updated 7/28/2008 10:28:27 AM ET 2008-07-28T14:28:27

Guests: Jim Popkin, Margaret Brennan, Andrea Mitchell, Chuck Todd, Michelle Bernard, Deroy Murdock, Rory Kennedy, Ron Brownstein, Scott McClellan

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  French Fries versus home fries.  Who won the week?

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.  And welcome to HARDBALL.  An American in Paris.  Senator Barack Obama got a kiss today from French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PRES. NICOLAS SARKOZY, FRANCE (through translator):  And there were two of us in that office.  And there were two of us in my office, and one of us became president.  Well, let the other do likewise, huh?  I mean, that‘s not meddling.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Meanwhile, Senator John McCain‘s campaign in Colorado continued slamming Obama on his stance on the surge in Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Senator Obama and I also faced a decision which amounted to a real-time test for a future commander-in-chief.  America passed that test.  I believe my judgment passed that test.  And I believe that Senator Obama‘s failed.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  So is this week a turning point in the election?  Polls show the race is getting tighter in some states, but could Obama could have gotten a post-trip bounce?  NBC‘s Andrea Mitchell joins us from London.  And we‘ll get into the politics and the race and the trip overseas with NBC News political director Chuck Todd and “The National Journal‘s” Ron Brownstein.

Plus: The economy is in the tank, of course.  The nation is weary from wars.  And a new NBC/”Wall Street Journal” poll says that 74 percent of Americans think the country‘s on the wrong track.  How did the country end up in bad shape?  We‘ll go inside the Bush administration with former White House press secretary Scott McClellan.  He‘s coming here.  He‘s author, of course, of the best-selling book, “What Happened.”

And for over 60 years, legendary reporter Helen Thomas has held a front-row seat to history as the dean of the White House press corps.  She‘s grilled nine presidents now, from Kennedy to Bush.  And now the award-winning filmmaker Rory Kennedy has produced a new documentary on the first lady of the press corps, Helen Thomas.  “Thank You, Mr. President” premiers on HBO in August, but we‘ve got a sneak preview for you tonight.

And the “Politics Fix” panel tonight picks the winners and losers of the week.  Of course, I‘m here with the HARDBALL “Sideshow.”

But first, Obama in Europe.  NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell is in London.  You know, Andrea, I don‘t know how you figure, being a great reporter, how things smell from back here, but what does it feel like, honestly, as a reporter, just the general zeitgeist of this trip, coming out of Berlin, going to Paris, going to London?  How does it feel on the plane?

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Well, you know, he got a kiss on both cheeks.  He said he got a kiss from Sarkozy.  I mean, that was a love fest there.  And you don‘t see candidates standing next to heads of states, presidents, at a joint press conference.  He was treated in Paris like a visiting president.

He will not have that reception in London, nor did he in Berlin, in that the officials there, Merkel, and Gordon Brown tomorrow, are not going to have joint press conferences with him.  It is really rather insulting not only to John McCain but also to the president of the United States.

And Barack Obama said today, you know, I‘m not a president, I‘m just a candidate for president.  We have a long tradition of not criticizing our presidents from abroad.  And then he proceeded to slap around George W.  Bush‘s policies by talking—a bit indirectly, but talking about the United States has been estranged from the rest of the world and we have to restore American credibility, which was the big theme, of course, of the Berlin speech.  So he has been criticizing this current administration policy abroad and doing it, I think, quite successfully, with a few stumbles along the way that we can talk about.

MATTHEWS:  Well, let‘s take a look at—here‘s the president of France in Europe as Europe was watching today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SARKOZY (through translator):  And then in Europe, my dear Barack Obama, there are a lot of people who come from very different backgrounds with very what I would call multiple histories and stories, perhaps not classical, traditional French.  Not everyone here is called Sarkozy, you know.  And I‘m aware of the fact that not everyone is called Obama in the United States of America.  And that gives us a sense of America, of adventure.  And Barack Obama‘s adventure is an adventure that rings true in the hearts and minds of the French and of Europeans.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  So Andrea, is that Franco-American spaghetti going to help him here at home, all that talking about different ethnic names and all?  Does that help him here?

MITCHELL:  Well, you know, Obama said today that there‘s no one who doesn‘t want to be in Paris, but I do recall that that became an issue that the Republicans exploited against John Kerry, his so-called Frenchness.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

MITCHELL:  How does it play in Wilkes-Barre and Scranton?  You tell me.

MATTHEWS:  Well, we‘ll find out in November.  Thank you very much, Andrea Mitchell.  You get home safe.  What a hard trip you‘ve had.  What a wild trip.

MITCHELL:  Thank you.

MATTHEWS:  History making.

Chuck Todd is political director for NBC News, and Ron Brownstein writes for “The National Journal.”  I want to go to Ron first of all.  This trip, it‘s had its contour, big victories with Iran, with Iraq, with Afghanistan, with General Petraeus, shooting that 40-foot outside shot beyond the three-point mark.  All that worked.  And then I wonder about Paris—I mean, I‘m sorry, I wonder about Berlin.  Paris looked better.

RON BROWNSTEIN, ATLANTIC MEDIA:  To you.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, to me.  What do you think?

BROWNSTEIN:  Well, look, I think, overall, the week went as well as Barack Obama could reasonably have hoped and probably even better than he could have hoped.  There were some stumbles along the way.  There was some friction at the end about—with the Pentagon.  But overall, he certainly got out of this trip every...

MATTHEWS:  Should he have skipped the dessert?  Should he have skipped the dessert and come right back from the hard part of the trip in the Middle East?

BROWNSTEIN:  No, I...

MATTHEWS:  Not done the spiking of the ball?

BROWNSTEIN:  No, look, I mean, central to his argument about foreign policy is this idea he can reconnect America to the world more effectively than Bush has done.  And we should say that, by in large, in Bush‘s second term, relations with allies in Europe and Asia have been much better than...

MATTHEWS:  Because of the election.

BROWNSTEIN:  ... they were in the first term, but also because he‘s worked with them more closely...

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

BROWNSTEIN:  ... on some issues than he did essentially.  But that is so central to Barack Obama‘s argument.  Even John McCain—you know, he gave a speech at the World Affairs Council in LA earlier this year and implicitly made some of the same arguments, that America had to find ways to reconnect with its traditional allies.  The Berlin trip gave him powerful symbol of that.  Now—the Berlin Visit.  But whether—you know, how much value this ultimately does for him, I think that does remain to be seen.

MATTHEWS:  Let me open an objective question.  When have we ever accomplished anything big in the world without allies?  We won World War II, World War I.  We won the cold war.  We dealt effectively in the first Persian Gulf war because we had an alliance.

BROWNSTEIN:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  We had lots of countries on our side.  Whenever we‘ve gone in alone, it hasn‘t been the same.

BROWNSTEIN:  Right.  And in fact...

MATTHEWS:  That‘s an objective fact.

BROWNSTEIN:  Well, and there‘s also—I mean, there‘s also a very clear political reaction by Americans.  If you look at the two terms of President Bush, the share of people saying it‘s important to work with allies is going up.  The share of people who say it‘s a problem—Pew just put out numbers a couple weeks ago that, really, for the first time, a majority of American say they are deeply concerned about how we are viewed in the world.  And so all of that does plays into what Obama was trying to do this week.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

BROWNSTEIN:  McCain, though, you know, is competitive on that turf, as well.  And I just want to make a last quick point.  Barack Obama, you know, faces two distinct questions in terms of his fitness to be the wartime leader of the country.  One is whether he is sufficiently versed in international affairs to conduct our diplomacy.  He scores pretty well on that.  Where he faces a bigger problem is, Is he ready to be commander-in-chief?  The public has expressed more doubts on that front.  I think this helped reinforce him on the first issue.  I‘m not sure how much it did on the second.

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me get Chuck in here, but first let‘s look at Senator Obama talking about the French president after this meeting.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I don‘t know whether people are aware that when President Sarkozy went to Washington, he wasn‘t yet elected as president.  He met with only two United States senators.  That was me and John McCain.  When he came as president now to speak, he was treated like a rock star.  Everybody loved him.  And I think it was after that that everybody decided to call French fries French fries again in the cafeteria.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  You know, it‘s interesting, Chuck Todd, that he very smartly didn‘t take a shot at Bush for being chauvinistic or anti-foreigner with all that French fries nonsense that went on, but basically said that it was the French that got their act together by putting Sarkozy in instead of Chirac.  In other words, it was their fault we weren‘t getting along.  Interesting nuance there.

CHUCK TODD, NBC POLITICAL DIRECTOR:  Look, it was.  And I agree with you, Chris.  I think today, in some ways, was probably a better day for Obama than the Berlin speech because, first of all, he got to stand next to a world leader, a world leader, you know, that—frankly, that conservatives and Republicans in this country have been praising a lot.  I mean, that was a powerful...

MATTHEWS:  He‘s shorter than him, too.

TODD:  That was a powerful visual today...

MATTHEWS:  He‘s got a head over him, too.  Look at taller he is than...

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  Absolutely.

MATTHEWS:  This is going to be the presidential debate situation, too, I think.

TODD:  Right.  Now, this was a powerful visual today, arguably more powerful than the Berlin visual.  And this could—you know, we‘ll see.  Look, the irony in this is that if John Kerry had done a press conference with French president Chirac, he‘d have lost by, you know, 200 electoral votes.  So it is kind of funny how things have changed in four years.

MATTHEWS:  Here‘s Senator McCain in Denver today, on the home front. 

This is home fries versus French fries.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN:  I went to Iraq many times and heard all the phony explanations about how we were winning.  I knew we were failing, and I told that to an administration that didn‘t want to hear it.  I pushed for the new strategy that has now succeeded before most people even admitted there was a problem.  Fortunately, Senator Obama failed.  Not our military.  We rejected the audacity of hopelessness, and we were right.  Violence in Iraq fell to such low levels for such a long time that Senator Obama, detecting the success he never believed possible, falsely claimed that he‘d always predicted it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  You know, Ron and Chuck, the reaction from the Barack Obama campaign to that little fusillade was, He‘s angry.

BROWNSTEIN:  Well, you know...

MATTHEWS:  Is that—is that—are they going to treat him like Mr.  Wilson yelling at the kid on his lawn?  Is that what it‘s going to be from now on, he‘s angry every time he says something like that?

BROWNSTEIN:  John McCain talked about bringing Barack Obama to educate him this spring.  I mean, look, McCain I think does have a certain level of lack of respect for Obama, based on the view that Obama simply hasn‘t done enough...

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

BROWNSTEIN:  ... doesn‘t have enough credentials to be...

MATTHEWS:  But every time he does something...

BROWNSTEIN:  ... in this position, and...

(CROSSTALK)

BROWNSTEIN:  I think—yes, I think—I think it is—you know, it is something that the campaign probably does have to watch as they go forward.

But you know, the interesting—the argument that McCain is making there I think is interesting because, I mean, if you‘re looking forward, increasingly, the success of the surge seems to be driving the politics both in Iraq and the U.S. toward removing our troops.  He wants to look back and say this was a test of judgment.  Of course, what Barack Obama can say is there was a bigger test of judgment, a more fundamental test, whether to launch the war in the first place, I was right on that, you were wrong.

MATTHEWS:  Why doesn‘t...

BROWNSTEIN:  But that‘s—that‘s the backward-looking frame McCain wants to put on it.

MATTHEWS:  I agree.  Why doesn‘t—Chuck, why doesn‘t he just—I‘m talking politics here now, not policy.

TODD:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  Why doesn‘t John McCain brag now and say, I was right, we won the war to the point where Maliki feels safe enough to say we can leave?  I‘ve accomplished our goal, give enough security to those politicians in Iraq that they can let us go.  He won.  Why doesn‘t he declare victory, unless he wants permanent bases in Iraq, he‘s in with the neo-conservatives and wants permanent bases...

TODD:  Well, I would argue that...

MATTHEWS:  ... and doesn‘t agree with Maliki.

TODD:  I actually think that‘s what this speech was designed to do today.  He was starting—look, he also said he would have most of our troops out by the end of his first term.  I mean, that‘s been a shift.  You hadn‘t heard rhetoric like that from McCain before.  In fact, he even said, And you know what?  My opponent may send troops back.  When I remove them, they‘re going to be removed permanently.

So actually, Chris, I actually think he is getting to where you‘re saying she should get...

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

TODD:  ... which is, I was right, we won, and now look, we can get our troops out.  Now, he‘s not getting—he‘s not getting on the timetable front.  He‘s sort of sticking to his guns on that.

But I think this speech, today—you know, look, the Obama campaign always wants to push this temperament thing.  I think they think it‘s the thing that they got.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

TODD:  They kind of hope...

MATTHEWS:  It‘s a button.

TODD:  They kind of hope they can get under his skin.  They feel like that that‘s what‘s happened in the past, and every time that, you know, McCain gets angry, he loses a political fight.  But I didn‘t detect anger today.  I mean, I sort of think the McCain campaign said, OK, look, we can‘t lose this battle (INAUDIBLE) that somehow Obama can just sort of get past this idea that he didn‘t support the surge and now he can remove troops.  I think they feel like they have to underscore that debate point a little bit better, and I think that‘s why they did this speech.

But I think he‘s getting close to saying, Hey, I was right and we won. 

I agree, though, he needs to do it a little more optimistically.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  I think the debate, Ron, is going to come down to do we have permanent bases in Iraq or not because Maliki obviously doesn‘t want us to have them there.

BROWNSTEIN:  And McCain has talked about a commitment to Iraq that could extend for decades.

MATTHEWS:  Whether they like it or not.

(CROSSTALK)

BROWNSTEIN:  Right.  Exactly right.  And ultimately—ultimately, it‘s going to be very hard to hold to that position if the Iraqi governor is not...

MATTHEWS:  I just—I read...

BROWNSTEIN:  ... is not there, as well.

MATTHEWS:  ... one of his allies, Charles Krauthammer, today, talking about air bases to fight the war with Iran out of Iraq, which is an ideological discussion that‘s going to continue.

Thank you very much, Todd.  Have a nice weekend, both of you, Chuck and Ron.

Coming up: Former White House press secretary, Scott McClellan is coming here on the Bush years, the war in Iraq, and what he thinks of this race that‘s going on involving the succession to the old boss, George W.  Bush.  The man who told us the secrets is here to tell us more.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Scott McClellan was the White House press secretary for President Bush.  He‘s the author of the best seller, the booming best seller, “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington‘s Culture of Deception.”

You know, there‘s a big difference between the Bush you worked for, President Bush, and his father.  President Bush seemed to like the world.  He had allies all around the world.  He was friends with people in Russia, all over the world, even, you know, friends with Mitterand of France, certainly friends with Thatcher, with Helmut Kohl.

Why did President Bush, the one you worked for, the current president of the United States—why is he so anti-foreign?  Why does he seem to dislike anybody who‘s European or from another country?

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  Well, I think part of that changed after we went into Iraq and the view that it was a go-it-alone approach, and when things turned south there.  But he‘s had pretty good relations with most world leaders.  But our reputation and credibility is what has been tarnished because of some of the actions and policies of this administration.

And that‘s what, you know, Barack Obama was touching on in his speech yesterday.  He was touching on some of that and how we need to restore some of that credibility and reputation around the world.  But it is a little bit of a different attitude from his father.  I think part of it is this—that he has to distinguish himself.  It‘s a competitiveness in the Bush family.  He has to be his own person, to some extent.  And he decided to govern a little bit differently from his father in those ways.

MATTHEWS:  Is it a Texas thing?  He goes down there.  He wears cowboy boots.  He has a ranch of some kind down there.  He doesn‘t want to say he‘s from Connecticut or from that fancy prep school he went to, or Yale or Harvard Business.  He acts like he‘s a Texan—you know, I have to use the right word here—soddy (ph) buster.  Is this all part of it?  I don‘t like—I never went—he was a kid in school, he had all the money in the world, all of the power in the world to make connections.  Never took a trip to Europe.  I would have loved to take a trip to Europe in college.  I mean, this kid didn‘t seem to like—he never visited China, did he?  I mean, what‘s his story, when his dad was...

(CROSSTALK)

MCCLELLAN:  ... Crawford, as you know.

MATTHEWS:  But when his dad was ambassador.  I‘m getting to something, and you‘re not helping me here.  What‘s his problem with the world?  Is it he thinks it‘s elite to go somewhere else besides America?  What‘s it—because the next presidential election‘s going to be about who wants to rejoin the world or not rejoin the world, basically.

MCCLELLAN:  Right.  I think Senator Obama actually touched on that in his speech, that it‘s not a view that Europe has of America that—that we‘re what‘s all wrong with the world and it‘s not—it shouldn‘t be a view that some Americans have of Europe, that we should be deriding Europeans and their role in the world, that we‘ve got to work together on this.  And I think you‘ve seen the president change a little bit in the last several months and come around on some of those policies, whether it‘s Iran or North Korea or...

MATTHEWS:  Aren‘t you embarrassed...

MCCLELLAN:  ... Iraq or some of the others, but...

MATTHEWS:  ... to be part of that administration, that we made fun of French fries?  We called them “freedom fries”?  Weren‘t you embarrassed to...

MCCLELLAN:  Well, those things...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... I mean, a know-nothing-ism about the world?

MCCLELLAN:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  You know it‘s like these congressmen who run around saying, I don‘t even own a passport.

MCCLELLAN:  Yes, those things...

MATTHEWS:  Who are these people?

MCCLELLAN:  Those things certainly don‘t help in the long run, in terms of building your reputation around the world. 

And it‘s not that—just that we have to reach out just for the sake of reaching out and building our reputation.  It‘s that it‘s in our interests, because these challenges that we are facing, in this day and age, are global challenges that we all—that face of all us and that... 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s go inside the war issue right now, the critical war issue.

MCCLELLAN:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  John McCain, fairly or not—I want you to tell me if it‘s fair or not—has been saying the president was wrong about the war in Iraq.  We were losing.  He said, we were losing.  The president and his people, Rumsfeld on down, said, we‘re winning, right? 

MCCLELLAN:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  Did that happen?  Was there a period of time where John McCain said we were losing the war in Iraq and the president said we‘re winning?  Did that ever happen, that moment? 

(CROSSTALK)

MCCLELLAN:  Well, we were certainly putting a lot of—I don‘t know if that moment happened. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, he claims it did. 

MCCLELLAN:  Yes.  We certainly were putting a lot of positive spin on the war when we shouldn‘t have been.  We should have been more open and honest with the American people about the situation as best we knew it on the ground. 

MATTHEWS:  So, McCain‘s right? 

MCCLELLAN:  Well, I don‘t know if he actually had that conversation or if he actually said that or not. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, he basically said that, I was right, they were wrong, and we were losing the war.  It wasn‘t until we pushed that surge and cleared the streets of Baghdad that we had a chance.

(CROSSTALK)

MCCLELLAN:  We definitely needed a change of strategy.  But it was also a mistake in the first place to go in there, because it was an unnecessary war.  And we see the consequences still playing out today, being longer.

MATTHEWS:  I‘m with you on that.  I think the war‘s never been justified effectively or honestly, has it?

MCCLELLAN:  Right.  And I think that‘s actually...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  That‘s in your book, that we were never honest about why we went in there.

MCCLELLAN:  Absolutely.  And that‘s why we lost bipartisan support, when it turned out that we had been misleading.  Whether intentional or not, we were misleading about the reason for going to war. 

Iraq was not a grave and gathering danger to America.  And I think that‘s something that Barack Obama will continue to remind people about as they debate this issue over the surge and other issues.  But most people are looking forward now and saying, how do we bring this to a responsible end?  How do we move on?  What‘s our exit strategy here?  And neither candidate has fully articulated that.  Senator Obama‘s done a little bit more than Senator McCain has. 

MATTHEWS:  Did you see FOX television as a tool when you were in the White House, as a useful avenue for getting your message out? 

MCCLELLAN:  Well, I make a distinction between the journalists and between the commentators.  Certainly, there were commentators and others, pundits, at FOX News that were helpful to the White House. 

(CROSSTALK)

MCCLELLAN:  Certainly, we got talking points...

(CROSSTALK)

MCCLELLAN:  ... those people.

MATTHEWS:  Did people say, call Sean, call Bill, call whoever?  Did you do that as a regular thing?

(CROSSTALK)

MCCLELLAN:  Certainly.  Certainly.  It wasn‘t necessarily something I was doing, but it was something that we at the White House, yes, were doing and getting them talking points and making sure they knew where we were coming from. 

MATTHEWS:  So, you were giving them talking points...

(CROSSTALK)

MCCLELLAN:  But I would separate the journalists.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  No, no, this is important. 

MCCLELLAN:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  You were using these commentators as your spokespeople? 

MCCLELLAN:  Well, certainly.  I mean, certainly.  I think that happens to both ways, when people go on other networks, as well, that are—that are favorable towards Democrats and so forth. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, nobody has ever fed me any crap like that, so I don‘t know what you‘re talking about.

(CROSSTALK)

MCCLELLAN:  Well, you‘re an independent-minded guy.

MATTHEWS:  I—I—thank you. 

But aren‘t you a little embarrassed by the fact that your White House used a television network which is purportedly fair and balanced as your mouthpiece? 

MCCLELLAN:  Well, I think everybody in this town uses people that are going to be helpful to their cause to try to shape the narrative to their advantage.

MATTHEWS:  But a whole network?

MCCLELLAN:  Again, I would separate the journalists, because the journalists that I worked with were people, just like the rest of the White House press corps, who would try to report the news.

MATTHEWS:  So, you wouldn‘t use Brit Hume as somebody to sell stuff for, but you would use the nighttime guys? 

MCCLELLAN:  Yes, I would separate that out.  And, certainly, and they will say that that‘s because they agree with those views in the White House. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, they didn‘t need a script, though, did they?

MCCLELLAN:  Well, probably not. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Let‘s talk about Barack Obama this week.

What‘s your sense, as a public-relations guy?  And this is going to be your field now, communications.  How did he do this week?  Did he go—did he spike the ball by going to Berlin?  You know, he got the touchdown in the Middle East.  He got Petraeus on his side.  He got Maliki on his side.  He found out that we were negotiating with the Iranians, and he was saying they wanted to do that.  Everything was magic. 

Did he overplay it by going to Berlin and having the rock star crowd? 

MCCLELLAN:  It was a good week.

I think he‘s close to that point.  I don‘t think he crossed it.  But he is close to being perceived as—it‘s being perceived as hubris, vs. this confidence. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

MCCLELLAN:  And he wants to be—make—careful that he‘s not perceived as cocky or arrogant.  And that‘s something he‘s got to watch going forward.

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

MCCLELLAN:  And it‘s something that Senator McCain tried to play into with the surge comments this week, just saying he won‘t admit a mistake. 

If he can make the case that this is a guy that won‘t admit a mistake, that can play into that kind of mentality as well.  But I don‘t think—I don‘t think he went over.  It was a very good week for Barack Obama.  He accomplished what he needed to in terms of closing the gap on the national security side of things, that he lacks foreign experience, that he‘s not a strong commander in chief.  He closed that gap with Senator McCain.  And that‘s the one visible gap that he has right now. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think George Bush was qualified to become president of the United States? 

MCCLELLAN:  Yes, I mean, absolutely, I think he was.  And I trust the judgment of the American people.  And they certainly voted for him... 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, we have to trust the judgment of the American people. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  We don‘t have any other choice.

MCCLELLAN:  Right.  But it‘s a question of, did he make some of the right judgments?  And I think he made some of the wrong judgments, particularly when it came to bigger issues, like Iraq, and not following through on his commitment to change the tone in this—in this town, to change the way Washington governs, as he pledged to do. 

MATTHEWS:  You mean he was divisive? 

MCCLELLAN:  Yes, absolutely, one of the most polarizing and controversial presidents in recent history.  And that was my biggest problem with this administration, is that, how did we get to that point?  And that‘s what I explored in the book.

MATTHEWS:  You sure did.  It‘s a hell of a book.

MCCLELLAN:  Well, thank you.

MATTHEWS:  It reads like my view of things. 

MATTHEWS:  And you‘re on the inside. 

MCCLELLAN:  I have been very encouraged by the response I have gotten across the country.  

MATTHEWS:  OK.  I saw it from the outside.  You worked on the inside.  “What Happened”—it‘s a great title, by the way—“What Happened,” it‘s about what happened inside the Bush administration from—it‘s a person who knew. 

Up next:  Jay Leno weighs in on one of the names at the top of the veepstakes list.  That‘s next on the HARDBALL “Sideshow.”

You‘re watching it, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Time now for the HARDBALL “Sideshow.”

Last night, “The Tonight‘s Show”‘s Jay Leno had the everyman take on recent veep talk. 

Check it out. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO”)

JAY LENO, HOST, “THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO”:  Well, it was leaked yesterday regarding a vice possible presidential running mate that John McCain could be leaning towards Tim Pawlenty. 

I know what you‘re thinking.  The Tim Pawlenty? 

(LAUGHTER)

LENO:  Apparently, McCain wants to lower his profile even more. 

(LAUGHTER)

LENO:  I‘m not even sure who Pawlenty was.  So, I Googled him.  And it said, “Who?”

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  I told you, the ticket ought to be called good and Pawlenty. 

At least McCain wouldn‘t be outshone by that pick. 

Next, here‘s a hard-hitting follow-up for you.  Earlier this week, we told you columnist Bob Novak was cited after reportedly hitting a pedestrian with his black Corvette and speeding away.  Novak says he didn‘t realize he had hit someone.  You got that?

Well, it turns out that the pedestrian was an 86-year-old homeless man, and he‘s speaking out. 

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

DON LILYENQUIST, 86-YEAR-OLD HOMELESS MAN:  As I got halfway across the street, I realized that a car was approaching at—at 10 or so miles an hour, and wasn‘t going to stop.  I was immediately assisted by bystanders.  I didn‘t learn until today that that car was driven by Bob Novak. 

(END AUDIO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, I guess, when you reach a certain age, we put the script up, like you‘re a foreigner. 

Anyway, the pedestrian doesn‘t dispute Novak‘s account, saying—quote—“He‘s a good reporter, but, as a driver, he wasn‘t paying attention.”

Now for “Name That Veep.”

This Democratic governor hails from a key Midwestern battleground.  His popularity is widely credited with helping Clinton, Hillary Clinton, carry the state—or Bill—Hillary—back in the Democratic primary.  While the governor‘s message resonates with blue-collar workers, his anti-abortion stance—anti-abortion-rights stance—could hurt him with women in the party. 

So, who is he?  Ohio Governor Ted Strickland.  He all but crossed himself off the veep list.  But, when it come to politics, anything‘s possible, especially when you‘re from a battleground state. 

Time now for tonight‘s “Big Number.”

Not only is it a tough year to be a Republican; it‘s a tough year to be seen with Republicans, even if it‘s at the GOP‘s national jamboree in Saint Paul this September.

So, according to “The National Journal,” of the 12 vulnerable Republicans in U.S. Senate races this year, how many have not made plans to attend the convention?  Nine.  That‘s right.  Three-quarters of the most vulnerable Republican U.S. Senate candidates are either skipping party celebrations are undecideds—undecided right now about going, nine Senate no-shows.  They don‘t want to be seen with the Republican brand. 

Up next: a new HBO documentary about the life of the dean of the White House press corps, the inimitable Helen Thomas.  Filmmaker Rory Kennedy joins us next. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MARGARET BRENNAN, CNBC CORRESPONDENT:  I am Margaret Brennan with your CNBC “Market Wrap.”

Stocks ended higher on some better-than-expected economic data and another drop in oil prices.  The Dow Jones industrial average climbed about 21 points this Friday.  The S&P 500 was up by a little more than five.  Nasdaq the real winner there, you see, up more than 30 points. 

Sales of new homes were stronger than expected in June.  Sales in May were also revised upward.  And that positive headline helped out stocks.  Orders for big-ticket manufactured goods, such as cars, appliances, and machinery, rose unexpectedly in June.  That eight-tenths-of-a-percent increase was the best in four months. 

Oil fell $2.23, closing at $123.26 a barrel.  That‘s the lowest level in seven weeks.

Meantime, in a surprise move, Chrysler says it will stop offering vehicle leases through its lending arm, Chrysler Financial, effective August 1.  Auto financing units have been hurt by falling resale values for SUVs, trucks, and other gas-guzzling vehicles. 

That‘s it from CNBC, first in business worldwide—now to Chris and

HARDBALL.

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Legendary White House reporter Helen Thomas has covered nine presidents over 60 years.  And now there‘s a new documentary honoring her work in the White House press room and her life.  “Thank You, Mr.  President”—that‘s the name of it—premieres on HBO Monday August 18 at 9:00.  The documentary was produced by award-winning filmmaker Rory Kennedy. 

Let‘s take a look at Helen Thomas in action grilling President Bush on the war in Iraq. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “THANK YOU, MR. PRESIDENT: HELEN THOMAS AT THE

WHITE HOUSE”)

HELEN THOMAS, HEARST NEWSPAPERS COLUMNIST:  Your decision it invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis.  Every reason given has turned out not to be true.  My question is, why did you really want to go to war? 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I think your premise, in all due respect to your question and to you, as a lifelong journalist, is that, you know, I didn‘t want war.  To assume I wanted war is just—is flat wrong, Helen, in all due respect. 

(CROSSTALK)

BUSH:  No, hold on for a second, please.  Excuse me.  Excuse me. 

THOMAS:  The powers that be did not like my question.  Well, after that, I became persona non grata.

BUSH:  Hold on for a second.  Let me—excuse me for a second, please.  Excuse me for a second. 

THOMAS:  When George Bush first became president I think I attended two or three news conferences with him.  And then I did get another question in.  And that‘s a blackout now, I believe, until the end of his term. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome, Rory Kennedy. 

Rory, thanks for joining us. 

It seems to me that we just had a guest on here, Scott McClellan, who was White House press secretary during that period, who has just acknowledged the real answer to Helen Thomas‘ query.  Why we‘re in Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, nothing to do with WMD.  It had to do with geopolitics.  She was trying to get at it.  The president was dodging it. 

RORY KENNEDY, DIRECTOR, “THANK YOU, MR. PRESIDENT: HELEN THOMAS AT THE

WHITE HOUSE”:  That‘s right. 

And I think that is so much of what Helen Thomas stands for, is holding these presidents to account.  And, you know, she‘s been doing this for nine administrations now.  She‘s—for over 50 years, five decades.  And over and over again, she asks those hard questions.  And it‘s so important, I think, in our democracy for these journalists to be asking these tough questions of our president. 

MATTHEWS:  Is the fact that she‘s of Lebanese background, of Arab background, explain why she‘s so tough on our pro-Israeli policy?  How do you explain the—the passion behind these kinds of questions coming out of Ellen—Helen?

KENNEDY:  Well, you know, she came from illiterate parents.  She grew up in Detroit.  And I think she‘s really a phenomenon, to tell you the truth. 

She moved to Washington.  And she just loved politics.  And she really cares for the American people.  And she has been asking these tough questions for—for, you know, years and year, because she feels like, you know, democracy doesn‘t work unless the public is informed.  And the public can‘t be informed if the press isn‘t asking those tough questions.  And she has a responsibility to inform the public. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, why is the press corps not as tough as Helen?  I mean, I can remember—I think it was very tough back under President Reagan, very tough—well, not under Reagan so much, as under President Carter.  The press has been tougher in the pass, it seems fair to say, the White House press corps. 

Why do you think Helen stands out as a tough inquisitor among her peers? 

KENNEDY:  I well, I think it‘s unfortunate, honestly.  And I think that, you know, Helen would argue that, as a result of that, we—we got into the war in Iraq, that there‘s a possibility, had—had the press been asking these tough questions, had they been asking the questions she‘s been asking, that we might not be in this situation. 

So, it‘s not just holding the presidents to account, but also her colleagues.  And—and, you know, she—she asks everybody to be the best of themselves and to be honest and forthright and truthful, and to do the best job they can. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s take a look at some more, Rory, from your documentary, “Thank You, Mr. President.”

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “THANK YOU, MR. PRESIDENT: HELEN THOMAS AT THE

WHITE HOUSE”)

THOMAS:  I was the first woman to open and close a news conference.  The first time was to be around a half-hour, and I could see President Kennedy was struggling.  So, finally, I got up and I said, “Thank you, Mr.  President.”

So, I got him off the hook. 

THOMAS:  Mr. President, thank you.

JOHN F. KENNEDY, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Thank you, Helen. 

(LAUGHTER)

THOMAS:  The tradition of saying, “Thank you, Mr. President,” to wind up a news conference goes back to the Roosevelt era. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  So what do we make of that?  She was trying to give him a break, your uncle Jack, right, get him off the hook.  He wanted to end that damn press conference and she helped him do it. 

KENNEDY:  She was sticking to her job, which was after a half an hour she was supposed to close the news conference.  So it happened to be at the right time for him.  I think he was clearly very relieved.  I think one of the great things about Helen is that, no matter what the politics are of the particular administration and the president, she continues to grill them, to ask them the question that the American people want to know. 

MATTHEWS:  That‘s the goal, to always ask the question people want the answer to.  Here‘s Helen Thomas, the great dean of the White House press corps, going after the great communicator, Ronald Reagan. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

THOMAS:  When President Reagan first took over the Oval Office, we would throw questions at President Reagan and he would answer them.  Well, his three top aides were apoplectic.  They didn‘t know what was coming out of his mouth.  They taught the president to say, this is not a press conference.  And they had him quite trained on that.  And one day we asked him about what was happening and he said to us, I can‘t answer that.  We said, why?  He said, because they won‘t let me.  And he pointed to Baker, Meese and (INAUDIBLE) standing behind, very grim.  They won‘t let me.  I said, but you‘re the president. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  So Rory, the real fight here is between the handlers of a president, who want to keep the story their way and control the news, manage the news, and the work of the press, which is to take them apart and find out of truth. 

KENNEDY:  That‘s right.  We had a premiere of the film a couple days ago in D.C. and there were a number of press secretaries, including Marlon Fitzwater.  They all talked about how when they were preparing the presidents, you know, with the briefings before the press conferences, they‘d always say, well, what is the question Helen Thomas is going to ask?  that Was, you know, the big moment of preparedness for them.  And I think it‘s an extraordinary story this one woman really standing up to presidents and standing up for democracy. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, when I look at you, Rory, I think of your dad. 

You don‘t have to tell anybody who you‘re the daughter of, do you? 

KENNEDY:  I hear I look like him.  And my mother too I think. 

MATTHEWS:  In a very positive way. 

KENNEDY:  A little bit of both. 

MATTHEWS:  I think you‘re great.  Thank you very much, Rory Kennedy.  She‘s documentarian.  Her latest work, “Thank You, Mr. President” is going to be on HBO August 18th at 9:00 Eastern. 

Up next, the politics fix and the winners and losers of the week.  With Obama over seas and McCain gaining ground in some of the polls, is the presidential race reaching a turning point?  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

rMD+IN_rMDNM_

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  In your speech last night, you called more on our European allies to aid more in the effort in Afghanistan.  How many specific troops would you like to see France, Germany, Britain recommit to that effort?  Would you like them to send the additional two to three brigades that you‘re calling for U.S. troop it is. 

OBAMA:  Well, I think the United States needs to send two additional brigades at least. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  The person who asked that question was reporter Juliana Goldman.  She‘s with Bloomberg news.  She‘s also the wife of David Shuster of this program.  And I sang at the wedding.  Anyway, let‘s take a look at who‘s on tonight.  Joining me right now for the politics fix Deroy Murdock, is somewhere—we‘ve been together recently.  He‘s with the “National Review,” of course.  Michelle Bernard is often with me, MSNBC political analyst.  And the great Jim Popkin who is with NBC News. 

I think this is a free for all.  I think you can all sort of dump your essays on the week.  Every American‘s been watching this trip.  Before we get into our own views, here‘s John McCain today, once again taking on Barack Obama‘s judgment regarding the surge of our troops the last couple of years in Iraq. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN:  Fortunately, Senator Obama failed, not our military.  We rejected the audacity of hopelessness and we were right.  Violence in Iraq fell to such low levels for such a long time that Senator Obama, detecting the success he never believed possible, falsely claimed he‘d always predicted it. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Michelle, if you‘re going to take a shot at somebody, should you read it off the teleprompter like that?  I just thought he was a little hesitant.  They‘re great lines, but they‘re written, obviously.  It seems like if you‘re going to say it with some punch, you should memorize the line and sing it. 

MICHELLE BERNARD, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Senator McCain needs a total game changing plan.  It has not been a good week for him.  He‘s looked defensive.  His speeches haven‘t been good.  The last time we actually saw him speak eloquently and really seem at ease was when he spoke before the NAACP a couple weeks ago. 

MATTHEWS:  That was a good night for him.  Jim, what do you make of this performance this week?  Is he cranky?  Is he Mr. Wilson yelling at the kids on his lawn?  I mean, I think he has a good case to make, but I have had a bad temper in the past occasionally.  Is he too cranky? 

JIM POPKIN, NBC NEWS:  I don‘t think he was too cranky.  I think he ended on a high note with that speech.  It was a pretty powerful speech, a lot of good language.  He just kept pounding home on the surge.  But the big story, I think, this week, obviously, are the photo images.  He got crushed on that.  The campaign released late today “beyond the photo op,” and this little 15-page manifesto on everything that Obama did wrong and all the controversy over the week. 

MATTHEWS:  Who is going to read that?

POPKIN:  Who‘s going to read it?  It‘s meaningless.  He just got pounded. 

MATTHEWS:  It‘s funny, Jim, because the Republican administration of Ronald Reagan took pride in its ability to deal in picture.  Your thoughts on this, Deroy.  I know you may have a different.  What is it of this week, if you had to put it together, what‘s the message to the American voter of this past week? 

DEROY MURDOCK, “THE NATIONAL REVIEW”:  I think you can appreciate the message by hitting the mute button on your television, looking at the imagery.  The pictures of Barack Obama in the Tiergarten in Berlin talking to 200,000 people, apparently an entire mile full of people there.  It looked like something out of Cecil B. Demille (ph) production.  You can pick apart a comment here and a comment there, but you‘re just left with this tremendous sense of almost a growing inevitability of his election. 

Whether you agree or disagree with him, it‘s very hard to compete against that kind of imagery and that kind of a sense of this young man who I think many people accurately say is not that experienced.  But that is countered by this tremendous outpouring that you see on the screen right now. 

MATTHEWS:  Did he thread the needle—this is tough one for any of is any work, let alone walking the world stage like you‘re seeing there on that runway.  Did he thread the needle between humility and hubris?  Did he make it where he had to make it to be a commanding presence on the world stage without looking presumptuous?  You first, Deroy?

MURDOCK:  I don‘t think he looked presumptuous.  I think what he needed to do on this trip is to look presidential, despite his only going on four years in the U.S. Senate.  In terms of atmospherics, in terms of symbolism, he was able to meet that challenge.  What he said, in particular, the specifics, the substance, you can raise a lot of questions about that.  But in terms of the look, he certainly presented himself very well, I think. 

MATTHEWS:  Jim, is this going to be a story that ends after a week of visuals, that basically was a star turn?  People tell me what he‘s doing here is basically putting a finger in the dike, holding up the problem about being week on foreign affairs, so that he can spend the next three months on gas prices, home heating costs coming up this winter, the job situation, the weak dollar, the kitchen table stuff?  He wants to get beyond this stuff.  He knows he can‘t win on this stuff but he could lose on it. 

POPKIN:  I think he will.  I think he‘ll turn to that soon.  We‘ll see what happens with the Veep selection.  I think it‘s interesting though, everyone has been so focussed on polls this week.  I think they are almost meaningless at this point.  It was Gallup that looked a couple weeks ago back 15 presidential elections and found that in only three recent presidential elections, out of nine that were closely decided, were the early polls accurate.  I think a lot of this is very premature. 

MATTHEWS:  We do think it‘s interesting to see how the new polls come out next week that will include Barack Obama‘s foreign trip.  Here‘s the latest Gallup tracking poll for the last two days.  Since Wednesday, July 23rd—it‘s the 25th today—Obama has gained two points, up to 47.  John McCain has dropped two points to 41.  Obama now leads by six points.  Do you think that, Michelle, is a real lead that means something?  Or is it dangerous that Barack, no matter how good the news, can‘t seem to get above 48, even when everything went swimmingly for him?  There‘s something.  Is it ethnicity, race, that stops the majority of the American people from saying, he‘s our guy?  What‘s stopping him? 

BERNARD:  I this that this election is going to be a referendum on Barack Obama.  It‘s his election to win or lose.  I don‘t know what‘s stopping people.  I think it‘s a mixture of things.  I think it‘s the fact that he‘s African-American.  I think one of the reasons this trip was good for him and his candidacy is people needed to see if he looked like a president.  He was very good at invoking the image of Ronald Reagan and invoking the image of John F. Kennedy. 

Did he look like a diplomat?  He was able to do it.  Would he be good on the foreign stage?  He was able to do it.  I think this is a slight bounce.   

MATTHEWS:  We have to look at this.  This is too funny.  This is former President Bush expressing his open jealousy of what Barack got from the world this week. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Mr. President, as a former head of state, having the sensitivities about protocol and appearance over seas, do you have any concerns about the appropriateness of the scale of events Senator Obama plans to conduct in Europe, for example? 

GEORGE H. W. BUSH, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  A little jealous is all. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  That‘s our colleague, Kelly O‘Donnell, asking that great question.  What a great honest answer.  We‘ll be right back with the round table for more of the politics fix.  You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with the round table and more of the politics fix.  What a week it is because we‘re getting premonitions, intonations that we might be getting a vice presidential nominee named.  Let‘s start with the Republicans.  Jim Popkin, I can sense that the only reason McCain would announce so prematurely a VP was to get some attention.  Also, he‘s more or less decided it‘s got to be Romney.  I would be surprised if is anyone else at this point. 

POPKIN:  I think it is likely that he may go next week.  I think he wants to move away from the images we‘ve all been talking about, move away from the horrific supermarket scene, and create a little juice, a little energy leading into the Olympics. 

MATTHEWS:  It‘s a point of no return, if he picks somebody and they‘re the wrong person, has to withdraw them, he loses the election, probably. 

POPKIN:  Then you have a Dan Quayle issue where you‘re back pedaling for weeks and weeks. 

MATTHEWS:  Michelle, your feeling about the premonitions we‘re getting.  There‘s a lot of leaks in the “Washington Post” today, Bob Novak, of course, the other day talking of an announcement of the Republican candidate, John McCain, of his running mate coming up very soon. 

BERNARD:  I think he‘s got to do something soon.  The tide of the media coverage is completely against him.  He needs something to reinvigorate his campaign.  The only thing that‘s left right now is to name his vice presidential nominee.  That being said, he does not have a great stable of people to look at.  His campaign needs very serious wow factor and he needs it right now. 

MATTHEWS:  Deroy, what do you think?  I would like to see some strength on his part, say, I‘ll do it on my own time, when I have to pick the right guy.  There‘s no coming back.  I‘m a leader, I decide on my own schedule.  Would he do it like pick a VP just to get a couple days of ink? 

MURDOCK:  I suspect right now he probably has it narrowed down to a list of two or three names, maybe just one name.  It certainly would get him back on the radar.  He‘s been off the radar this week.  I hope he does not pick Mitt Romney.  Of course, Mitt Romney was a big spender in Massachusetts.  There was just a story on “NBC Nightly News” one or two nights ago about Mitt Romney‘s health care plan, which is apparently spinning totally out of control.  It‘s 150 million dollars off budget.  You‘re going to have stories about the Mitt-care and how it‘s blown up in Massachusetts.  That‘s going to dog the McCain camp if he‘s the Veep choice.  I hope he does not pick Mitt Romney as his running mate. 

MATTHEWS:  That‘s good reporting and also good attitude there, of course.  Let me ask you, Deroy, about the other side.  Let‘s look at the Democrats now.  I have a sense that‘s not going to happen soon.  But he does want to do it before the convention.  If I were him, I would wait until the convention.  What do you think? 

POPKIN:  I think so too.  I think you do it just right before the convention.   

MATTHEWS:  What do you think, Deroy?

MURDOCK:  I think either just before or at the convention.  It would add some drama and excitement.  I think Bob Kerry of Nebraska would be a very good choice for him. 

BERNARD:  I agree, do it at the convention.  I think this is going to be an excellent convention.  His speeches are going to be fantastic.  What adding the Veep at that time does, we don‘t know.  It will be very interesting to see.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much, Deroy Murdock, Michelle Bernard and Jim Popkin.  Join us again Monday night at 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern for more HARDBALL.  Right now, it‘s time for “RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE” with David Gregory.

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

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