these give aways.

MATTHEWS:  I agree; he's number one threat to Hillary, because he's going to go to Iowa, where he did extremely well last time.  He's likable, good looking and there's no problem with him going down with the ship last time. 

Rita, why doesn't he have to pay a little price for the defeat of that ticket last time?  John Kerry pays it every hour, since he lost, with the Democrats.

COSBY:  It's funny, because you're right, because everybody thinks of John Kerry, and it's sort of like, Who was the guy running with him?  And he really has been able to distinguish himself.  I think because he kept everything fairly clean.  He did do some attacks, remember, early on, but then he backed off and towards the end, you didn't hear all that bitterness at the very, very end, after the defeat. 

I think because of that, there hasn't been this residual affect.  He's sort of seen as this golden boy.  We don't know a whole bunch about his record—young, good looking.  I agree, I think he'll be the outsider.

But still, the big winner this week, I go back it John McCain.  I think, even though he's playing politics as we've all talked about, I think he's winning. 

MATTHEWS:  Can he make it in with the insiders? 

COSBY:  I think he can.  And again I go back to, if there is momentum for him.  And again, you have to look at George Allen, who clearly is an insider with conservatives, Chris.  But aside from that, if there's this momentum across the country, and they really believe this is the guy who could win it all—they hate Hillary Clinton, the Republicans—they will go with a candidate that's going to win. 

MATTHEWS:  Ron Reagan, winner this week? 

REAGAN:  Perhaps John McCain is the winner.  I'm thinking about Hillary Clinton, though.  And I think there are scenarios where she loses out early in the primaries.  John Edwards could do it to her or a Russ Feingold, perhaps, if he decides to get into the race. 

I think that a lot of Democrats are nervous about Hillary Clinton, wondering if she can take it to the end zone.  And she's also disaffecting a lot of her most loyal supporters, people who are a little more on the left.  And if a Russ Feingold or maybe a John Edwards siphons votes away from her in early primaries, the perception could grow that she just can't do it.  And people could abandon her, and she could find herself being a front runner two years ago, but no longer. 

CRAWFORD:  But they have to go after her, they have to really run against her.  They can't pretend she's not there, which is what a lot of them are doing, and being nervous about her.  Somebody's got to come out front and take her on. 

COSBY:  You're right; they've been to tepid, don't you think?  I think they've been too tepid, and they have to go for the jugular, with her.

REAGAN:  It's two years to go to go here, folks. 

MATTHEWS:  Ron, she's—

COSBY:  Never too early in politics. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Craig, are you saying that Hillary Clinton was the 800-pound gorilla? 

CRAWFORD:  You bet.  That's why they have to start carving her up now.

MATTHEWS:  By the way, when Ron said that a few minutes ago, how she's going to get knocked off early in the primaries, somewhere in America is a guy in a barroom right now—just a few guys there—it's still early in the afternoon on Friday—and he's ordering rounds for everybody right now, after he heard that.

Thanks, Ron.  Thanks, Craig.  Thanks, Rita.

Join us again Monday night at 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern for more HARDBALL.

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

END   

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