updated 4/18/2006 11:48:16 AM ET 2006-04-18T15:48:16

Guests: Richard Holbrooke, Michael DeLong, Nathaniel Fick, Michael Brown, Peter Kovacs, Kriss Fairbairn, Norman Robinson

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR:  Can New Orleans be saved?  Can a great American city rise from the ruins?  Will a defense secretary bound to an unpopular war become a scapegoat for the president and the vice president who made the big calls?  From New Orleans, let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews. 

And tonight, HARDBALL is originating from New Orleans, Louisiana.  To millions of Americans, a visit to New Orleans was the unique American experience.  No other city was more alive.  The music of New Orleans providing the sound score for a city distinct in its culture, its people, its architecture, with the food as spicy as the entertainment.

But last year Hurricane Katrina destroyed this Seminole American city where so much of our culture originates, and the country shared a visual experience as we watched in horror as cameras captured it all.  Who was not haunted by the lost faces at the convention center?  What American is not moved by the thousands of citizens left homeless? 

Katrina left New Orleans a ghost town.  MSNBC remains committed to covering the rebuilding of New Orleans with the help of the NBC Bureau opened here after the storm. 

Tonight, I will co-moderate with WDSU anchor Norm Robinson.  The first live national mayoral debate that displaced residents around the country can see live.  It airs on MSNBC live at 9:00 Eastern tonight, and behind me you see the chairs that will be filled with the seven people who want to be the next mayor of New Orleans. 

We‘ll talk about Katrina with New Orleans later in the show with former FEMA director Michael Brown, but first back to the presidential politics in Washington with HARDBALL‘S David Shuster. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)       

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice over):  As the violence and political unrest in Iraq continues, the political toll on President Bush has now become even more severe.  According to the latest Gallup poll, approval for the president‘s handling of Iraq is down to 32 percent.  Fifty-seven percent of Americans now think the U.S. will not win the war in Iraq, and 64 percent want the U.S. to start withdrawing troops.  This includes 44 percent of all Republicans. 

The dramatic numbers are the latest sign the war in Iraq has redefined the Bush presidency, but President Bush of course is not the first modern president to face serious political wounds because of war. 

Early in President Clinton‘s first term, his administration ordered elite U.S. forces into Mogadishu, Somalia.  An operation aimed at capture warlords turned into a nightmare as black hawk helicopters were shot down, 18 American soldiers were killed and some of their bodies were dragged through the streets. 

The disaster led to the resignation of Secretary of Defense Les Aspin and the total withdrawal from Somalia.  The Clinton administration later put U.S. forces into Bosnia, a successful effort, that brought peace to the region to help redefine President Clinton‘s foreign policy legacy.

The legacy of his predecessor, President George H.W. Bush was defined by the first Gulf War. 

GEORGE H.W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Five months ago, Saddam Hussein started this cruel war against Kuwait, tonight, the battle has been joined. 

SHUSTER:  The president had painstakingly assembled a broad coalition of Muslim allies and forces led by the United States defeated Iraqi troops in Kuwait.  Then President Bush followed the advice of his national security team and decided not to go all the way to Baghdad.  Instead, he brought the U.S. forces home. 

BUSH:  And as president, I can report to the nation aggression is defeated, the war is over. 

SHUSTER:  President Reagan‘s biggest foreign policy challenge was the Cold War. 

RONALD REAGAN, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA:  Mr.

Gorbachev, tear down this wall. 

SHUSTER:  But Reagan did send U.S. forces into battle in Granada following a Stalinist coup, and later Reagan was the first U.S. president to declare war against international terrorism.  Twenty years ago last week, he ordered American bombers to hit Libya after it was revealed leader Moammar Gadhafi sanctioned an attack on American soldiers in a West Berlin night club. 

REAGAN:  Today we have done what we had to do.  If necessary, we shall do it again. 

SHUSTER:  The legacy of the Vietnam War is the one historians mention when they talk about the current U.S. war in Iraq.  Hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops were engaged in battle in Vietnam and despite evidence of a quagmire, President Lyndon Johnson repeatedly stated that U.S. forces were making progress.  Johnson added that America‘s security depended on keeping a promise to help South Vietnam. 

LYNDON B. JOHNSON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Over many years, we have made a national pledge to help South Vietnam defend its independence.  And I intend to keep that promise. 

SHUSTER:  But the war itself became unforgivable to many Americans, and as the casualties increased, there were protests, marches, and bitter political unrest.  In 1968, following a strong challenge of the New Hampshire presidential primary by anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy, President Johnson announced he needed to spend his time managing the war, not running for reelection.

JOHNSON:  I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination on my party for another term as your president. 

SHUSTER:  For President Bush, the latest political toll from the Iraq war is evident in several ways.  At least eight generals have called for the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld, the president‘s secretary of defense, and press reports in London say British Prime Minister Tony Blair just canceled a spring trip in Washington because he didn‘t want pictures like this with President Bush as the violence and political instability in Iraq drags on. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)       

SHUSTER:  The president‘s poll numbers are so bad that even some Republicans in Congress are predicting huge losses for the GOP in the midterm elections, and one Republican warned that while the president may have two and a half years left, lame duck status of historic proportions is approaching fast. 

I‘m David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington.   

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, David Shuster. 

Former United Nations Ambassador Richard Holbrooke wrote an op-ed in Sunday‘s “Washington Post” that supported the calls from retired generals for Rumsfeld to resign. 

He wrote, quote, “In the end, the case for changing the secretary of defense seems to me to be overwhelming.  Put simply, the failed strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan cannot be fixed as long as Rumsfeld remains at the epicenter of the chain of command.  Unless the secretary of defense is replaced, the policy will not and cannot change.” 

Richard Holbrooke, welcome. 

RICHARD HOLBROOKE, FMR. U.N. AMBASSADOR:  Thanks, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Richard, let me ask you about this question.  You‘re very strong here.  Is it fair to hang this war policy on the secretary of defense? 

HOLBROOKE:  No of course not, Chris, in the sense that there are many, many goats who can be scaped here, and I‘m not interested in scapegoating people.  But, as I point out in the article, there are only two people higher than the secretary of defense in our chain of command, and they were hey leaked, Bush and Cheney. 

And Rumsfeld is at the epicenter of the chain of command, as you know, and I was just in Afghanistan, you can see evidence of his famous long screwdriver all the way to Kabul.  He made a series of enormous mistakes.  Everybody I have talked to privately in the military believes that he will continue to do so.  Some can‘t speak out because they‘re loyal or they‘re in service.

But if we want to fix the policy and no one think it‘s going right, we have got to change the man who is at the steering wheel. 

MATTHEWS:  Can you explain what it is that he did wrong? Let‘s start with Iraq.  What did he do wrong in terms of Iraq, carrying out the president‘s policy there? 

HOLBROOKE:  Well, the secretary of defense is in charge of the strategic goal and applying it, so while President Bush undoubtedly made the historic decision to go into Iraq—there‘s no denying that—it was Don Rumsfeld who was in charge of running the war.  He was our minister of war. 

He made the decision to go in with insufficient numbers of troops.  He was responsible for the decision to disband the army.  He was responsible because it was explicitly stated at the Pentagon, not the State Department was in charge in 03-04, for many of the famously bad decisions involved.

But I want to be clear here.  Accountability is vitally important, but he has lost the confidence of senior military officials in uniform, many of them will not go public and if they‘re in uniform still, they really can‘t go public, because if they go public, they have to resign.  What we‘re talking about here is fixing the problem before it‘s too late. 

And I am concerned.  The president is in a hellishly difficult position, Chris.  He either sticks with Rumsfeld and the situation can deteriorate or he yields to external pressure.  And we all know George W.  Bush doesn‘t want to do that, but what‘s at stake here is the lives of American men and women who are being put in difficult, dangerous situations because of a failed strategy with no sign of improvement. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about two situations, Afghanistan and Iraq right now.  What are we doing wrong in Afghanistan right now?  What are we doing wrong in Iraq right now? 

HOLBROOKE:  I just got back from Afghanistan two weeks ago, extensive talks with all the senior people, international, U.S., military, and so on, and it seems to me clear that in Afghanistan, we were right to go in and we cannot leave. 

And I want to be clear on this.  I 100 percent support the commitment in Afghanistan.  But because if we withdraw al Qaeda and Taliban will come back, and we will be right back where we started.  But al Qaeda and the Taliban are hiding in the sanctuaries just inside the Pakistan border.  We can‘t go in after them.  That would be an unsuccessful military operating if we attempted it and a political explosion. 

So we have to do better on the ground inside Afghanistan.  The drug program is a total failure.  We have spent last year alone, $900 million, U.S. taxpayer money, and by the U.S. government‘s own public that resulted in a four percent decrease in poppy production.  In other words, we wasted $900 million, Chris, when the entire annual budget of Afghanistan is only $800 million. 

Secondly, the Afghan rebels, the Taliban, are getting bolder.  Where are they getting their money from?  The drug programs.  The road program is not working.  The progress is slow in every area.  Now I need to stress, I support this commitment.  I believe we‘re going to be in Afghanistan much longer than Iraq, Chris, but we have to be ready to do this and we have to do it right.  The long screwdriver is part of the problem here.  There are many others.  In Iraq—

MATTHEWS:  Explain that if you can, Richard.  What is the long screwdriver metaphor? 

HOLBROOKE:  The long screwdriver is an extraordinarily vivid metaphor used in the field in Iraq and Afghanistan for the 9,000-mile length of the micromanagement, this is their words, not mine, of the secretary of defense.  You can see this on specific programs like training of the Afghan army, training of the Iraqi army. 

Don Rumsfeld is a very tough man and by the way, he‘s a very smart man.  And when he has an opinion, as you well know, you‘ve interviewed him, he sticks to it and he has not allowed the people in the field to get it right, and he needs to move on so that somebody else can rethink the programs from the bottom up.  The long screwdriver is the military‘s phrase for the way he operates. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you a real tough question, but it‘s a bottom line question.  We were not technically defeated in Vietnam.  Of course you know our forces withdrew under a policy of Vietnamization, and they were all basically going at the time Saigon fell, but we still think of ourselves as having lost that war.  Could we find ourselves saying that about Afghanistan and Iraq under Rumsfeld‘s policies? 

HOLBROOKE:  As you know I spent three and a half years in Vietnam and I feel that deeply.  In the sense that we did not achieve our stated objectives, we cannot view Vietnam as a success.  The debate about what went wrong will go on as long as you and I and our friends are alive to continue arguing it.  Can that happen in Iraq?  I‘m afraid so. 

Even now, you can see the administration constantly redefining success downward.  You don‘t hear talk about democracy anymore, you don‘t hear talk about the road to peace in Israel lies through Baghdad.  All of that rhetoric is gone.  We are clinging and the situation in Iraq is taking dramatic turns for the worse.  Everyone knows it.  It‘s a heartbreaking situation with enormously negative consequences for our strategic position. 

MATTHEWS:  So which is—you said something very interesting a couple of minutes ago, Richard, that it could well be that we will have troops in Afghanistan longer than we have them in Iraq. 

HOLBROOKE:  Not could, Chris, will.  I will bet you—we‘ll come on the show together 10 years from today.  We‘ll come in on our wheelchairs, wheel in the host Matthews and the guest Holbrooke and we will be talking about Afghanistan.  We can‘t leave because we cannot stop the Taliban as long as they have safe sanctuary. 

We can‘t stop al Qaeda as long as they have a safe sanctuary.  Yet we cannot afford to leave Afghanistan and we are going to have to get it right and it is a long-term prospect and I think the administration does not want to say that publicly, because it casts an additional shadow on the problem in Iraq.

But in retrospect it‘s clear that General Franks and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld made a historic error when they began to strip the forces out of Afghanistan in 2003 to get ready to attack—excuse me, 2002, when they got ready to attack Iraq before they finished the job in Afghanistan.  We discussed this on your program and elsewhere at the time, but the full cost of it is only clear now. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  We have to go now.  Richard Holbrooke, thank you for joining us.  Mr. Holbrooke is calling for the removal of Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense. 

Coming up, defending Donald Rumsfeld, General Tommy Franks, top deputy during the Iraq war, says the criticism against the defense secretary is unwarranted.  Tonight at 9:00 eastern, on the stage right behind me, seven of the candidates for mayor here in New Orleans will face off in the first live debate televised across the country so that the thousands of evacuees who left New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina can watch.

I‘ll be co-moderating the debate along with WDSU TV‘s Norman Robinson.  Coming up tonight, it‘s going to be a hot one.  9:00 p.m. eastern, the big New Orleans debate.  You‘re watching HARDBALL MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  At least half a dozen retired generals have publicly criticized Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Retired Marine Lieutenant General Michael DeLong supports Rumsfeld, along with the number two general at Central Command under General Tommy Franks.  In that role, he briefed Secretary twice a day for two years.  He joins us from Tampa, Florida.  Thank you very much for joining us.  Why do generals tend to say one thing on the air and another thing when they‘re not on the air? 

LT. GEN. MICHAEL DELONG (RET.), FMR. DEP. CHIEF, U.S. FORCES IN MIDDLE

EAST:  Like what are you referring to? 

MATTHEWS:  I have an experience,  it‘s very hard for an ex-military man, based upon my experiences interviewing people, to speak out in the way they speak candidly off camera.  You don‘t find a fear on the part of people like yourself, to say something against the chain of command on air, but will be much more candid off the air? 

DELONG:  No, I defend the right of anybody to say—it‘s a free country, but as we were brought up, and through the military, made generals, we were really apolitical, and so, you have a way that you‘re brought up, and it‘s tough to change that, no matter what you‘re doing. 

MATTHEWS:  Is it hard for an ex-military man, a retired general, who is still very much part of the world of the military, to speak out against anything in the military?  Is there a sense of almost, not omerta like in a police force, but a sense that if you criticize any military operation or any military person, you are somehow hurting the effort of the country.

DELONG:  I got to tell you, I did not feel good when my fellow compadres, all very distinguished gentlemen, by the way, spoke out against the secretary of defense.  It was sort of unnatural.  It just didn‘t ring well with me.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you—you have first-hand experience, General, getting briefing of the secretary of defense.  What‘s it like?

DELONG:  Well, he may be one of the toughest briefs in the world.  If you walk into a brief with him and you know less about the subject than he does, which sometimes is quite often, then you‘re wasting his time.  And he only has so much time, so it doesn‘t go well.

I briefed him twice a day, probably called him or talked to him three or four times a day, helping him with different issues, and some days were better than other days, but he was my boss.  I‘m a professional.  Some people would say I‘m tough to deal with, as was Tommy Franks.  It‘s just the way it is.

MATTHEWS:  Well, what happens if you try to brief a general or a general tries to brief a secretary of defense and say, “You know, this idea of going into Afghanistan is a good idea.  We‘ve got to get the Taliban removed because we‘ve got to stop al Qaeda from having a base.  But we‘d better not leave there and move down to Iraq.”  Can you say something like that to the secretary of defense?

DELONG:  Well, Tommy Franks and I could.  We had discussions.  The professional discussions that we conducted, some were knocked down, drag out.  But at the end of the day, if Tommy Franks said “This is a tactical decision or an operational decision,” secretary said, “Fine.  You got it, I‘ll back you up.”

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  What about that critical decision though to send the troops down to Iraq before the job was done in Afghanistan?  Whose decision was that?

DELONG:  I listened to Ambassador Holbrooke and I—I disagree.  At the same time—now, did we take some people out of Afghanistan to go to Iraq?  Yes, we did, but before they went out, we replaced them. 

We had more people in Afghanistan as the war kicked off in Iraq than we had the previous year and on the same day, March 19, 2003, at that time the largest operation that was conducted in Afghanistan went down that day.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you, General, did anyone during all these briefings you had back and forth with the secretary of defense raise the probability that we would face a major civil war/insurgency even months and years after our attempt to liberate that country?

DELONG:  That‘s a fair question, Chris.  We had input from every facet of the American population and the world.  And we also had a lot of input from the former Iraqis to include Chalabi and his group.  And they proved to be wrong.  So we knew there may be an insurgency, but we thought we could handle it.

MATTHEWS:  Well, to me that‘s a big problem because the ideological people who pushed this war were in bed with Chalabi and they let him say things as if it were the truth handed down by God.  And he was a partisan who wanted us in that country at all costs and he was willing to lie to get us in there, wasn‘t he?

DELONG:  I will say Chalabi was a problem and a lot of the things he said were not true.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, thank you—it‘s great to have you on the air.  An honest man and a courageous man.  Thank you very much, General Michael DeLong.  When we return, we‘ll get a very different view from a former Marine captain who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  How did troops who served under them feel about retired generals criticizing Defense Secretary Rumsfeld.  Nathaniel Fick is a former Marine captain who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.  He wrote a book about it.  His war experience called “One Bullet Away.”  Thank you very much, Captain, for joining us.  Well you‘ve heard this back and forth between the former ambassador the U.N., Richard Holbrooke and the general, DeLong.  Where are you on this?

NATHANIEL FICK, FORMER MARINE CAPTAIN:  I guess I come down somewhere between them, Chris.  I think it‘s absolutely right for these generals not to have spoken up publicly while they were on active duty.  They have a constitutional obligation and a legal obligation to keep those disagreements behind closed doors.  At the same time, I think that speaking out now fulfills a moral obligation they have as citizens to contribute their expertise to the debate.

MATTHEWS:  Well, the reason I raise it of course is my own—having followed this story for three or four years now, I‘ve watched the ideology of the people in the Defense Department, civilians, lead the president and the vice president in his office onto this war, and then they all are working in different jobs now.  They‘re not there anymore.

And now we find ourselves with a general, like General DeLong just now, very candidly admitting that the reason we went in there under this false pretense, there wasn‘t going to be an insurgency, there wasn‘t going to be a civil war, it was going to be neat and dandy, a cake walk if you will, because of an ideological guy named Chalabi who wanted us in there because he wanted his country back, and was willing to say anything to get us in there.

This is a problem.  If the military people can‘t question that and the ideologues around the president don‘t want to question it, who on the inside will challenge a bad policy?

FICK:  I hope a lot of pots and pans were being thrown behind closed doors, Chris, but the idea of the generals standing up and refusing a lawful order or resigning en masse terrifies me quite frankly.  So I think that adhering to our principle of civilian control is vitally important.  And so the question is, how far...

MATTHEWS:  ... Do you think Colin Powell should have resigned as secretary of state in he disagreed with this policy of going into Iraq? 

FICK:  Well the question is, do you think that you send a signal by resigning or can you do more on the inside?  I think with the generals, there‘s a different point too.  Replacing a secretary of state is pretty easy, quite frankly.  Replace a CEO is fairly easy, the talent pool is big.

But when you‘re talking about a mass resignation by generals, their replacements are few in number and it takes 30 years to develop these guys.  They‘re grown organically within the services, so resignation isn‘t quite the option for generals that I think it is for other officials.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think we‘ve learned a lesson from this war, or are we just stuck with this conundrum, the generals follow orders, civilians give them, and if you like the government, you‘ve got to live with the people inside it.

FICK:  Well Chris, I‘ve been to too many Marine funerals and what‘s most tragic to me is I hear from older guys all the time who went to too many Army and Marine funerals in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. 

So are we learning, yes?  But unfortunately, it‘s relearning.  We‘re relearning lessons we already learned and then were forgotten.  I think the great tragedy here might be that the military on the ground is relearning the lessons pretty quickly.  Our counterinsurgency tactics on the ground have improved exponentially in the last three years. 

But I‘m not sure that the American people have been led to believe by this administration what‘s at stake in Iraq.  I don‘t think the American people have been convinced that we have a strategy to win.  And that the consequences of failure are catastrophic.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  I wish we would have heard more from the military before the war.  I wish we would have heard less from the ideologues. 

Thank you very much Nathaniel Fick, former Marine captain and author.

Coming up in the next half-hour, we‘ll talk about Hurricane Katrina down here and the rebuilding of New Orleans with former FEMA Director Michael Brown.  And we‘re going to preview tonight‘s mayoral debate, which I‘m going to help moderate if we can.  It‘s going to be a hot one.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(MARKET REPORT)              

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to rMDNM_HARDBALL.

I‘m down here in New Orleans tonight, where I‘ll be co-moderating the first live national mayoral debate among the seven candidates who want to be mayor of this historic city at a critical time of its rebuilding.  The next mayor of New Orleans will have to fight for the life of this city.  He or she will have to ease the path for 250,000 evacuees to come home and make the case to Washington of course and the American public that New Orleans is open for business. 

Joining me now is the man who is at the center of the storm over the lack of preparedness for Hurricane Katrina, former FEMA Director Michael Brown. 

Michael, thanks for coming back on the show again.  You were great last time.  Let me ask you this.  Do you think Ray Nagin should be reelected? 

MICHAEL BROWN, FMR. FEMA DIRECTOR:  Probably not.  I mean, I think the mayor, you know, kind of showed the lack of leadership that kind of was exacerbated throughout the entire area during Katrina, and I think it‘s time—I mean, I don‘t live in New Orleans, but it seems to me it‘s time for some fresh blood and some fresh thinking down there. 

MATTHEWS:  What about Mitch Landrieu, the lieutenant governor, does he make sense as a candidate? 

BROWN:  Well, he does...

MATTHEWS:  How were your dealings with him during the problem? 

BROWN:  They were good.  I mean, the lieutenant governor was really on the ball, knew what was going on and was always asking the right kind of questions.  I think for all of the candidates, I‘d like to hear them speak out tonight on how they are going to support Terry Evers, who is the emergency manager at Homeland Security director down there, to see what they can do to support him and get those emergency plans off the shelf, review them and see what they can do better next time. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about two scenic events of last year down here in New Orleans.  One is all those people at the convention center, mostly African-Americans, not all, sweating, scared to death, dehydrated, their kids dehydrated, horrible pictures.  Who is responsible for that, the mayor or the federal government? 

BROWN:  The mayor really is and let me explain why.  And I don‘t want to minimize the fact that FEMA had a responsibility to move in once we knew that they were there.  The convention center was never planned as an evacuation site or a shelter site.  It was what we called a spontaneous evacuation.  People just started showing up there when the hotels started emptying out.

And so it wasn‘t something that anyone had planned for, and by allowing that to occur, that‘s when we saw all those visuals.  It‘s just one thing that should not have happened. 

MATTHEWS:  Where should those people have gone?  Where should the mayor have sent those people? 

BROWN:  Well, he should have sent them to the convention center, but frankly before he even sent them to the convention center, most of those people should have been taken out of the city by whatever means.  And that‘s one of the mistakes that I admitted was I wish that when I saw that there was not a mandatory evacuation, one of the things I wish I had done was say screw it, if the mayor is not going to do it, then I‘m going to go find bus drivers and I am going to start getting those people out of there. 

MATTHEWS:  Why didn‘t you? 

BROWN:  I don‘t know, and I regret to this day having not done that, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Does the government have a good samaritan rule, which allows you to deputize people off the street, like the people whose faces we just saw at the convention center, and say, OK, Joe, what‘s your name?  Joe Smith, you‘re now a volunteered bus driver, get down to those buses and get the people out of here.  Can you do that legally or do you have to worry about bonding people and all that sort of thing against a possible bus accident? 

BROWN:  Well, I‘m afraid that some people would think—let me first of all answer your first question about the good samaritan act.  Almost every state has a good samaritan act, and Louisiana has a good one too.  And I think that what we should have done was said to the bureaucrats and said to others, we don‘t care.  Find any able-bodied person who knows how to operate a manual transmission, get them into that bus yard, get those buses turned on and start moving people out. 

There‘s risk to doing that, but knowing what we were facing, I think it‘s better to do that than to worry about the red tape and the bureaucratic problems that we had in getting those people evacuated. 

MATTHEWS:  Were those buses gassed up? 

BROWN:  I don‘t know.  You would have to ask the mayor that.  I don‘t know whether they were or not. 

MATTHEWS:  But your call now, after the fact, Michael, as head of FEMA, is that those buses could have been operated by any civilian who had been deputized by the mayor at that point? 

BROWN:  Absolutely.  And in fact one of the things that I regret having not done was turned to every FEMA person in the region and said get down there, again, if you can operate a manual transmission, if you‘ve operated a tractor or anything, get in there and get on the bus and start moving them out.  And this is before Katrina made land fall, before we really had a role, I‘m saying I wish I had done that. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, Michael, I was wondering—I guess, I‘m a romantic about politics and I think you are too even after all this.  Suppose the president of the United States, the commander-in-chief, had flown in here on Marine One, his helicopter, one of the earliest hours of hell at the convention center with huge crates of water bottles, where the president himself had come to the aid of the poor people, what would have happened? 

BROWN:  Oh, I think that would have been a tipping point for everybody else to recognize, one, how bad it is and, two, to rally around.  I mean, it is the bully pulpit of the presidency.  And I think that if in the manner of Theodore Roosevelt, if I could have convinced the president to come down there, that we would have had probably a little bit of a different reaction.

MATTHEWS:  Well, why was there no charge on San Juan Hill, to use that

reference?  Why wasn‘t the president encouraged by the people around to get

down there, get in the middle of this act and be the hero?

BROWN:  Look I‘m going to take the blame for that, because I think the president saw what we did in Florida in 2004 and I think again there was this idea that perhaps, you know, it‘s another hurricane, it might veer off to the left or right, it may not go in to New Orleans and it may not be the big one, but that was my fear, it would be the big one. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, you should write a book on this.  Thank you very much Michael Brown. 

We have seven candidates to replace Ray Nagin.  You were tough on him, let‘s see what the other candidates do in this very room tonight.  The race will get big here.  The election is this Saturday but the big fight is tonight here in New Orleans for the leadership of New Orleans now and in the future.  We‘ll be right back with HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  This week‘s New Orleans mayoral election will be the city‘s most important election to date.  In a moment, I‘ll be joined by Times Picayune manager editor, that‘s the big paper here, Peter Kovacs.  But first NBC‘s Mark Mullen has this look at the challenges this election brings with it. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARK MULLEN, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Anyone who‘s ever heard a story about Louisiana politics won‘t be surprised to learn that local rhythm and blues star Ernie Cado is a candidate for mayor, even though he died in 2001 and was buried with a lavish jazz funeral.  Still, following the unprecedented destruction of Hurricane Katrina and the desperate needs of the city, New Orleans residents may not be in the mood for political novelty this mayor‘s race. 

MARY USSIN, NEW ORLEANS VOTER:  It is serious, it is a time that we have to rebuild the city and if we are committed to doing that we have to make certain that the right people are in place. 

MULLEN:  Easier said than done.  There are more than 20 mayoral candidates. 

ED RENWICK, POLITICAL ANALYST:  It‘s a ridiculous number of candidates.  No one can keep track of that many candidates and there can‘t be that many serious candidates because there‘s no money.  You can‘t possibly fund 23 or 24 major campaigns. 

MULLEN:  No surprise then, the candidates with already familiar names are among the front-runners, like lieutenant governor Mitch Landrieu, son of a former popular mayor and brother of a U.S. senator.  Ron foreman, CEO  Of the popular zoo and aquarium, endorsed by the city‘s big newspaper and much of the business community.  And the city‘s incumbent, Ray Nagin, for better or worse he was in charge when Katrina hit. 

MAYOR RAY NAGIN, NEW ORLEANS:  It‘s time for us to come together, it‘s time for us to rebuild New Orleans, the one that should be a chocolate New Orleans. 

MULLEN:  Nagin, who was supported by 85 percent of white voters last election, surprised some with his comments at a Martin Luther King Jr.  celebration, not accustomed to Nagin bringing race into the race. 

CLANCY DUBOS, EDITOR, “GAMBIT WEEKLY”:  You can‘t count Ray Nagin out.  You can never count an incumbent out, certainly not this incumbent, but he is definitely on the ropes. 

MULLEN:  Perhaps the biggest challenge each candidate faces—reaching voters. 

(on camera):  In many ways, there has never been an election quite like this one.  Seven months after Katrina, more than half of New Orleans‘ population, some 200,000 people who evacuated, remain living outside of the city. 

(voice-over):  To reach evacuee voters, officials have promoted the use of absentee ballots, more than 18,000 requested and mailed. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  That‘s right.  I came back to vote. 

In person. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  That‘s right. 

MULLEN:  And about a dozen early voting centers were set up around the state to accommodate evacuated voters, some of whom bussed in from neighboring states just long enough to cast a ballot.  Still, civil rights groups, which staged a demonstration, say officials have not done enough to help poor evacuees vote. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  They need to try to get machines in other places, voting machines, for our displaced residents in Texas and Houston, Texas, Georgia, and everywhere, so that they will be able to vote. 

MULLEN:  That won‘t happen.  Given the turmoil surrounding this election, even experienced pollsters say it‘s impossible to make predictions about any voter behavior. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I‘ve never seen anything like this, because you don‘t know who the voters are, you don‘t know where they are, you don‘t know who‘s coming back, you don‘t know who is back but wants to leave.  You don‘t know who‘s going to vote.  You don‘t know who‘s going to try and vote and fail.  I mean, except for those things, it‘s easy. 

MULLEN:  Given all that, political insiders say interest in this mayoral election is high.  As are the stakes.  The future of an American city, which is also a national gateway for Louisiana‘s rich supply of oil, seafood, and fun.  Mark Mullen, NBC News, New Orleans. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Mark Mullen.  Peter Kovacs is the manager editor of the local newspaper here, The Times Picayune, which today was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news, congratulations, for public service for its coverage of Hurricane Katrina.  Congratulations, Mr. Editor. 

Let me ask you about the fight tonight.  I feel like it‘s the old Gillette fights here.  I have seven candidates.  Now is Nagin going to do? 

PETER KOVACS, THE TIMES-PICAYUNE:  Well, the mayor has been fairly

cautious.  I think he feels like he‘s going to make the runoff and he‘s

gotten in trouble with some of his spontaneous remarks, and so I think -

MATTHEWS:  Are you sure that‘s going to hurt him, that chocolate city is going to hurt him in the end or solidify the black vote? 

KOVACS:  I think it hurt him with white voters, who were a big part of his support last time.  But I think it helped him with black voters.

MATTHEWS:  I‘m just talking as a complete fight promoter here.  I‘m

Don King.  He‘s black, he has a white opponent in the runoff.  It helps him

KOVACS:  I would say it solidified his support among African-Americans or helped his support. 

MATTHEWS:  Why is he in the running?  Most people would say a guy who had gone through this would not have the nerve to run for reelection? 

KOVACS:  Well, I think he thinks that he has something to contribute to the city and that he has worked very hard on developing a plan.  And he appointed some of the leading people in the city to work on that plan, and I think he thinks he wants to carry that out. 

MATTHEWS:  Was he kind of the candidate of the white establishment before? 

KOVACS:  Well, he was the candidate of the white establishment, but he was an unusual things in New Orleans, because he really had a lot of biracial support before. 

MATTHEWS:  He won in both communities right?

KOVACS:  I don‘t know if he won among African-Americans.

MATTHEWS:  I think he did.

Let me ask you about this.  What will it say to America if Nagin gets reelected?  What will your message to the country be, ethnicity trumps efficiency or what?  Is it that bad? 

KOVACS:  Oh, I wouldn‘t say that.  You know, I would say the message is...

MATTHEWS:  I‘m hoping you‘ll say something, you know, outrageous. 

KOVACS:  Well, I don‘t want to get to outrageous.  I would say the message is that New Orleans thinks that people support the plan that he‘s worked on.  He‘s had to make some tough choices.  It‘s not easy telling people that they can‘t rebuild and that they can‘t come home. 

MATTHEWS:  The other two strong candidates, just for the public to get sort of the fight card ready tonight, is Ron Foreman.

KOVACS:  Correct.

MATTHEWS:  And what has he done for this city?  Your editorial page endorsed him, why? 

KOVACS:  He was the head of an institute that runs a zoo and an aquarium, and he has built several very well regarded well run projects in the city that mostly have to do with promoting tourism. 

MATTHEWS:  So as goes the zoo, so goes the city? 

KOVACS:  Well, perhaps. 

MATTHEWS:  And what about the other fellow, the lieutenant governor, Mitch Landrieu? 

KOVACS:  He, as you know, is part of a long-time New Orleans family and has been a legislator for, I think, 16 years and was elected lieutenant governor. 

MATTHEWS:  Is he known for his lineage or his achievements? 

KOVACS:  He‘s known for his achievements, and I‘d say to some degree his lineage.  I mean the Landrieu‘s are a fairly famous name in New Orleans.

MATTHEWS  Why is politics an entertainment sport down here?  Why do you laugh at the fact that you have got Huey Long, Earl Long, Edwin Edwards, a good number of them heavily corrupt, and yet they‘re heroes down here.  Why is that? 

KOVACS:  Oh, well they are not completely heroes to everybody.  I think that sort of simplifies the thing.  I think people like to be entertained by politics. 

MATTHEWS:  Still? 

KOVACS:  Not as much as they used to.  I think people have come to realize that came with some cost, but, you know, people like politics and everything to be entertaining. 

MATTHEWS:  You‘ll be great.  Congratulations again on the Pulitzer Prize, what a lifetime achievement.  Anyway, thank you Peter Kovacs, managing editor of “The Times Picayune.”

Much more on the mayor‘s race here in a moment with the anchors of WDSU TV.  This is HARDBALL from New Orleans only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back from New Orleans.  And We‘re joined right now by WDSU TV anchors, Kriss Fairbairn and Norman Robinson.  Thank you both, Kriss and Norman. 

And, by the way, Norman is going to be co-anchoring or co-moderating tonight‘s debate here from New Orleans.  It is going to be nationally televised here on MSNBC, and it is going to be a hot one, right? 

NORMAN ROBINSON, WDSU NEWS ANCHOR:  Absolutely.  Because this is a crucial moment in the history of New Orleans.  Not since the Civil War has the city been in a crossroads such as this, with so many people gone from the area, and so many people yet to make up their mind about returning.  I gave you a tour today, and I think you saw a sample of that. 

MATTHEWS:  I loved the tour.

Kriss, let me ask about the national audience.  I want your reaction on this.  I think a lot of people are wondering what is going on down here.  They have last paid attention to this about a month before the flooding, and they want to know what it is going to cost them. 

KRISS FAIRBAIRN, WDSU NEWS ANCHOR:  Well, you know, I just came back from Houston.  When you opened the newspaper in Houston, for instance, you see Katrina stories, New Orleans stories all over the paper.  So there is information available.  But it is entirely different when you live hundreds and hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles away from what used to be home here in New Orleans. 

So the information is not the same.  And they‘re starving for it.  Because, yes, many of them want to come home, and they want that information.  They want that communication.  And it is just not available to them on that scale to keep them informed.  That‘s why tonight‘s debate is going to be extraordinary to allow them that opportunity to hear the people who are running for mayor of this city. 

MATTHEWS:  We‘ve never had a major U.S. city go down.  Do you think it is possible that New Orleans might go down, that even that beautiful set of hotels downtown when you are standing out and looking on the balcony—last night when I first got in, I said, God, I said it looks great.  You‘ve got Harrah‘s Casino, all of these nice hotels.  It feels like the greatest resort in the world to go visit.  It is the real thing.  It is not Disney World.  It is real.  Could it fail? 

ROBINSON:  It is very possible.  I mean, the city is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy as we speak.  It is going to run out of money next month.  They just had a meeting with a group of bankers last week to try to come up with $150 million to finance city operations throughout the rest of the year.  So it is very likely that the city could go down.

The city was on crutches before Katrina.  This just simply pushed the city that was already struggling over the edge economically. 

FAIRBAIRN:  Now it is on its knees.

ROBINSON:  Now we‘re in the emergency room, and we‘re in the critical care unit right now.  And this is going to be a national problem for some time to come.  Because of the breadth of the devastation.  When people come to New Orleans, they come downtown, they go to the French Quarter and they go, well, you know, they‘re coming back on their own.

But the fact of the matter is the majority of the people who lived here, three quarters of the people who lived here don‘t have homes anymore.  Because they were all wiped out either by wind or water or storm surge or a combination of all three. 

FAIRBAIRN:  And another thing, those areas that you saw when you looked downtown and you see Harrah‘s and a lot of people on Canal Street and the downtown area walking around, the French Quarter, you‘re isolated.  Because that is, unfortunately, a part of the city that did not receive major destruction.  The neighborhoods and the tax base and the people who make this city what it is are gone. 

MATTHEWS:  What is the plus side?  What‘s great about New Orleans? 

FAIRBAIRN:  There is so much. 

MATTHEWS:  What makes it unique to other cities? 

FAIRBAIRN:  The culture.  The people.  The attitude. 

ROBINSON:  The food.  The music. 

FAIRBAIRN:  Absolutely.

ROBINSON:  The mysticism of the place.  It is one of the most unique cities in America.  When I think of cities that are unique, I think of Boston, I think of Chicago, I think of San Francisco, I think of New York and I think of New Orleans.  It is one of the most famous cities in the world. 

MATTHEWS:  I love coming down here.  Anyway, I love this trip.  Anyway, guys it is going to be so hot tonight.  What a debate we‘re going to have tonight.  This could be better than most presidential debates.  A lot of points of view.  Race is a factor.  Anger is a factor.  Politics, jobs, the whole thing, it is all going to be on deck here tonight in our big debate, 9 Eastern time here on MSNBC.  And Norman and I will be anchoring this and moderating it and trying to keep it under control.

Kriss Fairbairn, thank you very much for joining us.

FAIRBAIRN:  Thank you.

MATTHEWS:  Right now it is time for “THE ABRAM‘S 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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