updated 12/28/2006 7:45:52 PM ET 2006-12-29T00:45:52

Guests: Barry Werth, David Gergen, John McCaslin, Karen Hanretty, John Harwood

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR:  And now the news.  Ford to Bush: you‘re wrong.  Now it can be told.  The former Republican president said George W.  Bush‘s war on Iraq was not justified, that he, Gerald Ford, would have not gone to war.  Will Ford‘s postmortem testament torpedo Bush‘s push for more troops? 

Let‘s play HARDBALL. 

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

Tonight, as Washington prepares for all the pomp and pageantry of a state funeral in honor of our 28th president, an interview with President Ford, embargoed until his death, is causing a political stir. 

In July of 2004 President Bush told journalist Bob Woodward he disagreed with President Bush‘s decision to invade Iraq and was also critical of his top two aides, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. 

Today President Bush met with Vice President Cheney and his national security advisers in Crawford, Texas to talk about new strategies in Iraq.  More on this later. 

Looking ahead to 2008, former vice-presidential nominee John Edwards is shooting for the top of the ticket this time.  Today in New Orleans, Edwards formally announced his candidacy for president.  We‘ll get a live report. 

But first, Barry Werth wrote the book “31 Days” about the vital 31 days separating Richard Nixon‘s resignation and Gerald Ford‘s decision to pardon the former president. 

Welcome, Barry.  Thank you very much for joining us. 

In Bob Woodward‘s piece this morning and in your book it points out that President Ford at the time of the decision to pardon Richard Nixon was aware that there was a legal precedent that when someone accepts a pardon from a president, he accepts guilt.  Your thinking on that?

BARRY WERTH, AUTHOR, “#1 DAYS”:  You‘re right, Chris.  Ford had a lawyer, Benton Becker (ph), research this.  And he came up with a 1915 Supreme Court decision that said that to accept a pardon is to accept an imputation of guilt.  People don‘t hang pardons on their walls the way they hang diplomas on their walls. 

MATTHEWS:  And, therefore, he was getting Nixon to admit he had committed the crimes of Watergate by accepting the pardon, as he saw it?

WERTH:  Yes.  Becker flew out to California and had a very painful discussion with Nixon, where he continued to ask Nixon, “Do you understand what this means if you accept the pardon?”

And as Becker described it, Nixon was out of sorts, kept changing the subject, wanted to talk about football.  And then finally, he said, “Yes, I understand.”  So implicitly he was accepting guilt, although Ford also expected him to make a statement, which Nixon fought right up to the end not to make. 

MATTHEWS:  And in the end, he didn‘t have to.

Stay with us, Barry.  We‘ll be back with you. 

NBC‘s Andrea Mitchell interviewed Bob Woodward about his interview with the late president. 

Andrea, this is a bombshell.  For President Ford to have said as early as 2004 -- the summer of 2004 that he disagreed with the decision to go to war in Iraq is not going to make things easy for this president if he decides to escalate. 

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Well, let me give you the context.  President Ford knew that this interview would not be published by Bob Woodward until after his death.  Bob Woodward taped the interview.  And we have that tape.  It took four hours, the interview.  He went out to see him in Boulder Creek, Colorado in the summer of 2004. 

And President Ford was not that close to George W. Bush and would never have offered advice on foreign policy to Bush, but was heavily influenced by his own experiences with Vietnam and lifelong regret that America had been forced to retreat from Vietnam on his watch.  He inherited that war.  He didn‘t decide to go into Vietnam, as you know, but he was the president in the Oval Office who had to decide to unwind it and admitted in this interview to Woodward that we had waited too long to withdraw from Vietnam, something that he now acknowledges was a mistake. 

I talked to Woodward about the context and about the fact that implicitly this was a criticism of his closest and most loyal aides, Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, who were the chief architects of the war.

And this is part of that exchange. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MITCHELL:  Now, in criticizing these decisions, he was criticizing two people who were his proteges and who were the decision-makers along with the president, Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. 

BOB WOODWARD, “WASHINGTON POST”:  That‘s right.  He said that Cheney, great chief of staff when he worked for Ford in the White House in the 70s, but said he had turned—“pugnacious” was the word he used. 

MITCHELL:  Pugnacious? 

WOODWARD:  Pugnacious, you know, a fighter.  And he agreed, interestingly enough, with Colin Powell, the former secretary of state, who said that Cheney had acquired a “fever” about Iraq and terrorism.  And Ford said that‘s probably true. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MITCHELL:  Now, we may discover a fact to the contrary.  But to the best of my knowledge, Gerald Ford never shared his views on the war—wouldn‘t have done that; it was not in his nature—with this president.  They weren‘t very close, as I say, he didn‘t know him very well.  And I don‘t believe that he discussed the war with Rumsfeld or Cheney  It‘s something that they really stayed away from.  There was a great deal of love among those three men, love and loyalty. 

And loyalty, by the way, which you will certainly understand, knowing the Hill as you do, that went all the way back with Don Rumsfeld to the earliest days when Gerald Ford was in the Republican House and Rumsfeld helped him in that Republican Revolution of that time against the leadership when they basically took over. 

Rumsfeld, as a former Republican member of Congress, was one of his chief allies.  And he was loyal to him and grateful to him for a lifetime afterward. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you much, Andrea Mitchell. 

You can watch her interview with Bob Woodward on NBC‘s “Nightly News” tonight. 

Also joining us now is David Gergen.  He‘s a former presidential adviser.  He currently teaches at Harvard University‘s Kennedy School of Government. 

David, it‘s so fascinating.  Why do you think Gerald Ford, who you knew as an aide, gave this story to Bob Woodward for use after his death? 

DAVID GERGEN, “U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT”:  It‘s an interesting question.  You have to wonder whether he anticipated that it would come out at such a crucial moment for President Bush. 

I think, Chris, more than anything else what we see here is President Ford once again being a plain-talking Midwesterner who has very strong views of his own, independent views, and he doesn‘t mind expressing them for the good of the country.  I think he puts the country first. 

And clearly in this interview, as Andrea just said, and Bob Woodward said, he was implicitly criticizing two of the men he trusted most and who were most helpful to him in his presidency. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let‘s listen to President Gerald Ford, the late president in his own words.  Here he is talking about his decision—how he would have not gone into Iraq. 

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

GERALD R. FORD, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I don‘t think if I had been president, on the basis of the facts as I saw them publicly, I don‘t think I would have ordered the Iraqi war.  I would have maximized our effort through sanctions, through restrictions, whatever, to find another answer.”

(END AUDIO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  You know, David, I‘ve long felt—and I know you‘ve heard me on the air say this—that traditional Republican conservatism, which is against any kind of adventurism overseas and any excessive international entanglements, argued against the kind of enterprise the president launched us on in 2002 and 2003 when he sent our troops into Iraq.  I would argue that Gerald Ford‘s testament coming out now after his death confirms that.  You have people like George Will now, and William F. Buckley, real totems of the Republican conservative movement since the 1950s, coming out and saying they don‘t like this war. 

Is Gerald Ford the final nail in the coffin, if you will, to the argument that traditional conservatism would have not fought this war?  Ronald Reagan would have not fought this war?  It took people like Cheney in league with the president and the neoconservative philosophy to make the case for war? 

GERGEN:  I think that‘s right, Chris.  And I do believe that having Gerald Ford a mainstream realist whose views are really closer to Brent Scowcroft‘s than anybody else—and that‘s why he had Brent—in those pictures you just had of Ford as president, you know, Don Rumsfeld is on his right, but Brent Scowcroft is on his left in those photographs.  He brought Brent in, because those two were very much on the same wavelength. 

And I do not—what President Ford told Bob Woodward was he doesn‘t think we ought to be involved in messianic efforts to go out and impose democracy everywhere around the world.  When it‘s in our—and he made a very important distinction.  He said when it‘s in our national interest, then we might do that.  But not otherwise.  Let‘s not go out looking for ways to bring democracy.  Let‘s not go on any crusades. 

MATTHEWS:  This Napoleonic thing we‘re doing—you know I thought it was interesting in the comments made—and I believe they‘re on tape from President Ford, all of them.  I‘m going to show you a tape here in a second, more of his comments on tape. 

But he said that, sure, it‘s nice to spread democracy, but not when there‘s a conflict with our national security.  That‘s our primary goal as leaders of this country, to protect American interests around the word, protect us at home. 

To me, that was the cutting-edge question.  Are we improving our security at home or around the world, our situation in the world, by becoming these democratists, these people that people that believe in this Straussian, neoconservative notion of going to somewhere in the world, especially the Middle East, and pushing democracy?  Is that a justification for war?  And Ford said no. 

Let‘s listen, David Gergen, to some more of President Ford talking to Bob Woodward in 2004.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

FORD:  I think Rumsfeld, Cheney and the president made a big mistake in justifying going into the war in Iraq.  They put the emphasis on weapons of mass destruction.  I‘ve never publicly said that I thought they made a mistake, but I thought very strongly it was an error in how they should justify what they were going to do.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Boy, that‘s tough, you know.  Cheney and Rumsfeld are often discussed in terms of their pedigree coming out of the Ford White House, and here you have the president saying something‘s happened to Dick Cheney. 

GERGEN:  I think that‘s exactly right.  And, of course, that is the issue that has hung over Dick Cheney now for these many years.  Brent Scowcroft, going back to him again.  Remember, he was with Cheney as late as the Bush Sr. administration -- 41, and he says of the vice president, Dick Cheney, he‘s a person I do not recognize. 

And as you know, there‘s been a lot of talk among the Ford alumni group of what has happened to Dick Cheney.  Has he changed as much as he appears to?  Is he the same Dick Cheney that we thought we worked with?  I think most of the Ford alumni believe there has been a significant change in his outlook on international policy. 

They still like Dick Cheney.  I worked with him, I still like him enormously.  I think he‘s a man of honor.  I do think his views on foreign policy have changed dramatically just in the last few years. 

MATTHEWS:  Was he personally affronted by the fact that Saddam Hussein didn‘t live up to the conditions set upon him after we ended the first Gulf War?  Is that something that he was bugged by, that Saddam would thumb his nose at him, as Cheney liked to put it? 

GERGEN:  Well, I think he probably was bugged by it.  But it‘s interesting, Chris, of all the senior people around Bush 41, Jim Baker, Brent Scowcroft, Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, all of them were for restraint not going into Baghdad.  Dick Cheney was the only one who flipped on that question between 1991 and 2001.  He was the one who decided it was a mistake not to go to Baghdad. 

But Jim Baker, of course, said it had been a terrible mistake to go in, as did Colin Powell.  So I think there was something in him that changed. 

Now, nobody quite knows what that is.  There are some who believe when he went to Halliburton and became a CEO, that he got CEO-itis.  I‘m not sure that‘s fair to him.  I think that Dick may have been guided as much by 9/11.  And you can‘t—when people on your team have to run from the White House, that can have enormous impact on your psychology of what you‘re dealing with. 

MATTHEWS:  I interviewed President Ford back in June of 2000.  I asked him about the preparedness of the U.S. military at the time. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  There‘s been charges by the Republican candidate, Governor Bush, that the current U.S. military establishment is not prepared.  There‘s a morale problem.  The military, as the governor puts it, is overextended, underpaid and undertrained.  Do you accept that assessment? 

FORD:  I don‘t go that far, Chris.  I think our military establishment today is underfunded and is overcommitted.  We are adding one obligation to another—Bosnia, Kosovo, now they‘re talking about some in Africa.  We cannot add those kind of military obligations and at the same time, reduce the active duty manpower.  We have to add more money to reinforce our active-duty personnel so we will be prepared to take on these obligations that the White House gives them. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Let me bring back Barry Worth, he wrote this great book, “31 Days” about his decision, President Ford‘s, to pardon President Nixon.  Is he happy as he died with his place in history, President Ford? 

WORTH:  I think Ford was very comfortable with himself, Chris.  He didn‘t have any second guessing, any real doubts about the decision, particularly the pardon.  Once he decided to do it, he moved forward, strikingly, almost by himself.  I spoke with a number of his closest aides and he wouldn‘t hear of any discussion, really, about the pardon.

There was a compelling inner logic about this for Ford.  Ford‘s biologic father was an alcoholic and had abused his mother beginning on their honeymoon.  And when Ford was adopted, he didn‘t know that he was adopted until he was 17-years-old and his biological father finally showed up. 

He, I think, had the sense that he simply had to get Nixon behind him.  The country needed to move on, and he—once he took it upon himself, there was no talking him out of it.  So I think he was completely comfortable with the decision that he made. 

MATTHEWS:  Sounds right to me.  Thank you very much.  Barry Worth.  The name of the book is “31 Days,” a great read on what happened when Gerry Ford had to make the big decision. 

We‘ll be back with David Gergen when we come back.  And be sure to go online yourselves, hardblogger.MSNBC.com for my own thoughts on the passing of Gerald Ford. 

Coming up, the hanging of Saddam Hussein.  Where does it stand? 

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  President Bush is down in Crawford, Texas, talking to his war team about Iraq.  For the latest headlines from Baghdad, we turn to NBC‘s Richard Engel. 

Richard...

RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Chris, today the U.S. military made an announcement of the kind of news that boosts the morale of American troops serving here in Iraq.  The military, in a statement, said that American and Iraqi special forces, two days ago, launched an air assault south of Baghdad and that during that raid they captured the al Qaeda in Iraq leader they believe was responsible for kidnapping two American soldiers in June. 

The bodies of those American soldiers were later discovered.  They had been dumped at a local power plant.  Their bodies showed signs of having been tortured. 

Now, according to the military, the al Qaeda in Iraq leader, who was arrested, identified himself accidentally, tipping off the military when he was bragging about the kidnapping and was overheard at a local mosque. 

Today in Iraq, however, most Iraqis are watching the moves of their own government to see what will happen with the execution of Saddam Hussein.  The Iraqi government is so far keeping the details of the execution very, very secretive.  And there is a plan, in fact, according to Iraqi officials that we‘re speaking to, to carry out the execution in secret, and then only announce it later to the world and to the Iraqi people, perhaps filming it and then releasing excerpts of that videotape on Iraqi television. 

Saddam himself is apparently preparing for his death and has released a letter which his lawyers say is authentic.  His lawyers were the ones who actually posted it on the Internet.  In that letter, which is very poetic and philosophical, Saddam calls for compassion, love.  He said Iraqis shouldn‘t hate the American people.

And it‘s much less bombastic and aggressive than previous statements we‘ve seen from Saddam Hussein throughout his trial.  And at the end of the letter Saddam concludes that he‘s offering himself in sacrifice, a martyr, in his words, for Iraq.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Richard Engel.

We‘re back now with former presidential adviser, David Gergen.  Well, David, you‘re very good at understanding the theatrical aspects of all of this in politics.  And I mean that in a deep, important sense.

The death of Gerald Ford with his statement about opposition to the war in Iraq made back in 2004, released just today in “The Washington Post” by Bob Woodward and the imminent execution of Saddam Hussein, how will those two events play on the beginning of the new Congress, the president‘s position—the new position he‘s going to take on our fight over there?

GERGEN:  Well, I would think, Chris, that for starters the president will want to postpone any speech to the country until President Ford has been interred in Michigan.  So that means it‘s going to be Wednesday night the earliest, and probably Thursday.

But I would think he would not want to wait too much longer than that, because, as you say, Congress is coming back to town.  And if you‘re the Democrats, and Joe Biden just yesterday coming out against a surge in troops.  If you‘re the Democrats, it seems to me that your best move at this point is to pass a sense of the Congress resolution very quickly, which, in effect, embraces the Baker-Hamilton Commission report.  So they put you on record before the president speaks, if you can, about basically what the Democratic Party—so you‘re not just reacting to the president not being forced.

So I think the president ...

MATTHEWS:  I think you‘re thinking like that smart Republican rather than a typical Democrat here.  That is pretty advanced thinking to think the Democrats could ram something through, even a sense of Congress, through both Houses, they could actually reach consensus?

GERGEN:  But don‘t you think they need ...

MATTHEWS:  I mean, the average Democrat in the country could, because the average Democrat in this country thinks this war was a disaster from day one.  But the average public office holder, who relies on contributions and dealing with conservatives in the party is probably still afraid to take a clear position against the war.

GERGEN:  Well, I think - but I think that they need to have something which says that they are the party that stands for not immediate pullout, but for some sort of disengagement, in effect, which is embraced by Baker-Hamilton.  And, in effect, they‘ve got Jerry Ford lining in a way, saying this war was a mistake.  They‘ve got the events on the ground are such ...

MATTHEWS:  Jerry Ford, according to the record now, came out against this war before John Kerry did, before John Edwards did, and by a zillion miles before Hillary Clinton is going to come out against the war.  So I think Gerald Ford had more acuity on this issue and more legitimacy already in the fact that it‘s come out as an embargoed statement than the Democrats, so far.

GERGEN:  Let‘s come back - I‘m not sure how—I think most Americans, even though this is going to be a grisly hanging, I think most Americans will support and will think that it‘s appropriate to have an execution.  But there does become the question, if the president I think wants to get out in front of the execution - because you don‘t know what kind of mayhem you might see in Iraq with an execution.

So I think the president has got a window here.  And by the way, I don‘t think he can be seen to be dithering anymore.  This has been too long.  The election was held almost two months ago now, and, you know, when the American people said we want a change of course.  And I think he‘s been hurt by this long, drawn out, leak-prone process, in which he‘s now even arguing with his own commanders.

I don‘t think he was helped much by the Casey story.  By General Casey reversing his position.

MATTHEWS:  It looks like Casey did it under duress.

GERGEN:  Exactly.

MATTHEWS:  Anyway, thank you, David Gergen.

Up next, John Edwards is running for president this time.  Is it going to be different?  Can he win in 2008?  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MATT LAUER, “TODAY SHOW”:  Four years ago you came on this program and told me you were going to run for president of the United States.  What do you want to tell me this morning?

JOHN EDWARDS, FORMER VP CANDIDATE:  I‘m here to announce I‘m a candidate for president of the United States.

MATTHEWS:  Well, that was former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina making it official on this morning‘s TODAY SHOW from New Orleans that‘s running for president.  And in the end - well, we‘ll see what he can do.

Let‘s ask - let‘s talk to John Harwood, who was down there today.  What—he was down in the Ninth Ward, which I hear is still rotting down there.  It doesn‘t look any better than it did back when Katrina just hit.

JOHN HARWOOD, “THE WALL STREET JOURNAL”:  It was an amazing scene, Chris.  We were in a middle class neighborhood in New Orleans.  Nearly every house was completely destroyed.  I talked to a couple of homeowners who were having some rehabilitation work done on their house but they think very few of their neighbors are coming back.  John Edwards had been working on one of those houses and he used the scene to dramatize his support for bridging the gap between rich and poor in this country, creating one America out of the two that exist now.

MATTHEWS:  Well, do you think he had the oomph this morning?  Was there a sense of moment in that room or was it seen as just another politician making his next step?

HARWOOD:  I thought it was effective, Chris.  It was a very spare announcement.  I haven‘t seen since at least the Gary Hart announcement in the 1988 campaign, a candidate come out with no crowd, no speech, no podium.  It was just John Edwards in the backyard in blue jeans and a blue shirt saying this is what I want to do, I‘m more about actions than words and it was effective in that way, even though there wasn‘t a lot of pomp and circumstance.

MATTHEWS:  I sense look at the new primary schedule which includes a primary early in South Carolina and also in Nevada that this is the first time that the Democrats or either party will pick a candidate with an eye to the African American vote.  Is that what he‘s doing right here?

HARWOOD:  Well, he‘s certainly got his eye to the African American vote.  He had young African American middle school students who had been doing some volunteer work on some of those houses with him at this event.  Clearly New Orleans, the South in general, it‘s a place where the African American vote is very important.  John Edwards is going to fight both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for that constituency.  It‘s an uphill fight but he‘s got a lot of assets in that race.

MATTHEWS:  That‘s a new change for the Democrats or the Republicans, have always had their primaries in places like New Hampshire, where there‘s hardly any blacks.

Anyway, thank you, John Harwood ...

HARWOOD:  Exactly.

MATTHEWS:  ... in New Orleans.

And make sure to watch HARDBALL tomorrow.  We‘ll be speaking directly to John Edwards.  Also be sure to check out msnbc.com for everything you need to know about the whole big 2008 presidential election.

Today we‘re going to get the full lowdown online at johnedwards.msnbc.com including my own take on Edwards and his campaign.  I think he‘s in the top three right now, along with Obama and Hillary.  We‘ll bring you more Web sites with more scoop and more announcements as this campaign gets underway.

Up next, can John Edwards beat Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in the primaries?  If so where can he win?  John McCaslin of the “Washington Times” and WNBC‘s Craig Crawford are going to be here right here on HARDBALL, you‘re watching it on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWSBREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, we got him first, and welcome back to HARDBALL.  We got Edwards first in that town meeting down in Chapel Hill a couple of weeks ago and he‘s now officially in for the 2008 presidential race.

What‘s this mean for Hillary and for Barack Obama?  And will the rest of the candidates actually get in the fight here?

John McCaslin is a columnist for the “Washington Times” and Craig Crawford is an MSNBC political analyst and a columnist for Congressional Quarterly”.  Craig, you first.  Is this going to be the big three, Hillary, Obama and John Edwards?

CRAIG CRAWFORD, MSNBC ANALYST:  Sure looks like it.  Edwards has a good shot at being everybody‘s second choice which I think may end up being the winner of the primary if anybody actually beats Hillary.

MATTHEWS:  The default.

CRAWFORD:  The default candidate.  Because a lot of Democrats like Hillary, like Obama.  But Democratic Party voters I think even more than ever are going to be looking for a winner.  Electability.

MATTHEWS:  John, a week before the Iowa caucuses they‘re sitting up there in Iowa and they know they‘re going to decide to a great extent who the nominee is going to be.  They did last time.  Will they do what they did last time, go with the person they think can win in November?

JOHN MCCASLIN, “WASHINGTON TIMES”:  I don‘t know.  Not if Nevada has its way.  Nevada wants to upstage New Hampshire.  I just interviewed Roger Salazar today, who is a national spokesperson for the John Edwards campaign in 2004.  He is actually—When I called him up to find out what he thought about Edwards‘ announcement today, he can‘t even say anything, and here he was his spokesman, because he‘s the one promoting Nevada right now.  So hopefully it will drag on a little longer for all three of them.

MATTHEWS:  Is he for Edwards?

MCCASLIN:  I think he is for Edwards ...

MATTHEWS:  Why can‘t - with all the labor backing of John Edwards and his positions, he‘s for the card check neutrality for labor unions to have it easier to organize, he‘s against NAFTA and all this.  He‘s pretty much in league with the AFL-CIO and all the renegade groups.

MCCASLIN:  Yeah, especially in Nevada.

MATTHEWS:  Why doesn‘t he win two in a row?  Why doesn‘t he just win Iowa and then win Nevada and then head on to New Hampshire and take on the Clintons up there?

MCCASLIN:  If he can do that, that would be great.  Then on to South Carolina after that.  We‘ll see what happens.  Salazar said he‘s the smartest of the three candidates.  We pointed out on this show before, you‘ve got three one-termers in the big three.  Do they have the record.  Does he even have a record because he‘s concentrated on poverty for the last two years?  That remains to be seen.

CRAWFORD:  Chris, Edwards has been on the road ever since the 2004 campaign.  I was struck traveling around the country at how many people had seen him recently at a Jefferson-Jackson dinner or a Kiwanis Club.

He‘s been all over the country.

MATTHEWS:  He‘s out of work.

CRAWFORD:  He‘s had plenty of time.

MATTHEWS:  These guys with jobs are held back.

CRAWFORD:  It‘s just that here in Washington he ignores the national media in Washington until recently and a lot of folks in Washington have written him off because they‘ve just forgotten about him but he‘s been all over the country for a long time.

MATTHEWS:  He did this show and he did the town meeting and I think that probably has enough bounce of getting into Broder‘s columns and things like that.  But you‘re right, he doesn‘t seem to want to chat up the big shot gatekeepers, does he?

CRAWFORD:  Not at all.  He has almost a reserve—he‘s very reserved around the media and so animated in public.  And I think that actually has led to a lot of folks in the media to conclude that he‘s phony because he seems like two different people.  I think that‘s a bad rap and I‘m not saying ...

MATTHEWS:  I was off the record with him down in Chapel Hill and he was very clear-headed about what he needed to do.  He clearly wants to win early.  He clearly is worried about getting enough bounce out of states if he does win them early on.  If he wins Nevada, will they get the results out early enough for the Sunday papers.  Will that bounce big enough in Boston and the New England media to get him New Hampshire.  He‘s thought it through.

MCCASLIN:  He‘s going to be looking for national attention, no doubt about it.  But along the lines of what you just said, it was, I think, Channel 11 in North Carolina yesterday that was the one that broke he would be announcing today.  So he‘s sticking with the grass roots, which is what Salazar told me he‘s going to do throughout the campaign.  It‘s almost like a Howard Dean approach to 2008.

MATTHEWS:  Does change require that you run for the presidency in 2008 as an outsider?  To be a real change maker?

CRAWFORD:  I think so.  He think he has a shot at doing that.  He‘s definitely going to position himself as a Washington outsider, which I think will be very popular in this coming campaign.  But talk about bounce, he knows what can happen when you don‘t get the bounce out of Iowa.  He did much better than expected in Iowa but got no coverage because of Howard Dean‘s scream.  I always thought that Dean scream had the worst effect on Edwards than anyone else.

MATTHEWS:  What you need is not just a win, you need a brilliant P.R.  team, like Clinton had where Clinton would lose the New Hampshire primary by eight points and declare victory and the national media went along with it.  Mondale pulled the same thing on Super Tuesday back in ‘84.  Remember?  They lose, but they get the media behind them by some clever tricks, announcing at 10:00 at night we won, I‘m the comeback kid.

You know that trick?

CRAWFORD:  It‘s all about bold assertion and plausible maintenance.

MATTHEWS:  Right.  Bold assertion.  You can talk your way into this, but you can win these early primaries, Paul Tsongas, for example, Dick Gephardt, for example, and not get the bounce because you didn‘t put the P.R. right.

CRAWFORD:  Talk about being a Washington outsider that Edwards might want to be, he officially sold his house in Washington.

MATTHEWS:  It took a while, didn‘t it?

CRAWFORD:  I took a year and a half.

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s switch to Republicans.  We have the big three on the Democratic side, that‘s obviously Barack if he goes in, Hillary is going in, and John Edwards, the big three battling it out.  Do we have a three-ring circus in the Republican Party among McCain, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, should he get in?  Is that the same lock of the top three?

MCCASLIN:  I would say definitely mitt Romney is obviously going to be the conservative of the three that you just mentioned.

MATTHEWS:  A recent convert.

MCCASLIN:  He is.  In fact, people have noticed that that are the pundits in Washington, I actually got a chance to sit down with Mitt Romney about a month ago at one of the Don Rumsfeld dinners, and there were mixed emotions about his speech.  Very Reaganesque, but at the same time, a lot of people thought there was a lot of fluff in it.

MATTHEWS:  Why does he keep saying marriage should be between one man and one woman?  Why does he give us the numbers?

CRAWFORD:  Well, he did make the joke at one point—he also made the joke one time about his Mormonism saying it should be between a man and would woman and a woman and a woman. 

MATTHEWS:  What do you think about the big three here, let‘s get back to turkey.  The three guys?

CRAWFORD:  The big three, that‘s first tier, no question about it. 

MATTHEWS:  Is the door open for any one of the three to win? 

CRAWFORD:  Oh, absolutely.  I think—I wouldn‘t give any of them a leg up. 

MATTHEWS:  This lacy CW around this town is oh, Rudy can‘t win because he‘s got marital problems and he‘s too liberal on the social issues.  And yet, there‘s nobody who‘s got the it locked. 

CRAWFORD:  There‘s still an opening for a conservative to come into that group of three. 

MATTHEWS:  Can we take the exception (ph) of Brownback? 

CRAWFORD:  I don‘t think Brownback is the one.  But there is room, because like you say, Romney is a recent convert to social conservatism.  So an authentic social conservative, I don‘t know who that might be... 

MATTHEWS:  Can Santorum or...

CRAWFORD:  There‘s still some room.  I‘m going to keep an eye on Santorum, actually. 

MATTHEWS:  Can Newt fill that roll, or his marital situation too tricky for that role? 

MCCASLIN:  I‘m not sure if he would get the support.  I can tell you this, listening to Newt as well in recent months when I‘ve had the opportunity, he‘s a darned good speaker.

MATTHEWS:  OH, he‘s smart. 

MCCASLIN:  He‘s one of the smartest people out there. 

CRAWFORD:  I mean, the great thinking on both sides is...

MATTHEWS:  But he‘s a Vulcan.  He‘s a smart being, but I‘m not sure he‘s human. 

MCCASLIN:  That‘s what‘s exciting about this race.  We‘ve talked about it before.  It‘s wide open on both sides. 

MATTHEWS:  So we agree now, it‘s a big three ring in both parties.

Mitt Romney, John McCain and Rudy on the Republican side.  And on the other side, it looks like Hillary, Barack and Edwards. 

Which is the favorite right now in each party?

CRAWFORD:  I would you say...

MATTHEWS:  To win the whole thing? 

CRAWFORD:  To win the whole thing, probably—it‘s difficult.  Hillary or John Edwards, I would think.  I‘m not sure if Barack will even get in.  And there‘s obviously the question of his record. 

MATTHEWS:  You do have to get in to win. 

CRAWFORD:  Do you have to get in to win. 

MATTHEWS:  Remember President Cuomo?  Remember President Colin Powell.  All the media favorites by the way—every time the media decides these things, every favorite the media has had hasn‘t even ran. 

CRAWFORD:  I think the Clinton-McCain matchup is one to talk about right now.  But plenty of time for that.  I think Hillary Clinton can take Pennsylvania.  I think she can win every blue state that Kerry won. 

CRAWFORD:  Well, all my relatives live on the Pennsylvania-New York line and I would agree. 

MATTHEWS:  Hillary wins. 

CRAWFORD:  She could win. 

MCCASLIN:  She‘s got to get in to win. 

CRAWFORD:  I don‘t see a blue state...

MATTHEWS:  He‘s being so careful. 

CRAWFORD:  I don‘t see a blue state that Hillary loses. 

MATTHEWS:  He‘s very careful, people.  Anyway, thank you, John McCaslin.  Thank you Craig Crawford. 

You‘re probably smarter than I am. 

Up next, how will a state funeral next week for President Ford affect the new Congress that‘s coming in?  Will the spirit of civility survive Gerald Ford.  We‘ll be right back with the HARDBALLers, Ron Reagan and Carrie Hanretty.  They‘re going to dig into this whole question.  The death of Saddam is coming, the death of Gerald Ford, which we‘re honoring—honoring his passing and now the birth of a new Congress and a new political season.  This is HARDBALL only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  President Bush is spending his Christmas vacation focusing on a new Iraq war strategy.  The late president Gerald Ford had strong words for his former aides, Cheney and Rumsfeld.  And John Edwards announced today he wants to be our next president.  How do Hillary and Barack feel about that? 

Let‘s ask our HARDBALLers: MSNBC political analyst, Ron Reagan, and Republican strategist Karen Hanretty about those and other top stories. 

Let me ask Ron about a personal matter.  Ron, you went through the funeral of President Reagan, your dad, and what‘s it going to be like for the Fords? 

RON REAGAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Well, first of all Chris, welcome back—belatedly, but it‘s good to see you in the chair again.

It‘s an interesting thing to go through.  You know, this is an event that usually takes place in private, or at least semi private where you can grieve and memorialize a loved one.  But this will take place in public.  And that‘s difficult on the one hand, but also can be reassuring in a way, that the swell of public opinion and approval of the departed president sort of buoys you up and carries you along the whole process. 

MATTHEWS:  Your dad, despite what people may think about his politics on the left—I think people on the left will recognize that he is in the top pantheon of great American presidents.  I‘ve looked at the list.  “Atlantic” magazine has him 17th among all Americans in our history.  And of course, a good number of those 17 are made up of our founding fathers and people like Thomas Edison.  He was picked in a recent poll with something like 65 percent of the American people believe he‘s in the great category of American presidents.  Gerald Ford fits in the middle somewhere, an accidental president.  Will this occasion be like the one for your dad? 

REAGAN:  I suspect it will be a little more subdued.  And that fits the man.  President Ford was, of course, a man of great integrity, but also great humility and modesty, as we saw when he was president.  Famously making his own breakfast and all that sort of thing.  That wasn‘t just spin, that was really sort of the way he was. 

He is going to lay in state outside the entrance to the House of Representatives and then be moved over to the entrance to the Senate, which, as far as I know, is unprecedented.  But other than that, you‘ll probably see a somewhat—well, a little less of a spectacle than you did during my father‘s funeral.  There won‘t be a caisson moving down the street.  The coffin will ride in a motorcade instead. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go right now to Karen on this question of President Ford.  Bob Woodward had a blockbuster this morning in the Washington Post, he has a tape-recorded testimonial from President Ford when he was speaking to Bob back in 2004, a year into the Iraq war, saying he would not have taken us into the war in Iraq, that he thought it was a decision that was wrong.  What do you make of that now, the political impact of that? 

KAREN HANRETTY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST:  Well, first of all, it says a great deal about President Ford, that he asked that that interview not be released until after his death.  He didn‘t join the fray of former presidents, like Jimmy Carter, who were so critical of a sitting president and his foreign policy. 

But I‘m not sure that this is going to have any great political impact on current events.  No one was seeking—with all due respect to President Ford and his family, no one was seeking President Ford‘s opinion these past six years.  And now that he‘s chimed in posthumously, I don‘t know that it‘s really going to have much of an effect, other than to, I think, continue this growing outcry certainly from Democrats and even increasingly some Republicans in the middle who are wondering, “What have we done and where are we going?”

And that is the question that President Bush has to answer in the coming weeks when he makes his announcement about what is he going to do with troop levels.  And I think there needs to be a coming full circle of, “Why are we engaged in this conflict right now?”  And “What is the bigger picture?”  And, “Is there a picture much bigger than Iraq and something greater than this, you know, left/right debate we‘re having over this war in Iraq?”

MATTHEWS:  I don‘t think it‘s left/right anymore.  I think when you hear people like President Ford, as you‘ve pointed, chime in posthumously, and people like Bill Buckley—William F. Buckley and George Will, I don‘t hear a lot of traditional conservative support for the war. 

HANRETTY:  Chris, I totally agree that Republicans are starting...

MATTHEWS:  No, traditional Republicans would never have brought us into this war.  This a neoconservative war. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Karen, this is a neoconservative war fought by strange ideologues with their own strange objectives.  This is not a party, a Republican Party that would have supported this war traditionally.  Ronald Reagan would not have taken us over there.  Gerry Ford would not have taken us over there.  I don‘t know which Republican president would have led us into the desert, put the American Army stuck in Iraq.  Only one president did that with the help of Dick Cheney and the neocons. 

We‘ll be right back with Ron Regan—Ron Reagan and Karen Hanretty.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  It was nice of you to mention this program, HARDBALL, in your remarks in yesterday‘s address at the National Press Club.  You said it was one of the programs where people get most of their news nowadays.  Do you get your news from this program, as well? 

Just checking. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GERALD R. FORD, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Betty and I listen to you every opportunity we can, Chris.  We like your program.  And we like the way you, you know, treat people that are sitting in the hot seat. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Wow.  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  We‘re back with Ron Reagan and Karen Hanretty. 

Karen, we had a little fight there.  But I have to tell you I am not ashamed to use people who have passed away.  And they‘re living testimonies to this program.  Gerry Ford was a great guy.

Let me ask you about—go back and embroider it, if you will, the president‘s challenge now.  He‘s talked to—He‘s gotten George Casey to back him up about a possible surge.  Can the president now legitimately say, continue to say, “I‘m listening to the field commanders,” even though he put pressure on Casey? 

HANRETTY:  No.  And I don‘t even think that‘s what he needs to do.  It‘s not about who is he listening to.  He is the ultimate—he is the commander-in-chief, he‘s whatever decision he makes, I think he has to go out there and really make the case to the American people. 

You know, one of the things I noticed in Woodward‘s report today, about what Gerald Ford said is that, you know, Ford echoed Colin Powell‘s analysis of Dick Cheney when he—and I‘m not getting this verbatim.  But he said something that, you know, Cheney has the “fever” over this threat of Islam, I guess, radical Islam.  And I‘m kind of butchering that, sorry.

But he talks about this fever that he has.  If President Bush really does have—and Dick Cheney—have this fever over this threat of Islam, and this global threat that continues to grow, and if, in fact, they truly believe that it threatens the American way of life and it threatens our security, he‘s got to go out there and really make that case to the people, but show in hard evidence how it affects people. 

He almost did it the other week in a press conference he held.  There was a BBC reporter who really kept pushing him and pushing him.  And President Bush finally came out and said, “Look, you know, one of the consequences is that if Iraq falls into the wrong hands, if energy and oil falls into the wrong hands, they can use that threat to blackmail Great Britain or they could blackmail the United States.” 

I think the president needs to talk in very clear terms about what the threats are.  And if he can‘t, then there is absolutely no reason to continue this bloodshed and the cost of our own lives in Iraq. 

And there are many people, even the necons, are starting to wonder what are we doing.  And there‘s got to be this clarity and focus again that the president just hasn‘t been able to bring. 

MATTHEWS:  But the problem is, that we went to war in Iraq with a country that‘s not Islamist, which was headed by a bad guy, a Baathist who was secular as hell.  We didn‘t confront the Islamist.  Now we‘re going to have to deal with the mess that Karen describes, that‘s there in Iraq now.  It wasn‘t that situation that we confronted.  He wasn‘t honestly fighting the caliphate when he went into Iraq.  He was fighting a guy he didn‘t like. 

REAGAN:  That‘s exactly right, Chris.  You said it earlier when you talked about strange ideologues with their strange agenda.  We still don‘t know exactly what their agenda was.  And the mess that Karen describes is a mess of our making.  The mess concerning the oil that involves Iraq was not there until we went in.  I mean, it wasn‘t an ideal situation, certainly, with Saddam in power.  But it wasn‘t the sort chaos that we‘re facing now. 

This is also—whatever decision President Bush makes from here on out, this is not just about the Iraq war, and it‘s not even just about the war on terror. 

This is about his presidency.  His presidency is inextricably linked to Iraq.  And the only way forward now in Iraq, it seems to me, is to admit that going in there was a mistake, and our execution of the occupation and everything else, was a—is it and has been a failure.  He‘s not going to admit that...

MATTHEWS:  Ron, you and I know...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you, Karen, here‘s the challenge.  If we go into Iraq with a new mission—the president says he wants a mission statement as well as more troops.  If it is to go into Baghdad and clear that city, in force, kicking down doors, shooting people that challenge us, daring them to challenge us, really take it over like Dodge City and Matt Dillon or somebody, is that going to be a bloody, bloody campaign that‘s going to cause tremendous casualties on our side and show us shooting more Arabs on international television every night of the week? 

HANRETTY:  Possibly.  And that might be what is necessary.  But if it is necessary, the president has got to explain to us why it‘s necessary.  And you know, what—even...

MATTHEWS:  We‘ve got to go. 

HANRETTY:  ... even if you‘re correct, the war—entering the war in Iraq was wrong...

MATTHEWS:  I‘m sorry, I have to jump in.

Karen, please come back.  I hereby invite you back.

We ran out of time. 

HANRETTY:  OK. 

MATTHEWS:  Karen Hanretty, Ron Reagan, thank you.

Play HARDBALL with us again on Friday.  Our guests will include presidential candidate John Edwards.  He‘s coming here tomorrow.  That‘s tomorrow‘s HARDBALL.

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

END   

Copy: Content and programming copyright 2006 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2006 Voxant, Inc. (www.voxant.com) ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user‘s personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon MSNBC and Voxant, Inc.‘s copyright or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.

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