updated 5/17/2006 11:30:06 AM ET 2006-05-17T15:30:06

Guests: Mike Allen, Kate O‘Beirne, Bob Shrum, Rob Couhig, Tom Watson, Doug Brinkley, Norman Robinson

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR:  Is President Bush serious about illegal immigration?  Will the National Guard and state-of-the-art I.D. cards stop the illegal traffic?  Let‘s play HARDBALL. 

(MUSIC)

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

Tonight I‘m back in New Orleans to moderate, with WDSU anchor Norman Robinson, the big runoff debate between mayoral contenders, Ray Nagin, the incumbent, and Mitch Landrieu, the challenger.  MSNBC will have exclusive live coverage of tonight‘s debate at 9:00 p.m. Eastern.  It‘s an important national television event you won‘t want to miss.  So stay tuned to MSNBC. 

Last night in his prime time address on illegal immigration, President Bush said he would send troops, National Guard troops, to the border and called on the U.S. Congress to find a rational middle ground, he called it, on illegal immigration reform.  We‘ll have reaction to his speech. 

And new White House Press Secretary Tony Snow held his first televised briefing today. 

But first, new images of American Airlines Flight 77 crashing into the Pentagon September 11 were released by the Pentagon today in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.  Jim Miklaszewski is NBC‘s Pentagon correspondent and was at the Pentagon himself on September 11. 

Jim, take us through these pictures. 

JIM MIKLASZEWSKI, NBC NEWS, THE PENTAGON:  Chris, these videos were taken from two Pentagon police surveillance cameras that were located to the side of the blast site, and in here, you see in the right side—now this is at full speed and it‘s difficult to see, because this airplane was traveling at 530 miles per hour.  And keep in mind, these are flash frames or single photo flashes taken by these surveillance cameras, but if you slow it down and freeze it, in the far right hand corner, you see that long, thin slice of silver, right there, which is the fuselage, according to the Pentagon officials, of the 757, American Airline Flight 77, that slammed if to the building.

And there was a second video, if we have that, which in fact shows—

from a slightly different angle and slightly closer—you see at one point

this is the same video here, Chris.  But you see what appears to be the nose cone of the 757, again as it—just moments before it slams into the Pentagon, killing 179 people. 

And I emphasize again, that these are single still frames taken by these surveillance cameras.  We‘ve seen these before in many criminal cases, where they don‘t roll continuously, so it‘s difficult to get a distinct vision of that airplane.  You can‘t make out any markings on the airplane, but combine that with eyewitness accounts that say this American Airlines plane slammed into the Pentagon, this is still further confirmation of what happened that day.  And this video was not released until today, in part because a Freedom of Information Act, filings by several organizations, but also because this was being held as evidence and this very video was used in the Zacarias Moussaoui trial, which wrapped up just a few weeks ago, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, when you watch it, as you say, that silver streak is so quick as it goes into the building, but it looked like it was on the ground.  Of course, you had a hijacker piloting the plane.  What do you actually think happened? 

MIKLASZEWSKI:  You know, that day when I was standing across from the Pentagon a couple of hours later, an Air Force pilot stood next to me and he looked at the trajectory of that airplane as it went into the building and he said, you know, that was one hell of a piece of flying, to keep that aircraft on path and so low to the ground, just before hitting the Pentagon, for as long as he did. 

And from other eyewitness accounts, that airplane came in at a trajectory, it passed over a nearby Sheraton Hotel, what is called the Navy Annex on a hill above the Pentagon, and then took a dip down, leveled off to sort of fly at ground level for a couple of seconds, and almost just before it impacts into the Pentagon, it sort of skips off the ground and slams into the Pentagon. 

MATTHEWS:  Amazing.  Let‘s take a look at your report that day from the Pentagon the morning of September 11, just minutes after the plane hit. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MIKLASZEWSKI:  Katie, I don‘t want to alarm anybody right now, but apparently—it felt just a few moments ago like there was an explosion of some kind here at the Pentagon.  We‘re on the E-ring of the Pentagon, we have a window that faces out toward the Potomac, toward the Kennedy Center.  We haven‘t been able to see or hear anything after the initial blast.  I just stepped out in the hallway.  Security guards were herding people out of the building, and I saw just a moment ago as I looked outside, a number of construction workers, who have been working here, have taken flight.  They‘re running as far away from the building as they can right now. 

I hear no sirens going off in the building, I see no smoke, but the building shook for just a couple of seconds, the windows rattled, and security personnel are doing what they can momentarily to clear this part of the building. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  And then you had to leave yourself, right? 

MIKLASZEWSKI:  Well, eventually.  Chris, I was on the opposite side of the Pentagon from where the airliner struck, and as you know, this is a huge building, but it shows you the power of that blast -- 36,000 pounds of airline fuel, jet fuel, were on that plane, when it hit the building.  And I could feel it, several hundred yards away from the impact site as the crow flies.

And it is interesting, when I was filing that report, my instincts told me at that moment, just seconds after the blast, that it was an airliner.  In fact, one person who was with the Defense Intelligence Agency just minutes before told me that the attacks on the World Trade Center were so well coordinated that rMD+IT_rMD-IT_I‘d better stay off the E-ring, the outer ring of the building, because he predicted ominously that the Pentagon would be next.  I saw him later, he said he had no intel to that effect, but his gut just told him that the al Qaeda terrorists were not going to stop in New York. 

MATTHEWS:  Why did the Pentagon withhold these videos taken by that surveillance camera until they were demanded by a Freedom of Information request? 

MIKLASZEWSKI:  Well, the Pentagon really didn‘t withhold them.  These videos were turned over to the FBI, which were used then in the—in the investigation, initial investigation, and then the criminal case against Zacarias Moussaoui.  When that case wrapped up, it was the Justice Department, Chris, that actually gave the go-ahead and released the videos, because they had possession of all the surveillance videos.  And this is it, according to the Pentagon officials, all the surveillance videos available of the attack on the Pentagon on 9-11. 

There are many rumors out there, that there are other videos from nearby hotels that exist, but the prosecutor in the Moussaoui case has told NBC News that he knows of no other videos.  And quite frankly, Chris, if there were any other videos, it probably would have been used in that case. 

Now, there are the conspiracy theorists, as you know, worldwide—

MATTHEWS:  Sure.

MIKLASZEWSKI:  -- that claim an airplane did not fly into the building, that it was a missile fired by the Pentagon itself to whip up fervor for the war against al Qaeda.  Well, those who have seen—who actually saw the plane fly into the building and those who are familiar with the circumstances around this event say that‘s just utter nonsense.

But this video, because again, you can‘t make out the markings on that fuselage as it zips through those still frames, is probably not going to quiet those conspiracy theorists, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Well said.  Thank you very much.  Jim Miklaszewski from the Pentagon. 

Tony Snow made his debut today as White House press secretary.  Here‘s an exchange he had today with NBC‘s David Gregory. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  The president was speaking last night to the American people about an issue that is of enormous importance to him.  You see it every time he talks about it.  This is an issue for which he has real passion, and he‘s decided that in this issue, he is going to demonstrate leadership by saying exactly what he wants.  That‘s what he did last night. 

DAVID GREGORY, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  What he said today was, Let‘s not get emotional about this and forget who we are.  But is that what we should look for?  Because these aren‘t new issues, Tony, and the House knows what everybody is talking about, which is a path towards citizenship for those who are here illegally. 

SNOW:  Well, let‘s—

GREGORY:  It‘s not just about border security.  They‘re saying that‘s amnesty.  The definition has not changed in their minds over time.  They don‘t have to read the president‘s speech to learn about it.

SNOW:  What‘s interesting here is I don‘t leap to conclusions, David, about what the House of Representatives is likely to do. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Well, for a review or a preview—actually it‘s a review -

a Broadway-style review of how Tony Snow did today, let‘s turn now to “Time” magazine White House correspondent Mike Allen. 

Mike, I hate to put you at Sardi‘s restaurant after a play has just opened, but I guess that‘s what we‘re doing. 

MIKE ALLEN, “TIME” MAGAZINE:  Chris, you‘d be good company at Sardi‘s.  Tony Snow came across as very confident today.  A lot of his answers were very short, crisp.  You know, with you‘re taking an exam and you write a long answer if you‘re not familiar with the material—Tony Snow wasn‘t afraid to say yes, no, it‘s not appropriate to answer that, I don‘t know, I‘ll find out—instead of faking it—I‘ll get an answer.  You heard him say several times, the little phrase that you heard him say there with David Gregory, don‘t leap to conclusions.

He was cool on the stand.  You saw him there, smiling, as David Gregory threw in the patronizing “Tony” in the middle of his questions.  And you saw him at one point correct himself.  He said he‘d overstepped his bounds by predicting what the Senate would do.  He did it all with humor.  He started precisely at 11:30, went exactly 45 minutes, stepped off and it was a very strong performance. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, Mike, you‘re one of the good intensive reporters.  You penetrate behind some of the flackery, and that‘s what this is that comes out of the White House.  Could you tell how far he got in to the inner sanctum to get briefed himself this morning? 

ALLEN:  Well Tony was very astute about sticking to the facts that he knew, he hasn‘t been afraid to say, that‘s getting beyond my brief, and he had a very effective way of disarming some of the questions.  A few people maybe tried to show off a little bit and he sort of treated people as if he might treat callers to his radio show.  He just stopped back and said, wait, what are you saying here, or I don‘t mean to be dumb here, but how would that be the case? 

And so in forcing the questioners to go back a little bit, he pushed back here and there, he played along here and there and showed that he was in control of the podium.  And he‘s not out there to give state secrets.  If he‘s in the inner sanctum, his function in the briefings is not to talk about the inner sanctum. 

His function in these briefings is to be presenting the president‘s public face.  Luckily there‘s a demand and paycheck for people who will seek other information, but that‘s not what he‘s out there to do.  He‘s not out there to show the linen.  He‘s giving in an effective and convincing way the facts that they want known. 

MATTHEWS:  He talked about his cancer today, didn‘t he? 

ALLEN:  There is an emotional moment.  You can see in the photos his yellow Live Strong Lance Armstrong bracelet and Rebecca Cooper, one of the great reporters in Washington, Channel 7 here, a lot of people in town know Rebecca, she always asks a good human question.  She asked Tony about that bracelet.  He choked up a little bit when he talked about his recovery from colon cancer. 

He talked earlier today with Lance Armstrong about it.  He briefly called him Lance Arnold, went back and corrected that very confidently, and he talked about the miracle of the treatment he received, not to get lost in the weeds of the discussion about health care policy that it‘s amazing the treatment he got just a year ago, his colon completely removed him off the air, now he‘s back, he got more hair than he had before his chemotherapy, so I‘m a little jealous. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Mike Allen of “Time” magazine.  Last night, President Bush spoke to the country and rolled out an immigration reform plan, his reform plan.  Today lawmakers on Capitol Hill weighed in, underscoring the precarious political position the president finds himself in.  HARDBALL correspondent David Shuster has this report. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I‘ve asked for a few minutes of your time to discuss a matter of national importance: The reform of America‘s immigration system. 

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Just hours after he formally unveiled a comprehensive immigration reform plan, a Republican rebellion against President Bush that began weeks ago in the House, today spilled into the U.S. Senate. 

SEN. JOHNNY ISAKSON ®, GEORGIA:  But if we grant programs that grant status to those that are here illegally and look the other way on our border, then the next time we bring this up in 10 or 15 years, it won‘t be 12 million, it will be 24 million and worst of all, we would have lost control. 

SHUSTER:  The language from Senate Republicans was not as harsh as one House lawmaker, who last night called the president‘s program amnesty and said it cannot be tolerated, but several Senate Republicans today made it clear they also don‘t like the president‘s approach. 

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS ®, GEORGIA:  I do not believe that we should provide illegal immigrants with a new path to citizenship through this bill nor any other bill. 

SHUSTER:  The Republicans argued the border needs to be tightened first and only then should citizenship issues be addressed. 

SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER ®, TENNESSEE:  But we can‘t adjust the legal status of those illegally here until the border is secure.  Mr. President, we have no business passing a comprehensive immigration bill without making sure first that the border will be secure. 

SHUSTER:  The awkward political position of President Bush was underscored today by the run down of those supporting his comprehensive approach.  The group includes Democrat Ted Kennedy. 

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY (D), MASSACHUSETTS:  I have my differences with the president, but he‘s absolutely right, he understands history, he‘s a border state governor and he knows you can‘t do this by itself. 

SHUSTER:  Another Democrat praised the president for thinking of the illegal immigrants already in this country. 

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS:  You need to deal honestly with the 11 or 12 million who are here to bring them out of the shadows, so that we know who they are, where they are, whether they are working, and whether they pose any threat to this country.  It is a comprehensive approach. 

SHUSTER:  At the White House today, President Bush took on his harshest critics. 

BUSH:  There are some in our country who say let‘s just deport everybody.  It‘s unrealistic.  It may sound attractive to some.  You can‘t deport people who have been in this country for a long period of time.  Millions of people that have been here.  And so we‘ve got to be rational about how we move forward. 

SHUSTER:  And at his first television briefing, new White House Press Secretary Tony Snow added this. 

SNOW:  The president is looking for a practical way, consistent with the American spirit, to make sure that we handle border security, we handle interior security, that we go ahead and deal with a number of the chief concerns on immigration that we have always had. 

SHUSTER (on camera):  The White House did get an early victory today.  The U.S. Senate defeated an amendment that would have blocked all immigration reform except for border security.  Still, some tough immigration votes are ahead in the midst of a contentious political environment.  I‘m David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, David Shuster.  Coming up, will the president‘s plan on illegal immigration win back his Republican base and help bolster his sagging poll numbers?  And later, will New Orleans rise again and who will lead it back?  We‘ll preview tonight‘s mayoral debate, which I will co-moderate as the future of a great American city hangs in the balance.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. The big question, will President Bush‘s plan to send National Guard troops to the Mexican border and make foreign workers show tamper proof ID cards win over the conservatives when it comes to supporting his guest worker program for illegal immigrants.  And will his immigration proposal overall be enough to boost his low poll numbers. 

Kate O‘Beirne is the Washington editor of “The National Review” and Bob Shrum is a HARDBALL political analyst.  I want to start with Kate since it is the conservatives that the president is addressing.  Can he convince people who want to stop illegal immigration, reverse the flow of illegals across the border, that he‘s one of them.

KATE O‘BEIRNE, NATIONAL REVIEW:  I think last night, President Bush did exactly what the White House wanted him to.  According to the polls, that they pay more attention to than they are willing to admit, the president was getting lower ratings on handling the issue of immigration than his overall low job approval ratings.  They knew they had a problem. 

Last night, he, I think, did, they‘ll agree, a successful job of this middle ground that everybody in the debate is looking for.  Now, it‘s easier to find that middle ground when you create false choices on both sides, and that is something the president did last night. 

In fact, no one is arguing for instant citizenship, and on the other hand, no one in office is arguing for mass deportations.  But having set up those as the two choices, he came down in the middle and recalibrated his message, let‘s talk about family values not stopping at the border and more talk, especially after 9/11, about the need for border security. 

MATTHEWS:  Bob Shrum, do you support the president‘s position? 

BOB SHRUM, HARDBALL POLITICAL ANALYST:  Basically.  Look, the National Guard was a stop to the right wing and the conservatives.  The National Guard has become the tattered, shredded safety net for this administration when it‘s in trouble, whether it‘s Iraq or immigration. 

The real heart of the speech was what Kate just mentioned, the appeal for a rational middle ground and he in essence endorsed the approach taken by Senator Kennedy and Senator McCain.  You know, if Kennedy and McCain and Bush are all there, it‘s probably a pretty sensible policy. 

It reminds me of what Strom Thurmond said once when he was co-sponsoring a bill with Ted Kennedy, he said either this is an idea whose time has come or one of us hasn‘t read the bill. 

SHRUM:  Senator Kennedy‘s support is not going to help him with the Republicans they need this November.  The problem is, and I think the House Republicans reflect this, so do some of the Senate Republicans, the problem is the president doesn‘t have a lot of credibility on the border security side of this debate. 

As you well know, Congress, for instance, last year authorized 10,000 new border agents, the administration was willing to fund only 210, even though the president last night talked about how crucial it is to support the border.  To support border security, to tighten up the border, to reduce the hundreds of thousands who slip across every year. 

The administration has conspicuously done nothing over the last five years, and the program he‘s talking about on the other side that he is anxious to paint as something other than amnesty, to legalize the status of those illegally her is very similar to what was done in 1986 under President Reagan.  

President Reagan called the similar program amnesty.  Everybody called that program amnesty, and of course those who remember the results of 1986 is we got the amnesty and the promised border security and equally important, internal security, cracking down on businesses that hire illegals never happened.  And that‘s the concern of an awful lot of conservatives and congressional Republicans. 

MATTHEWS:  Bob, do you support the tamper-proof ID card proposal of the president last night. 

SHRUM:  I think that is another sop.  I certainly am against it if it goes to having everybody in this country have to carry a tamper proof I.D.  But Kate and the Republicans—

MATTHEWS:  Why are you against that?  He didn‘t propose that.  He proposed that foreign workers, people who are not citizens of the United States, what‘s wrong with that?  Tell me what your view it? 

SHRUM:  I don‘t like the entering wedge of requiring people to carry

ID  cards.  So I‘m not for it, they end up in—it may end up in the final

bill and if you get a bill that is a comprehensive approach, then people

will swallow it and they‘ll support it, but the Republicans who are going -

MATTHEWS:  Why—I don‘t understand your position.  Why wouldn‘t you want to stop people from hiring people illegally? 

SHRUM:  Look, we have a 11 or 12 million illegal immigrants in this country right now.  Many of them have jobs.  Many of them are working.  And Kate is wrong, by the way, when she says this is an amnesty proposal.  They have to pay back taxes, they have to pay a fine and go to the back of the line.

And the Republicans who are opposing Bush here are playing a dangerous game.  He‘s trying to save them.  The fact is if they go down this road, while it will satisfy their base this year, it will hurt Republicans very badly for years and years to come in election after election. 

MATTHEWS:  I guess that, Kate, is one reason why I‘m skeptical of any of these proposals in doing anything more than Simpson-Mazzoli did back in 1986 and that is, unless you take away the lure of jobs that this country offers, people are still trying to get here no matter what it takes to get here, so you‘re wasting time with National Guardspeople and more border patrol people, because as long as there‘s a job on the other side of the border, anybody talking right now would try to go for it, especially when you have a legalization program which will eventually make you a citizen of the United States with a job. 

So I think the president is right, but Kate, do you think the conservatives will buy what the president said last night, that he really wants to stop the illegal hiring with ID cards? 

O‘BEIRNE:  Well, he hasn‘t elaborated.  Clearly you can‘t hold employers responsible for hiring illegals if there‘s not a reliable way for them to find out the legal status of an employee.  But if there is a tamper of proof ID card and one of the problems of course is with any of these reform efforts is, the current system is totally overwhelmed, there‘s no way, they currently don‘t have any way to deal with fraudulent documents.

There‘s over a million pending applications, nobody has addressed how the current system is supposed to handle this huge new responsibility, but you can have a tamper-proof card in theory, but you‘ve got to be willing to enforce it with respect to penalizing employers who ignore the card or continue to hire illegals because you‘re exactly right, the interior enforcement, the magnet of employers willing to hire cheap illegal labor is what keeps hundreds of thousands crossing the border. 

MATTHEWS:  I guess I don‘t understand.  I have to identify myself by my signature when I pay my taxes, I have to identify myself with my ID card when I go in a hotel, an airplane.  The only people that don‘t have to use real ID cards in this country are people who aren‘t supposed to be in this country.  Bob, I don‘t get it.

We‘ll be right back trying to find some consistency here on HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with Kate O‘Beirne and Bob Shrum.  Let me start with Bob this time.  I‘m a skeptic about weather this bill being passed will change anything.  As long as there will be people who for desperate or opportunistic reasons want to come in the country, they‘ll find a way to get in the country.  If there‘s a job at the other end, an ultimate citizenship, you or I would try to get in. 

I just don‘t see how this bill will change that.  Tell me. 

SHRUM:  Well, you know, I don‘t ordinary find myself defending the president here, but the truth is that the only way that you‘re going to change things is not just...

MATTHEWS:  We‘ve just had—go to Kate. 

Kate, let me ask you the same question.  Do you believe if the president gets this bill signed that he‘s pushing that something will be different 20 years from now in terms of the flow of people coming into the country illegally? 

O‘BEIRNE:  Based on our experience in 1986, I would say yes, things would be different in this respect:  The number of illegal immigrants in the United States will be dramatically higher than it is today. 

Following the amnesty of 1986, people got the message:  If you come to America and are able to stay here illegally, at some point you too could be granted citizenship.  And millions were encouraged post-‘86 to do exactly that, which is why we do have an estimated 12 million today. 

The problem was far smaller in 1986, and the promised border security and crackdown on employers who hire illegals promised in the ‘86 reform never happened, and that issue (inaudible), Chris, was the magnet problem. 

MATTHEWS:  That‘s the same skepticism I share with you. 

Thank you very much, Kate O‘Beirne. 

Thank you, Bob Shrum.  Sorry about the technical difficulty.  We‘ll get Bob back next time.

Up next, eight months after Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans, we take a look at the state of this city I‘m in right now, New Orleans, heading into tonight‘s big mayoral debate, which is down to two men, the current mayor and the big challenger. 

Can this city come back?  Can one of these two men bring this city back?  Ray Nagin, the incumbent mayor, or Mitch Landrieu, the lieutenant governor of this state running against him.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

In four days now, voters down here in New Orleans head to the polls—that‘s this Saturday—to pick a leader who can save this city.  Nine months after Katrina first hit, homes and businesses remain in ruins—

I‘ve seen them.  Families are still displaced. 

Two candidates for mayor now go head to head in the runoff.  Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu, the challenger—he‘s a member of that old Louisiana family dynasty, the Landrieus, and that includes the former mayor here—and the current mayor, Ray Nagin, who presided over this city during the disaster. 

Tonight at 9:00 p.m. Eastern, I‘ll co-moderate the big debate right here on MSNBC. 

Here to weigh on this very important election are two candidates who didn‘t make the final round, Reverend Tom Watson, who sits immediately to my left who‘s a Democrat, and Republican businessman Rob Couhig. 

Thank you, gentlemen.

You were very impressive in your own ways.  You had a great heart.  I liked your business sense, but that‘s just an outsider talking. 

You know, a lot of people look at this city as another big city, like I grew up in Philadelphia, which every election comes down to—damn it—race.  It always does.  Most people vote for the candidate of their race and the other people mostly vote for the other candidate. 

Tell me what‘s different about this situation, Mr. Couhig? 

ROB COUHIG ®, FMR. NEW ORLEANS MAYORAL CANDIDATE:  Well, I don‘t think it‘s dramatically different.  And you can actually go back and be ethnic and say in Boston we always voted on Irish. 

MATTHEWS:  Sure.

COUHIG:  But here‘s what is going to be interesting for America to watch. 

You‘re going to see a significant white turnout for Ray Nagin...

MATTHEWS:  Who‘s African-American.

COUHIG:  ... who‘s African-American.  You‘re going to see significant African-American turnout for Mitch Landrieu. 

I think it‘s really break along lines of philosophies.  There are those of us who believe that the Landrieus are really the epitome of the governments of the past, and Ray, for all of his warts, is at least a new face for the future. 

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

Describe—give me an image that the national audience that‘s watching right now would get. 

Who is the lieutenant governor Mitch Landrieu like nationally?  Is he a Hubert Humphrey, an old-style liberal?  Is he a Tip O‘Neill, my old boss?  Is he that kind of a person?  How would you—tax and spend liberal?  What would you call him?  Give me an image here. 

COUHIG:  Well, we‘re trying to be positive about him. 

MATTHEWS:  Is he dishonest? 

COUHIG:  No, I don‘t think he‘s dishonest.  He is a career politician.  He spent his entire life in politics.  He‘s one who believes government has all solutions at all times...

MATTHEWS:  So he‘s a big government liberal? 

COUHIG:  In my estimation, yes. 

MATTHEWS:  And what do you think, Reverend? 

REVEREND TOM WATSON (D), FMR. NEW ORLEANS MAYORAL CANDIDATE:  Yes, well, I think you see the dynasty in operation.

And I think the apprehension among many voters that are going to vote for Ray Nagin is that we don‘t want a dynasty in charge of our city, and I wouldn‘t say for eight years, I would say for 12 years, because usually the guy that makes it for eight years can almost anoint, if you will, the next person. 

MATTHEWS:  What would you describe his character as?  Is it like the old inside, 20 families all know each other, they all talk at cocktail parties or at dinner in the middle of the night? 

WATSON:  It‘s no doubt.  I mean, they...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  That‘s what you‘ve been getting at here. 

WATSON:  Yes, they breathe this, they live this. 

I mean, they live to do elections.  I mean, I‘m a novice. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  So you would call it the establishment then? 

WATSON:  Politically, there‘s no doubt in the Democratic Party.  His sister is a senator, I mean, his auntie is on our school board. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I like the way you say auntie, very elite.

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about the man you both are supporting right now.  He did come in, in the first election, the primary, number one.  By the way, the latest polling here by Tulane, Tulane University just came out, Mitch Landrieu, the lieutenant governor who‘s challenging the governor the current mayor got 48 percent in this poll, and the mayor got 38 percent.

I know about statistical significance, but 10 points is a whopper. 

Are you surprised by that, Reverend Watson?

WATSON:  I‘m not because a poll is a poll is a poll.  I don‘t think people thought the mayor would come in as strong as he did in the primary.  So we‘re looking at—

MATTHEWS:  Why not? 

WATSON:  Well, because there was this buzz that he wouldn‘t make it, there was a thought about his leadership being, you know, not so great.  But obviously people felt that he should be back in there, particularly in the African-American community.

So I would suggest that we don‘t pay a lot of attention to that poll, because again, it does not include people who are not in New Orleans.  Many of them are going to still come back and support the mayor.  I believe that. 

MATTHEWS:  Why do you support—Rob, why do you support a mayor who has gotten such bad publicity nationwide?  Most people out there in the country are going to say, You know, he‘s gotten back in—if rMDNM_Nagin wins again—basically it‘s a black city, he‘s black, he won on ethnic solidarity or something like that.  Why are you for him? 

COUHIG:  Well, to me, Mitch is really the status quo.  If we‘re going to have a change, it‘s best served by having somebody who understands business.  Ray again, for all—and I sat with him, Chris, and said, Look, Mayor, can we a commitment on housing and health care and education?

MATTHEWS:  There he is in the front there. 

You said he was guilty of drowning 1200 people during the primary campaign.  Now you‘re for him? 

WATSON:  I‘m the guy who said that.  So I don‘t want him to—unless you want to answer for me.

MATTHEWS:  Reverend Watson, I guess you were. 

WATSON:  That was in the heat of battle. 

MATTHEWS:  I see—battle‘s over now.

WATSON:  You know, I call it heated emotional fellowship.  Things come out that you don‘t want to come out.  And we know not one person was responsible for all that.  I think in our anger and our frustration, things come out that we don‘t intend to damage people. 

MATTHEWS:  What do you call him, Rob? 

COUHIG:  Same thing I would say today.  I don‘t think he‘s been the most skilled mayor of our time.  But here‘s the problem.  You come down to two choices; that‘s the way the system works. 

MATTHEWS:  I got you.

COUHIG:  If they had done it right, I‘d be running. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Is he the lesser of two evils? 

COUHIG:  Well, no, I don‘t like to say—he is—

WATSON:  I don‘t want to call it that.

COUHIG:  The people have selected these two fellows, and when I look at him, I think he‘s got the best potential for this city. 

MATTHEWS:  You guys have nothing more to lose—you know, freedom is just another word for nothing else to lose, you‘ve lost this race—so you can speak for your city, right now.  Tonight we‘re going to hold the debate.  We expect to get a big audience tonight because a lot of people carry about one of our five or six major cities in our country.  And New Orleans is definitely one of our most interesting cities.  Why should the American people continue to engage, continue to pay attention to what‘s happening down here? 

COUHIG:  I think that this is America in microcosm.  We‘ve had a huge disaster, but what we‘re watching is the struggle really of philosophies, and I believe that‘s what‘s going to save New Orleans is going to be sort of a self-saving.  We‘re going to get out there and we‘re going to rebuild our city, and we‘re going to come and we‘re going to use the federal government, we‘re going to use our friends around the country, as we all would in any disaster, but people are going to get to see a rebirth of the American spirit.  They‘re going to get to see us really tackle these things that are hard, and look race in the eye, for example. 

They‘re on another—and where else are you going to have a conservative Republican, landing in—behind an African-American mayor, you‘re going to have a liberal Democrat, who‘s trying to get out there and get African-Americans.  We‘ve got it all happening here.  Go back to what you said—America‘s most interesting city—and we‘re going to be that for a long time. 

MATTHEWS:  I thank you.

WATSON:  And also remember this:  people are looking at this across the country, with regards to how America has taken care of Iraq.  And here you have one of your own and—

MATTHEWS:  I‘m with you on that one, and I think everybody watching this.

WATSON:  So that‘s important.

MATTHEWS:  By the way, nothing makes us happier than to see a black fellow backing a white guy and a white fellow backing a black guy.  That‘s what this country is supposed to be about at some point. 

WATSON:  That‘s right.

MATTHEWS:  Anyway, thank you.  Rob Couhig, you were very impressive in that debate, and you were emotionally inspiring, Reverend Watson. 

WATSON:  Thank you very much.

YOUNG:  Thank you.

MATTHEWS:  And that is your position in life.

WATSON:  That‘s my assignment. 

MATTHEWS:  That‘s your assignment by God, anyway. 

Up next, the final two:  Nagin versus Landrieu, that‘s the choice, the big touting for tonight.  Who is going to emerge the winner after the debate tonight?  We‘re going to find out because I‘m going to be helping the debate—in fact, moderating this debate, not helping.  I‘m going to be forcing them to think hard.  This is HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

At 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time tonight, I‘ll be co-moderating the debate for rMDNM_New Orleans mayor right here on MSNBC. 

Here to do some more serious digging into this race is historian Doug Brinkley, author of “The Great Deluge,” which has just come out, about the whole Katrina disaster, and my co-moderator tonight, WDSU anchor Norman Robinson. 

Norm, thanks for joining us.

NORMAN ROBINSON, WDSU ANCHOR:  You‘re welcome.

MATTHEWS:  I‘m joining you today.  But tell me about this poll we talked about that showed Nagin down 38 (percent) to 48 (percent). 

ROBINSON:  Interesting poll—the poll numbers, actually 48 to 38 -- a 10 percent margin of interest between the two runoff candidates.  And the most interesting thing that I‘ve been able to glean about this poll is there were 434 respondents, with a margin error with of 4.7 percent.  However this poll does not include the displaced voters.  And if you‘ll go back and look at the early election, during the primary a month ago, you‘ll find that over 60 percent of those displaced voters—voters who voted either absentee or early—were African-American, somewhere between 63 and 65 percent.  So the question is, how many of those displaced voters are going to cast their vote for Ray Nagin, who as you know, has reinvented himself of sort, as the—and it‘s really weird to say, but he has reinvented himself as the African-American candidate, the man of the people in the lower rMDNM_Nine and Gentilly and Uptown in East New Orleans.  The guy who is most likely to be the troubadour for the—

MATTHEWS:  I‘m trying to be a little careful about this.  I remember something like this happening in a famous murder trial a couple years ago, where a guy—

ROBINSON:  Let‘s not talk about murder. 

MATTHEWS:  But I won‘t talk about that guy.

But let me ask you, Doug—you‘ve written a very tough piece, tough book, that was excerpted in “Vanity Fair,” very tough on the incumbent mayor.  Do you want to stand by those words now? 

DOUG BRINKLEY, AUTHOR, “THE GREAT DELUGE”:  Oh, yes.  It‘s not a matter about the election, it‘s just looking at leadership during Katrina and Ray Nagin failed America during that time.  He abandoned the EOC, the Emergency Operations Center, which was City Hall.  Why the media doesn‘t talk about it—you had a mayor who left City Hall who ended up staying in the Hyatt on the 27th floor.  And never once spoke to any of those people we saw at the Superdome, never once spoke to them at the Convention Center.

My book deals with that one week, and looking at the failed leadership within that week.

MATTHEWS:  You know the criticism of your book?  Do you know what it is?  You are used to writing about great people, huge people.  Like who?  Give us an example. 

BRINKLEY:  I like to write about Dean Acheson, George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower. 

MATTHEWS:  Some people argue that you have set the bar so high for Ray Nagin that he has to be an almost Promethean historic figure.  He has to be on Mt. Rushmore to get your approval. 

BRINKLEY:  I was Rosa Parks‘ biographer, but she was somebody who saw an injustice and confronted it.  She was a seamstress when she was arrested in 1955.  She was an activist, but saw an injustice and confronted it.  My problem with Mayor Nagin is that I feel that he left the African-American community, the poor and the elderly, behind.  He never evacuated the buses out of town, they all drowned, and he—

MATTHEWS:  That was a question, why didn‘t they use the buses. 

ROBINSON:  Might I interject.  Doug writes the question about why people in the media didn‘t actually hone in on this fallacy or this hole in the mayor‘s character, if I‘m paraphrasing you correctly.  And I think there‘s a lot to be said for people who suffered from post-traumatic stress. 

I think in one of the columns written this morning, written by Chris Rose of The Times-Picayune here, he did one of these quick 60-second interviews and he asked them if anybody was on medication, he asked Landrieu and Nagin if they were on medication and each of them said no and then he asked the question, are any of you suffering from post-traumatic stress. 

Nagin responded that he‘s thought about that, he has to ask his wife.  So when you look at what happened, a lot of people are giving the mayor a pass are giving him a pass because they think maybe there was some sort of post-traumatic stress, because this was an overwhelming experience.  This was the worst disaster in the history of the country and here it was overwhelming this guy at a time when nobody else was doing anything.

MATTHEWS:  We‘ll be right back with Doug Brinkley, author of the big new book, “The Great Deluge” about what happened here.  Big New book—he always does best sellers, and Norman Robinson, who is going to co-moderate with me tonight the mayoral debate here in New Orleans between the last two guys running.  That‘s going to be at 9:00 p.m. eastern tonight and 8:00 p.m. central.  This is HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  We are down in New Orleans and we are just days away from a the big election in this city.  After taking major heat, can Mayor Ray Nagin possibly survive all the heat.  I‘m joined by the author Doug Brinkley, author of “The Great Deluge,” about the Katrina massacre and WDSU anchor Norman Robinson. 

I want you each to take a candidate.  There‘s two left.  Mitch Landrieu, lieutenant governor of the state.  Usually lieutenant governors head for governor, they don‘t go down to mayor.  Why is this guy running? 

ROBINSON:  Early on, after all of the mistakes made by the mayor, a lot of people became disenchanted.  A lot of people in the political, religious and economic sections of the city became very frustrated and disenchanted with the direction the city was going in.  So a lot of them prevailed on this lieutenant governor to toss his hat into the ring to run for mayor, knowing that he had his eyes set on the governorship. 

They talked him into running.  They called him the reluctant warrior because it took so long to make his mind to get in the race.  There is a lot of consternation.  But he was prevailed upon and he was sort of drafted. 

MATTHEWS:  Is stooping to conquer?  Is his ultimate goal to be governor of the state? 

ROBINSON:  Let‘s find out if he conquers first. 

MATTHEWS:  His official title is governor and we have to call these guys Mr., not mayor or your honor.  But he is a lieutenant governor running for mayor. 

BRINKLEY:  If he was going to run for governor in a year, would he have to go against Blanco and it would be bad.  They both had to suffer Katrina together.  They both had the same message about Katrina.  What the state did.  So I think he wanted to avoid that. 

MATTHEWS:  Lieutenant governors have knocked off an incumbent governor of their own party. 

BRINKLEY:  This is a cover of a magazine.  If you‘re mayor of New Orleans, it‘s the cover of “Time” or “Newsweek.”  This is a big moment to be mayor.  Like Theodore Roosevelt becoming police commissioner of New York.  It is a potential national spring board. 

MATTHEWS:  Here‘s the argument I heard for Nagin.  I heard it today.  He made an interesting argument.  He said, this is the time that calls for great courage.  You write about that.  And you know this.  It‘s a time to make decisions that the public may not be like but they will be good for the long run of this city. 

What‘s a better bet, a guy like Nagin who is in his last term if he gets elected, or a guy like Mitch Landrieu who has a long career ahead of him and wants to do all of the popular things.  Is that a good case? 

BRINKLEY:  It‘s a good case, but I think there is something else.  Katrina wiped the whole board off.  The big point for both of these candidates believe they are the best people for this city.  The politics have become somewhat second area for the vision of the future. 

Whoever becomes the next mayor is either going to in the dog house of history or has a chance of becoming incredible.  The bottom line, this is a big election, but we‘re in a hurricane season.  The levees aren‘t ready.  They are in bad shape.  The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hasn‘t built them.  We have flood gate problems.  This is going to be a dangerous summer to be here. 

The schools aren‘t running.  We have hospitals that aren‘t in great shape.  Whoever wins, and it‘s 50-50, but whoever wins has a hell of a job ahead of them to be mayor.  If they pull it off, they‘ll be a historic figure in the history books. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think the next mayor, can turn this city around?  Is there so much challenge out there? 

ROBINSON:  There‘s a tremendous challenge out there, Chris.  That‘s the $64 million question.  Can either of these guys turn the tide for the city of New Orleans, because as you know, 80 percent of the city is devastated and remains devastated, in spite of what is happening with the rebuilding of downtown New Orleans.

MATTHEWS:  We see it when we come in here.  Thank you.  Doug Brinkley, thank you Norman Robinson.  We‘ll be together for an hour tonight, monitoring this hot debate, perhaps decisive debate.  It‘s 9:00 eastern time.  The New Orleans mayoral debate.  That‘s tonight on MSNBC.

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.

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