updated 4/14/2006 11:18:15 AM ET 2006-04-14T15:18:15

Guests: Joseph Biden, Michael Isikoff, Tom DeFrank, Jon Meacham, Jay Carney, Charlie Cook

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, “HARDBALL”:  Tonight, leaking to defend one war muffled drums for another.  Is this administration too busy to defend its Iraq case to build one for Iran? 

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews. 

And welcome to day four of our ninth anniversary week. 

Tonight, the tentacles of the CIA leak case now threaten to reach further into the president‘s inner circle.  Attorneys for the vice president‘s former chief of staff Scooter Libby say they‘re planning on calling top White House aides, presidential aide Karl Rove and former press secretary Ari Fleischer to testify in the case. 

Plus, Libby‘s lawyers state their client was not instructed by the president or the vice president to leak the identity of Valerie Wilson. 

For President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, we ask the question of the marathon man:  Is it safe? 

HARDBALL‘s David Shuster has the latest. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  A week after prosecutors first revealed that President Bush, through Vice President Cheney, authorized Scooter Libby to leak intelligence to selected reporters, today Libby responded that the president and vice president did not instruct him to disclose, in particular, the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame, the wife of administration critic Joe Wilson. 

The filing does not deny that the president bypassed normal White House declassification procedures to leak the favored intelligence about Iraq. 

REP. JANE HARMAN (D), CALIFORNIA:  Our president turns out to be leaker in chief. 

SHUSTER:  But Libby‘s testimony may tamp down questions of whether the president himself gave the green light to blow the cover on a CIA operative. 

For Vice President Cheney, though, the questions remain. 

According to the documents released today, Libby testified the vice president did not instruct him to disclose Plame‘s identity, only to leak intelligence that undercut her husband. 

But the key word may be “instruct,” because prosecution evidence shows Libby and the vice president spoke about Plame on multiple occasions, and it‘s not hard for prosecutors to imagine Cheney pushing his top deputy to discredit a person making public accusations against the boss. 

The Libby indictment says that on June 12, 2003, Libby was, quote, “advised by the vice president that Wilson‘s wife worked at the CIA in the Counterproliferation Division.” 

The indictment goes on to say Libby flew with Vice President Cheney on July 12th and was advised, quote, “what Libby should say in response to certain pending media inquiries.”  That afternoon, Libby spoke by phone with “The New York Times”‘ Judy Miller and “Time” magazine‘s Matt Cooper. 

Libby is charged with perjury and obstruction of justice for testifying that he heard about Plame from reporters. 

PATRICK FITZGERALD, SPECIAL PROSECUTOR:  What we have when someone charges obstruction of justice is the emperor gets sand thrown in his eyes.  He‘s trying to figure out what happened and somebody blocked their view. 

SHUSTER:  In court documents, prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has stated he has no plans to call Vice President Cheney to the witness stand. 

Fitzgerald has indicated Cheney‘s discussions with Libby are irrelevant whether Libby told the truth about conversations with reporters.  That leaves it up to Libby to decide whether he wants to bring the vice president into this trial. 

Libby‘s team has indicated they plan to argue Valerie Plame‘s status was not very important at the White House and that‘s why Libby‘s memory may have been faulty when he testified about his conversations with reporters. 

But today, Libby pointed the finger at presidential adviser Karl Rove and former presidential press secretary Ari Fleischer, and Libby‘s pledge in today‘s documents to call them both to the witness stand means the Libby trial may turn into an inter-office White House showdown. 

Libby‘s team says Fleischer may have disseminated information about Plame, even though Fleischer testified that suggestion came from Libby. 

As for Karl Rove, the Libby indictment says he and Libby had a conversation about Plame in which Rove spoke of discussing her with columnist Robert Novak. 

Rove remains under investigation for his testimony over a separate Plame leak he made to “Time” reporter Matt Cooper.  If Rove has to testify publicly, his political standing could take a huge hit, because any public admission by Rove would put the president‘s credibility back under the spotlight. 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I don‘t know of anybody in my administration who leaked classified information.  If somebody did leak classified information, I‘d like to know it. 

SHUSTER (on camera):  All of this underscores that the White House is facing a political minefield as Scooter Libby tries to navigate past the legal charges and the prospect of going to prison. 

And it‘s now clear that Libby may not be concerned about the reputations of some of his former colleagues if airing their testimony in public might save his defense. 

I‘m David Shuster for “HARDBALL” in Washington. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, David Shuster. 

Now, Decision 2008, picking a president. 

Wednesday, I interviewed Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, the top Republican running for president. 

And tonight, I bring you one of the top Democrats, Senator Joe Biden. 

Senator, thank you for joining us tonight. 

If you were president right now, how would you deal with Iran? 

U.S. SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), DELAWARE:  Well, what I would do is continue to push with the international community.

I‘d push them very, very hard, including the Russian and the Chinese. 

I‘d find out what they needed in order to make sanctions, in fact, stick. 

And I‘d be putting a lot of pressure on the Europeans as well. 

MATTHEWS:  What would you tell Ahmadinejad, the guy who is head of Iran, about what he ought to be doing with his country? 

I mean, you can say you can‘t do something, you can‘t have a nuclear weapon.  But why should he accept that has a response?  Why should he accept such a demand from the world? 

BIDEN:  Well, look, I think one of the things, Chris, here that‘s really the hidden issue here—and I think the Europeans and the Russians are going to start to push it—and that is whether or not the United States, if in fact there‘s a verifiable means by determining Iran not going forward, will—would we be willing to normalize relations with Iran. 

I think that‘s the big enchilada for the Iranians.  I think that‘s the only thing that, quite frankly, would get them over the mark here. 

And my bet is that that‘s the next thing that the Europeans and the Russians and the Chinese come at us with, and I think that requires the president to think pretty hard. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think the president should meet with Ahmadinejad? 

BIDEN:  No, I don‘t think he should meet with him, because I think the guy is a little crazy.

But the truth of the matter is I think he should find out what the bottom line here is, and we‘ve never really—we‘ve been unwilling to try to figure that out.  All we‘ve been doing is—not always made sense—making the case with Iran why they should not move forward and what consequences may flow. 

The Europeans have constantly talked about we have to put more carrots on the table that don‘t relate to allowing them the nuclear capability. 

And so I think that‘s the next sort of altar call that‘s going to come here as to whether or not there‘s anything else to put on the table short of a threat of war and/or getting enough pressure to put on the international community to deal with an energy embargo down the road, which quite frankly would hurt us badly but would hurt the Iranians, would cripple Iran. 

MATTHEWS:  Why should—I want to ask you a question about world leadership. 

Why should the United States decide which countries have nuclear weapons? 

BIDEN:  Well, I think the United States is not the only one deciding here.  This is what—fortunately, we‘re on the same page. 

You cannot allow states that, in fact, have demonstrated that they are not capable of acting within the international arena to have nuclear weapons.  It—and quite frankly, it has been—we‘ve made it more difficult on ourselves the way in which we have moved on pulling out of arms control treaties, not signing on to nuclear test bans and so on and so forth.

So we‘ve kind of been—we‘ve made it hard to make the rationale more persuadable to the rest of the international community. 

MATTHEWS:  Does the president of the United States have the authority to attack Iran? 

BIDEN:  No, not without congressional support—authorization, I should say. 

MATTHEWS:  Is that a consensus in your body? 

BIDEN:  No. 

I don‘t think it‘s a consensus among Republicans or Democrats at this time. 

There‘s a consensus that we don‘t want Iran to be a nuclear power, but there‘s a whole lot between here and there, and...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  So if we woke up...

BIDEN:  ... and there‘s time between here and there. 

MATTHEWS:  So if we woke up tomorrow morning and the president has already taken the action, would the senators—would Hillary Clinton stand up and salute like she did in the last war?  Would all the Democrats, sort of the regular Democrats say, “We‘ve got to back the president, rally around the flag.” 

That‘s what I fear, that he knows he can get away with that; that your party won‘t challenge him because Hillary won‘t challenge him on Iraq yet. 

I‘m just waiting for somebody to stand up and say, “You can‘t act, Mr.

President, like this is a dictatorship.” 

BIDEN:  Well, I‘ll say it right now.

You can‘t act, Mr. President.  If you do act, Mr. President, it is clearly against our interest for you to do that.  This is a nation of 70 million people, Mr. President.  You already have us in deep trouble because of the incompetence of your civilian leadership, Mr. President, in Iraq.  In Iraq, we‘re a long way from being able to be victorious, Mr. President. 

For God‘s sake, don‘t make another stupid mistake. 

That‘s what I‘d say. 

MATTHEWS:  I heard you and it‘s on the record now.  When you talk to the president...

(LAUGHTER)

And I think it‘s pretty bold. 

When you talk to the president right now, do you sense he has any more skepticism toward the counsel of the vice president than he had this time before; this time in, say, the fall of 2002? 

BIDEN:  I‘ve not spoken to the president in the last month.

But my impression was he was considerably more skeptical about both the vice president and the secretary of defense.  But I also think—and this is above my pay grade—but I also think he has this mentality that, you know, you just stick.  If you stick and you stick and you stick, it will all turn out right. 

But I can‘t believe that he believes—I actually had a conversation a year ago, I told you, Chris, and I‘ll say it on the record, with the president. 

He said, “Why do you keep calling for Rumsfeld to step down?”  And Dick Cheney was there. 

And I said, “Let me be straight, Mr. President.”  And I said, “Mr.  Vice President, were you not a constitutional officer, I‘d suggest you be fired too.”  And I looked at the president and I said, “Mr. President, there‘s not one piece of advice on a significant issue relating to Iraq that either Mr. Cheney or Mr. Rumsfeld have been correct about.”  That‘s why they should step down, why Cheney should not be listened to on Iraq and why Rumsfeld should step down.

MATTHEWS:  The big story I get, it keeps floating around here.  Christopher Hitchens on last night was pushing it, the writer, that the president believes and maybe this is a little bit to be concerned about, first of all, he‘s already said he‘s going to leave the cleanup to the mess in Iraq to the successor who succeeds him as president, perhaps yourself, senator.

But he said I feel I have to deal with Iran before I believe because whoever succeeds me in this office won‘t have the right stuff to disarm Iran.  Have you heard that story, that he feels he has to do the dirty business of disarming Iran, just like he wants to lead the Iraq forces, our forces in Iraq through the end of his term?

BIDEN:  The answer is I have not heard that.  The second answer is I don‘t know how you disarm Iran without invading Iran.  I have not seen any plan that allows us to be put in a—put Iran in a position where we do anything but slow down a program that in fact is already questionable, whether or not we are two or 10 years away for them to be able to put a nuclear weapon on the tip of a missile.

MATTHEWS:  Has Israel sent any administrations to you or anyone on the Hill or anyone in the government that you know of to urge us to take action against Iran at this point?

BIDEN:  Generically, in my last trip to Israel, yes.  The Iranians keep talking about this being the greatest existential threat to them and that it is to us they argue.

MATTHEWS:  You mean the Israelis?  You said the Iranians.

BIDEN:  What did I say?  I‘m sorry, I meant to say Israelis.  The Israelis pointing out the Iranians said that this is the last opportunity to stop them from presenting an existential threat to both Israel as well as the United States.

They believe it‘s on a much faster track than we do, than I do.  Although I am not—I have no illusions about the track they‘re on.  And so the—I‘m quite confident that the Iraq—that the Israelis would like very much to see us take action.  Look...

MATTHEWS:  Why—we have a greater capability than they do.  They have the Mossad, they have better intelligence it seems than we do.  They have a lot of people who could pass as Arabic, get in there and really do one of these incredible James Bond type of things. 

Doesn‘t it seem logical to you, Senator, that the only real way to destroy their nuclear capability is to get in there, get people on the ground in those tunnels, go through there killing everybody, you know, in the hard way that Israelis know how to do, and really kill that thing, down in its roots.  Because if all you do is bomb the thing, they‘ll be back in a couple of months, right?

BIDEN:  Well, that‘s my view—yes, I think that‘s true.  I‘m not even sure if the first thing works, Chris.  You‘re talking about multiple, multiple sites here and sites we don‘t know about.  I mean, this is not—look, one thing your viewers should understand, this is not like the Israelis taking out the reactor that the Iraqis had years ago.  This is nothing like that.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, but they‘ve done—they‘ve done incredible escapades like in Tebe (ph) where they‘ve shown this incredible guts to go in and do something that requires human beings to do it.

BIDEN:  I think they have guts, I don‘t doubt that for a minute.  I have yet to see a plan put on anybody‘s plate that shows how you do this and essentially wipe out—look, the one thing that I am concerned about, is that if you go ahead and use their power against Iraq, the only thing that I think unites the country. 

MATTHEWS:  Iran, yes.

BIDEN:  Right now the country is not—Iran is not the thing, the country is not united against backing up the clerical leadership.

MATTHEWS:  Boy, that‘s interesting.  In other words, we could unite them by attacking them.  Thank you.

BIDEN:  Absolutely.  I guarantee we would.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much, Senator Joe Biden of Delaware.  We all think he‘s running for president.  In fact, we think he‘s in the top of the pack.

Anyway, coming up, new developments in the CIA leak case.  Lawyers for Scooter Libby intend to call top White House aide Karl Rove and former press secretary, remember him—Ari Fleischer as witnesses.  What does that mean for President Bush and Vice President Cheney? 

And here on HARDBALL, we‘ve been going strong here for nine years now and you can vote for your favorite HARDBALL interview on our Web site, HARDBALL.MSNBC.com.

As you might have imagine, the runaway favorite is Zell Miller, talking of challenging me to a duel.  You‘re watching the ninth anniversary of HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PAUL HACKETT, IRAQ WAR VETERAN:  Hi, I‘m Paul Hackett.  Congratulations on your ninth anniversary, Chris Matthews.  Now let‘s play HARDBALL.

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON ®, TEXAS:  I‘m Kay Bailey Hutchison and I certainly watch HARDBALL.  I love to see Chris putting everybody on the grill.  It‘s always a fun show, it moves fast and I wish you a happy ninth anniversary.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  In the latest court filings in the CIA leak case, Scooter Libby‘s defense team says they intend to call top presidential adviser Karl Rove and former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer to the witness stand. 

For more on what this means for the president and vice president, we turn to two reporters who have been covering this story closely, “Newsweek‘s” Michael Isikoff and Tom DeFrank, the Washington bureau chief for the “New York Daily News.”  Michael, what does this all mean, the fact that they‘re trying to get these guys on the stand or threaten to bring them to the stand, the big shots?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, NEWSWEEK:  Nothing good for the White House, because it creates all sorts of opportunities for Libby‘s defense lawyers to raise questions about the credibility and the stories that have been testified to by people very close to the president, Ari Fleischer, who was the press secretary.

MATTHEWS:  Is he off the reservation?

ISIKOFF:  Well he‘s trying to defend himself and he‘s trying to stay out of jail.  So in that sense, the obligation of his lawyers are to protect him and his interests, not the interests of the White House, and clearly we‘re seeing in these recent court filings the beginning of a divergence between the interests of Libby and the interests of the White House. 

Karl Rove as a witness, cross-examined in a hostile way, by—or examined in a hostile way by Libby‘s lawyers, not good.  Raising questions about what Rove might have testified, what he knew, where he fits into the food chain.  That‘s not something—last week remember, Fitzgerald said he wasn‘t going to call Rove as a witness.  He had no intention of calling Rove as a witness.

MATTHEWS:  But didn‘t—I‘m sorry to kind of jump there, isn‘t it—

I only go by the stories that‘s developing here.  But it seems to me we‘ve got a pretty good surmise here that it was Scooter Libby that organized this defense, and this plan of debunking Joe Wilson.

He‘s the one that got Fleischer to have lunch with him, and talk about this.  He‘s the guy that got Karl Rove to go out and talk about this, to debunk the guy.  How does it help him to be seen by a D.C. jury, which is generally a bunch of Democrats, as part of this conspiracy to kill a whistleblower? 

TOM DEFRANK, “NEW YORK DAILY NEWS”:  Well, I‘m not sure it helps him at all, Chris, although maybe his lawyers are hoping that it just kind of muddies the water, puzzles things.  Remember, he‘s got to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and hopefully—maybe they‘re thinking they can create some reasonable doubt here. 

MATTHEWS:  About whether he was lying when he said he heard about this whole thing from Tim Russert, rather than hearing about it from the vice president, more than a month before? 

DEFRANK:  Whatever happens here, his lawyers have got to impeach the testimony of people like Tim Russert, our colleague, and Ari Fleischer and others too—Karl Rove, and so I think that‘s probably—at the very least, that‘s what they‘re going to try to do. 

MATTHEWS:  So everybody is out of step in this case but Johnny, in this case, Scooter. 

DEFRANK:  Exactly right, but the bottom line is, Michael is quite correct.  This is not good news for the Bush White House.  I mean, this trial is not going to start until half the November 2006 elections, but this it is a president with all sorts of problems and this whole thing—every time there‘s a new story, a new filing, a new surmise, every time we talk about it, it‘s just another indication that this thing is going to hover over this White House like Banquo‘s ghost. 

ISIKOFF:  One of the interesting things in the filing, is they say they want documents relating to Tenet, because Tenet could be a witness and the reason is because they want to explore the fact that there may have been extreme bias on the part of the senior levels of the CIA, starting with Tenet, against Scooter Libby. 

MATTHEWS:  Why? 

ISIKOFF:  What‘s that all about? 

(CROSSTALK)

ISIKOFF:  What they were referring to is that Tenet filed the—that the CIA filed the criminal referral on the Wilson matter, but it goes much deeper than that.  The reason, the animosity is dating back to the repeated clashes between Cheney and the vice president‘s office, and the CIA, over key issues relating to the run up on the war on Iraq, such as was there a relationship between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. 

Cheney‘s office was pushing that vigorously.  The CIA, that was one they were resisting on.  Mohammed Atta in Prague, CIA told Cheney didn‘t happen, the vice president‘s office was determined to make them—kept them going back, looking at it, find evidence, keep looking at it.  They wanted to prove it. 

That‘s what that animosity was all about and, again, that‘s not something I think the White House wants to have out there explored at length in a criminal trial. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, you‘re very good at this.  Has this dislodged the vice president‘s credibility with the president, the fact that this all comes down to he was pushing this war ...

ISIKOFF:  Well, if you noticed, last week when Fitzgerald had his filing, that Libby had leaked classified information in the NIE under instructions from the vice president through the president, the White House made it known very quickly that while the president may have said—may have declassified the NIE, the national intelligence estimate on Iraq, in general terms and said get it out, it was up to the vice president to do the details, and it was the vice president‘s decision to have Scooter Libby talk to Judy Miller, that the details of it were let to the vice president. 

MATTHEWS:  Is this why we heard two weeks ago out of nowhere the vice president‘s claim that he had the right to declassify.  Was he covering over an old problem here by claiming that, that right? 

ISIKOFF:  Well, he was referring to this presidential directive that had been signed that expanded his authorities to do it.  But it related to this yes.  Right.

MATTHEWS:  Oh, I know, but I wonder if it didn‘t have a multi-purpose.  I wonder if it didn‘t have a way of saying I‘m innocent when this comes out. 

We‘ll be right back with Michael Isikoff and Tom DeFrank.  You‘re watching HARDBALL‘s ninth anniversary on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

We‘re discussing the latest developments in the CIA leak case with “Newsweek‘s” Michael Isikoff and Tom DeFrank of “The New York Daily News.” 

Let me go to you, Tom.  What does this all mean?  To the average person out there who has watched this infrequently, and wants to know what‘s going on here, what‘s the leak case mean? 

DEFRANK:  I think it means generically, more trouble for Bush, more scandal, more turmoil, more—this still comes at a time when the president is trying to dig out from the worst hole of his presidency. 

I just think it just raises in the public‘s mind more doubts about the president, his leadership, what they were doing, what was going on, it‘s just—in a cosmic sense, it‘s just more trouble for a president who is trying to desperately generate some momentum and it just makes it harder for him to do it. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, Mike, Watergate was all about a guy, a president, who made a phone call to the CIA trying to get them to cover up for something that the FBI was investigating, to be a block against the investigations.  They have never even acted on it, the CIA.  He went down for a phone call, the famous June 23rd phone call. 

The president‘s involvement in this, is it significant or it mainly the vice president who‘s handled the problems and may be the one vulnerable in the end? 

ISIKOFF:  Well, on the specific charges in the case, the president is not a principal or a party to it.  I mean, it‘s a very narrowly tailored indictment against Scooter Libby ...

MATTHEWS:  So far.

ISIKOFF:  ... for perjury and obstruction relating to when he learned Joe Wilson‘s wife, not what he leaked the identity of Joe Wilson‘s wife, because he‘s not charged with that.  But the larger storyline in the public and in the press about this is this relates to the intelligence about Iraq. 

Iraq is the biggest albatross that this president has.  It‘s the signature initiative of his presidency.  His presidency stands or falls about Iraq, and to the extent that this reminds people—the nagging doubts that people have—that, you know, the intelligence in the run up to the war in Iraq was manipulated, and hyped and exaggerated, we got into a war we shouldn‘t have got in, you know, the way at least half of the public, if not more, sees it, then that‘s the significance of this case. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much.  Michael Isikoff of “Newsweek,” Tom DeFrank, bureau chief of “The New York Daily News.” 

Up next, is President Bush the most publicly religious president of the recent past?  “Newsweek‘s” Jon Meacham joins us with a profile of the Reverend Billy Graham who has counselled every president since Eisenhower.

This is the ninth anniversary of HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(STOCK MARKET REPORT)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to the ninth anniversary of HARDBALL.  “Newsweek” managing editor Jon Meacham has written the much-awaited book on religion and politics in the United States.  The book titled “American Gospel” is in bookstores right now and Jon is here this evening with a special report he‘s prepared for us on the great Billy Graham.  John?

JON MEACHAM, MANAGING EDITOR, NEWSWEEK:  Thanks, Chris.  In the age of red and blue, as you well, the religion can often seen more divisive and unifying.  And yet one man has managed for decades to balance faith in the public square in a way that enables Americans of all faiths and no faiths to feel comfortable and secure.  And that man is the evangelist Billy Graham, who has managed to walk a fine line through his decades in the spotlight.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BILLY GRAHAM, EVANGELIST:  You out there tonight, can give your life to Christ.  Just bow your head and say yes to Christ right now.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think that God plays HARDBALL?

GRAHAM:  He‘s a god of love and mercy and forgiveness, but he also is a god of judgment.

MEACHAM (voice-over):  He is the world‘s most important Protestant evangelists, one of god‘s most tireless messengers.  Billy Graham‘s crusades have taken him to 185 countries, where he‘s preached to over 210 million people.  His religious mission has won him entry to the White House, where he has offered spiritual guidance and friendship to every president since Dwight Eisenhower.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN:  Because he had gone to almost every White House, it was almost as if he inoculated himself from partisanship.  Because everybody, you know, from Eisenhower to Nixon, to Kennedy, to Johnson, and later presidents felt that they wanted him by their side.

So in a certain sense, his very ubiquitousness, I think, preserved the presidents from seeming as if they were choosing a particular denominational leader to have at the White House.

MEACHAM:  His relationship with those in the Oval Office was based in part on mutual needs.  Presidents used him for his advice and connection to his huge religious base, and Graham used the powerful to help his mission to save souls.  And when they died, he helped smooth the transition of the new president by offering comfort to a grieving nation.

GRAHAM:  Tonight I watched on television as they wheeled the casket out of the plane in Washington.  The president is in eternity tonight.

MEACHAM:  He is also on occasion publicly disagreed with his powerful friends, speaking out against Nixon‘s policy on Vietnam, for example, after visiting the troops.

GRAHAM:  I personally want to see us get out, I want to see peace, I think it‘s gone on far too long, and the people are getting discouraged with it. 

MEACHAM:  Graham considered his friendship with Nixon, who was arguably one of the least religious of our contemporary presidents, one of his closest.  Charles Colson was Nixon‘s chief counsel. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Describe of what you know of Dr. Graham‘s relationship with President Nixon?

CHARLES COLSON, NIXON CHIEF COUNSEL:  Well it was very close, they played golf together, were good friends together.  Bill had ministered to Richard Nixon on many occasions and helped him.  They got along very well, and Nixon liked Graham‘s advice.  Those of us in the White House made every effort we could to use the relationship between Graham and Nixon to Nixon‘s advantage.  Every politician does that with prominent religious leaders and I was in charge of that in the White House.

MEACHAM:  Part of Colson‘s job was to exploit Graham‘s huge base of Evangelical Christians for Nixon‘s benefit.  He even went so far as to ask him for the keys to his constituency.

COLSON:  We asked him for his mailing list once because we wanted to use it politically and he refused.

MEACHAM:  It didn‘t stop there.  Nixon saw the value of public appearances with his favorite preacher.  These were photo ops made in political heaven, as far as Colson was concerned.

COLSON:  If you go to a crusade with Billy Graham, you‘re associated in the evangelical world with him and that‘s a plus to you.  So obviously you were hoping some of that would rub off, particularly during a time of a lot of campus unrest and unpleasant experiences that followed the Vietnam War.  So somewhat of Graham‘s stature and charisma could be a great help to a politician like Nixon.

GOODWIN:  If the pastor is being used as a—almost like an instrumental tool to help the president rather than an easy-flowing relationship that benefits both sides because they can talk and think about public issues and figure out how religious values inform public life.  Then I think it‘s no good for either side.

MEACHAM:  In the end, it seems Nixon got the better of the deal.  During Watergate, Graham would feel betrayed and come to regret his connection to the president.  He would also seek forgiveness from his followers for anti-semitic comments recorded on tape with Nixon in the Oval Office in 1972.

RICHARD NIXON, FORMER PRESIDENT:  Newsweek is totally—it‘s all run by Jews and dominated by them in their editorial pages. “The New York Times,” “The Washington Post,” totally Jewish too.

GRAHAM:  This stranglehold has got to be broken or this country is going down the drain.

NIXON:  Do you believe that?

GRAHAM:  Yes, sir.

COLSON:  Graham, I‘m sure, regrets to this day that terrible conversation that took place with Nixon.  And if you go back and look at a lot of my conversations, I regret them too.

MEACHAM:  Graham‘s own apology was heartfelt and Jewish leaders accepted it.  A few high-profile stumbles aside, Graham now 87 and in frail health, continues his crusade that has helped shape for the better the last and present centuries. 

His connection to the White House remains intact.  He is a longtime friend of the Bush families, and reportedly helped George W. Bush turn from a life of drift and drink in the 1980‘s.  If Nixon was one of our least religious presidents, it can be said that George W. Bush, an Evangelical Christian, is one of our most deeply religious ones.

GRAHAM:  I don‘t endorse candidates, I‘ve already voted, I‘ll just let you guess who I voted for.

GOODWIN:  The decision to decide to talk about religion as much as Bush has really does put him in a different category, I think, than many of our other president have been, who have had lots of them, deep religious faith, but have chosen not to speak about it as much as President Bush has, but I think it‘s because it is so much a part of who he‘s become and how he feels transformed in his whole public and private persona. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Well, I spent a lot of time with the present incumbent president, whose attitude toward religious people is very different from Richard Nixon‘s.  Bush doesn‘t see it that way.  Bush, as an evangelical himself, understands that he can‘t use us.  I don‘t—has never tried to, I‘ve been with him many times.  But has sought counsel and has been very open to it.  It‘s been a healthy relationship. 

GOODWIN:  Each president in a certain sense, coming from all sorts of different denominations, whether belonging to a church or not, have understood the importance of religious values in public life, even while maintaining that separation of church and state. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Jon Meacham, thank you for that report. 

How in your book -- (inaudible) all the work you put into this book, you must have come to some conclusion based upon our history.  Where is religion going to end up in the years ahead in our public square? 

MEACHAM:  Well, I think and I hope that it will continue to be what it has been since the beginning of the republic, which is a force that shapes us but doesn‘t strangle us. 

The idea I think which is essential in America is that religious liberty is a value that we all have to share, whether we‘re religious or not, whether we believe or not. 

And to some extent, the arguments have become fiercer, more divisive in recent years, I think partly because Democrats feel that it‘s been 40 years since the high watermark of the great society of liberalism, and conservatives feel after 35 years or so of activism since Roe that for all of their engagement in the public square, they haven‘t—don‘t have that much to show for it.  They haven‘t passed a pro-life amendment, they haven‘t passed a school prayer amendment.

And so there‘s a certain frustration there.  So you have believers who feel beleaguered and secularists who feel surrounded. 

What I hope is that we will go back to the spirit and sense of the founding, which was that religion is one force among many as we move forward together. 

MATTHEWS:  In the next presidential election, do you think the evangelical movement will have as much power as it‘s had in 2000 and 2004? 

MEACHAM:  It certainly could. 

They—particularly even just by staying home, let‘s say they‘re not particularly happy with the Republican nominee and they could sit it out. 

Karl Rove will tell you that he thinks the DUI news on President—

Governor Bush in the last week, last days of the 2000 campaign cost them a popular majority, because a lot of Christians who don‘t trust the world in any event, who believe in keeping what Roger Williams called the garden of the church separate from the wilderness of the world, might not turn out.

So you have a—you do have a question there on the Republican side. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, by the way, a lot of people at the top of the campaign in 2000 believe that, that DUI charge did hurt him a lot, because it came so late in his life—you wonder why he had kept it so secret. 

Anyway, thank you very much.  The book—I know when I read this I‘m going to love it, because your books are great—“American Gospel,” a great writer of our time, Jon Meacham. 

Up next, Scooter Libby‘s lawyers name Karl Rove and Ari Fleischer as possible witnesses as the CIA leak case festers.  How would it affect the remainder of Bush‘s second term? 

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Here to dig into the CIA leak case and Bush‘s bad poll numbers, and my back and forth with Governor Mitt Romney last night, is NBC News political analyst Charlie Cook and “Time” magazine‘s Washington bureau chief Jay Carney. 

Let‘s start with the thickening plot of the CIA leak case.

Jay, new names—it‘s beginning to have a little smell of Watergate only in the sense that people are going down for not the original crime of leaking, they‘re being charged with perjury and obstruction.  Now you have fingers being pointed like in the old John Dean days. 

Where is it headed? 

JAY CARNEY, “TIME” MAGAZINE:  Well, it‘s not—none of this is good for the White House, first of all, because the more that‘s written about any kind of presidential involvement or vice presidential involvement, the worse it is for Bush, who‘s in a situation where he can‘t afford for things to get any worse.

And what strikes me about what we just learned that Scooter Libby had testified to in fingering the vice president as having authorized him with the president‘s authority to leak parts of the National Intelligence Estimate is that all that money that has flowed into Scooter Libby‘s defense fund from big Republican donors, you wonder if those donors aren‘t beginning to wonder whether or not that‘s money well spent.

Because usually that money flows as a sort of a party thing, to help one of our guys, and it‘s certainly not money they want to spend in a way that would hurt the president. 

And if Scooter Libby is in a situation where he‘s most concerned about his defense and escaping jail, and doing that comes at the expense of the president and the vice president and the White House, I think there will be a lot of angst in the GOP. 

MATTHEWS:  Charlie, you‘ve covered politics a long time. 

It seems to me—my experience tells me, I‘m going to share it with you, see if it checks—bosses don‘t tell aides what to do.  They let the aide know where they want to go, and the smart aide, you know, bellies up and does it, gets it done if they feel right about it. 

In this case, it seems like Scooter Libby was doing what the boss wanted done to debunk the charge from Joseph Wilson, when he went on that trip to Africa, that he was basically checking out a question raised by the vice president and therefore would have sent a report back and the vice president would then be vulnerable for having kept it to himself.

But he probably never said, now, Scooter, get out there and push a lot of this stuff and destroy this guy; he may have said—we know on the record, he told him Valerie Plame‘s identity, undercover CIA.  We know that he expressed concern about the fact that it looked like a junket, as he put it, set up by her, not by the vice president.

Where is this going?  Is this basically Scooter Libby saying to the vice president through all this court filings, I got you?  I‘m fingering everybody else, your day is going to come when I finger you? 

CHARLIE COOK, COOK POLITICAL REPORT:  Well, a smart—I think you‘re right, a smart elected official and a smart staffer don‘t have to spell it out for each other, and they just sort of anticipate what the other wants or the staffer anticipates what the boss wants ...

MATTHEWS:  Like a good butler.

COOK:  ... and goes and does it.  Yes, I mean—and thing is—and this is titillating, it‘s interesting.  Now, I read all the articles, but the thing about it ...

MATTHEWS:  I used to be a good butler.  I know what it feels like. 

COOK:  But the thing is, Republicans are in deep trouble right now.  It has nothing to do with this.  I mean, you know, they‘re up to their rear ends in alligators because of Iraq and 100 other issues, but this one is just not registering with voters. 

It may be real, it may be serious, it may be criminal.  I don‘t know, but the thing is with voters, this isn‘t why Republicans may very well lose control of the House and come within an eyelash of losing the Senate.

MATTHEWS:  You don‘t believe that ripping the scab off the reason we went to war in Iraq reminds everybody that this was a war of questionable purpose? 

COOK:  I think right now that the president‘s goose is pretty much cooked on Iraq, and whether it‘s well done or burnt, there really isn‘t that much of a difference.  I mean, right now we‘re close to the American people just hitting a mute button on President Bush.  I mean, when his best rating and his worst rating—you know, terrorism is a strength, Iraq is his weakness and they‘re only about five points apart. 

MATTHEWS:  How about when you keep showing—Charles, I disagree with you for this reason.  As long as we can keep showing tapes of Vice President Cheney saying there was an Iraqi connection to the attack to us on 9/11 and then denying it, as long as we can say the president says if I find out anybody leaks around here, I‘m going to hang him up and then you see him involved in a major leak himself, that irons in the argument that he‘s not to be believed on these points. 

CARNEY:  Well, and this has long-term implications.  Obviously, Bush‘s goose may be cooked both on Iraq and generally speaking, but it creates long-term problems for the Republican Party.  Don‘t forget that the current front-runner for the Republican nomination, if we can say that, is John McCain, who if anything, is more gung ho on the Iraq war than President Bush and Dick Cheney. 

Now, if McCain has a liability as a general election candidate, that might be it and to the extent that this becomes not just perceived as a failed policy, but one that involved, you know, sleazy, if not criminal, actions at the highest levels of the White House, that taints the whole party and anyone in it who backed Bush to the hilt. 

COOK:  Yes, no, my point is just we‘ve got a president who has a job rating of 36 or 37 or 38 with 42 to 47 percent of Americans not just disapproving, but strongly disapproving of the job they‘re doing.  In this kind of a polarizing environment, this is probably rock bottom.  I mean, I don‘t think you can hit at 24 where Nixon hit before he left office. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, that‘s why I think the case of the leak may bring a deeper wound.  We‘ll be right back with Charlie Cook and Jay Carney. 

And on Monday at 9:00 Eastern, I‘ll co-moderate the New Orleans

mayoral debate.  As New Orleans looks to rebuild from the devastation of

Hurricane Katrina, voters are looking for leadership down there.  And along

with Norman Robinson of NBC station WDSU, I‘ll be asking tough questions of

the candidates.  It‘s live coverage you‘ll see here on MSNBC Monday night,

and on MSNBC.com.  That‘s Monday night at 9:00 Eastern, 8:00 Central

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MAYOR ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA, LOS ANGELES:  Hi, my name is Antonio Villaraigosa, mayor of the city of Los Angeles.  Happy ninth anniversary to HARDBALL and Chris Matthews, and next time, ask some tough questions.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I watch Chris Matthews believe it or not.  He yells a lot, but I really like him.  Happy ninth anniversary, Chris.  I‘ll see you on the TV.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with NBC News political analyst Charlie Cook and “Time” magazine‘s Washington bureau chief, Jay Carney. 

Let‘s look at something that Governor Romney—Mitt Romney of Massachusetts said here last night. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. MITT ROMNEY ®, MASSACHUSETTS:  Well, I‘ve made it real clear from the very beginning that I favor marriage between one man and a woman.  And I‘m not in favor of same sex marriage and I‘m not in favor of civil union.  There‘s and no question that people who attend those events agree with me. 

MATTHEWS:  Why do you mention one man?  Is the numerical issue an issue now, how many people are partners in these marriages? 

ROMNEY:  No, I think the issue is whether ...

MATTHEWS:  You said one man.  Why did you say just one man?  Why didn‘t you just say a man and a woman? 

ROMNEY:  No particular reason.  Just a man and a woman.

MATTHEWS:  You know what I‘m getting at, don‘t you?  The issue of multiple wives and polygamy, and that‘s obviously a question that comes because of this new TV show about a Mormon family and how many wives—three of them, I think in the movie. 

ROMNEY:  Actually, it‘s not a Mormon family.  My church has long ago given up that practice in the 1800s, but putting that aside for a moment, it‘s real clear that Americans, myself included, believe that marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman and not more than that, and also not same sex couples. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, I brought that up not just because of his religion, but because when of the fact that down in Memphis, Charlie and Jay, when we were down there a couple weeks ago at the Republican get-together, he gave a very strong speech on marriage, which sounds to me like he‘s going to run, even though he‘s not a member of a Protestant denomination—he‘s a Mormon—on common values and very conservative values on marriage.  Is that going to work for him?  Is that going to make him sort of like a Protestant? 

COOK:  Mitt Romney I think is one of the brightest, one of the most articulate candidates I‘ve ever seen.  Movie star looks, he‘s got the whole package.  And the question is, will evangelicals—southern evangelical conservative Christians, will they veto him because he‘s a Mormon? 

MATTHEWS:  But you‘re from down there.  Will they?  

COOK:  Well, I think number one, there are a lot of evangelical Christians, conservatives, who think that Mormons are not Christians. 

MATTHEWS:  Right, I knew that.

COOK:  And then—there‘ that.  And then there‘s a second thing, the fastest growing church in small-town, rural America right now, is Mormon religion. 

MATTHEWS:  Are they voters though?

COOK:  Well, the thing is, they‘re competition.  And if you‘re a southern, conservative, fundamentalist, religious leader, they are the competition.  And so the question is, can that segment of the party veto a guy who would otherwise be a fabulous candidate? 

MATTHEWS:  Well, this is like the local business group, the Lion‘s Club, voting on whether to bring Wal-Mart in. 

COOK:  Yes, yes.  Keeping the competition out.

CARNEY:  Well, it‘s that, and I think the play to social conservatives is one both to reassure them that he‘s a Mormon, but not weird, right?  And also because he is—while he‘s got all those attributes, he is the governor of Massachusetts, and he‘s done some fairly liberal things. 

MATTHEWS:  He‘s got to lose some of that bristle when you bring it up, I think.  That‘s just an observation.

Thank you Charlie Cook and Jay Carney.

Join us tomorrow night again at 5:00 at 7:00 Eastern for more HARDBALL.  Our guests include General Tommy Franks.  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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