updated 2/20/2007 12:00:19 PM ET 2007-02-20T17:00:19

Guests: David Axelrod, Ron Reagan, Dana Priest

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST:  Tonight, the horrors of how we treat our Iraq wounded.  More violence in the war and new pictures of the day Kennedy was assassinated.  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.

I‘m Chris Matthews, welcome to HARDBALL.  Tonight our issue is Iraq. 

What do wounded soldiers face when they come home to America?

But first to the violence today, a suicide bomber attacked a U.S. post in Iraq today, killing two American solders and wounding 17 others, capping another day of violence that claimed the lives of over 40 Iraqis.

In Washington, last week, the house passed a resolution condemning the president‘s plan to send over 20,000 more troops to Iraq.  And in a special session this Saturday, Senate Republicans blocked a vote on the same resolution.  The heated rhetoric in the political debate over the war is dominated by the call to support the troops but what happens when the troops come home wounded?

This week the “Washington Post” has run a series of exposes on the hell that some wounded U.S. soldiers face upon their return.  Stories of soldiers recovering amidst negligence, filth, rats and overall confusion inside what the paper is calling the other Walter Reed.  Is this how the U.S. government supports the troops?

Dana Priest broke the story and will be here in a moment.

Plus new pictures from moments before the Kennedy assassination and it

is Washington‘s birthday which used to be and should again be called its

proper name, George Washington‘s birth day.  Our HARDBALLers will be here

to talk about picking the next president

But first, NBC‘s Richard Engel has lived in Iraq for four years now covering the conflict with all its horrors.  Richard, thank you very much.  You are a brave man.  Who are we fighting in the streets of Baghdad?  The Sunnis or the Shia.

RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Chris, right now there is a fundamental turning point in the war.  For the first three years, roughly, U.S. troops were fighting Sunnis and were fighting mostly a Sunni insurgency.  Then after that Samarra attack last February, almost one year ago to the day, the Shiite militia groups which had been gaining strength on the ground could not take it any more.  They have been absorbing so much abuse that after that attack they decided that was it and they started attacking everyone.

The Shiite militias started attacking Sunnis, they started attacking U.S. forces, also any local shop owners.  Anyone who wasn‘t agreeing with them.

Then—now there is a new fundamental shift.  The Shiite militias have decided to go to ground.  Have stopped fighting for the time being.  They are going try to and wait it out.  And it is the Sunnis who are now in the forefront and are trying to attack both Americans and to attack the Shiites to get them back into the fight so they don‘t just sit back and consolidate their power.

MATTHEWS:  So the Shias are the majority of the people in Iraq.  And they are smart enough to let us do the fighting against the Sunni.  We wipe them out or at least repress them down to nothing and then the Shia take over and run the place when we love leave.

ENGEL:  That is exactly the strategy.  There was a meeting that was directed by the grand Shiite Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani right around the time of the execution of Saddam Hussein.  And he effectively said to Muqtada al-Sadr through his representatives that enough is enough.  Your organization is out of hand.  It is alienating your own people.  We are having Shiite on Shiite violence.  We are going lose this entire situation.

It is time if we just calm down.  The Shiites have recognized that the Americans are looking for an exit from Iraq.  That this new war plan is the final plan from Iraq.  And if they just wait, the Sunnis will continue fighting and they will be in a position to consolidate their gains and take over the country.

Sistani and his aides said they don‘t want to repeat the same mistake that the Sunnis committed in the 1920s.  Back then it was the Sunnis who fight - it was the Shiites who fought the British and the Sunnis were given power.  Now they want to make sure they don‘t want to fight the current occupiers and get the power.

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s talk American interests here.  The American people want to get out of that country eventually.  Is this a way out?  Defeat the Sunni insurgency.  Let the Shia take over, they run the place whatever way they want to run it and we get out.  Can that work in the next six months to a year?  Can we get out by the midst of the next presidential campaign, by next year?

Can we get out of there?

ENGEL:  You can declare victory and there probably will be some more stability in Baghdad.  According to the commanders I have spoken to on the ground and if the Shiites stop fighting that is half of the enemy that is not fighting right there.  If there are more troops in Baghdad and a new security plan that commanders like, because it‘s more troops on the ground at forward operating posts, then it would be easy to declare some sort of success in Baghdad at least and pull back American forces.

MATTHEWS:  But what is the .

ENGEL:  I don‘t think it is a solution to the larger problem.  You still have a failed Sunni Arab state in western Iraq that is deeply problematic and it will still remain to be a black whole.

So it is—what you will probably see is Shiites consolidating power in Baghdad and then American troops going and continuing to fight al Qaeda in western Iraq, that way everyone gets to declare victory.  The U.S. can say that they are still fighting a war on terrorism, fighting al Qaeda and the Shiites are taking over power and there is somewhat more stability But it is not a stable long term solution.

MATTHEWS:  So a couple years form now you can see us in a fight with al Qaeda in a portion of Iraq but the larger civil war is over because the Shia have won?

ENGEL:  Well, it would not be over.  Because the Sunni Arabs are still 20 percent of the population and they are backed by Saudi Arabia, by Syria, by some people in Jordan and a lot of members in the wider Sunni world.  So I don‘t think the civil war will end.  It will just be reduced to such a level that people in the U.S. will either lose interest in it or will say well, if they want to fight out their own issues we did the best we could.

I think that will be, we will declare some sort of .

MATTHEWS:  Give me some hope here, Richard.  When the is the United States not going be seen on international television killing Arabs.  When is that going stop?  When will we stop being seen on television around the world every God - every night killing Arabs.  When is it going to stop?

ENGEL:  That is a question a lot of people in the Middle East are

asking now.  And they say that there have been missed opportunities to have

some sort of grand Middle East diplomacy.  A lot of people in the region

liked the Baker-Hamilton report because it talked about having this grand

Middle East bargaining swap meet so to speak where you bring out the

Israeli-Palestinian peace process, you have a peace process between Jordan

and Syria and to discuss Lebanon.  You have initiations with Iran and Syria

MATTHEWS:  How does that get us out of Iraq?

ENGEL:  Because as everyone knows and is becoming increasingly clearer right now Iran has tremendous influence in the country and the fights that are going on across the region are not just limited to Iraq.  Part of the reason that there is so much instability in Lebanon is because of this almost Cold War like dynamic where you have the U.S. and Iran vying for influence in Iraq and in Lebanon.  And that is a dynamic that is being played out across the region.

MATTHEWS:  So the reason we are in Iraq right now is not for democracy, not for WMD, we are fighting a war, an implicit war with Iran for domination of that region?

ENGEL:  Not just Iran.  I think right now we are in the fourth war in Iraq.  The first war was a very clear, straight up fight.  It was U.S.  troops coming from Kuwait, marching up to topple Saddam with a variety of different motivations.  Weapons of mass destruction, etc.

The second war was to create enough stability to hold elections.  The third was to try and stabilize the elected government.  That has not been terribly successful.  Now we are in a fourth war which is a proxy war.  Not only with Iran but also the foreign fighters that are coming in from Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the internal power dynamics within the country.

The Kurds that are very nervous about an emergent - the Turks that are worried about an emergent Kurdish state so it is not just a war to keep the Iraqi government in place but it is also to hold the rest of the Middle East together.

MATTHEWS:  Well, thank you very much, Richard Engel, a man of great courage.  Thank you.  I can‘t wait for your documentary on this network in a month.  Thank you for joining us.

ENGEL:  My pleasure.

MATTHEWS:  On HARDBALL.

Let‘s bring in Dana Priest, she is national security correspondent for the “Washington Post.”  She just had a big expose that reports of major horrors in the way we treat our Iraq wounded.  Thank you, Dana.

You went over to Walter Reed but you saw some things that we didn‘t see that are pretty horrible.  What did you find over there, the way we treat the guys coming back?  Women with missing limbs and all the terrible problems.

DANA PRIEST, “WASHINGTON POST”:  You know, it is when they get out of the hospital that their problems start and they can be left and no one takes care of them or no one tries to figure out how to get them to their next appointment.  And a lot of these men and women are heavily medicated on pain medications after surgery.  They don‘t remember sometimes what appointments they have got.  Their paper work is awful.  They lose the paper work that says they have ever been in Iraq or they lose the one that says you are owed new uniform.  Some had to go get purple hearts in their gym clothes.

It takes them anywhere from 10 months to a year to get out.  To get processed out.  And for the most unlucky of them, they are living across the post because the post buildings are so overwhelmed.

MATTHEWS:  This is at Walter Reed.

PRIEST:  This is at Walter Reed and they are living in a building called Building 18 built between the two world wars which is mice infested, which has mold in some of the rooms, stained carpets.

MATTHEWS:  You saw this?

PRIEST:  We did.  We spent several months up there documenting it.

MATTHEWS:  Most people would think that when a service person comes back from being hit and losing a limb, really getting hurt over in Iraq that they get VIP treatment when they get home.  You are saying they don‘t?

PRIEST:  No.  That is what was so compelling about this story.  Is that everybody agrees that no matter what you think of the war this time around you support the troops.  They are flooded with do nations and people who want to help.  That is why the conditions there were so surprising to us.  Because we thought this is not the way it is supposed to be.

And to hear the stories of these people missing ears and arms and brains in some cases so have to go through a bureaucratic nightmare.  It really—in many cases it sets back their treatment.  They withdraw and they start to say the system is not working for me.  I am not coming out of my room.

And as some social workers told us, they stopped seeking the very care that they need to get better.

MATTHEWS:  You point out in your expose.  And I‘m sure there is a Pulitzer in here—this is more important stuff not just for winning prizes but for telling us what‘s going on.  Congress is going to read this thing this week.  Let me ask you.  Is Congress blame?  Congress has oversight.  They have the right to walk across town and check in to these facilities.  They control Veterans‘ Affairs, they control army.  Do congresspeople come over and see the same mess you saw at Walter Reed?

PRIEST:  Congress is responsible for the funding.  And one of the chronic problems is they refuse to fund it continually.  The fund it in supplementals and so that does create problems and yes, they are the overseers for everything the administration does.  So where are they?  Walter Reed has really been very clever at the wait controls the media.  We didn‘t know about this for years.  We get access to the .

MATTHEWS:  Why do they want to cover up shoddy treatment?  Why wouldn‘t they be using that as a way to get more funding?  Show the horror stories.

PRIEST:  Because it is their fault.  It is their system that these people are in.  And when you look at it you say to yourself why can‘t that be fixed?  It is really a question of shuffling paper work, getting the people that deal with these people trained to the level where they know what to do.

MATTHEWS:  I just can imagine a couple, I just want to try.  I don‘t want to be stereotypical.  Imagine a young wife, she is 20 years old.  Her husband is 22, he has lost a couple of limbs.  He cannot get around easily.  He is wheelchair or he is trying to learn prosthetics, how to use them.  She comes in and she gets a cheap apartment somewhere near Walter Reed, she tries to help him get his care.  What happens?

PRIEST:  She is supposed to get free lodging on the post, but if she goes to get the money for that, sometimes the paper work is not around.  He, on the other hand, he either has to wheel himself all over the post which can be acres of up and down ...

MATTHEWS:  In this weather?

PRIEST:  In this weather.

Or wait for a shuttle bus which may never come.

MATTHEWS:  One of your accounts said this guy was never even told about a bus.  He was just dumped somewhere.  Isn‘t there a sherpa system, some system where there is a guide person?

PRIEST:  No.

MATTHEWS:  I mean people who speak Spanish, people who don‘t know—

Most people like me are terrible.  Isn‘t there somebody when you come back with limbs missing, they treat you like a hero and helps you out.  And says, oh, here‘s your wife who has given so much, too.  And helps you get through this for a couple of years?

Isn‘t there somebody like that?

PRIEST:  There is supposed to be.  And the problem is there are a lot of people but they are not well coordinated.  So there is no one person that follows the person .

MATTHEWS:  Who is the secretary of the army?  Does he know about this?

PRIEST:  I‘m sure he knows about it now.  They have been having meetings on this since the articles came out.

MATTHEWS:  I think I saw the secretary of army out there last year or two years ago.

PRIEST:  Most of the officials that come and Rumsfeld, the former secretary of defense came all the time and so did Bush.  They go to the amputees.

MATTHEWS:  We are looking at some of the facilities out there.  You have pictures of the mold and rats.

PRIEST:  That is in building 18.

MATTHEWS:  So guys with a leg or so missing and they see rats running around.

PRIEST:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  I mean, you know this?

PRIEST:  That is right.  I know this.  Yes.  There are many people upset about it.  They pass out mice traps, they send over roach bombs to try to get rid of the cockroaches.  They are working on that as we speak to improve it now.  But it has been a chronic problem in building 18 since they opened it up and they all know about it.  And the soldiers there have complained to their commanding officers about this.

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s talk about the future.  Bad enough now, you say.  We have a surge underway in Baghdad with 20 some thousand plus U.S. troops over there.  Service people.  There is going to be a lot of action, a lot of violence, a lot of wounds because they are going door to door.  What preparation I have they made at Walter Reed for the inflow?

PRIEST:  Nothing yet.  But, the commander of Walter Reed, Major General Weightman said they are bracing for an impact.

MATTHEWS:  How so, what are they doing to brace?

PRIEST:  They have reserve elements of doctors, civilians that they can call on but I did not get the impression that they have activated them at all yet.

MATTHEWS:  More trouble to come here you think?

PRIEST:  Absolutely.  Send more troops over, you‘re going to get more casualties.

MATTHEWS:  And these are the heroes.  These are the guys that gave everything.

PRIEST:  That‘s right.  They have given everything.

MATTHEWS:  Well, you dug it up.  Good work.  Thank you.  Dana Priest.

Coming up, two Iraq veterans debate what Congress should do about the war itself.  And later top Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod.  That‘s a get for the show, we can‘t wait to talk to him.  He‘s on the inside.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  After Senate Republicans blocked a vote on a resolution opposing the president‘s troop surge Iraq, Democrats are now looking to limit the scope of the president‘s plan by modifying that 2002 vote that authorized him to go war in the first place.

Can Democrats halt the troop buildup, the surge by revising the original war authorization?

Iraq War veteran Paul Rieckhoff is the executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of American and Captain Robert McGovern did tours in both Afghanistan and Iraq as a judge advocate in the army‘s 18th Airborne Corps.  He has also written a brand new book coming out tomorrow called “All American, Why I Believe in Football, God and the War in Iraq” and he went to Holy Cross which is very important here.

Let me go you gentlemen.  First of all, Captain McGovern and you are not in uniform because you are selling a book, right.

CAPTAIN ROBERT MCGOVERN, U.S. ARMY:  I am speaking .

MATTHEWS:  But you are in service right now and thank you for your service.

MCGOVERN:  Thank you.

MATTHEWS:  I mean that.  I mean that, of course—to Paul again, as I‘ve said before, let me ask you this—what do you make of this piece by the “Washington Post.”  The two day expose about the ratty way our soldiers have been being treated.  They have already served our country, they sacrifice for the country and they come back to a rat infested facility back here at building 18 at Walter Reed.

I think—like every soldier is shocked by that.  Anyone of us could find ourselves in that particular scenario.

One thing I can say is in serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in active duty for the last four years, I have seen nothing but absolutely stellar care for our military personnel, both in the combat zone, for both American service members and local Iraqis and Afghans and even back here in the United States.

MATTHEWS:  So have you been out to Walter Reed to see what has been described in the “Washington Post”?

MCGOVERN:  I just saw the story today.  I haven‘t been out since the story but I have been there.

MATTHEWS:  You‘ve got the clout.  You could bring charges.  You could take action here.

MCGOVERN:  I like any soldier want the best possible care.  This is—if this story bears out, and it seems like it would, I am sure our military leadership would be taking the appropriate action top fix ..

MATTHEWS:  Paul Rieckhoff, your view of this story about the bad treatment of our wounded guys coming back, wounded women as well?

PAUL RIECKHOFF, IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN VETERANS OF AMERICAN:  It is an absolute outrage and it is shameful.  And to be honest with you, Chris, I am not that surprised.  Because I work with a veteran‘s group and we know there is a surge of veterans coming home, over 1.6 million veterans have been through Iraq or Afghanistan and the bottom line is that the DOD is not prepared for it, Walter Reed is not prepared for it and our V.A. system is not prepared for it.

I have a friend who was at Walter Reed, lost his leg, shattered by a grenade and was carrying his paperwork through the snow so he could discharge from Walter Reed.  We have been hearing about these stories for years.  And I think the president needs to address it.  The secretary of the army needs to address it.  We need an investigation and we need someone accountable here.

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s talk about George Washington‘s birthday which really is today.  They call it Presidents‘ Day.  That‘s for the mattress sales.  The real name, the legal name is George Washington‘s Birthday which I will honor here.

Because one reason people have no memory of our past presidents is they are not honored in this country.  They are forgotten.  People think Clinton was a better president than FDR, excuse me.  That doesn‘t make sense.

Anyway, let‘s go with this question, the Senate vote this Friday, this Saturday, rather, they could not get a vote.  They voted against voting. 

What do you think, captain?  Should the Congress be voting on the surge

MCGOVERN:  I believe as most soldiers probably believe, I can only speak for myself, that we want the American people and the Congress be behind us 100% percent  But that is political decisions that are made by our political leadership.  I think every military person .

MATTHEWS:  So you are with George Washington?  That civilians should make these decisions.

MCGOVERN:  Civilians make the decisions on when we go to war and when we don‘t and soldiers fight the war.

MATTHEWS:  You are out there working and you are in service right now.  Your wife is in service, right.  You‘re in JAG.  Does it bother you that there is debate going on in the Congress or do you feel demoralized by it.

MCGOVERN:  We are not bothered by the fact that there is a debate.  There should be a debate.  It is one of the things that separates us from our enemies.  So we are glad—We want to see a positive debate and a healthy debate.  But the fact that there is a debate is what soldiers fight for.

MATTHEWS:  What do you say about that Paul Rieckhoff?

RIECKOFF:  I agree 100 percent with the captain.  I am little bothered by the fact that the troops and our morale have kind of been used as a political shield or a political hostage over the last few weeks.  And I think that is a dangerous road to go down.

This discussion in Washington is why we pick up arms, it is why we defend our country.  It is why we want to be a part of our military.  And these things don‘t directly impact moral and the ground.  Morale is impacted by frequent tours, by divorce rate, by the fact that America is paying attention to Britney Spears and Anna Nicole Smith and not what‘s happening in Fallujah and Ramadi.  I think those are the things .

MATTHEWS:  Well, I‘m not.  You are the first person to mention those names on this show.  You should be ashamed of yourself.  You have just ended our virginity, sir.  We have not mentioned those names and you brought them up.

RIECKHOFF:  I know and I did because soldiers are bothered by it.  They see that America‘s attention focused elsewhere.  While on a President‘s Day, a long weekend, everyone else is off, our folks are walking in patrol in Ramadi and Fallujah.  I am glad the senators had to pull a Saturday night here because we all did it when we were in Iraq and it‘s nice to see them finally ...

MATTHEWS:  I agree with you.  In fact, at home here, my moral goes down when our mind is so warped about this stuff about Britney Spears that people think that Bill Clinton was a better than FDR.  They can‘t remember any of our presidents because we have holidays called “Presidents‘ Day” so we can sell mattresses because they don‘t want to offend anyone by mentioning the fact that George Washington was our first president.

There is sort of a dementalization of this country sometimes I think.  Don‘t you think, captain?  Why don‘t we have Washington‘s Birthday?  That is the name of it.  Nobody will call it that.

MCGOVERN:  Today we live in a media society.  And one of the things I think we love doing as soldiers is being able provide a lifestyle for Americans that Americans do enjoy.  Soldiers do the hard work so that the civilians and the citizens ...

MATTHEWS:  But it should not be encouraging infantilism at home.  Infantilism.  This is where we‘re headed, isn‘t it?  Did you read that last poll on who our greatest presidents were?  It is like people have Alzheimer‘s.  They can‘t go back more than five presidents.  They can‘t remember any of our presidents because we never teach history in this country.  All we do is put nonsense on.  We will be right back.

It‘s just my rant today.  It‘s a federal holiday.  Anyway, Paul Reickhoff and Robert McGovern, thank you both for your service.

And later, Obama campaign senior strategist David Axelrod.  We got a big guest tonight.  This guy knows what‘s going on inside one of the most interesting campaigns in the presidential race.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with Iraq war veterans Paul Rieckhoff and Robert McGovern.

Captain McGovern, you‘ve been in both theaters.  Afghanistan and in Iraq.  I know this is a tough question because we‘re serving now.  People now believe that Afghanistan could be more critical because the Taliban is coming back.  I mean, we face chaos in Iraq.  But we may face the resurgence of an old enemy in Afghanistan.

MCGOVERN:  Well, I would say that both fronts are critical to our defense.  Just because one takes center stage in the media does not mean there is not great work being done, important work being done.

MATTHEWS:  Did you feel in Afghanistan like the enemy, the bad guys were coming back when you were over there?  Did you sense the specter of the Taliban who supported al Qaeda coming back into power?

MCGOVERN:  At the time I was there, we had a pretty good handle on it from my perspective.  We did a good job of reconstructing the country.  And I‘m proud of the service I did there.  But none of us for a second suspected them to just hang up and go home.  This is a determined and patient enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And we need to stay strong and have the willpower more than anything to defeat this enemy.

MATTHEWS:  Paul Rieckhoff, your thoughts about that?  You represent the veterans from both those theaters.  Afghanistan does not get the attention, it doesn‘t get the money but I worry about it.

RIECKHOFF:  We worry about it, too, Chris.  And some of the guys coming back jokingly call it Forgotastan.  Because they feel like there‘s a lack of serious attention in the media.  The American public isn‘t really tracking it and military we have diverted critical resources that could be sent to Afghanistan and is instead sent in to Iraq and so in many ways we have taken our eye off the ball.  We know there‘s going to be a spring offensive and we have got make sure we have the pieces in place to take them out at the same level as we did in the earlier stages of the war.

MATTHEWS:  I am going ask you both tough questions about Iraq.  Let‘s go back to Iraq—it is next summer.  It is July.  We have had the surge.  We have gotten in there.  We put more troops in.  Will we have a verdict on the success of that campaign, captain?

MCGOVERN:  You never want to predict ahead of time because the enemy is constantly changing and adapting but I do believe that based on the Iraq Study Group‘s assessment that as goes Baghdad, so goes Iraq, we have a very good plan in place, that if we can secure Baghdad .

MATTHEWS:  Will we have a verdict on its success?

MCGOVERN:  I think we will have a very good picture on how it is going.

MATTHEWS:  Same question to you, Paul?  Will we know where we stand on the ground this summer, this coming summer?  After all the political debate, this summer, will we know how we‘re doing over there.  Because guys like McCain are looking at it and I think they are open to change if things don‘t work out.

MCGOVERN:  I hope they are because I don‘t think it‘s going to work.  I hope it does but I think it is more middling around the edges.  It is not enough troops to really crush the insurgency. And we have already seen that the Shia are going to go to the ground.  We have seen an uptick in violence in areas outside of Baghdad.  So I think it is another halfhearted solution here and it is not going to comprehensively control the security situation. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank, Paul Rieckhoff, as always.  And thank you Rob McGovern—Captain McGovern.  You are on duty.  The name of your book is “All American:  Why I Believe in Football, God & the War in Iraq.”

Up next, how is Barack Obama going to beat Hillary Clinton?  That is the big buzz where I was this week up in New York.  We are going to ask a top Obama campaign manager—actually adviser, David Axelrod.  You are watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Can Barack Obama catch Hillary Clinton?  Can Internet excitement for Obama translate into primary victories in 2008?  David Axelrod worked for John Edwards‘ campaign in ‘04.  He also worked for—in campaigns for Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd, Tom Vilsack.  But for 2008, he is a senior strategist for Barack Obama. 

I have got to ask you this question, David.  Will Barack Obama be elected president in 2008?  Will he win the presidency? 

DAVID AXELROD, SENIOR STRATEGIST, OBAMA CAMPAIGN:  Well, I am very encouraged, Chris, by what I see.  Everywhere he has gone, and you were down there freezing with us in Springfield, when 15,000 people showed up for his announcement.  He has been getting enormous crowds wherefore he goes.  And I don‘t think it is just because of him.  And I think he is sensational. 

But that is not why people are coming.  They are coming because they really want to believe again and check back in and change the politics of this country.  I think that is very powerful.  And so I have a very optimistic feeling about this campaign. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, how do you beat Hillary?  With all of her money, all of her organization, her ability to bring all of these primaries up to February 5th where she can pack in the money, spend it on media and buy it before anybody gets a really good look at what she is promising for presidency—for her presidency, what stops her from just getting this by buying it early? 

AXELROD:  Well, first of all, let me say I have a lot of respect for

her.  She is a very formidable person and she has got, without question,

the best and most experienced political machine in our party.  And if that

if tactics are going to win this primary, then she may well win the nomination. 

I don‘t think that is what is going to happen this year, Chris.  These crowds that are coming out, yesterday 4,500 hundred people in Nevada, 2,000, 3,000 people at each stop in South Carolina on Friday and Saturday, 4,000 people in Virginia.  It is a phenomenal thing to see. 

And I think that, you know, sometimes it is hard to stop an idea whose time has come.  I think people want to turn page, they want to move forward.  They are looking to the future.  I think Barack Obama represents the future. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask about you him—working with him, he is African-American, literally.  I mean, not to heritage, but his mom was American, his father was African, Kenyan.  What is it like spending time around a guy with that fascinating background?  I mean, what is he like as a person?

AXELROD:  Well, I would say a few things.  First of all, it is interesting, you know, he—not only does he have that background, but, you know, his mother remarried and he lived in Indonesia for four years.  He has a sister who is half Indonesian.  She is married to a Chinese-American. 

Barack always says a meeting of his—when his family gets together, it is like a meeting of the U.N. 

MATTHEWS:  But what is he like?  Does he feel like he is a son of immigrants?  Does he feel like a mixture?  How does he seem like to you to work with?  Or is just totally American and that is all just past history? 

AXELROD:  Well, he is sort of—all you have to do is turn on ESPN when he is in the room, and you will see that he is the all-American guy in certain ways.  But you know, the thing that I—and you and I have talked about this privately.  The thing I find most stimulating about him is, first of all, he really is somebody who believes in this as a mission and not just a business. 

And secondly, he is a marvelous writer.  And if you are in the business that I‘m in, it is such a pleasure to spend time with someone who thinks in a very profound way and can express himself in a wonderfully fluent way.  So he is a regular guy and a great guy. 

But on the other hand, he has got some enormous gifts.  And he has an appreciation for all cultures.  I mean, one of the things that—when he was running for senator in Illinois, one of the things that struck me was he would go down to deep southern Illinois, which is closer to Little Rock than Chicago. 

He would go into these little VFW halls.  And I would hear great reports.  And he would come back and say, hear it went great, and he would say, well, listen, these people are just like my grandfather from Kansas.  He said, my grandfather was in Patton‘s Army.  We have got lots to talk about. 

So I mean, this is a guy who can walk into any room and feel comfortable.  And I think for that reason people feel comfortable with him. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you the tough question, the mathematics question.  I have tried to work out who is going to win this nomination fight.  Hillary is running about 35 percent.  You guys—that candidate right there of yours is getting up to about 25.  That means 60 percent of the Democratic primary votes accounted for.  That means a guy like Edwards or Richardson or some—Bill Richardson or someone else, Vilsack or Chris Dodd or Joe Biden has to get 90 percent of the rest of the vote to beat Hillary, to get 36 percent. 

Isn‘t there a danger that your guy will be dog the manger?  He will take 25 percent away from this, deny anybody else the chance to be the anybody-but-Hillary candidate, and Hillary wins this thing by—sort of like by default.  She just stays ahead of your guy.  That is all she has to do to win this thing.

AXELROD:  Well, I would say two about this, Chris.  First of all, we are light years—we are an eternity away from any real contest.  And as you know, because you cover this closely, these things have a lot of twists and turns.  Joe Lieberman was leading the polls a year before the last nominating process.  So you really can‘t gauge too much by what the polls are.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  You mean, he was leading for president?  He was leading for president?

AXELROD:  Yes.  Nationally, nationally, nationally. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, you made your point. 

AXELROD:  We have got a lot that.

MATTHEWS:  I think you made your point, Axelrod. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  That is a pretty strong point.  Don‘t.

AXELROD:  I wanted to.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  . of my argument, don‘t believe early polls.  However, I have spent weeks now listening to women—pretty educated women, in fact, very educated women, East Coast types, very professional, one after another after another says, I don‘t like Hillary Clinton.  They really don‘t like her. 

And then I look at the polls, she is up to 40 percent.  What is the disconnect?   Explain it to me.  Why is Hillary doing so well in the general population but the cognoscenti, the people around Washington and New York, the people that really read the papers, really keep up, really follow politics, have this complicated problem with Hillary?  What is it about? 

AXELROD:  Well, it is not unusual for there to be a disconnect between Washington and the rest of the country.  So let‘s start there.  But.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  We will start there.

AXELROD:  . I also think it is very.

MATTHEWS:  What is it about? 

AXELROD:  I think it is very, very early though, and she is well-known.  And I think that she is advantaged by that now.  And you know, I think she is going be a formidable candidate.  I don‘t think.

MATTHEWS:  Will people like Hillary Clinton?

AXELROD:  . these numbers—these numbers are not going stay the same, though, I think these numbers... 

MATTHEWS:  Will they like Hillary Clinton when they get to know her really well nationally as a candidate?  Will they like her?  Because that has decided all of our recent elections, like it or not, likability runs the elections.  Will people like Hillary Clinton when they get a real strong exposure to her? 

AXELROD:  Let me say, I think they are going to love Barack Obama.  And that is what I think is going make a difference in this election.  We have got a guy who can really close the great chasm in our politics and bring people together and move us forward, change politics in Washington. 

And I think they will respond to him.  I‘m not going to comment on whether people—I know it would be better for you if I did, but I‘m not going to. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, it is certainly better for me if you did it rather than me. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you, David Axelrod—let me just try to make a proposition to you.  On behalf of our producers here and everybody that works at MSNBC, we would like a lot to have your candidate, Barack Obama, to sit—the junior senator from Illinois be our guest—our special guest on a town meeting with college students at some college, perhaps, of his choice.  Certainly a good college. 

And we would to love him in the round with the students for an hour, like we did with John McCain and we have done with other candidates, including Hillary Clinton in the past, and Rudy Giuliani and the others.  We have tried to get everybody.  We would really like to get Barack Obama. 

You don‘t have to answer today. 

AXELROD:  Well, I appreciate the offer.  And I—because we have—we are spending a lot of time on college campuses, a lot of the energy is coming from young people here.  So it is a great invitation and I am going to get right out of there and pass it along. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, we will pay for it, and it is very expensive, but it will be a well-lighted room and he get a chance to answer questions for a full hour in front of students, and they will get involved with him.  And I think it is a great platform for a guy who, clearly, according to my kids, and maybe me too—the kid in me, appeals to the youth of America and the young at heart.  There is no doubt what you say is true.  He does draw on something deeply good about this country.  And we will have to see whether he can really deliver.

Anyway, thank you very much, David Axelrod. 

AXELROD:  All right.  Thanks for having me.

MATTHEWS:  Up next, it is Washington‘s birthday.  Don‘t go by that mattress sale named “Presidents Day,” let‘s talk about finding another great president.  HARDBALLers Ron Reagan is coming here, Craig Crawford and Howard Fineman, all coming here, right now.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Washington‘s birthday, once to honor George Washington, now rendered meaningless by this term, “Presidents Day,” but here it is Washington‘s birthday, which legally it is. 

Let‘s bring in our HARDBALLers right now.  Craig Crawford is MSNBC political analyst.  Ron Reagan is radio talk show host.  And Newsweek‘s Howard Fineman, also an MSNBC political analyst. 

I want you gentleman to start right now, you first, Craig, review these votes in Congress.  Last Thursday the vote on the non-binding resolution to oppose the surge.  Saturday, failed to get cloture, failed to bring up the vote in the Senate. What is that all due to this issue of the war?

CRAIG CRAWFORD, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  What it tells me, Chris, is the votes are not there on Capitol Hill to stop or even seriously curtail this war.  I thought the vote in the House, only 17 Republicans flipping over to the Democrats against the president was something of a defeat for the anti-war crowd. 

And then of course, in the Senate, it is just gridlock all over the place.  So I don‘t see how, if non-binding resolutions can‘t get to the finish line, any of these more serious things—because after all, President Bush has got to sign whatever they do.  So they need super-majorities to overcome his vetoes. 

MATTHEWS:  What do you make of it, Howard?  Is this just a bad show by both sides—by the side trying to oppose the war?  They just can‘t get it together?

HOWARD FINEMAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Well, the Republicans don‘t look particularly good either.  They are throwing away what little creditability they have.  They are giving to President Bush in his effort to prevent the Congress from doing anything. 

I agree with Craig, if they can‘t get this resolution, how are they going to get one to cut off funding for the troops?  Because that is much more dangerous politically.  One would have thought that this was pretty much of an easy get for almost all members of Congress.  But the White House put on the pressure and the Republicans caved, virtually all of them.

MATTHEWS:  Ron, your thoughts on this current state of play in terms of the debate over the war? 

RON REAGAN, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  Well, maybe the Democrats ought to abandon the non-binding aspect of this or do something a little more dramatic.  I just don‘t think that the symbolic vote alone is really going do much.  People want them to actually do something that affects what is going on with troops on the ground.  And so far they are just not doing it. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s go to the campaign for president.  Let‘s start with the Republican side.  Ron, your first tier.  McCain said the other day—or was it yesterday, that we have got to overrule Roe V. Wade.  He is now clearly making a strong statement against abortion rights in this country, clearly is siding with the conservatives on this very, very hot button issue.  What do you make of it? 

REAGAN:  Well, McCain has been trying to please the conservatives for some time now.  I don‘t—I‘m not sure it is going to work.  I don‘t think they see him as one of their own.  In fact, I know that they don‘t.  He is actually going be here in Seattle this week, speaking at the Discovery Institute, which is one of these creationist intelligent design outfits. 

I don‘t know if he is going come out against Charles Darwin there..

(LAUGHTER)

REAGAN:  . but I don‘t think that is a good way to go for him. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, how do you read this?  Is he like the old teacher who is desperate for a job?  Who said, I can teach it round or I can teach it flat?  I can teach the world any way you want it because I need a job?  Is that what you see going on here?

REAGAN:  Yes.  I mean, he knows he has got to get the far right to win the nomination in the Republican Party, but I just don‘t think it is convincing.  They know his record.  They don‘t like him.  They are not convinced. 

MATTHEWS:  Craig, are you not convinced that he is trying to become a cultural conservative?  Do you believe this is just not going work? 

CRAWFORD:  Well, he has always been pro-life.  So it is not like he has changed his position the way others have, the way Bush‘s father did when he was offered the running mate slot with Ron Reagan.  So I think he has been consistent.  He just doesn‘t talk about it as much.  But.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Yes, but isn‘t it—I—wait a minute.  I think he is underlining in a way he had not before.  Howard?

CRAWFORD:  I will give that.  I mean, he is certainly doing that.  And it is obviously the reasons.  But I would also take a look at the Democrats‘ side on the abortion question and how they are not talking about it so much.  That was probably one of the only hardcore Democratic issues Obama didn‘t mention in his announcement speech.  Hillary is actually moving.

MATTHEWS:  I know.

CRAWFORD:  She is actually tacking to the center. 

MATTHEWS:  Democrats are pro-choice.

CRAWFORD:  Senator Clinton tacking to the center on abortion.

MATTHEWS:  She is pro-choice too, don‘t fall for the shadow dancing. 

CRAWFORD:  Well, she is talking about using government to provide more alternatives to abortion, which provoked Kate Michelman to endorse John Edwards for president, one the big abortion rights activists. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, they had eight years to do something about it, Craig, they did nothing.  Go ahead.

FINEMAN:  The Democrats don‘t have to talk about it because they are all on the same page about it.  Anybody who had any doubts about abortion is not running.  People like Evan Bayh who was trying to be moderate on that issue, he is not running.  And that is the reason why.  But is.

MATTHEWS:  Is McCain looking weak by pandering to the cultural conservatives in a way he never did before?

FINEMAN:  Not—well, at least not according to their own people.  Their calculation is that they are going to run to the right because they have got Giuliani sort of on their left.  They have got Mitt Romney, who there are questions about among conservatives.  And neither Brownback nor Huckabee nor these hardcore conservatives can stand up to McCain in terms of name recognition, position on the war and so on. 

The McCain people are following the George W. Bush playbook to the extent they possibly can.  The same donors, the same issues, the same at the attitudes all the way down the line.  And it is so ironic given where McCain was seven years ago. 

MATTHEWS:  So it is now Senator John “McBush.” 

(LAUGHTER)

FINEMAN:  That is one way to put it, yes. 

MATTHEWS:  We will be right back with Ron Reagan, Craig Crawford—he will hear about that one, and Howard Fineman.  Love the guy, but, OK.  Here, you are watching HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back.  We are back with MSNBC‘s political analyst Craig Crawford, radio talk show host Ron Reagan, and Newsweek‘s Howard Fineman. 

Can we all take a look at this bit of tape here we have here right now.  It‘s a new bit of tape from the Kennedy assassination.  Amazing picture here.  This is an amazing picture. 

(VIDEO OF DEALEY PLAZA, NOVEMBER 22ND, 1963)

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Well, there it was.  It was just a fleeting glimpse of Camelot, if you will, there.  Ron Reagan, you know, you are probably too young to remember that.  But I remember that day.  I don‘t remember it in color, because we didn‘t have color TV back in those days, but that gleaming, gleaming picture of history that was destroyed seconds after that. 

I will tell you, it reminds me of history.  And I just wonder, we just had a poll of our greatest presidents, your dad did very well, as he should have.  But the lack of knowledge voiced in that poll, where the people could only mention the most recent presidents it seems.  They put Bill Clinton ahead of Franklin Roosevelt. 

You just have to wonder the failure of people to know who our presidents were astounds me. 

REAGAN:  Yes.  It is true, and with all due respect to my father, to have him second to Abraham Lincoln, you know, what happened to George Washington?  What happened to Thomas Jefferson?  I don‘t think my father would put himself that high.

MATTHEWS:  No.  Is it a statement, Howard, of just lack of education?  Part of it I will go right to the heart of today, Presidents Day is mattress sale day.  Why we don‘t call it what it really is, George Washington‘s birthday, is part of this sort of, I don‘t know, retreat from history, retreat from knowledge.  Let‘s have another Anna Nicole Smith Day. 

(LAUGHTER)

FINEMAN:  Well, the fact is, for a lot of kids who are currently turned on in college by Barack Obama, as David Axelrod was saying, their historical reference point is Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan.  They are the ancient history to those kids.  And that is as much history as many of them know.  So it doesn‘t surprise me at all, America is generally about the future.  And it is our job to.

MATTHEWS:  But I was not present.

FINEMAN:  . teach the past. 

MATTHEWS:  I wasn‘t alive during Washington‘s time or Lincoln‘s time.  But I know all about them.  You can‘t just chalk it off to, they are the only presidents they know.  That is because they did not study any history.  Let me go to Craig Crawford. 

Craig, I don‘t know if you share my odd indignation, but I cannot believe that we call this day Presidents Day.  What a stupid, meaningless term.  Do you want to pay tribute to most of our presidents?  I don‘t want to. 

I would love to pay tribute to Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln. 

But not presidents.

CRAWFORD:  I guess you don‘t need a new mattress is what it comes down to? 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  You can be a wise guy, but why do we have a celebration of nothingness?  Why don‘t we have Congress Day?  A Supreme Court Day?  You know, I don‘t know what else?  Army Corps of Engineers Day.  I mean, let‘s go all the way with it. 

(LAUGHTER)

CRAWFORD:  Any excuse for long weekend, I guess, right? 

MATTHEWS:  Well, that is the problem.  First of all.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  . having Friday off, not Monday off, because when you get Friday off it‘s a big weekend.  When you get a Monday off, it is just another day to think about the week that is coming and it doesn‘t make you any happier.  Give me a Friday off. 

FINEMAN:  Can I say, you are right.  Another thing is, George Bush earlier today went out to identify himself with George Washington.  But he went to a monument to General George Washington, because George Bush is always wrapping himself in the mantle of commander-in-chief.  The great thing about George Washington, whose birthday you want to celebrate.

MATTHEWS:  Said at his farewell address.

FINEMAN:  . said in the farewell address in 1783, I am out of here, I am taking off the military cloak because I should not be wearing it, when a lot of people wanted to proclaim him king. 

MATTHEWS:  And he said, I offer my resignation to the Congress because the Congress is the one that controls events and our destiny as a people.  He was not the decider. 

FINEMAN:  That is the history lesson for today. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, that is our—thank you.  We got cranked up here.  Ron Reagan, thank you.  Craig Crawford, thank you.  Howard Fineman, thank you.  Everybody.  And happy George Washington‘s birthday.  Play HARDBALL with us again Tuesday.  We will have all of the news from the closing arguments—boy that‘ s a holiday tomorrow, the Scooter Libby closing arguments. 

Right now it‘s time for “TUCKER.”

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

END   

Copy: Content and programming copyright 2007 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2007 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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