updated 4/7/2008 3:06:31 PM ET 2008-04-07T19:06:31

Guests: Andrew Sullivan, Christopher Hitchens>

TIM RUSSERT, HOST:  The race for the White House 2008 -- John McCain has the Republican nomination locked up.  Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton still toe-to-toe.  Next stop is Pennsylvania.

Issues emerging in the campaign—Iraq, the economy, but also Bosnia and Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama‘s former pastor in Chicago.

Here to talk about that, two writers, authors, thinkers.

Andrew Sullivan, senior editor of “The Atlantic.”  He blogs every day on “The Daily Dish.”  And his book, “The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back.” 

And Christopher Hitchens of “Vanity Fair.”  You can also read his writings on slate.com.  His book, “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.”

Gentlemen, welcome, both.  Nice to have you together.

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, AUTHOR, “GOD IS NOT GREAT”:  Nice to be here.

RUSSERT:  Not since Thomas Jefferson dined alone have we had so much candle power at one table.

(LAUGHTER)

RUSSERT:  Mr. Hitchens, the other day you were writing for slate.com about Bosnia and Hillary Clinton.  We have had exhausted coverage of her saying that she had gotten off the plane and warned of sniper and ran to her car.  And then the video showed her stopped and greeting little children, and getting flowers and taking pictures and so forth.  But you also add another dimension, why you underscored that you thought her “misstatement” was larger than that.

Talk about that.

HITCHENS:  There are two kinds of lying.  Well, there are many, actually.  But there are two—there are broadly two categories of lying—suggestio falsi, as they call it—in other words, trying to get people to believe a story that isn‘t true, such as that you disembarked under fire when you didn‘t.  Something that you have ever done it, which, as a matter of fact, I have in Sarajevo in 1992, you couldn‘t ever imagine having (INAUDIBLE) or not, I can promise you. 

So it‘s a very weird kind of lying, a very unsettling kind.  And then there‘s suppressio veri, which is to conceal the truth of a more important matter. 

I think this is the most important and neglected aspect of this story, because Mrs. Clinton went in ‘96.  The real fighting was in ‘92, the fighting that her husband had promised to stop if he was elected.  He promised to intervene against ethnic cleansing, didn‘t find it convenient to keep the promise.

ANDREW SULLIVAN, SR. EDITOR, “THE ATLANTIC”:  He made the promise at the Holocaust Museum.

HITCHENS:  He made the promise at the Holocaust—in the presence of Elie Wiesel, and so it wasn‘t not just a light pledge.  It was a fairly solemn commitment.

We know why.  We have—we know all of the reasons why he broke the promise and let the fighting go on for another four years, which probably killed about a quarter of a million Europeans.  And it‘s a simple explanation—Mrs. Clinton didn‘t want him to do it.  She didn‘t want anything to distract attention from her wonderful, memorable, never to be forgotten health care plan.

RUSSERT:  How do you know that?

HITCHENS:  Well, I know it for two reasons.  I know—I remember having an argument with (INAUDIBLE) when he was secretary of defense.  It was at the British Embassy one evening, at the height of the Bosnia war.  I said, “How can you guys carry on like this?  How can you keep on watching this with folded arms, the revival of fascism in Europe and mass murder?”

And he said—well, you know, he felt bad about it, because he also pledged to something.  He said, “I said I‘d even land my own plane at Sarajevo airport under fire—a DOD plane.  Just at least to show we haven‘t forgotten.  But I was told by the White House, don‘t you dare do that because Hillary doesn‘t want it.  It steps on her roll out health care.”

It‘s also very well described in Sally Bedell Smith‘s new book.  It‘s called “For Love of Politics.”  It‘s a portrait of the wonderful couple.

SULLIVAN:  The other...

HITCHENS:  So it‘s—it‘s not just the scandal of her trying to make herself seem braver than she was.  It‘s lying about four years in which it‘s very largely her fault that there needed to be humanitarian trips to Bosnia four years later in the first place.  And I think she should be much more condemned for this than for the fantasy about her own performance.

SULLIVAN:  Or the notion...

HITCHENS:  As terrible as that was.

SULLIVAN:  ... that she went there and resolved a border dispute which had been resolved before she arrived.  I mean, that‘s another critical factual problem with the story.

HITCHENS:  And then her two female aides—one of them is called Mascatine (ph), and I think still works for her—I read a piece in “The New York Times” yesterday, tried to make the best of it.  Ridiculous.  A farcical description of the trip, but then as if not content with that, so then she flew on later to Athens, where she advised on the democracy building.  Well, now, I would think Mrs. Clinton in Athens would have—on a matter of democracy—would have quite a lot more to learn than to teach.

(LAUGHTER)

HITCHENS:  What was it the Greeks didn‘t know about democracy that she brought them?  I‘d like to know.

(CROSSTALK)

SULLIVAN:  The other amazing thing about that story, that Bedell Smith story about health care, is that, what I don‘t understand, health care reform, almost universal health care, not far off Obama‘s current plan, was available back then.  It was called the Cooper plan.  And I remember “The New Republic” covering both these stories, Bosnia and health care.

RUSSERT:  This is the congressman from Tennessee.

SULLIVAN:  Yes, who produced not exactly the same kind of thing as—who didn‘t have mandates, for example.  And she absolutely killed it because it wasn‘t her plan, and refused to tolerate any alternative to her way on the health care debacle.

I‘m not sure why Democrats actually aren‘t furious at the Clintons for delaying universal health care for as long as it has been delayed.

HITCHENS:  The country was health-wise infinitely worse off for her tenure, their tenure, than we were—I mean, we pitchforked into the hands of the HMOs.  So, even if—look, suppose that we had got a “Hillary Care” health plan.  I still don‘t think we should have allowed genocide to take place in Bosnia.  But so that we could have a failed, ridiculous plan that she was too narcissistic to give up on when she realized it wasn‘t going to fly, we‘re supposed to stain ourselves with the blood of a quarter of a million. 

RUSSERT:  She will say...

HITCHENS:  This is the experience of which this terrible wound keeps bursting.

RUSSERT:  She will say on health care that she learned from that experience.  Every one of the debates, I said there hasn‘t been health care since 1993.  So for 15 years there has been nothing done.  Could you have gotten something?

Now, there was a Dole-Moynahan proposal—Bob Dole, Pat Moynahan, and other things.  She said, well, I‘ve learned from that experience, I have scars from that, and I‘m better positioned to do something now.

HITCHENS:  But you see?  That‘s it.  She‘s got scars from it. 

That‘s the only way she can talk, isn‘t it?  “It hurt me, this.  I bear the scars.”

Everyone suffered for it, including a quarter of a million Bosnians and several.  But she is the one who feels the pain.  It‘s just too—it‘s too much.

SULLIVAN:  The critical distinction that she made then, which is, it‘s my way or the highway on health care, is exactly the argument she‘s still making against Barack Obama‘s slightly less ambitious, slightly more pragmatic plan.  And she‘s demonized that it won‘t cover—she‘s already attacking.

So, in fact, I don‘t see any actual empirical evidence that she has learned.  The idea that someone has learned to realize that someone a little different than her can—than she can actually be embraced or supported does not seem to be the way she‘s run this campaign against Obama.  It‘s still “My way or the highway.” 

I mean—and so I don‘t see this evolution other people have seen.  I mean, I think last fall, when she was doing this sort of extraordinarily beatific coronation strategy, when she was being—much better on the stump I think than I‘ve ever seen her, really great speeches, I thought, wow.  And then, of course, you realize—then you realize, no, it‘s actually people—people don‘t change that much.  They really don‘t.

RUSSERT:  It is interesting.  Democratic voters, when asked, “Who do you think would be more effective on health care?” overwhelmingly cite Clinton over Obama.

SULLIVAN:  I think it‘s association.

HITCHENS:  I think it has to be.  It must be name recognition. 

I mean, it‘s like a Rorschach.  You know, Hillary Clinton, health care, they somehow—isn‘t there a reason they go together?  Yes, there is.  She‘s the one who screwed up health care last time.  That‘s why.

SULLIVAN:  And she‘s familiar.  You know, these are very troubling times.  There is obviously a Democratic partisan payback time.  They want to get back into power.

And the name “Clinton,” I think, resonates with what was actually a pretty good period in terms of American peace and prosperity.  And so after the last seven years of disaster on those fronts, obviously the word “Clinton” -- the name “Clinton”—what I think is amazing is that she didn‘t destroy the opposition.

How did she let this novice, this freshman senator with a funny name, clean her clock organizationally, and on fundraising, and basically have beaten her in this nomination?  That‘s to me the amazing thing.

RUSSERT:  We‘re going to come back and talk about that and a whole lot more.  Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, all part of our discussion.

The race for the White House with Christopher Hitchens and Andrew Sullivan, right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RUSSERT:  And we are back with Christopher Hitchens of “Vanity Fair,” author of “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.”  Andrew Sullivan, a senior editor of “The Atlantic.”  You can read his blog “The Daily Dish” every day.  “The Conservative Soul” is his book as well.

Talking about the race for the White House. 

I want to talk about the state of the race, but first, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama‘s former pastor at the Trinity Church in Chicago. 

Christopher Hitchens, you wrote some time ago that Reverend Wright was going to create problems, difficulties for Barack Obama.  What did you say?

HITCHENS:  Well, I said that he was going to have to answer for his rather -- well, not rather, distinctly dubious choice of a family pastor, because the man was not just a big mouth and a bit of a sinister windbag, because a certain amount of that can be, and often is, forgiven.  But he‘s a crackpot.

I mean, he believes that AIDS is the result of a white power structure conspiracy to commit genocide in the African-American community, for example.  He believes the drugs are in the ghetto for the same reason—the CIA puts them there to mess up black America.

Now, this is well, well, well beyond the limit of what‘s not just unthinkable or sayable, but credible.  I mean, and it goes—it takes the axe directly to the root of what Senator Obama is supposed to stand for, which is responsibility and dignity in the black community, not victimhood and paranoia, and not blaming whitey for all the pathologies of the ghetto.

So, it was not an amiable (ph) business.  But it still seems to me that the coverage of it hasn‘t fully emphasized that for two reasons.

One, the tapes we have of Wright, the more memorable ones of him saying things about America‘s chickens coming home to roost on 9/11 and so forth.  And the second is that in a rather, I think, contemptible way, Senator Obama has never said which of the many statements of the reverend he disagrees with.  He just says there are some he finds controversial.

Well, there‘s nothing wrong with being controversial.  He declines to say which ones he repudiates.  But he‘s so far, by our profession, being given an almost completely free pass on this, as on almost everything else.

SULLIVAN:  I don‘t think Fox News can say they‘ve given him a free pass on this.  I mean, the number of times one has heard the same several words from the Reverend Wright—I mean, until one is actually almost unconscious and numb from hearing them, I don‘t think that—in that sense they‘ve given him a pass, right?  Have they?

HITCHENS:  I thought the general take on the Philadelphia speech was that he nailed it.  Rather, it was actually he was...

SULLIVAN:  It was an extraordinary speech.

HITCHENS:  I think he thought he nailed it after you, Tim, asked him about Farrakhan—in which debate?

RUSSERT:  Cleveland.

HITCHENS:  Cleveland.  I think he felt he had taken care of all that then, made the right disassociating noises without being too specific.  That was actually when I said, no you haven‘t.  That‘s not really—you haven‘t done it yet, because there‘s much worse to come.  But my impression was that he was—he was let off the hook after Philadelphia.

SULLIVAN:  I think anybody after that Philadelphia speech who would listen to that Philadelphia speech with open eyes and an open heart would have seen someone grappling with issues that he does in his books, that he has done in his life, that shows an extraordinary willingness to grapple with some of the hardest, most difficult, widest gulfs in America.  And he refuses to make one choice.

I‘m not going to take the everybody—“it‘s all whitey‘s fault,” as you say.  I am neither going to take the “you can just walk out of this, there‘s no social problem here, any black man can do anything in America.”

He is trying to say, both hands (ph), I want to be part of the black community in all its forms, and I want to lead the whole United States in a more responsible and inclusive fashion.  Now, that means you can bring a lot of people on with you.  You‘ve got to.  And that‘s his campaign.  And that means some of them are going to say things and believe things that he doesn‘t necessarily support.

I think in this case the church that he belongs to—and I‘ve read a lot about it, like Christopher, saw a lot of this coming, and read a lot of Wright sermons—is—has been caricatured, I think.  It does a huge amount of good work in its community.  It does a lot of social work.  It is, for example, one of the very few black churches to be inclusive of gays and lesbians.

He preaches in a very fiery term, but he does an enormous amount of good work in countering drug abuse.  And, yes, it does have a black (INAUDIBLE) theology.  There‘s no question about it.

It‘s not my theology at all.  But I know enough about the black church to know—and I don‘t know enough—I know a certain amount.  One of the churches that I attend here in Washington is an old black Catholic church (INAUDIBLE).

It is a different atmosphere.  It has different needs.  It preaches and reaches to a different level of historic pain. 

And that‘s what Christianity is about addressing.  And that, I think, is Jeremiah Wright‘s goal, fundamentally, in these sermons, was to address the pain of people and to talk about the need for redemption.

If he were only talking about other people‘s redemption, rather than his own, and everybody in the congregation—he didn‘t call for responsibility as well, which he does repeatedly.  If Barack Obama had not dedicated his life to talking about independence and empowerment of people, rather than dependency on big government, then I think Christopher would have a more convincing take.

But I really think he‘s been treated unfairly in this.  And he stood up there and he stood by the man, not disowning him.  A mark of real character in my opinion.

RUSSERT:  A year ago Reverend Wright was quoted in “The New York Times” saying...

HITCHENS:  I was just going to say that.

RUSSERT:  ... that—to Barack Obama, you know, if you‘re the nominee, you‘re going to have to disassociate yourself from me, in effect, because of things I‘ve said.

Spreading AIDS in the inner city, or providing drugs—the CIA providing drugs in the inner city, you don‘t find that rhetoric acceptable?

SULLIVAN:  No, I don‘t. 

HITCHENS:  Or going to...

SULLIVAN:  I don‘t.  I don‘t.

RUSSERT:  Should Barack Obama denounce that?

SULLIVAN:  Yes, I think he should, absolutely.  He should.

HITCHENS:  Well, then the question comes, why does he not do so?

SULLIVAN:  Because if he were asked to rebut that statement, he would simply—there would be no end of questions he would have to answer in every single—and no man is answerable for the entire legacy of a pastor and his sermons.

HITCHENS:  And nobody‘s going to say that he is.  But look, I proposed I thought fairly calmly where the line is drawn.

It‘s not by going on about liberation and theology and so forth.  And I find it absolutely poisonous babble, that stuff.  You like it, I don‘t.  But it‘s different from saying...

SULLIVAN:  Well, I am a Christian.  I recognize in Wright‘s words a genuine, different kind of Christianity than mine.  And you know what?

(CROSSTALK)

HITCHENS:  Fine.  But it‘s different—this is quite different from saying -- this is paranoia.

SULLIVAN:  It is.

HITCHENS:  And going to...

(CROSSTALK)

SULLIVAN:  I will say it is not paranoia to say that black Americans in the inner city have been neglected with HIV.  That‘s not paranoia.  It‘s not paranoia to say...

HITCHENS:  But my dear—but my dear, that‘s not...

SULLIVAN:  ... the federal government did not allow distribution of clean needles in the inner city for black people.  It‘s not paranoia to say that the government of the United States has been negligent, and the black church, by the way, has been negligent with HIV among urban America and African-Americans.

HITCHENS:  Nor is it paranoid to point out that the federal government took -- conducted, I mean to say—the Tuskegee experiment.

SULLIVAN:  And that is...

HITCHENS:  Black syphilis experiment.  That‘s true.

SULLIVAN:  And it is critical to understanding where this paranoia comes from.

HITCHENS:  I totally...

SULLIVAN:  And people aren‘t aware that that did happen.

HITCHENS:  Andrew...

SULLIVAN:  I‘m not—I‘m just saying, I‘m not agreeing with it.  I‘m absolutely disowning it.

HITCHENS:  Andrew...

SULLIVAN:  But I do see where it comes from.  And I think the ability to reach those people, all of these people in this campaign, is one of his great strengths.  That, no other person can do it.  That‘s why he must bring all of them with him.

HITCHENS:  Now, even the Reverend Butts is a good example.

RUSSERT:  Calvin Butts.

HITCHENS:  Calvin Butts from Harlem.  He‘s a very good example of the sort of black preacher who you approve, says in what was a very grave and dignified way.  He says, actually, you can‘t use the pulpit to say “God damn.”  You can‘t do that.

I mean, that‘s a very mild and I thought rather beautifully made point.

SULLIVAN:  That‘s absolutely not true.

HITCHENS:  Well...

SULLIVAN:  The truth is, a great, great depth of prophetic biblical tradition calls on God to damn one‘s self as he—remember, again—again, if you look at that whole sermon, he is damning himself as complicit in this entire system that he thinks—now, I don‘t buy that, but it‘s not a “God damn the homosexuals,” or “God damn the lesbians,” or whatever, Jerry Falwell. 

It was, “God damn me, God damn us” for certain things we do wrong.  That is a very Christian message.  And now, also, to add...

HITCHENS:  Absolutely, it is.  Absolutely, it is.

(CROSSTALK)

SULLIVAN:  But the notion that there are things that we can—that we should morally say are wrong, the idea a Christian minister can‘t and shouldn‘t say that is preposterous.

HITCHENS:  It certainly is a Christian message—sickly, self-hating masochism. 

SULLIVAN:  Well, that is...

HITCHENS:  Just the kind of thing that poisons politics.

SULLIVAN:  If you don‘t believe in the resurrection, true.  But those of us who do believe in the resurrection think that kind of suffering leads to something amazing.

RUSSERT:  All right.  We‘ve got to take a quick break.

You said “resurrection.”  That cuts right to the heart of Christopher Hitchens.

HITCHENS:  You had to bring that up.

RUSSERT:  We‘ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RUSSERT:  And we‘re back.

We‘re going to save the resurrection for another show, Christopher, if that‘s OK.

Reverend Wright—when a lot of people heard that speech, people in Pennsylvania and Indiana that I‘ve been talking to, it wasn‘t comments about race that troubled him.  It was about the United States, patriotism, when they heard “God damn America,” picking up on what you said, Andrew.

Does this issue have to be revisited by Obama in the general election if he‘s the nominee?

HITCHENS:  Well, everyone‘s been very OK about it, or they‘re trying not to seem inflammatory.  But Harold Ickes was quoted this morning as saying, yes, in conversations with our people it‘s coming up, all right—the Reverend Wright is coming up all the time.

RUSSERT:  From the Clinton campaign?  Ickes is recruiting superdelegates.

HITCHENS:  Yes.  You know, they are not making a big deal publicly, but it‘s in all their conversations.

I can tell you what they‘re saying.  They‘re saying, if you pick this guy, you‘ll have to go on hearing about the Reverend Wright because the Republicans will keep bringing it up.  Or some Independents with their tight group (ph) will bring it up for them.

So, you‘re going to be saddled with the Reverend Wright if you saddle yourself with Obama.  That‘s going to be the logic of it.

RUSSERT:  It will be a challenge not only to Barack Obama as an African-American, but also to his patriotism.

HITCHENS:  Well, and you see, this is what interests me.  I was going to bring up what you brought up, that a year ago Wright told “The New York Times” he‘d probably have to be disowned.  In fact, he told some other people, I‘ll have to be dumped when the Jews find out about me, which is not a very lovely way to put it, I don‘t think, either.

I don‘t know what you think.  What do you think about that?

SULLIVAN:  I haven‘t heard that quote.

HITCHENS:  Well, that‘s what I‘ve heard.  But...

SULLIVAN:  Is that—that‘s major news if that‘s the case.

HITCHENS:  That‘s what I‘ve been told, but I will—well, we can...

(CROSSTALK)

HITCHENS:  We‘ll subject ourselves to fact-checking on that.

Anyway, here‘s what interests me about it.  It gives me the impression that Obama kind of thought he was going to do this well.  Because if he had thought about this, he would have remembered that Jesse Jackson‘s campaign was unhorsed by his old south side Chicago contacts coming back to haunt him.  In that case, that was Farrakhan again.  And that anyone who‘s got any sort of political shrewdness knows this kind of stuff has to be taken care of in advance, not ad hoc, and when it‘s too late.

SULLIVAN:  There is no connection between Farrakhan and Wright.  But, yes, Obama will have to deal with this.  And he will have to explain.

RUSSERT:  Wright‘s church did honor Farrakhan.

SULLIVAN:  Its magazine did.

HITCHENS:  No, Wright...

(CROSSTALK)

HITCHENS:  Wright went with Farrakhan on a plane to Libya to see...

SULLIVAN:  Their theology is nothing like the same.

HITCHENS:  Wait.  Just in case anyone wasn‘t going to hear what I was going to say, Wright went on a plane with Farrakhan to Libya to see none other than Qaddafi.

What‘s that?

SULLIVAN:  Do you believe that Wright‘s theology is indistinguishable in—from Farrakhan‘s?

HITCHENS:  No, because Farrakhan is an explicitly racist, schismatic Muslim.  I mean, he‘s not even a mainstream Muslim.  He‘s a—Islam wouldn‘t recognize him as being a practitioner.  And he believes that the white race was created by a experiment by a mad scientist and so forth.

SULLIVAN:  Let me ask...

HITCHENS:  But, I mean...

SULLIVAN:  I think he‘s going to have to deal with...

(CROSSTALK)

HITCHENS:  Wright has been extremely friendly towards Farrakhan in...

SULLIVAN:  I find that disturbing.  However, I do think he‘s going to have to address this.  But I think—I think America has to address some of this stuff, too.  If you‘re going to really bring this country together, you‘re going to have to deal with a lot of different things.

HITCHENS:  Well, who doesn‘t say that?

RUSSERT:  Another quick break.

We‘ll be back with Andrew Sullivan, Christopher Hitchens, right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RUSSERT:  And we are back talking about the race for the White House with two thinkers and writers.

Andrew Sullivan, he is the senior editor for “The Atlantic,” writes for “The Daily Dish” every day.  His book, “The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back.”

Christopher Hitchens writes for “Vanity Fair,” slate.com.  His book, “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.”

We‘ve been talking about Hillary Clinton in Bosnia, and Reverend Wright and Louis Farrakhan.

For the record, this is the linkage of Reverend Wright and Louis Farrakhan on our BlackBerrys—checking quotes here.  “‘When his enemies find out that in 1984 I went to Tripoli to visit Colonel Muammar Qaddafi,‘ Mr.  Wright recalled, ‘with Farrakhan, a lot of his Jewish support will dry up quicker than a snowball in hell.‘  Mr. Wright added that his trip implied no endorsement of either Farrakhan‘s views or Qaddafi‘s.”

So, clearly, there was a relationship between Wright and Qaddafi.  And some concern by Wright that his political views would be detrimental to Obama‘s presidential campaign.

HITCHENS:  I wouldn‘t interpret that as concern at all.  That‘s a statement of some relish, I think.  He‘s saying, see, you know, I know how to dish it out.

(CROSSTALK)

SULLIVAN:  My concern is simply that...

RUSSERT:  That his support will drop?

HITCHENS:  That‘s relish, yes.  The same as him cheerfully telling “The New York Times,” you know, “I told Obama pretty soon he‘ll have to disown me.”  It‘s as if he‘s in Gethsemane waiting for the cocks to crow.

None of this is remorse.  Only relish.

SULLIVAN:  I prefer—two things.

HITCHENS:  The guy‘s a thug.  Religion has poisoned the Obama campaign.

SULLIVAN:  Two things.  Two things.

One, it‘s important to clear up that he did not say “The Jews are going to get you” in some conspiratorial, classic anti-Semitic fashion.  I think that‘s...

HITCHENS:  He thinks only Jews are going to object to Farrakhan and Qaddafi.  Excuse me?

SULLIVAN:  No, he didn‘t say only.

HITCHENS:  No, but...

SULLIVAN:  Again, you keep playing with that quote. We‘re happy to have it on the record.  And now you‘ve made me forget my second point, which is that...

HITCHENS:  Don‘t be such a—get on with it.

SULLIVAN:  I‘m sorry, I‘ve forgotten my second point.  But I do think that‘s important.

And I don‘t think Wright is Farrakhan.  And I don‘t think Obama, in any conceivable way, represents anything but racial inclusion and integration.  And anybody that looks at any part of his career and can be in any doubt about that is beyond me. 

The reason he went to that church, clearly, if you read his biography, is he wanted to understand what it was to be black in America.  He didn‘t understand.  He‘s a very polyglot person.  He grew up in Hawaii, he had some time in Indonesia.

RUSSERT:  So it was a spiritual base and a religious—and a political base?

SULLIVAN:  It was—he says it was both to begin with.  The thing about him is that he‘s honest about that.

He said, yes, there was some political, but then I had this experience in church.  It wasn‘t a born again experience, but it was the feeling of grace from God.  And I read his words—and I‘ve read them closely—and I‘m a believing Christian, and I do not doubt for a minute that he‘s genuine about this.  I really don‘t.

HITCHENS:  Well, look, it‘s very...

SULLIVAN:  I don‘t think it should disqualify him.

HITCHENS:  It‘s a very attractive part of what is indeed a very charming and quite persuasive group (ph).  But my reading is just very slightly different.

He seems to be saying that he has no religious background.  Bought up, if anything, to be extremely skeptical and secular by his mother.  That he realized if he was going to be in politics, he‘d have to go shopping for some sort of base on the south side.  And he describes that fairly candidly. 

Now, if he just picked a little more carefully, been a little more scrupulous, say someone a bit more like the Reverend Butts, who‘s by no means anyone‘s idea of an Uncle Tom, he could have saved himself a lot of trouble.  But instead, he went—he went to some—he went to a church whose preacher is a foul-mouthed demagogue.  And it‘s going to cost him—it‘s going to continue to cause him a great deal of damage.

SULLIVAN:  Look...

HITCHENS:  No one says those opinions are his.

SULLIVAN:  He has been a foul-mouthed demagogue.  He‘s also been an inspirational preacher.  He‘s also been someone who‘s brought a lot of people to Christ.

He‘s a person who has engaged in a lot of social—he‘s all of these things.  OK?  Can we just accept the good with the bad and say this is what human beings are?  And that Obama—what I admire about Obama is his refusal to do the purely political thing, which is disown this guy.  To say, no, I was there for these reasons.

HITCHENS:  He couldn‘t have disowned him.

SULLIVAN:  And he‘s written more compellingly about religious faith—a moderate, not born again, not fundamentalist, but moderate religious faith.  This is the discourse we need in this country again.  We need a moderate...

HITCHENS:  Andrew...

SULLIVAN:  ... religious discourse.  And Obama is able to articulate it better than anybody else.  And I think the religious war that‘s going on within this society needs more of that moderate center.

And I know Christopher doesn‘t, but I do.

HITCHENS:  I think it needs a lot more atheism and secularism.  But look, the option—you talk as if the option of disassociating himself or disowning was available to Senator Obama.  I don‘t think it was available to him.

He couldn‘t disown someone who had married him to his wife, baptized his children, in whose church he had been sitting for that long.  It‘s not a connection you can walk away from.

What he could have done and didn‘t do is say which of the statements by Wright he found repulsive and which he didn‘t.  He‘s just said he found some of them controversial. 

That‘s very weak.  It‘s shady.  It‘s evasive.  These are all things he‘s—these, I remind you, are all the things he‘s not supposed to be.

And then he said—he did something that I‘ve actually never seen done before.  You hear about people who will sell their own grandmother.

SULLIVAN:  Oh, please.

HITCHENS:  But he suddenly says that it‘s no worse than his grandmother making a private remark.

SULLIVAN:  That is not what he said, again.

HITCHENS:  Well, he said it‘s as easy to dissociate from.

SULLIVAN:  No.  He said that in his relationships, he understands that lots of people he loves—his mother, his pastor—I mean, many people we love -- have things that we don‘t find that great.  They have deep flaws. 

Sometimes you love people for their flaws.  That is what the Christian message is about.  And I think if you don‘t, frankly, see the Christianity behind Obama‘s entire world view at this point, I think you‘re missing the core element...

HITCHENS:  His grandmother (INAUDIBLE), 86, living alone and unaware that he was about to make her famous as a racist?

SULLIVAN:  I am not—his book is very candid.  And frankly, I‘m not going to say things that cheaply talk about other people‘s families when we don‘t know what their relationships are and how intimate they are and what has happened with them.

HITCHENS:  I‘d like to know.

SULLIVAN:  He writes in his book he loves his grandmother more than anything else on earth.  And to say otherwise, to say he‘s using her in this way, I think is really way too cheap a shot.

HITCHENS:  He should—no, excuse me, there‘s nothing cheap about this. 

SULLIVAN:  Yes there is.

HITCHENS:  I think if he loves her—if he loves her, he should love her enough to keep her out of it and not to put her on all fours with a public figure who relishes upsetting people with paranoid and racist...

(CROSSTALK)

SULLIVAN:  Of course not.  The reason he did—the reason he did, in his own mind, of course, is that one was his mother, essentially.  His grandmother took care of him.  And the other obviously became a surrogate father.

And if you read “Dreams From My Father,” it is about the absent father.  And this is—this is the person he found as a father figure.  And so the bond between them is obviously psychologically very deep.  And frankly, I want a president, I want a Christianity that has to be disowned by politicians rather than co-opted by them.

RUSSERT:  We have to take another quick break.  We‘ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RUSSERT:  And we‘re back.

The interesting thing in politics is to measure the impact of these stories on the voters.  We went out to do a poll, NBC News and “Wall Street Journal,” in the midst of the Wright controversy and, lo and behold, while we were out in the field, the Hillary Clinton Bosnia issue surfaced.

Obama had minimal damage with Democrats and Independents.  Lost some Republicans.  Went down overall a few points.

Hillary Clinton paid a huge price for Bosnia, went down eight to nine points with her favorable/unfavorable.  And it was quite striking that that seemed to wound her politically more than the Wright thing.

SULLIVAN:  Because, I think, it—her big problem is people remembering the deceptions and the parsings of the ‘90s.  And it brought back in people‘s minds, this reminder, oh, the Clintons, yes, they don‘t always tell the truth, do they?  So it immediately connected to an underlying worry about her.

With Obama, it was confusing and difficult and different.  And they‘re not quite sure how to associate this guy.  And then the speech itself, he took control and gave a speech about this whole issue that totally elevated—and people realized the sincerity of the guy.  And I think that‘s the difference.

RUSSERT:  Christopher, you think it‘s festering below the surface?

HITCHENS:  Wait, are we on Bosnia or...

RUSSERT:  On Wright?

HITCHENS:  Oh, Wright is certainly festering, yes.  But I think—I agree with Andrew on this, certainly.  People are divided in mind about it, and they don‘t think that it‘s—they don‘t think that Senator Obama is ventriloquizing Wright.  Whereas they concede with Mrs. Clinton that the charge made against her as it stands is 100 percent true, namely that she‘s (INAUDIBLE).

I mean, the YouTube thing of her saying what she claimed, and then showing what actually happened is absolutely overwhelming.  And first it makes her look pathetic, which no candidate can afford to look. 

Second, it makes her look mendacious, and people will remember, indeed, come to think of it, wasn‘t her husband disbarred?  Yes, he was.

And third, it completely takes away her main claim, which is experience.

RUSSERT:  Let‘s...

HITCHENS:  It makes that into something laughable.

RUSSERT:  Let me go back to the issue that you raised earlier, Andrew, and that is Hillary Clinton was well on her way to this nomination.  You go back and read any of the articles last year, she was seen as more than the frontrunner.

She herself has acknowledged that this will all be over on Super Tuesday.  Lock up the nomination.  And now we‘re in a situation where this freshman senator from Illinois named Barack Obama has her on her heels.  He‘s ahead in elected delegates, popular vote, more contests won.

What happened?  How could Hillary Clinton have been perhaps defeated for the Democratic nomination by this person?

SULLIVAN:  Well, obviously, overconfidence.  I mean, I think she thought she had the entire machine, all the superdelegates, all the states, the name.  She was going to do a George Bush 2000 strategy in just over—but she just—and she also—it‘s a judgment -question.

She both misjudged Obama, she did not see how good he was.  I mean, I saw it last year.  And I think it was there for anybody shrewd enough to see.

This man was an amazing figure.  The country wanted change.  He represented it.

And secondly, I think it‘s management.  She doesn‘t—she‘s not a good manager.  She didn‘t run a good campaign.

The one thing you know about—one thing you can tell about candidates running for executive office and how they run things, it‘s watching how they run their campaigns.  She did a classic control, loyalist, insider campaign.  Obama went—and nearly two million small donors.

I mean, that‘s the difference.  So, she didn‘t understand the grassroots.  She didn‘t understand the times.  She misjudged Obama.  And she can‘t manage anything.

RUSSERT:  And ignored the caucuses.

SULLIVAN:  And ignored—just the professional.  I mean, we‘re supposed to believe she has experience?  The professional incompetence and negligence of this campaign, not to have even—I mean, they didn‘t have any fuel over there in Texas until the last minute.

I mean, they‘ve been saved by the bell a couple of times.  I mean, really, really saved.  They should have been put away by now.

HITCHENS:  And then I think there‘s the factor of her husband, who‘s clearly lost his touch in some way.  I mean, I never could see his charm myself, I have to say.  But it‘s been evident to a huge number of people to whom it was opaque before there‘s something really oafish about the guy.

I mean, he‘s been really, really klutzy and clumsy and boring and off key and resentful throughout.  Looking bad, too.

And I think people just—they don‘t want him back in the White House. 

And they know it‘s another case of you get two for one.

SULLIVAN:  And there‘s also...

HITCHENS:  That‘s actually the only clever or funny thing that Romney every said, I think, it one of the debates.  He said, “Can you think of anything more horrible than the idea of Bill Clinton in the White House with nothing to do?”

SULLIVAN:  Well, we all—my worry about him was that he wouldn‘t be given a specific thing to do.  I mean, I think that if he were given a constitutional office, if he were given secretary of state or some role in which he was publicly accountable, separate from his relations with his wife, we‘d have some sort of democratic accountability.

Having an unaccountable person—I mean, I think this is the Cheney problem.  When you have another president, kind of, with not any clear demarcation of authority, and you have two people, you end up with a very, very dangerous and impenetrable situation.

RUSSERT:  This last week we heard Bill Clinton talk about picking on the girl.  The former governor of Vermont, Kunin, of Vermont, saying that it was talking down to a woman, in effect, and asking her to get out of the race.  Hillary Clinton confiding to, according to “The New York Times,” her advisers that she‘s not going to be bullied out by a bunch of guys.

Are we seeing the gender card played?

HITCHENS:  If you can call it a card.

SULLIVAN:  I mean, I‘m...

HITCHENS:  It‘s just another side of her terrible self-pity and self-righteousness.  If it isn‘t one, it‘s the other one.

(CROSSTALK)

SULLIVAN:  I could not imagine Margaret Thatcher...

HITCHENS:  No.

SULLIVAN:  ... ever saying anything close to that.

HITCHENS:  Or Golda Meir.

SULLIVAN:  When I‘m told I don‘t like Hillary Clinton because I‘m a misogynist, I think I admired Margaret—I mean, she was my idol for many, many years.  And she never, ever, ever, when we were on very, very different...

HITCHENS:  Yes, I know.

SULLIVAN:  ... extremely—miles apart—she would never play the gender card.

HITCHENS:  It would never occur to her.

SULLIVAN:  Never occur to her, because she is a feminist in the sense that we‘re post-gender.  We‘re talking about—now, you have to sometimes talk about it to some extent, but to use it as a reason to vote for anybody—of course, Mrs. Clinton has said both.  She‘s said, don‘t use it as a reason to vote for me, and please use it as a reason to vote for me, depending exactly on the circumstance.

So, as usual, they‘ve said it both ways.

HITCHENS:  And if you think of women who really have been put upon by men and by male supremacy, like Benazir Bhutto, as well, you can‘t imagine her resorting to this kind of self-pity, or suddenly decide to feminize herself in the most cliched way by welling up and sobbing, or something.

SULLIVAN:  Or Angela Merkel.  Or Golda Meir.  I mean, we have...

HITCHENS:  Or Indira Gandhi.

SULLIVAN:  Or Indira Gandhi.

HITCHENS:  It makes it...

SULLIVAN:  The trouble is they were also—many of them—well, go on.

HITCHENS:  No, no.  I‘d only be repeating myself.  Well, actually, no, why don‘t I do that?

I mean, I just think that if she knew how it made her look, alternatively soppy and bitchy, she‘d stop it.  But she can‘t help herself, can she?  She just can‘t.

RUSSERT:  Another quick break.

Andrew Sullivan, Christopher Hitchens, right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RUSSERT:  And we‘re back. 

John McCain going along, kind of revisiting the places that were important to him—high school, Naval Academy, so forth.  Raising money, watching this fight on the Democratic side.

Are the Democrats going to be able to reunite, Andrew?  Are they going to be overwhelmed by debates over gender and race and...

SULLIVAN:  I think yes.  I‘m not a big believer that this fatally wounds the Democrats.  I do think McCain just gave a quite superb speech on foreign policy.  And I thought it was an extremely impressive attempt to say, I am absolutely not going to be Bush 3. 

I do actually believe in alliances.  I do actually believe that climate change is real.  I believe in going around the world and mending our fences because we need to do this.

Now, his big problem—and I think it‘s going to be—I think this is going to be one of the central issues—is Iraq.  It is—should be, in my view, along with the economy, the most important subject we‘re talking about.  And the strategy ahead is, to be quite honest with you, unclear.

I think what‘s happening right now, I don‘t think any of us can speak of confidently in terms of what has happened.  But I don‘t get a good failing from the failure of the Maliki government to put down the Shiite militias in Basra or, indeed, in large parts of Sadr City.

If the surge maxes out, and as it draws down, as it must just for cyclical reasons, and if violence swells, McCain is going to be in a very difficult position, because this is his core, core subject.  And I think that‘s a huge, huge problem for him.

RUSSERT:  If Obama‘s the nominee, Christopher Hitchens, he‘ll say, I was against the war, John McCain is for the war.  John McCain wants to stay, I want to leave. 

McCain will say, not so fast.  If we pull out immediately, we could leave behind real destruction...

HITCHENS:  Yes.

RUSSERT:  ... and a civil war.  And a base for al Qaeda.  Not so fast, Mr.

Obama.

And Obama will say, let‘s have that debate.

HITCHENS:  As a matter of fact, when the war was going better, Mr. Obama was a great deal more for it than he is now.  And I noticed in the debate in Texas that he actually praised the surge at one point because he could afford to as one who had been more against it.

(INAUDIBLE) than Mrs. Clinton, he said actually it was good that one regiment from Texas that played a really good part in the surge in clearing al Qaeda out of Baghdad.  I thought that should have gotten more attention than it deserved.

(CROSSTALK)

HITCHENS:  I think an Obama/McCain election will be a wonderful thing to watch.

SULLIVAN:  Me too.

RUSSERT:  Why?

HITCHENS:  Well, because they‘re both very intelligent and they‘re both quite principled.  And both of them could change their positions on Iraq, because I think they would accept the responsibility.

RUSSERT:  Do you think Iraq will be a big issue in this campaign?

HITCHENS:  Oh, of course it will, yes.  As it should be.

SULLIVAN:  I couldn‘t agree more.  To be honest, this whole election cycle has been draining and amazing and fun.  But I couldn‘t be more amazed that we may end up with McCain and Obama.

I think the American people—both parties will have selected, if that does end up the case, two people who could really—like, Iraq, the problem with Iraq is this country is so divided and so partisan about it.  And yet, our interests are so—it‘s so important to make the right call at this point.

We need people to just defuse and detoxify the atmosphere, to talk pragmatically about how to get the least worst option and how to rescue the best we can of this, and bring the country together and around that.  And I think if McCain does want to say we really are going to commit, then I want to hear him commit.

I want to hear troop levels.  I want to hear candid talk to the American people to explain, buy in again to this war.  Or not.

And I think that we actually have a chance with the two of them to have an honest debate about that.  I actually—they‘re not as far apart as some people say, because, frankly, I think even those people who want to get out realize it‘s going to be a very difficult and complicated business.  And even those who want to stay in essentially realize they don‘t want to stay in there forever.

So, I think, in fact, we may get finally—what I was worried about is, in a Clinton/Giuliani race, you‘d have such polarization.  With this, you might get a pragmatic debate about what the hell to do.

HITCHENS:  And McCain—the Democrats, in a real childish way, are trying to hang around his neck about being there for maybe 100 years was a perfectly sensible statement in its context.  Consider it like Korea or like Japan, as a place in which we have a very longstanding, a very great interest.

SULLIVAN:  Except his—the Muslim countries are not like those other countries inasmuch as occupying troops are a much bigger theological, psychological problem for Arab countries than somewhere like Japan or Germany.  And if you don‘t understand that about Islam, then you really aren‘t judging and haven‘t learned from the last four or five years.

HITCHENS:  I very much doubt that that‘s true, that the resentment of foreign occupiers by Japanese people wouldn‘t be at least as intense as any resentment by Arabs and Muslims.  After all, a very large number, the majority of the people of Iraq, did welcome the arrival.

RUSSERT:  To be continued. 

Thank you very much, both of you.

HITCHENS:  Always a pleasure.

RUSSERT:  Andrew Sullivan, senior editor of “The Atlantic.”  He blogs every day for “The Daily Bush” (sic) -- “The Daily Dish.”  Excuse me.

(LAUGHTER)

RUSSERT:  “The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back.”

Christopher Hitchens, “Vanity Fair,” slate.com, “God is Not Great; How Religion Poisons Everything.”

Thank you both for writing and thinking and talking with intelligence.

SULLIVAN:  Thank you.

HITCHENS:  Thanks for having us.

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

END   

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.>

Watch Tim Russert Saturdays, 12 p.m. and 6 p.m. ET and Sundays, 12 p.m. ET

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,