updated 9/12/2008 1:37:18 PM ET 2008-09-12T17:37:18

Guest: Bill Adair, Rep. Steve Cohen, Steve McMahon, Todd Harris, Jeff

Zeleny, Clarence Page, Jim VandeHei

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Bang the drum slowly.  It’s 9/11, seven years later. 

Let’s play HARDBALL. 

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

Leading off tonight:  The campaigns take one-day break from politics today, on September 11.  Barack Obama and John McCain appeared together on -- at ground zero in New York to mark the seventh anniversary of the attacks at the World Trade Center and at the Pentagon, and, of course, the downing of United Flight 93 over Pennsylvania. 

Tonight, both Obama and McCain will appear at forum on service, national service, at Columbia University.  They are going to be there together, which is going to be interesting.  It’s their first appearance together since the conventions—well, the first appearance since—together—well, since the conventions.  They weren’t together at the conventions. 

Also, who’s telling the truth?  There have been a lot of charges and countercharges in the last few days over truth-stretching, exaggerated claims and misleading ads.  By the way, I’m not using the word lying here, but some people think it’s involved here. 

We’re going to talk to the editor of PolitiFact, the folks who make it their business to set the record straight on who’s putting out honest and dishonest TV ads. 

Plus, the strategists.  Is Obama being tough enough?  Has Sarah Palin become the Teflon candidate?  Both interesting questions.  What will the fallout be from the phony lipstick controversy?  We will have some tough questions for our Democratic and Republican strategists. 

Also, what’s behind McCain’s recent rise in the polls?  Is it real, or will this campaign be a series of ups and downs all the way to November?  That and more in the “Politics Fix.”

And, remember, MSNBC will have complete coverage of tonight’s presidential forum on service beginning at 8:00 p.m. Eastern time.  Then, at 10:00 Eastern, there will be much more on the presidential forum in a special edition of “THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW” tonight. 

But, first, “Washington Post” columnist Eugene Robinson is an MSNBC political analyst, and “The Politico”‘s Jim VandeHei.

I want to talk to you both about this seventh anniversary. 

Let’s take a look, first of all, at John McCain doing something really good for the country and good politically, of course.  He’s at Shanksville, where, of course, Flight—United Flight 93 crashed. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE:  ... but none greater

than the sacrifice of those good people. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  You know, I think it’s great.  And this is totally nonpolitical.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN:  I have had the great honor and privilege...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Oh, here we go.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN:  .. .to witness great courage and sacrifice for America’s sake, but none greater than the sacrifice of those good people who grasped the gravity of the moment, understood the threat, and decided to fight back, at the cost of their lives. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  You know, Gene, it’s great, because—I’m going to say later in a commentary, but I think it’s pretty appropriate that the only victims of 9/11 who knew what was going on were the people on that plane, and they did something about it. 

EUGENE ROBINSON, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  They did, and it’s a sacrifice that’s been remembered.  And I think it’s—you know, it’s, well, of course, appropriate today to remember that sacrifice and to remember the day.  You know, as we go year to year to year, it does recede. 

This year, we in Washington are paying a bit more attention, I think, because of the opening of the 9/11 memorial at the—at Pentagon, which is quite a moving thing. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  People forget there were two targets. 

ROBINSON:  Exactly.  Exactly. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about, Jim VandeHei, has anybody ever figured out where 93 was headed that day? 

JIM VANDEHEI, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, “THE POLITICO”:  Well, I mean, it’s still—it’s still an open question. 

I remember being—I remember that day very vividly.  I was at “The Wall Street Journal” at the time.  And I remember thinking, after we saw that second plane hit, thinking, you know what?  I bet you they’re headed for the Capitol.  It just seemed like everything was—that there was like a wide attack on—on Washington. 

And it’s good, I think, if people are talking about it a little more today.  You know, you have been talking about it on your show the last couple of days.  The silliness of the last couple of days is such a distraction from what are monstrous issues that are before us.  And we’re still logged in two wars.

We just had reports from the generals yesterday that things in Afghanistan are getting worse, not better. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

VANDEHEI:  We have to get troops over there.

No sign that we can continue the stability in Iraq.  Hopefully, we can, maybe we can, but certainly no guarantees.  And you look at the polling, and people seem to care less and less about national security and less and less about terrorism.  So, at least, maybe for a day, we’re focusing people’s attention on what are really important issues. 

And I hope to heck that, at some point in this campaign, people do focus on the differences between these two candidates, because they’re pretty dramatic.  And it gives people a clear choice, if they want to think about the issues and think about the consequences of their vote. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

Yes, I think we all feel like jerks talking about the lipstick wars. 

Anyway, 48 percent of voters in a new NBC poll said that Barack Obama would better improve our standing in the world.  Thirty-two percent say McCain. 

Gene, it seems to me that that’s not a question Americans usually give much of a damn about, how the world looks at us.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  But we are not very popular in the world.  In many quarters, we’re just disliked.  Some of it is personal with the president. 

ROBINSON:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think the American people are going to be interested in a candidate who is going to improve our position in the world? 

ROBINSON:  You know, it’s interesting. 

I think there’s a weird dichotomy on this, because I agree.  I think, in terms of, you know, if you took a poll, you know, those working-class, you know, voters in small towns and in—in Pennsylvania and Ohio, I’m not sure this is uppermost in their minds. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Do you think they give a rat’s ass how popular we are in Europe, to be blunt about it? 

(LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON:  I don’t—I don’t think they care a lot, no.  I don’t think they give a rat’s ass.  But I do...

MATTHEWS:  But, yet, how popular we are in the world does affect the cost of American foreign policy.  It affects whether people are with us when we try to do something. 

ROBINSON:  I hear—anecdotally, I hear that a lot...

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

ROBINSON:  ... including from conservative Republican businessmen, captains of industry, people like that, who—who believe they understand how important it is for America to have, you know, high—have the high ground in the world...

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

ROBINSON:  ... have the moral standing, and be looked upon as a beacon, and not as Abu Ghraib. 

MATTHEWS:  Jim, you’re talking about the fact that this is a break from the lipstick nonsense.  But tonight is also interesting.  For the first—the two—for a while tonight, starting at 8:00, up at Columbia University in New York, elsewhere in Manhattan, the two candidates for president are going to both be talking about something that was a big issue back in the ‘60s. 

Is it going to be again whether the next president of the United States calls us to arms, he calls the American people to do more than go shopping, take a tax cut, gets some (INAUDIBLE) from Washington, but asks us to do something for our country.  Will that call to arms, whether in military or non-military pursuits, be an attraction in this election?  Are we ready for “ask not”? 

VANDEHEI:  You know, I don’t want to—I hate to be cynical, but I don’t think so.  I mean, we hear about this a lot, and then it never really materializes. 

I remember Bush talking a lot about this before 2000.  Then, they get into office, and they don’t really follow through with it.  I think the country, as a whole, most people I know, volunteer all the time.  A lot of people still go into the military and serve their country. 

But as far as it being sort of a national motivator, carried out by the president, it hasn’t happened, and I don’t think that’s a big point in this election.  Sort of the sad thing about the forum tonight is, it’s another one of these forums where they appear separately. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

VANDEHEI:  Like, God forbid that the two candidates actually show down and we get to—should get to see them talk about the issues.  The idea that... 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

VANDEHEI:  ... you know, McCain had floated earlier of having 10 town halls could have been the best darn thing to happen to this country...

MATTHEWS:  I know.

VANDEHEI:  ... because we could we see these guys talking about issues.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, it lacks the drama we like in this American life we live, and no matter what our job.

Here’s Senator—talk about drama.  And I have been waiting for this day.  Up in Harlem, the president of the United States, the former president of the United States, perhaps the next president of the United States, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, himself, got together. 

Let’s take a—I have been waiting for this—this date for a long time. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Hi, guys. 

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION:  ... do with you out on the trail this—this fall?

CLINTON:  I’m going out this month.  As soon as the—as soon as my Global Initiative is over, I’m going out. 

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE:  We’re putting him to

work. 

QUESTION:  Will you be out frequently?  What...

(CROSSTALK)

CLINTON:  Yes.  Well, I have—I have agreed to do a substantial number of things, whatever I’m asked to do. 

QUESTION:  What do you think of the state of the race, Mr. President? 

CLINTON:  What?     

QUESTION:  What do you think of the state of the race right now?  Is it too close for comfort? 

CLINTON:  I predict that Senator Obama will win, and will win pretty handily. 

OBAMA:  There you go. 

(CROSSTALK)

OBAMA:  You can take it from the president of the United States.  He knows a little something about politics. 

CLINTON:  That’s what I think is going to happen. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  So, are they ready to be saddle buddies?  Are they going to hit the road for the next six weeks and do the job? 

The president seems to be—the former president is talking about maybe getting on the road by September 26, after the first debate. 

ROBINSON:  Uh-huh.

MATTHEWS:  Why are they—why are they not out on the road, the Clintons, Hill—Hillary or Bill Clinton?  Every day we turn on the TV, why aren’t they somewhere in Pennsylvania, Ohio, one of the swing states, campaigning together?  What’s holding this thing up? 

ROBINSON:  You know, it’s a good question. 

And I don’t know what’s holding this thing up.  I think particularly Hillary Clinton would be very useful on the campaign trail right now to Barack Obama.  And, so, you know, why isn’t she out there?  It’s—you know, in the end, it—I think she has to be seen to do everything she can for the ticket.

MATTHEWS:  When? 

ROBINSON:  Pretty soon.  You have got 55 days, 54 days left.

MATTHEWS:  What is this stagecoach...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  VandeHei, when is this stagecoach the stage and get out there on the road, so the Democrats look like they’re united and they’re running for president? 

VANDEHEI:  They’re never—I mean, they may appear to be united. 

They’re not united.

You ask, why is it that this is taking so long?  It’s called pride.  Barack Obama made a mistake early on.  He should have known that he had to play to the Clintons’ egos, and he should have done everything he could to get them on board, because they are an asset. 

He still has a problem connecting with voters, especially in these rural communities, the ones that you see rallying to Sarah Palin now.  He needs to get out there and talk to them.  And the Clintons are pretty darn good at figuring out how to talk to them, and how to talk about economic issues, to these audiences. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

VANDEHEI:  He needs them.  He needs their money.  He needs their motivation. 

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Is this a job action, as we say in the labor world, a slowdown, where they just—I will get to it.  I will get to it.  Give me a minute. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Let’s take a look at the latest polls, because we don’t know the answer to that question.

The Quinnipiac polls, we love them here.  New polls up, Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, let’s take a look at them.  McCain is up in Florida, obviously.  He’s still up.  Let’s take a look at the next one.  That’s no surprise.  I’m not sure Florida is even in the game. 

In Ohio, Obama leads by five.  If Obama wins Ohio, I say he wins the election.  Don’t you guys? 

ROBINSON:  Oh, I degree. 

MATTHEWS:  I agree.

Let’s keep looking.  Let’s go also in Pennsylvania, a state he has to win, he’s up by three.  That’s getting a little close, three.  I’m not sure the Bradley isn’t going to overwhelm that baby.  Michigan, CNN and “TIME” magazine have new polls of Michigan, Missouri, Virginia, New Hampshire. 

Here they are.  Michigan, Obama is up.  So, he’s ahead in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan.  That’s pretty strong.  Let’s take a look at Missouri.  There’s a down case.  Despite Claire McCaskill, he’s down.  McCain is up.  And let’s take a look at Virginia, another state they were hoping for.  No.  McCain is up there. 

So, Jim VandeHei, if you look at—New Hampshire, of course, they’re up.  I’m going through this.  I’m saying, wait a minute.  Ohio, they pick up a red state, the Democrats.  They hold onto New Hampshire.  They hold onto Michigan.  They hold onto Pennsylvania.  If the current polls hold, it seems to me they win.  Am I right? 

VANDEHEI:  If you look—if you look at it state by state, it’s still a pretty darn good map for Obama.  People have got to quite paying attention to that national number.  It is totally irrelevant. 

And you also have to take into account the polls that you’re looking at right now.  They still have not factored into people processing the effect of Palin on the ticket.  I don’t know what that will be in those individual states. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

VANDEHEI:  And we need to see more polling data.

MATTHEWS:  Are these fresh enough numbers?

(CROSSTALK)

VANDEHEI:  One thing, Chris.  What you’re seeing today is the same thing you saw two months ago and four months ago. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  Yes. 

VANDEHEI:  It’s super close in a bunch of states.  And we’re not going to know until right before Election Day, when things start to break. 

ROBINSON:  That’s true.

MATTHEWS:  Gene, could it be we’re going to have a situation where Obama squeaks by in the Electoral College and loses the population?  That would be a revolting development for the Republicans.  That’s for sure.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBINSON:  It would be.  It would be turnabout, I think.  Democrats would consider it fair play. 

MATTHEWS:  I just—I’m afraid these state polls, what Jim just said

I’m worried about—from one point of view, it seems like these state polls are behind the national numbers.  They’re a little lagging.  And, therefore, if you’re looking at this from a Barack perspective, you may be looking at yesterday. 

ROBINSON:  Well, you may be.  On the other hand, in the national polls, you may be looking at fluctuations that don’t necessarily mean as much as the underlying state polls. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.

This one is going to be tight as a drum to the end, it looks like.

Eugene Robinson, “Washington Post,” Jim VandeHei of “The Politico.”

Coming up: setting the record straight.  Let’s take a look at these new ads.  We have heard a lot of charges from both sides over the past few days, including from the ads.  Are the ads true?  Are they honest?  Who’s messing with the truth?  Let’s separate fact from fiction, real from unreal.  Let’s do some work. 

We will be right back and find out what’s true out there.  You’re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Still ahead on HARDBALL: the strategists, one Democrat and one Republican.  What does each side need to do to win this thing?

HARDBALL returns after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Charges and countercharges have been flying for both campaigns over misleading ads and distortions of the truth.  So, who is being honest and who is stretching the truth?

Bill Adair is editor of PoliticFact—PolitiFact, right?

BILL ADAIR, EDITOR, POLITIFACT.COM:  PolitiFact.

MATTHEWS:  PolitiFact.

Let’s take a look at the latest McCain ad about Sarah Palin.  This is an interesting-looking ad.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, MCCAIN CAMPAIGN AD)

NARRATOR: The attacks on Governor Palin have been called ‘completely false,’ ‘misleading.’  And, they have just begun.  ‘The Journal’ reports Obama ‘air-dropped a mini-army of 30 lawyers, investigators and opposition researchers’ into Alaska to dig dirt on Governor Palin. 

As Obama drops in the polls, he’ll try to destroy her.  Obama’s ‘politics of hope’?  Empty words.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE:  I’m John McCain, and I

approve this message. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Why don’t we arrest and execute everyone who produces ads with that kind of music? 

ADAIR:  Well...

MATTHEWS:  That—that menacing, predatory music?

ADAIR:  And wolves.  And wolves.  Haven’t we see a lot of wolves...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  And, by the way, it wasn’t “The Wall Street Journal.”  It was an opinion column by John Fund.  That’s the difference between the news pages of “The Wall Street Journal” and the opinion pages.  One are opinion.  The other are facts.  They’re citing an opinion as a fact. 

Go ahead.

ADAIR:  And the other trick—the other trick that they’re playing here is that they’re taking fact-checking that’s been done, in this case, by our colleagues at FactCheck.org, and—and trying to use it as justification for something that it really doesn’t justify. 

They—they use that to suggest that Obama has been doing that, but they’re taking it completely out of context.  FactCheck was referring to something else.  So...

MATTHEWS:  The DNC, the Democratic National Committee, has denied having a single person up there. 

And the other question is, it seems to be appropriate, if they were doing investigations, as to her actual record as governor. 

ADAIR:  Well...

MATTHEWS:  And you could argue they shouldn’t be investigating her kids or her husband or her family.  But they’re certainly blurring this.  I mean, if the Democrats weren’t checking out her record up there in Alaska, they shouldn’t be running for president. 

ADAIR:  And, as Mike Gerke at the DNC said, he wishes that he had that many lawyers to airdrop into Alaska. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Let’s take a look at the latest one.  Here’s a—this is another McCain ad.  We’re going to hit both of them, by the way.  Nobody looks good today. 

Here is a McCain maverick ad that says that Governor Palin stopped that bridge to nowhere that cost 4400 million and served very few people. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, MCCAIN CAMPAIGN AD)

NARRATOR:  The original mavericks.  He fights pork barrel spending. 

She stopped the bridge to nowhere. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Did she stop the bridge to nowhere? 

ADAIR:  No.  She sort of put the final nail in the coffin of the bridge to nowhere, but there was huge...

MATTHEWS:  Didn’t she originally support it? 

ADAIR:  She did. 

In fact, on—on our Flip-O-Meter on PolitiFact, we gave her a full flop, because she used to support it.  In this case here, she was basically responding to tremendous pressure from the public.  And Congress had already withdrawn the earmark for it.  So, indeed she did end it, but it was really doomed at the point that she did that.  So, we gave that claim a “mostly true” on our Truth-O-Meter on PolitiFact. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Maverick—and mixed bag on the wolves and the maverick claim. 

Let’s take a look at the Democrats’ side.  Here is an Obama ad from July that talks about—or claims that McCain pushed for more tax breaks for the oil industry. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, OBAMA CAMPAIGN AD) 

NARRATOR:  On gas prices, John McCain’s part of the problem.  McCain and Bush support a drilling plan that won’t produce a drop of oil for seven years.  McCain will give more tax breaks to big oil. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, that hug is real.  Look at the kiss.  Jesus, they really lay it in there, don’t they? 

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  But as to fact of the—the editorial argument there, did he in fact get tax breaks for the oil industry? 

ADAIR:  It’s really misleading. 

The McCain plan would cut corporate taxes for all corporations, not just oil companies.  But the Obama campaign has consistently distorted that by saying, big oil, special breaks for big oil. 

It’s not special breaks for big oil.  It is a plan that gives breaks to all corporations. 

MATTHEWS:  To make their case, is it appropriate to give any tax breaks to oil companies that are making zillions of dollars right now? 

ADAIR:  Well, that’s a whole separate argument. 

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

ADAIR:  But the issue here is—and we have seen this kind of cherry-picking a lot in these ads.  And on—what we have done on PolitiFact is give these a lot of “barely true” ratings on our Truth-O-Meter, because they have a grain of truth, but the overall message is—is distorted. 

MATTHEWS:  Would you let me know when you see an ad that’s 100 percent true?

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Let’s take a look at—or 100 percent false.  This middle stuff doesn’t help me here.

Let’s take a look at a claim that was made by Obama at the convention. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  Washington has been talking about our oil addiction for the last 30 years.  And, by the way, John McCain has been there for 26 of them. 

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA:  And in that time, he has said no to higher fuel-efficiency standards for cars, no to investment in renewable energy, no to renewable fuels. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, we call that a riff.  Is it a true riff?

ADAIR:  We gave—specifically the fuel efficiency standards, we gave a “barely true” on the truth-o-meter.  McCain actually was a leader in the effort to raise fuel economy standards, partnering with John Kerry, of all people, and was praised on the Senate floor by Ted Kennedy for doing that.  Now, Obama’s correct, he did vote against a couple of bills that would have raised fuel economy standards, but it’s not correct to describe him as an opponent of it because he really has a mixed record.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  So it’s shown here that the “wolf” ad isn’t quite accurate because it doesn’t say what kind of investigations they’re doing, whether they’re actual legitimate checking on her record or going after her kids.  And also, that “Wall Street Journal” piece was an opinion piece by John Fund, not a news fact, that they had 30 people up there.  The maverick ad, McCain, true or false?

ADAIR:  We gave the claim about the “bridge to nowhere” a “barely true,” but there’s another part of that ad that’s correct, when they talk about the—how he has stood up to big—to big drug companies.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Well, we’re looking for any truth we can find. 

Anyway, thank you, Bill Adair...

ADAIR:  There was a little bit in that one.

MATTHEWS:  ... and please come—come back with a 100 percent or a zero or something.  These middle-of-the-road things are a little complicated.  Anyway, thank you.

Democratic U.S. Congressman Steve Cohen of Tennessee has found himself in some hot water over remarks he made about Obama and Palin on the House floor.  Let’s look at the entirety of what he said yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. STEVE COHEN (D), TENNESSEE:  It’s a bit confusing sometimes to listen to the rhetoric.  The Republicans have had the presidency now for nearly eight years, and they’ve had the majority in this house since 1994, I think.  And if you watched the Republican convention, you’d think they were the Democrats talking about change and the problems we have in Washington.

They’re so against Washington.  It’s the Washington they’ve created and cultivated.  And the corruption that we’ve seen here has mostly been on that particular side of the aisle.  The failure of us having a children’s health plan, which this country should have as a cornerstone of its policy, was the fault of the Republican side that was more interested in tobacco interests than children’s interests.  And too many times, we see the corporate interests of the oil corporations take over the interests of the American society in getting us to be truly energy-independent.

I submit to you, Mr. Speaker, that the parties have differences, but if you want change, you want the Democratic Party.  Barack Obama was a community organizer, like Jesus, who our minister prayed about.  Pontius Pilate was a governor.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Congressman Cohen, was Jesus a community organizer?  I thought he was a carpenter.

COHEN:  Well, he was several things, but he was an agent for change and he was outside the system.  I certainly didn’t mean to compare Barack Obama to Jesus as a...

MATTHEWS:  Now, Al Sharpton is a community organizer.  Jesus was a carpenter.  I just think it’s...

COHEN:  Well...

MATTHEWS:  Well, how do you make—why do you come up with comparisons like that?  I thought the rule was stay away from Jesus, stay away from Hitler.  These comparisons never work.  I’m not giving you a hard time, but metaphors in that category are generally very dangerous.

COHEN:  They are dangerous, and I shouldn’t have done it.  The first minute of my speech was accurate and it was the disingenuousness of the Republicans condemning community activists who’ve brought about most of the change...

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

COHEN:  ... in America.  I’d seen a bumper sticker on my e-mail that morning from an activist friend in Memphis.  Those things are more for activists and less for congressmen, and I’ve learned from this particular speech.

MATTHEWS:  Congressman, do you think the phrase “community organizer” is meant to suggest a kind of inner-city, big-city, ethnic, black, if you will, background and somewhat different or remote from the experiences of the voters they’re trying to reach?  In other words, are they setting up a caricature here to innuendo?  Like, remember Welfare mother?  Remember how Reagan would talk about the “young buck” with his—I loved the way he—

Reagan used (INAUDIBLE) “the young buck” with his food stamps, buying a bottle of gin.  That was fairly innuendo there.  Is that another—is this another one of these welfare mothers/community organizers code phrases?

COHEN:  I believe it is.  I saw Governor Paterson reference that, and I felt it when I saw Governor (SIC) Giuliani make the comment, and as well as Governor Palin.  Community activist, community organizers do a lot of good in helping feed people, helping to take care of health needs, Habitat for Humanity efforts.  And if you look at Dr. King...

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

COHEN:  ... and Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth, they’ve done so much good.  That’s where change comes from, but I think it is a way to categorize somebody as a liberal, a leftist, an inner-city person, and that’s wrong.  You know, Caesar Chavez helped farmers in California, and there have been efforts to help people in the rural South, as well.

MATTHEWS:  Well, there’s nothing wrong with Memphis, is there, Congressman.  Thank you very much...

COHEN:  Memphis is great.

MATTHEWS:  I know.

COHEN:  Thank you, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you for coming on and taking—explaining the whole thing.

COHEN:  Thank you.

MATTHEWS:  Still ahead: Does Obama need to hit back harder against McCain?  And will the Sarah Palin phenomenon endure more than a couple of weeks, come back down to earth?  Is it going to be something that lasts right through November?  Is it a phenomenon that lasts shorter?  Those questions and more with our strategists—one’s a Democrat, one’s a Republican—coming up.

And up next, my thoughts on this, the seventh anniversary of the attack of 9/11.

You’re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Today’s been a day of reflection throughout this country and truce between the presidential candidates.  There were tributes and prayers at Ground Zero in downtown Manhattan.  Barack Obama and John McCain, both at Ground Zero today, agreed to share the stage at Columbia University tonight to talk about national service.

I think it’s good that September 11 is shifting, if slowly, from a day for grief to a day for calling for patriotic action, from touching sorrow to tough new commitments.  John F. Kennedy, who said many wonderful things, said that our problems are man-made, therefore they can be solved by man, and man can be as big as he wants and no problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.  Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable, and we believe they can do it again.  I think both presidential candidates are committed to that proposition.  Obama and McCain both are committed to expanding and encouraging national service among our people.

In that, we’re lucky.  Neither the Democrat nor the Republican is trying to buy us this time with easy promises of fat new tax cuts or fat pork or other federal bennies flying forth from Washington.  No, both want to ask Americans to give, to help, to serve.  Both get it.  Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.  That’s still, especially in these years after terrorism hit us at home and hit us bad, a great way to look at things.  The biggest failure coming out of 9/11 has been the failure of our leaders, including the one in the White House, to enlist as many of us possible in the healing work of helping our country.

The two great memories I hold dear from the hell of seven years back was that look on the firefighter racing up the stairs of the World Trade tower, past the scared faces racing down.  It’s my job, he said.  And yes, too, the picture I treasure of those passengers on flight 93 over Pennsylvania, knowing the trouble they were in, fighting their way into the cockpit as the killers charted their way here to Washington, the capital of freedom.

Let’s never forget, any of us forget, that the only victims of 9/11 who knew what they were up against did us so proud.

We’ll be back after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(MARKET WRAP)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Well, today’s “New York Post,”

that illustrious newspaper, screams, quote, “Read my lips, Obama slams pig

swill.”  Well, as this silly episode over the lipstick wars (INAUDIBLE)

let’s talk about—let’s bring in the strategists, Democrat—there he is

Steve McMahon and Republican Todd Harris.

Well, which of you is proudest of this debate?

STEVE MCMAHON, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST:  I think Todd is.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  OK, Todd, do you believe that John McCain, your candidate for president, believes that his opposite number, Barack Obama, has called the running mate on the Republican ticket a pig?  Do you believe he has done that?

TODD HARRIS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST:  I’ll go one up on you.

MATTHEWS:  No, no.  Just go there.

HARRIS:  I actually don’t think Obama meant to do that.  I’ll say that.  I do think that people in the audience took it that way, but I’m willing to concede that I don’t think that he meant to do that.  But you know—and frankly, I think this whole thing is a little silly.  I will say this, though.  Tactically, the McCain campaign baited the outrage hook, and the Obama campaign, and frankly, the national media grabbed ahold of it and just started swinging.

MATTHEWS:  So we’re all suckers.

HARRIS:  This has knocked Obama off message for...

MATTHEWS:  OK...

HARRIS:  ... two-and-a-half days now.

MATTHEWS:  Steve, this is the tactic.  Lee Atwater used to do this back in ‘88, where he would come up with the flag one week, Willie Horton the next week, back to he ACLU membership.  And at the end of the campaign, he’d say, What was the campaign about again?  Tactics, he told me, before he passed away, won the battle.  He never had a strategy.

Are these day-to-day sort of “gotcha” tactics going to take this campaign down to a level where you forgot who the Democrat, who the Republican was, you just sort of pick the one you like?  It seems to be the Republican strategy.

MCMAHON:  Well, that’s where the Republicans are trying to take it.  You know, Rick Davis said the other day that this campaign is about personalities and not about issues, and that’s what the Republicans hope.  And I think that’s where they think they can be successful.  What the Obama campaign...

MATTHEWS:  How do you beat someone Sarah Palin in likability?  You can’t, can you?

MCMAHON:  I don’t know that you can.  I don’t know that you can.

MATTHEWS:  Right.

MCMAHON:  But what you need to do is you need to basically return to the stakes that are profound in this election and the choices that people are making.

And with all due respect, I think it’s probably not enough to say it’s a third Bush term because people don’t know exactly what that means.  What they need to do is explain what a third Bush term would look like, what the economy might look like, what the tax cuts that John McCain favors would do to working class families, versus what Obama is offering...

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

MCMAHON:  ... which is a tax cut for 95 percent of American families. 

How many people know that?  And if they did, what would their reaction be? 

These are the kinds of things that...

MATTHEWS:  What happens 20 years from now, when all we are in this country is one smokestack of fossil fuel because we haven’t figured out a new energy source, we don’t have new transportation systems, the trucks are old and inefficient, the railroads don’t work, everything is going to hell, and we look back and say, What happened in this century?  Oh, yes, we had the 2008 election.  We argued about lipstick.

HARRIS:  Well...

MATTHEWS:  Aren’t you embarrassed?

HARRIS:  If we’re going to talk about energy, which McCain would be happy to do...

MCMAHON:  (INAUDIBLE) aren’t you embarrassed.

HARRIS:  ... because Obama voted...

MCMAHON:  (INAUDIBLE)

HARRIS:  Well, I’m embarrassed for Barack Obama for voting for the 2005 energy bill, which was a huge giveaway to special interests.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  I want to turn the tables on you, my friend, Steve McMahon.

MCMAHON:  Oh.

MATTHEWS:  I pick up “The Washington Post” this morning with wonderful quotes in it from women, mainly, I think women my age or older, talking about Sarah Palin out there at Fairfax, that wonderful event they had the other day with 23,000 people there—they’re the ones getting the crowds now—quotes like, You know, what she doesn’t know, she can learn quick.  Optimism like I’ve never seen.  She’s been through regular life experiences, like I have.

The standard is now, she’s one of us.  And therefore, because she’s seen as one of us to regular people, they’re willing to cut her so much slack, like I’ve never seen in a campaign.  If she doesn’t know something, fine, she’ll learn it.  That’s a positive position to be in.

MCMAHON:  It’s a great position to be in, and it’s one of those—it’s a two-part strategy.  The first part of it is, She’s one of us, which therefore means that Senator Obama and Joe Biden are one of them, and “them” can be anything that’s scary or frightening or different or new or...

MATTHEWS:  Or elite.

MCMAHON:  ... or elite.  And so that’s one part of the strategy.

And the other thing that’s going on here is she’s actually benefiting from what Senator Obama used to benefit from, which she’s an ideal for a lot of people.  She’s an aspiration.

MATTHEWS:  I know.

MCMAHON:  She’s a hope.  And for many, many women out there, she is—she proves that you can have it all.  Now, maybe, in fact, you can’t, but she certainly looks like she does.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  You know, she’s a lot more—as somebody said in one of these quotes, there are more women out there, older women, with daughters that got pregnant, you know, before they got married, like her daughter has, than there are mothers of Harvard kids.  In other words, there’s more Americans with situations at home, problems, if you will, than there are people with super-successful kids.  So she’s more like most people than the other side.

HARRIS:  A new poll came out today asked of all four candidates at the top of both party’s tickets, Who is the most like your family?  Sarah Palin, number one.

MATTHEWS:  That’s why he picked her!

HARRIS:  Absolutely.  But let me tell you, Chris...

(CROSSTALK)

MCMAHON:  Would you make a member of your family the president of the United States?  Because that’s the operative question.  And we have to get back to that at some point.

MATTHEWS:  Well, don’t we have an American democratic idea that the average person, like Harry Truman, the haberdasherer (sic) who had never really succeeded at anything, could be a great president and turned out to be one of the top five or six presidents? Don’t we believe that Andrew Jackson, who spent his lifetime killing Indians, basically, he became a great president?  Don’t we believe in that?  You know this is our American belief system. 

MCMAHON:  Of course we believe in it.  But I think if you asked most Americans if they believe they are qualified or prepared to be president of the United States, they would say no.  And I think that if you asked most Americans, who believe that Sarah Palin is just like them, whether they believe she’s qualified and prepared to step in and be president, they would say no. 

But that’s not what the question is.  The question is, is she Wonder Woman?  And the answer clearly is yes.  Yes, she is. 

HARRIS:  But look at—

MATTHEWS:  Who’s saying yes she’s a Wonder Woman? 

(CROSS TALK)  

MATTHEWS:  Look at the zest with which she campaigns.  She’s gung ho.  I know she has a lot of kids and maybe some problems at home.  Her husband is out there cheerfully helping her had.  She looks like gung ho, we can beat the future.  Look at her.  There’s something just cheerful about her that people like.  Look at the people behind her.  They’re happy, joyous that she’s there, just showing up. 

MCMAHON:  She’s got a great future.  She’ll be the nominee in four years.  She’s got charisma.  The question, though, shouldn’t be, do we like Sarah Palin?  The question should be, is John McCain a better choice for president of United States right now and for the next four years than Barack Obama. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me tell you, if we could vote separately for VP, vice president, Steve McMahon, Democrat, genius, who would win, Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate of the Foreign Relations Committee, with all the pedigree of 37 years or whatever of political experience, or Governor Palin?  Who would win that fight, one on one? 

HARRIS:  It doesn’t matter. 

MCMAHON:  It depends on if it’s a likability contest—

MATTHEWS:  How about who do you want to be vice president? 

MCMAHON:  It’s a coin toss.  It is, just like the race. 

HARRIS:  This is a really important point.  While the Obama campaign has been focused, frankly, like a laser on Sarah Palin, and everyone is looking over here, what’s going on over here?  In every poll that’s come out, John McCain has come to parody with Barack Obama, in terms of who is best qualified to deal with the economy.  He’s already beating Obama in terms of—

MATTHEWS:  How did that happen? 

HARRIS:  Because everyone is so focused on all the silliness.  New Fox news poll today.  Everyone is focusing on this.  John McCain has pulled within parity on the economy and he’s already beating Obama in terms of experience and who can keep the country safe.  If the McCain campaign can continue on the experience track and stay at parity on the economy, they’re going to have a great day in November. 

MATTHEWS:  Brutal question—

MCMAHON:  Why do I get the brutal question?  My blood is still on the floor there. 

MATTHEWS:  I kick the hell out of John Feeheri yesterday.  He took it like a man.  You’ve got to take it like a man.  This is called HARDBALL. If Hillary Clinton had been put on the Democratic ticket, not that I would have advocated it—

MCMAHON:  Not that you would, no.

MATTHEWS:  If Hillary had gone on the ticket, would the Republicans have been brilliant enough to pick Sarah Palin?  Would they have picked some tired guy who would have fit in instead of going for the wild card?  In other words, did your party create the opportunism on the Republican side to pick somebody from way out there in Alaska, rather than one of the regular short list people? 

MCMAHON:  I think that John McCain decided he needed throw long and—

MATTHEWS:  Because Hillary wasn’t on the ticket. 

MCMAHON:  Because he needed to throw long because the dynamics and structure of the race favored Barack Obama.  I think they probably would have favored Barack Obama perhaps a little bit more if Obama had picked Hillary Clinton, but that would have made McCain want to throw even longer.  

MATTHEWS:  Sarah Palin is in the end zone.  John McCain has thrown a bomb, the long one, the Hail Mary.  It’s a 50-yard pass.  It’s never been done before.  There’s someone scampering into the end zone right now.  Her name is Sarah Palin.  Did she catch ball?  In your mind’s eye, you know that she catches the ball.  That’s the thing about this woman.  She looks like this person, looks like a winner. 

MCMAHON:  Joe Biden played street ball in Scranton.  He knows how to catch a football.  He would either catch it or he would knock it out of her hands. 

(CROSS TALK) 

MATTHEWS:  I’m tired of talking about lipstick.  Thank you, Todd Harris.  You know, tough night for you.  How is your Uncle Ed doing?  He pay for that house yet?

MCMAHON:  Ed’s doing great.

MATTHEWS:  Up next, the politics fix, Barack Obama meets Bill Clinton face to face in Harlem.  They finally had their lunch.  Of course, they didn’t go out to Sylvia’s.  They ate in the office.  What does that tell you?  What does this meeting tell us, by the way, about are the Clintons really out to help Obama?  Look at that picture.  Read the body language.  What’s it telling you?  Are they still a little at odds there?  A little cold?  I’m not sure they’re hugging there.  This is hardball, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Time now for the politics fix.  Joining me is Clarence Page from the “Chicago Tribune” and Jeff Zeleny of the “New York Times.”  We have some heavy weights here.  Gentlemen, let’s take a look at this scene we’ve all been waiting for.  Bill Clinton, the former president, and Barack Obama, potentially the president, taking questions from the press after their lunch today. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL CLINTON, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I predict that Senator Obama will win and win pretty handily. 

OBAMA:  There you go.  You can take it from the president of the United States.  He knows a little something about politics. 

CLINTON:  That’s what I think is going to happen. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Jeff Zeleny, what is your body language reading on that baby, watching those two together? 

JEFF ZELENY, “THE NEW YORK TIMES”:  It’s been such a long time in coming that I thought the body language actually was pretty good.  The people who were at the meeting and in the room said that it was surprisingly good, people on both sides.  But these two men were in the room by themselves, no aides as they sat down for their lunch.  So this is probably going to take a couple of days to leak out, in term of what happened. 

But by all accounts, Senator Obama has a lot to learn from President Clinton.  He knows that.  He’s been humbled before.  So the first reports are it was good. 

MATTHEWS:  Here’s the question.  What’s your metric, Jeff, about whether Bill and Hillary really want to help them?  How do you know?  Because they’re not even talking about Bill, the former president, campaigning until after the first debate, September 26th.  It looks like a job action.  Are they still waiting for more money to pay off their debts?  Why aren’t they out there now?  McCain is everywhere.  He’s in Shanksville today.  He’s out there.  And they’re like meeting for lunch and talking about campaigning.   

ZELENY:  Senator Clinton is going to be in Ohio again—or for the first time on Sunday.  Then she’s going to Chicago, actually to meet with some of Senator Obama’s contributors.  The Obama people say they are just fine with what the Clintons are doing.  I expect President Clinton to be fairly helpful.  He has some work to do here as well.  He didn’t exactly end the primary campaign in his finest hour among some Democrats.  So I think by November 4th, we will have seen a lot of the Clintons.  Who knows.  It is always a bit of a drama with them.  Perhaps we’ll find out differently.

MATTHEWS:  Always a bit of drama.  You mentioned Chicago, what is your sense, Clarence, watching Clinton, are they aboard? 

CLARENCE PAGE, “CHICAGO TRIBUNE”:  I think they’re on board as far as the public is concerned.  I can’t read their minds.  I love to speculate with you.  I imagine when Bill and Obama sat down today, the first thing out of Bill’s mouth was, so now you come see me, when you’re in trouble. 

MATTHEWS:  Like “The Godfather.”

PAGE:  Yes.  Bill Clinton has been very miffed that Obama hasn’t given him what Bill sees as proper credit for the good times of the ‘90s, as he campaigned in the primaries and since then. 

MATTHEWS:  I thought the deal maker was he was going to exonerate Bill Clinton from this racism charge that got out there in the air during the primaries.  If they didn’t exonerate him explicitly, there was no deal. 

PAGE:  I think you are seeing it already.  I certainly got the sense, and I’m sure you did too, at the Democratic Convention, the Clintons did a great show there. 

MATTHEWS:  They did a great show.  Hillary gave the best speech, except for Barack’s.  Bill Clinton’s was just good.  I thought Hillary’s speech was exhilarating it was so good. 

PAGE:  African American voters certainly are going to judge the Clintons by what they do more than what they say.  In other words, how actively will they get out there in work.  They have already begun the redemption process, shall we say. 

MATTHEWS:  Let’s talk about the polling.  David Broder, dean of Washington journalists, said today this is too early to tell.  There is a lot of nervousness on the Obama camp.  They are afraid the numbers are closing.  But I look at these numbers, the states that Obama has to win, Pennsylvania, Michigan, New Hampshire, the very states that Steve Schmidt says the other side needs to pick up, it still looks pretty good for the D’s. 

ZELENY:  You know, there was some hammering among some Democrats in Washington, no question.  But when I was traveling out to Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan with Senator Obama over recent days, there does not seem to be as much nervousness or worry with Democrats on the ground.  The crowds are as big as they want them to be.  The Obama campaign was trying to purposefully scale them back while the McCain campaign’s were sort of unusually large. 

Right now in those battle ground states, they are feeling pretty comfortable about where they are.  Senator Obama is not spending much time in Iowa, for example.  They think they’re pretty good there.  He is not spending any time in—or not much time in Wisconsin.  They think they are pretty good there.  Next week, he is going on a western swing.  For all the hand ringing among the national polls, the tracking polls, in the battleground states, they think they are OK.  But we’ll see how that holds up over the next week. 

MATTHEWS:  If you look back at the great debates, 1960, Kennedy/Nixon, which I always look back to and you do too.  I think we all do.  The polls tend to freeze as we see the big debate coming.  People want to wait and see how they adjust to each other.  Of course, it is going to be the biggest show in the history of American television, practically, come September 26th, when everybody’s going to be watching these two guys go at each other. 

We’ll be right back with the round table.  We’re going to talk more about what’s going on tonight.  They are going to get together at Columbia University.  What an interesting time.  The two candidates for president on the same stage tonight.  You’re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We’re back with the politics fix.  Let’s take a look at Dave Letterman.  Barack Obama tried to get away from the lipstick. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  There’s no doubt she’s been a phenomenon.  You know, as somebody who used to be on the cover of “Time” and “Newsweek” you know—

DAVID LETTERMAN, “THE LATE SHOW”:  Those were the days. 

OBAMA:  Those were the days.  I had a recent offer with “Popular Mechanics.”

LETTERMAN:  Take it.  Take it. 

OBAMA:  As a centerfold with a wrench. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  So Clarence, is that how you shake off the elite image, a little self-denigration there?   

PAGE:  It never hurts.  This whole thing is silly when you take the long view, right, arguing about pig lips.  The best thing for him to do is not to appear to be rattled, but just make it the joke that it is. 

MATTHEWS:  You have to be so calm. 

PAGE:  He doesn’t do that enough, by the way.  He takes too much of this too seriously. 

MATTHEWS:  At least he didn’t do this thing, off his shoulder.  He didn’t do this thing, like it doesn’t bother me any.  Jeff Zeleny, I was doing that unfortunate thing when you shake it off your shoulder, which apparently is a way of dissing the other person, rather than getting something behind you.  Has he got the talent to shake off obvious tactical moves by the other side to focus on absurdities to slow him down?  Can he do it?  Can he shake them? 

ZELENY:  I think he had a bit of practice at that in the early part of this campaign.  There is something good about long campaigns.  This is almost his second run through on this .  I think Clarence is right, by the third day he was using humor.  He sure didn’t use it on the first or the second.  I think this is something maybe he has learned through out all of this. 

I was in that audience when he mentioned the lipstick thing.  He paused a minute after he said it.  The audience was smiling and applauding.  I don’t think they thought he was talking about Governor Palin.  He has said this before.  I wonder if he did.  He almost sort like paused and thought, had he stopped and said it right here, some humor, perhaps this would be averted.  I would look for him to be more humorous in the future. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think he went on to the fish wrap to come up with another metaphor quickly, to cover the one he thought might have gotten him into trouble? 

ZELENY:  He may have.  There was some applause in between the two.  Who knows.  He was being very country that afternoon.  He had a few pig references.  He was in far southern Virginia.  I thought that was something that was missed in all of this, is why he was talking about pigs in the first place. 

MATTHEWS:  Leave it to Dan Rather.  Let Rather do these things.  Don’t you do them.  Dan had a million of them.  Anyway, thank you Jeff, thank you Clarence.  We’ll be right back tomorrow at 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern for more HARDBALL.  Tonight at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, join us for the candidates forum on service up at Columbia University with both presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama.  Right now it is time for RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE with David Gregory.

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