updated 4/7/2009 3:42:30 PM ET 2009-04-07T19:42:30

Guest: Frank Gaffney, David Corn, Charles M. Blow, Alan Gottlieb, Clarence Page, Chrystia Freeland

High: North Korea launches a rocket some say could be used as a weapon against the United States.

Spec: Politics; North Korea; Weapons; Middle East

DAVID SHUSTER, GUEST HOST:  Who is the real nut case, North Korea‘s Kim Jong-Il or any conservative who wants to bomb him?

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m David Shuster, in tonight for Chris Matthews.  Leading off tonight, nuclear war games.  So what are we to make of North Korea‘s attempt to send a satellite into space?  Even though the launch failed, the North Korean rocket did travel some 2,000 miles, twice as far as an earlier North Korean rocket.  President Obama called it a provocative act and wants new U.N. sanctions.  Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich says we should have bombed North Korea before the launch.  Is Gingrich crazy to talk like that, or is it dangerous to hope that sanctions will do the trick?

Plus, President Obama is in Turkey today, a Muslim country, where he told the country‘s parliament the U.S. would never be at war with Islam.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Some people have asked me if I chose to continue my travels to Ankara and Istanbul to send a message to the world.  My answer is simple—evet—yes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Seven-and-a-half years after the attacks on the Word Trade Center and the Pentagon, Americans have a lower opinion of Islam than they did just after 9/11.  What is President Obama going for in addressing the Muslim world, and what can he accomplish?

And back to crazy talk for a moment.  How in the world do you explain people like Chuck Norris calling for a second American revolution to defeat President Obama‘s policies?  And what about a conservative congresswoman Michele Bachmann appearing to tell her constituents to start stockpiling weapons and ammunition?

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN ®, MINNESOTA:  I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous on this issue of this energy tax because we need to fight back.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Now Bachmann claims she was talking about information.  In any case, folks, we just had an election.  And guess what?  Obama won.  And yet the rhetoric from the wingnuts is getting crazier by the week.

Speaking of right-wing fury, wait until you hear David Axelrod‘s thoughts on Dick Cheney and what the former vice president has been saying about President Obama.  And fury pretty much describes what Sarah Palin‘s family feels for Levi Johnston these days.  Johnston went on a national TV show to describe the level of irresponsibility that he and Bristol Palin engaged in that produced baby Tripp nine months later.  That‘s coming up on the HARDBALL “Sideshow.”

But we begin with North Korea‘s missile launch and the divide here at home.  David Corn is with “Mother Jones” magazine and Frank Gaffney is the president of the Center for Security Policy and a former assistant secretary of state (SIC).

And Frank, what do you make of North Korea‘s launch?

FRANK GAFFNEY, CENTER FOR SECURITY POLICY:  North Korea has tested a missile that well could prove to be an intercontinental-range missile, a missile capable of attacking the United States in due course.  It is a missile that if it had performed as it had been intended to would have put an object into space which could be used as an attack against the United States, unleashing what Newt Gingrich—you‘ve spoken about—has, among others, described as a strategic electromagnetic pulse attack, which would have a devastating effect on this country, in fact, transforming it from 21st century superpower into a preindustrial society, according to a blue ribbon commission that studied the matter for Congress and reported last May.

This is a very serious development.  I wouldn‘t have (ph) liked, by the way, Bill Perry and Barack Obama‘s new undersecretary of defense for acquisition Ash Carter (ph) said a while back have bombed North Korea, but I certainly would have used our missile defenses, while we still have them, waiting Barack Obama‘s removal of them.

SHUSTER:  So Newt Gingrich is wrong, then.

GAFFNEY:  I would have used that to shoot—shoot that missile down.

SHUSTER:  In other words, when Newt—sure.  But when Newt Gingrich says, we should have taken out, we should have launched an attack before the launch, he‘s wrong.

GAFFNEY:  Well, again, Bill Perry and Ash Carter seem to have...

SHUSTER:  Right, but we‘re talking about Newt Gingrich.

(CROSSTALK)

GAFFNEY:  I‘m just saying that Newt Gingrich has his view.  It‘s not mine, but it is the view that two prominent Democrats have expressed, as well.

SHUSTER:  All right.  David Corn, your view?

DAVID CORN, “MOTHER JONES”:  Well, we just heard a lot of provocative rhetoric from Frank—not surprising.  I mean, there‘s no evidence that this was an EMP—electromagnetic pulse—weapon.  There‘s no evidence that these—that the North Koreans are interested in doing that.  They said they were trying to put up a satellite, and it failed and crashed into the sea.  So talking about the possibilities—what‘s theoretically possible is the sort of rhetorical device that we heard in the run-up to the war in Iraq.  You can talk about—you can come up with a lot of nightmare scenarios.

Now, the question is, What is to be done?  You know, right now, North Korea already faces a lot of sanctions and it‘s already rather isolated.  President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both called this a provocative act.  But the question is, Can they match their tough talk with really—with tough action now?

Seems to me that the six-party talks that are under way, that have had their ups and downs over the past few years but seem to be trending in a positive direction, you know, is still the best game in town.  And you know, the North Koreans obviously want attention, and the more, you know, we make this a big deal, I think it makes it harder for Americans and the Russians and the Chinese and the Japanese and the South Koreans to handle this.

SHUSTER:  Frank, isn‘t the far more plausible scenario, other than the North Koreans wanting some sort of an electromagnetic pulse and knocking out a third of the electricity in the United States, as a lot of conservatives suggest might have happened, or could happen, I suppose—isn‘t the far more plausible scenario that North Korea does want attention, and that if you look at every time they launch one of these, it‘s when the United States is focused on something else?

We know that they want to engage in bilateral talks with the United States, not the six-party talks.  Do you really believe that North Korea is en route to try to somehow knock out the power to a third of the United States and put some sort of nuclear weapon on one of these missiles?

GAFFNEY:  You know, I don‘t know.  I hope not.  Certainly, their partner, Iran, who has participated in their nuclear weapons program and their ballistic missile programs on...

SHUSTER:  On the receiving end.  We should clarify...

(CROSSTALK)

SHUSTER:  North Korea has shipped missiles to Iran.  Iran has not helped North Korea.  But go ahead.  Finish your point.

GAFFNEY:  May I just finish my point, please?

SHUSTER:  Sure.

GAFFNEY:  The missile development that they did and their test this week was monitored by the Iranians.  The Iranians are active partners in both the nuclear weapons programs and missile programs.  And I think when the Iranians say they wish to bring about—they say it is both desirable and achievable to bring about a world without America, what both the North Koreans and the Iranians, and for that matter, the Russians and Chinese and others understand, is that we are extremely vulnerable to this sort of attack even from perhaps a single weapon.

So it‘s absolutely true that this test did not perform as they intended.  It did not have an EMP weapon on it, as best we can tell.  Thank God.  We should have shot it down to demonstrate that we don‘t want them to have that capability, and I regret we didn‘t do it.

SHUSTER:  Well, isn‘t—isn‘t it playing exactly into the Iranian hands if we, in fact, go to war with North Korea over something like this?  Isn‘t that exactly what the Iranians would want us to do right now?

GAFFNEY:  Well, I don‘t know that we have to go to war with Iran—with North Korea.  But I do think we need to defend ourselves against these sorts of developments.  And I frankly think that Iranians are interested in bringing about a world without America.  We should be discouraging them, as well.

It‘s a silly policy to continue to believe, as David obviously does, that if we engage in these endless negotiations and we rely especially upon allies that are associated with these governments to stop them that it will result in anything other than a greater danger to us in the future.

CORN:  The problem is, Frank, that we don‘t have a magic wand that we can wave and bend the rest of the world‘s will to our wishes.  And you know, you talk about, you know, going to war against North Korea.  Just leave Iran out of this for a moment.  There‘s another country that should have a bit of a say here, and that is South Korea.  Seoul is, you know, what, 30, 40 50 miles south of a DMZ that has hundreds of thousands, if not a million, armed North Koreans.  They—you know, North Koreans may have four or five crude nuclear weapons that can‘t come anywhere close to reaching us, but they could be lobbed onto Seoul, maybe even lobbed as far away as to Japan.

So it‘s really, you know, I think, in a lot of ways, not up to us to decide whether to go to war against North Korea or attack North Korea and risk a war in that part of Asia.

SHUSTER:  I want to play for both of you...

GAFFNEY:  Yes, well, I think that‘s an interesting—let me just make this quick point.  Secretary Bob Gates said in response to a hypothetical question last weekend, would we should down this missile—he said, Well, we might if it were headed towards Hawaii.

Look, at some point, you got to say, you know, I understand you‘ve got hostages in proximity.  The Japanese are among them.  They want to be defended against these attacks or prospective attacks.  I think the American people expect that, too.

CORN:  OK, but Frank...

GAFFNEY:  And thank God we‘ve got a missile defense today—despite David and your friends, we‘ve got a missile defense today that would give us an option other than all-out war to protect our people.

CORN:  Listen, there‘s still is tremendous debate—you know this—about whether an intercontinental ballistic missile defense system can work.  There‘s theater defense...

GAFFNEY:  It does.

(CROSSTALK)

GAFFNEY:  It keeps working.

CORN:  I can give—I can give you...

(CROSSTALK)

GAFFNEY:  I would rather have it than not have it.

CORN:  ... higher degrees than yours that say it doesn‘t work.

GAFFNEY:  I‘d rather have what we have than not have it.

CORN:  We know also know that deterrence works.  So if you think—if you think that—if you‘re so worried about the North Koreans lobbing a single bomb, you know, in the direction of Hawaii—listen, we knew about this launch for three, four weeks in advance.  We are years away from North Korea being able to do anything resembling a sneak attack with a ballistic missile, let alone one with an EMP or a nuclear weapon on top of it.

SHUSTER:  I want to read for both of you—here‘s what Newt Gingrich said in a live chat with “Politico.”  He said, “Dick Cheney is clearly right in saying that between the court decisions about terrorists and the administration actions, the United States is running greater risks of getting attacked than we were under President Bush.”

David, your reaction to Newt Gingrich?

CORN:  Well, he‘s joined the, you know, Dick Cheney fan club.  I mean, that‘s not surprising.  I mean, right now—President Obama had a very successful trip in Europe.  And the speech he gave today, which I know you‘ll talk about later in the show, I thought was ground-breaking in terms of bettering U.S. relations with not just Muslim countries but other countries and other peoples around the world.  And I think that is going to contribute to our security and our defense, anything more so than what Dick Cheney envisioned with Guantanamo and the war in Iraq.

SHUSTER:  And Frank, just if you follow Newt Gingrich‘s logic in all this—the idea that Obama somehow made the United States less safe—explain to us, how does it improve the U.S. safety if we were to follow Newt Gingrich‘s advice, launch a preemptive attack on North Korea, take out this missile launch, which of course, didn‘t work, but take it out.  North Korea would likely then respond against South Korea.  The Chinese, of course, would likely then help North Korea, and all of a sudden, we have tensions between the United States and China in the midst of all this.  How does that make America safer?

GAFFNEY:  You‘d have to ask Newt Gingrich or Ash Carter or Bill Perry that question, rather than me, because I‘m not sure that it would.

Let me just say, I am a member of Dick Cheney‘s fan club.  I think he‘s absolutely right that when you, yes, have wonderful road shows that encourage all kinds of acclaim from people by telling them what they want to hear, whether it‘s our European friends that you‘re a transnationalist just like they are, or our Muslim enemies that you‘re willing to submit to them, which is, I think, the kind of ground-breaking that was done today.

CORN:  Oh, Frank, Frank...

GAFFNEY:  This is not going to make us safer.  It is going to make the world a more dangerous place when you alienate your friends and you embolden your enemies...

CORN:  You got to stick to...

GAFFNEY:  ... and that‘s what Barack Obama is doing.

SHUSTER:  You got to stick to facts here!

GAFFNEY:  I am!

CORN:  Where in that speech does he say we‘re going to submit to anybody?

GAFFNEY:  I think...

CORN:  Where?

GAFFNEY:  ... what he is using is code...

CORN:  No, no, no.  I‘m asking...

GAFFNEY:  When he...

SHUSTER:  ... a very specific question.

GAFFNEY:  I‘m answering your question.

(CROSSTALK)

GAFFNEY:  When he uses the word “respect” in the context of a waist bow to the king of Saudi Arabia, for example, and talks about respectful language, which is code for those who adhere to Sharia that we will submit to Sharia, we will submit to the kind of program...

(CROSSTALK)

SHUSTER:  ... we have to know the code?  We all have to know the code in order...

GAFFNEY:  You should.

SHUSTER:  ... to understand how we‘re making ourselves more vulnerable?

GAFFNEY:  You should—you should know the code!  If you don‘t, you‘re...

(CROSSTALK)

SHUSTER:  ... asking for a specific example...

GAFFNEY:  ... and that‘s really worrying.

SHUSTER:  ... and you‘re referring to code.

GAFFNEY:  I‘m telling you...

SHUSTER:  You‘re referring to code, and we...

GAFFNEY:  I‘m telling you the code as they receive it in the Taliban headquarters and in al Qaeda‘s caves...

CORN:  Oh, so now—so after this trip...

GAFFNEY:  ... and in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  They‘re perceiving this as submission.  I‘m telling you.

CORN:  Frank, you really think...

GAFFNEY:  Just watch their behavior.

CORN:  Frank, do you really think after this trip, after Obama‘s there getting—you know, having—sending more troops to Afghanistan, rightly or wrongly, asking NATO to do more, that the message the Taliban is receiving is that the United States is going to submit to the Taliban?  Is that what—that what you think‘s happening in...

GAFFNEY:  I think when Bob Gates said...

CORN:  ... Taliban HQ today?

GAFFNEY:  Let  me answer your question.  When Bob Gates said, as he did about a month-and-a-half ago, We‘d be happy to have the Swat Valley deal that‘s got the Taliban applying Sharia in the—in Pakistan apply to Afghanistan, it doesn‘t matter how many troops we throw out there.  And by the way, David, you‘re not going to support this Afghan operation anyway.

CORN:  I‘m asking you...

SHUSTER:  Let‘s be clear.  We are throwing in the towel in Afghanistan...

CORN:  Frank?  Frank, I‘m asking...

GAFFNEY:  ... not holding up the hopes of the Afghan people.

CORN:  You know, I think you‘re trying really hard here to put words in the president‘s mouth.  If you—if respect...

GAFFNEY:  No, respect is his word.

CORN:  ... to you means submission, I won‘t get into personal...

(CROSSTALK)

SHUSTER:  David, the big problem here...

GAFFNEY:  That‘s how they perceive it.

SHUSTER:  It‘s all because of you and your friends, David.  It‘s all because of you and your liberal friends that we‘re in this mess.  David Corn...

GAFFNEY:  No, not entirely.

SHUSTER:  ... thank you very much, from “Mother Jones.”  And Frank Gaffney—Frank, interesting conversation, as always.  Frank, thanks for coming on.

GAFFNEY:  My pleasure.

SHUSTER:  Coming up: President Obama addresses the parliament in Turkey in his first visit to a Muslim country.  Can the president start to win over the hearts and minds in the Islamic world after the deep distrust Muslims had for George W. Bush?

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  President Obama spoke to the Turkish parliament today with a message for the whole Muslim world.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  I know that the trust that binds the United States and Turkey has been strained.  And I know that strain is shared in many places where the Muslim faith is practiced.  So let me say this as clearly as I can.  The United States is not and will never be at war with Islam.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Can the president‘s words help improve our country‘s image?  NBC News chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd is traveling with the president in Istanbul, and “Newsweek‘s” Howard Fineman is an MSNBC political analyst and joins us from Philadelphia.

And Chuck, let‘s start with you.  How did the president‘s speech go over today?  What was the vibe in the room?

CHUCK TODD, NBC CORRESPONDENT AND POLITICAL DIRECTOR:  The vibe was very good.  I mean, you heard—you talk to Turkish political leaders, Turkish journalists, you don‘t—we haven‘t really had a lot of access to average Turkish citizens.  There‘s been a lot of very tight security.  But you talk to the leaders that were in that room and that were invited, and they—you know, they were fawning.  They loved it.  It was everything they wanted to hear from him, whether it was the words that he held back when it came to the Armenian issue, which is huge, divisive issue sometimes inside of Turkey and with a lot of Armenian-Americans, or if it came to what he said about the Middle East peace process, what he said about Afghanistan, and then more importantly, what he said about the religion of Islam.  And so all of that went over very well.

But of course, it‘s just—you know, that—you would assume it would.  I mean, he accepted all the invitations of Turkey to do this.  He‘s elevating Turkey.  He‘s making this his second state visit.  You know, Canada was his first.  Those three summits he‘s done this week, they weren‘t official visits, so as far as the official state visit, you know, rotation is concerned, and this does matter in the world community, it‘s Turkey that went second in this new presidency.

SHUSTER:  And the effort does seem to be paying off at home.  Howard, I want to show you some of the latest poll numbers from “The Washington Post” and ABC News.  Forty-three percent of the country, of America, thinks President Obama has made our country‘s image better in the eyes of the world.  Fourteen percent say worse and forty-two percent say it stayed the same.

I mean, look at this.  Eighty-one percent of the country thinks it‘s important for the president to improve relations with Muslim countries.  And if the president has some success, it may affect this number.  Just 41 percent say they have a favorable opinion of Islam.  That‘s lower than it was immediately after 9/11.

Howard, explain that.

HOWARD FINEMAN, “NEWSWEEK,” MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Well, the amazing thing here is, David—and I‘m sure Chuck is watching this up close—that Barack Obama, in a way, is putting himself forth as explainer-in-chief to the world, as bridge builder to the world, in a way as president to the world, saying to the world, I will explain America to you, and saying to America, I will explain the world.

And he‘s also doing—I was up here at a conference at Penn, University of Pennsylvania, listening to Kathleen Jamieson, a brilliant political scientist, talking about how Obama, during the campaign, argued from biography, his own biography. 

He‘s doing the same here.  In that press conference and in that speech in Ankara, he made reference to the fact that he had lived for a number of years in a Muslim country, in Indonesia, that, by personal experience, he was a sort of human bridge-builder, somebody who can listen, somebody who can show America in a listening and bridge-building mode, respecting other cultures, respecting other countries, respecting other religions. 

This is something that we haven‘t seemed to be doing in recent years, and it‘s just found gold all over the place wherever Barack Obama goes.  And it‘s—it‘s reflected in his standing here at home. 

SHUSTER:  And it‘s—and, since you mentioned it, let‘s play for you the clip where here‘s President Obama from today in Turkey talking about the significance of minority rights. 

Watch. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  An enduring commitment to the rule of law is the only way to achieve the security that comes from justice for all people.  Robust minority rights let societies benefit from the full measure of contributions from all citizens.

I say this as the President of a country that not very long ago made it hard for somebody who looks like me to vote, much less be president of the United States. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Chuck Todd, while you are watching this go over in Turkey, you‘re also pretty astute when it comes to American politics.  Is there any downside...

CHUCK TODD, NBC NEWS POLITICAL DIRECTOR:  Yes. 

SHUSTER:  ... for the president here at home by essentially playing this card? 

TODD:  On this—on this card, no, I don‘t think there‘s any downside. 

I mean, I think that that is, you know, one of the messages that—

that a lot of Americans want to make sure his election sends, that it‘s a -

almost giving a clean slate of Americans‘ history a little bit, wiping the slate clean a little bit for the world. 

You know, a lot of times, you know, the world would, very snarkily, throw the issue of race back into a president when talking about various things, if—if a—if a president was lecturing another country on the issue of minority rights.  Well, that can‘t be done to a Barack Obama.  So, I don‘t think there‘s any risk here. 

Look, if there‘s a risk for him politically, it‘s the risk that every president deals with when they go overseas.  And that is this idea that, sometimes, that they might work so hard at winning favor overseas, that it looks like they‘re losing touch with Middle America. 

You know, there can be this—Americans enjoy being isolationists sometimes.  They enjoy this idea that—that they are—they have two oceans keeping them from the rest of the world.  That doesn‘t mean they don‘t want to be players in the rest of the world or respected around the world, but it‘s that—it‘s that fine line that he just has to walk.

And I think, for the most part, on this trip, he‘s done it.  But, you know, he could be, potentially, at some point offending some folks in Middle America, who may not like this too pro-Europe vibe that they might be getting, if—if they‘re getting that. 

FINEMAN:  David?

SHUSTER:  And, Howard, as—as far as the fringe right, I mean, I suppose, no matter what the president says overseas, there are going to be some people in this country—we‘re going to be talking about this later in the show—but there are going to be some of the wing nuts who are going to hate President Obama, no matter what he does overseas, right?

FINEMAN:  Well, you can use the wing nut term.  I‘m not going to use it. 

(LAUGHTER)

FINEMAN:  But here‘s the thing.

I think there‘s less risk—I agree with Chuck.  Normally, I would agree with Chuck.  But, right now, the American people are really aware of the fact that we live in a global age, that problems here in the United States economically ricochet around the world and come back to us.  They‘re aware of the fact that the dollar is under siege. 

Somebody like George Soros, the international financier, is saying that the dollar is under pressure.  One of the great symbols of American credibility right now, America‘s hope, America‘s future, rests with this president of the United States. 

And I think Americans, by and large, are aware of the fact that he‘s really good advertising for the United States in the Muslim world and elsewhere, at the time when we really need it, because we still need the world to lend us money. 

And I think we‘re hoping, even if we don‘t necessarily connect the dots this way, that Obama will be a good salesman for the future of America, because we need the world to invest in that future. 

SHUSTER:  Howard Fineman, and Chuck Todd traveling in Turkey, thank you both so much. 

And safe travels, Chuck, as you make your way back here to the United States. 

TODD:  Thank you, sir.

SHUSTER:  Up next—up next, Levi Johnston, the father of Bristol Palin‘s baby, tells all on the Tyra Banks show, and the Palin family is now firing back.

That spat—next in the “Sideshow.”

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  Back to HARDBALL, and time for the “Sideshow.”

First up, talk about laying it all out there.  Remember Levi Johnston?  There he is at the Republican Convention last year with Governor Palin‘s daughter Bristol, who was Levi‘s fiancee at the time and soon to be mother of his child.

The Levi Bristol engagement has since been dumped like a bad habit.  And in a pre-taped appearance today on—get this—“The Tyra Banks Show,” Levi ended up revealing some personal details about the relationship. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “THE TYRA BANKS SHOW”)

TYRA BANKS, HOST, “THE TYRA BANKS SHOW”:  So, I have to ask you a personal question.  But you‘re on my Tyra couch, and there are no personal questions. 

(LAUGHTER)

BANKS:  Were you practicing safe sex? 

LEVI JOHNSTON, FORMER FIANCE OF BRISTOL PALIN:  yes. 

BANKS:  Even when the baby was conceived? 

JOHNSTON:  We were. 

BANKS:  And, so, there was just wardrobe malfunctions? 

JOHNSTON:  I guess. 

BANKS:  Yes?

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSTON:  Yes. 

BANKS:  Really? 

JOHNSTON:  Yes, I guess so. 

BANKS:  Every time, you practiced safe sex? 

JOHNSTON:  Yes. 

(LAUGHTER)

BANKS:  Every time? 

JOHNSTON:  Every time. 

(LAUGHTER)

BANKS:  Levi? 

JOHNSTON:  Most of the time. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER: “Most of the time?”

Levi, that‘s how you get your girlfriend pregnant. 

Well, Governor Sarah Palin, who apparently advocates abstinence, instead of sex ed, put out this statement and response to Levi—quote—

“It is unfortunate that Levi finds it more appealing to exploit his previous relationship with Bristol than to contribute to the well-being of the child.” 

Um, speaking of exploitation, Governor, isn‘t that what you were doing with your family and Levi at the Republican Convention?

Moving on to another tabloid staple, Eliot Spitzer, and he‘s making the rounds.  The former New York governor is hoping to emerge as a Wall Street expert amidst the financial crisis.

The problem is, he‘s having to answer questions about the prostitute scandal that forced him out of office. 

On “The Today Show” this morning, Matt Lauer pressed Spitzer on just how long he had been frequenting high-priced prostitutes. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “THE TODAY SHOW”) 

MATT LAUER, CO-HOST, “THE TODAY SHOW”:  And I just wonder if you could give me some ballpark, some estimation of how long this went on, and how frequently it went on? 

ELIOT SPITZER (D), FORMER NEW YORK GOVERNOR:  Not frequently, not long in the grand context of—of my life. 

It was an egregious violation of behavior that I—I fell into for—for many reasons, but—but are, none of them, an excuse or justifiable. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  You fell into it, like falling into a trap or a pothole? 

Governor, you were paying over $4,000 for that activity per hour.  It was your money.  You chose to spend it that way.  You didn‘t just fall into it. 

And, finally, this was baseball‘s opening day.  And it featured a few politicians hoping to show that they can bring the heat.  And, no, that‘s not a pun about Eliot Spitzer. 

Here‘s former President George W. Bush throwing out the first pitch for the Texas Rangers.  It‘s his first appearance at the ballpark since he was governor of Texas back in 2000.  And that was pretty a good throw.

By the way, Vice President Joe Biden also took to the field, throwing out the first pitch this afternoon for the Baltimore Orioles opening day.  Biden was joined there by kids from the Baltimore Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities League. 

By the way, we just got some new polling, in which nearly three-quarters of Americans say that baseball players who used performance-enhancing drugs should not be eligible for the Hall of Fame.  Just some food for thought.

Time now for tonight‘s “Big Number.” 

It‘s the special election heard around the nation, New York‘s 20th district.  Last week, Democrat Scott Murphy and Republican Jim Tedisco went head to head to replace Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand, who, of course, was appointed to Hillary Clinton‘s Senate seat. 

That race is still too close to call.  But, right now, out of the 150,000-plus votes cast, how many votes separate the two?  Zero.  It‘s a dead heat.  The tally will, of course, change as absentee ballots are counted.  But this is a striking indication of just how close this House race really was.  Zero votes currently separate the congressional candidates in this district, tonight‘s not so “Big Number.” 

Up next:  Gun sales are up.  Violence is back on the front page, and conservatives are calling for revolution.  Is the red-hot rhetoric of the right helping foment something dangerous in this country?  That debate over words and what they may cause is coming up next. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Stocks ended the day lower on a forecast of more storms on the horizon for U.S. banks.  The Dow Jones industrial average closed down, but just by 41.  The S&P 500 finished seven points lower.  And the Nasdaq closed down by 15.

The financial sector led the decline, after a prominent analyst called steps to stabilize the industry mere—quote—“window dressing,” and predicted accelerating losses from toxic assets still on the books. 

The tech sector also slumped, but on word that IBM‘s $7 billion bid to take over Sun Microsystems fell apart over the weekend.  Sun shares slid 24 percent, IBM shares down fractionally. 

And a lot of movement in the defense sector today to the upside, as the Pentagon released a budget proposal that cuts a number of key programs.  Production of Lockheed Martin‘s F-22 Raptor jet would be halted ahead of schedule.  But their shares ended up almost 9 percent on word that the Pentagon wants to speed up production of their newest jet, the F-35.

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

HARDBALL. 

SHUSTER:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

“New York Times” columnist Charles M. Blow wanted a better sense of the mind and mood of the country of the right, and so he immersed himself in conservative media. 

He wrote in Saturday‘s “New York Times”: “My read:  They‘re apocalyptic.  They feel isolated, angry, betrayed and besieged.  And some of their leaders seem to be trying to mold them into militias.”

There‘s also been talk from some on the right of a revolution.  One of their chief concerns is gun rights. 

Joining us now, the author of the column, Charles Blow of “The New York Times,” and Alan Gottlieb of the Second Amendment Foundation.

And, Alan, let‘s start with you.

Do you believe that the Obama administration and the feds are coming to take away everybody‘s guns? 

ALAN GOTTLIEB, FOUNDER, THE SECOND AMENDMENT FOUNDATION:  I believe that‘s what they would like to do. 

I don‘t think we‘re going to let them get away with it.  But, if you look at Obama‘s record back from when he was a state senator...

SHUSTER:  No, but—but, to be honest, do you believe that that‘s what they‘re planning?  Do you believe that they are planning to come and take everybody‘s guns away? 

GOTTLIEB:  Well, let‘s put it this way.

Attorney General Eric Holder has already made that announcement, that he would like to do it.  Hillary Clinton has talked about it.

SHUSTER:  Where did he make the announcement?  Where did he say he‘s coming to take your guns away? 

GOTTLIEB:  He would like to put back in a ban on so-called assault weapons, or what we call sport utility rifles and shotguns.

SHUSTER:  Right.  But that‘s very different from taking everybody‘s guns away, which is the kind of stuff Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh and others have said. 

And the reason I ask this...

GOTTLIEB:  Well, hold on a second.  Hold on a second. 

(CROSSTALK)

GOTTLIEB:  He also filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court saying people didn‘t have the right to keep and bear arms in the Washington, D.C., case, when the court struck down the gun ban there.

So, there‘s no doubt they support gun bans.  Barack Obama has voted for handgun bans.

SHUSTER:  Well, actually, there‘s a lot of doubt.  There‘s no doubt that they want to get rid of assault weapons. 

But here‘s the issue, because Richard Poplawski killed three police officers in Pittsburgh a couple days ago because he thought President Obama was—and others and the feds were coming to take his guns away. 

And I guess my question is, Charles, to you, who‘s responsible for that?  Is it this deranged guy?  Or how much of a factor is the stuff that‘s out there in the right-wing megaphone contributing to this—the—this thought process of these people? 

CHARLES M. BLOW, COLUMNIST, “THE NEW YORK TIMES”:  Right. 

I don‘t know what‘s happening in his case yet.  And I—and he will go to trial.  We will find out more about his case. 

But I think what‘s happening in that echo chamber is very dangerous, because it only takes a couple of people—or one person—to do something that—with a gun that is very irresponsible, that leads to something like this.

And I feel like, if you are going to let these people ramble on, and if they feel like that‘s a responsible way to use the platform that they have, then that‘s very unfortunate. 

SHUSTER:  Well, speaking of responsibility, let‘s run the clip.  Here is Glenn Beck talking about fascism being on the march.  And here‘s the visual image that he used.

Watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “GLENN BECK”)

GLENN BECK, HOST, “GLENN BECK”:  We said, enough.  Now on with the other guy.  We‘re going to go to the other guy and put him in power. 

And now that that‘s happened, people are realizing, wait a minute.  Grass isn‘t any greener on the other side.  In fact, it‘s the exact same color.  Americans on both sides now are saying, haven‘t I seen this movie before?  Enough. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Alan, what‘s your reaction to that?  Putting aside whether you think the Obama administration is right or wrong on their gun policy, when somebody uses Nazi imagery to try to make any point about the political discourse now, is that ever appropriate? 

GOTTLIEB:  Well, let‘s put it this way.  It pales in significance compared to the vitriol aimed at President Bush by Obama and his supporters.

But, if you look at the recent Pew research poll show—showing...

SHUSTER:  Alan, name one supporter who...

(CROSSTALK)

GOTTLIEB:  Wait.

If you look at the recent Pew research poll put out on polarization, Barack Obama is the most polarizing president that we have had for four decades. 

SHUSTER:  Whose fault is that?

GOTTLIEB:  I think it‘s Barack Obama‘s fault.  It‘s his rhetoric and his supporters. 

SHUSTER:  His rhetoric, which is causing people to use Nazi imagery? 

Here‘s my issue—

(CROSS TALK)

SHUSTER:  Alan, anybody who uses Nazi imagery diminishes the significance of World War II, the sacrifices this country made to begin with.  Anyone who would suggest that FEMA camps are like concentration camps minimizes, which is what Glen Beck has been suggesting, minimizes the significance of what happened with World War II.  And isn‘t that a dangerous place for a country to be going? 

GOTTLIEB:  I agree it minimizes it.  It‘s just like Barack Obama supporters minimized a lot of things by claiming we‘re becoming a police state under George Bush, the same rhetoric they used, the same kind of imagery they used.  The bottom line is this doesn‘t help at all.  But when it comes right out of the White House, with programs, policies, economic things that scare the hell out of the American people—you know, in politics, every reaction has an opposite and equal reaction.  You are seeing the reaction to what the Obama administration is doing. 

SHUSTER:  So Charles, your reaction to the idea that somehow it‘s Barack Obama‘s fault that some in the right wing echo chamber are using Nazi symbols to get people riled up? 

BLOW:  I think that argument is laughable.  I think what we have to remember about this particular issue is you scrape the bottom on the left or the right, either one of those barrels, you‘re going to come up with something ugly.  The problem is when people with a bigger reach than just the people in the blogs online start using this kind of language, this kind of imagery, and at the same time pushing people out to say Barack Obama is going to take away your guns.

So the reason people start to buy guns is because they‘re afraid of the government.  That‘s a very dangerous combination of events. 

GOTTLIEB:  People have legitimate reasons to be fearing the government right now. 

SHUSTER:  What are they, Alan?

GOTTLIEB:  It‘s nationalizing industries.  It‘s going to control people‘s health care.  It‘s infringing on gun rights in lots of different ways, with executive orders and things the administration is doing behind the scenes.  Believe me, there‘s a lot of fear out there.  It‘s being propagated by the administration.  All they have to do is say we‘re not going to do these things and life would be fine. 

BLOW:  And we should confront that fear with guns?

GOTTLIEB:  I‘m not saying confront that fear with guns, but that doesn‘t mean you can‘t own one.  And if you think the government might take your rights away from you, then you want to exercise before that happens.  It‘s a normal reaction.  Everybody does it, left or right.  In fact, a lot of the people buying guns, first time gun owners, happen to be liberal Democrats. 

BLOW:  A lot of people buying guns are also not liberal Democrats.  Across the spectrum people are buying guns.  People have written this story in newspapers across the country.  When they ask people why they‘re buying guns, they‘re afraid the government will infringe on that right.  That is a dangerous situation. 

GOTTLIEB:  It is a dangerous situation.  It‘s dangerous because the government shouldn‘t be doing it.  It‘s a legitimate fear that Americans have, based on statements made by elected public officials. 

SHUSTER:  Name one statement.  Just so we‘re clear, name one statement that is not a statement from Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity.  What statement from President Obama has given what you call people a legitimate fear? 

GOTTLIEB:  President Obama has tried to duck the issue a lot.  It‘s the spokesman for his administration. 

SHUSTER:  We‘re just trying to be specific. 

(CROSS TALK)

GOTTLIEB:  Hillary Clinton, Blaming—blaming Americans owning guns for crime happening in Mexico, which is totally absurd.  I mean, things of that nature. 

SHUSTER:  She didn‘t say that, Alan.  Alan, that‘s not what she said. 

Try again. 

GOTTLIEB:  Oh, yes.  She did say that.  I‘m sorry.  I have the quotes. 

SHUSTER:  Alan, you‘re not entitled to your own facts.  I think that‘s part of the problem with this entire debate, is when the right wing echo chamber comes up with their own facts, their own analogies, and says that fascism is on the march, and that FEMA is creating concentration camps.  You get these nut cases that will take matters into their own hands. 

GOTTLIEB:  I didn‘t say FEMA was doing concentration camps. 

SHUSTER:  You just supported the argument.

(CROSS TALK)

SHUSTER:  That‘s the right way to do it.  I can‘t understand why so many people don‘t understand that. 

GOTTLIEB:  We have every right to organize our people and get them active and energized so they know what‘s happening. 

SHUSTER:  Right.  You don‘t have every right to essentially inspire some of the crazies out there to do something violent because they think fascism is on the march.  Alan Gottlieb, thanks for coming on.  Charles Blow, from the “New York Times,” we appreciate it as always. 

For 18 years the Pentagon banned media coverage of the return of fallen troops to U.S. soil.  That ban has now been lifted.  Last night, there was a solemn ceremony at Dover Air Force base as the body of Air Force Staff Sergeant Phillip Myers returned home. 

Myers, of Hopewell, Virginia, was killed Saturday in a roadside bombing in Afghanistan.  He was a member of the 48th Civic Engineer Squadron, based in England, and was awarded a Bronze Star for bravery last year.  Staff Sergeant Phillip Myers was 30 years old. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR:  Do you believe the president of the United States has made Americans less safe? 

DICK CHENEY, FMR. VICE PRESIDENT:  I do.  I think those programs were absolutely essential to the success we enjoyed, of being able to collect the intelligence that led us defeat all further attempts to launch attacks against the United States since 9/11. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  That was former Vice President Dick Cheney a few weeks ago on CNN.  We‘re back for the politics fix with the “Chicago Tribune‘s” Clarence Page and the “Financial Times‘” Chrystia Freeland.  I want you both to look at White House Senior Adviser David Axelrod‘s response to Cheney yesterday on CNN.  Here he is. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID AXELROD, WHITE HOUSE SENIOR ADVISER:  I find it supremely ironic on a day when we were meeting with NATO to talk about the continued threat from al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they are still plotting against us seven years later—I think the question for Mr. Cheney is how could that be?  How could this have gone so long?  Why are they still in business? 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Clearly, the White House said we‘re not going to talk about the vice president.  But David Axelrod decided to engage.  Explain the political play that they are making her. 

CLARENCE PAGE, “THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE”:  I think they felt genuinely miffed that a former vice president would go and take that kind of a shot.  This wasn‘t one of Jimmy Carter‘s critiques about your foreign policy.  Cheney was saying, this president is making America less safe.  I can‘t recall another former president saying that about a sitting president, or a former vice president. 

So I think that‘s why—good old Chicago style, like Sean Connery, in the movie, they saw that Cheney came at them with a knife.  They went back at him with a gun, if you will, in terms of pointing out weaknesses in the Cheney-Bush foreign policy, as the Obama campaign sees it. 

SHUSTER:  Chrystia, is there also an advantage for the Obama White House that they bring up Vice President Cheney they can remind the country of the problems that the White House inherited, whether it‘s the economy, whether it‘s all the billions that are being spent every week on the war in Iraq because of the disastrous foreign policy? 

CHRYSTIA FREELAND, “THE FINANCIAL TIMES”:  Yes, David.  I think that‘s incredibly perceptive.  And I think it‘s really, really important for the Obama administration right now to be sure that the current problems are owned by the Bush administration, not by the Obama administration.  So actually, I think that they should be sending anonymous flowers and chocolates to Dick Cheney every time he appears on TV. 

It‘s really terrific for them politically for the country to be reminded that the problems that America faces right now are largely not of the creation of this administration.  And things are going to get really tough for them once people start to say, you know what?  You‘ve been in office for a while, guys, and now we‘re looking to you to be responsible for the solution. 

SHUSTER:  And it‘s such a fascinating contrast with how they are dealing with Vice President Cheney and how they are dealing with President Bush.  Watch. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AXELROD:  I think it was an unfortunate statement.  Let me say, in contrast, how much we appreciate the way President Bush has behaved.  He was incredibly cooperative during the transition.  And when he left he said, I wish you guys the best.  I‘m rooting for you.  I believe that to be the case.  And he‘s behaved like a statesman.  And as I‘ve said before, here and elsewhere, I just don‘t think the memo got passed down to the vice president. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Chrystia, what is going on there? 

FREELAND:  I think there is a certain divide and conquer going on.  And I think the other thing that is quite interesting is the way we see a kind of good cop/bad cop routine coming out of the current White House, where we see the president being very presidential, being the conciliator, as he has been really since his entry in the national political life.  But he‘s been careful to surround himself with people who are prepared to be real attack dogs, like Axelrod, like Rahm Emanuel.  I think that can be pretty effective. 

SHUSTER:  I wonder if it‘s also effective, Clarence, given how low President Bush‘s approval ratings remaining, that if he can say, you know what?  Even President Bush is behaving the right way, and Cheney is worse than him.  If he can draw that contrast, it makes your point even clearer. 

PAGE:  It‘s an appropriate contrast for them to draw.  You know, this is the way—Dick Cheney always talks.  He was this way back in the elder Bush‘s administration, when he was over at the Defense Department.  He honestly believes these things.  He believes in the one percent solution, as one of his biographers put it. 

If their is anything like a one percent chance of a possible threat against our security, then that‘s enough to just pull out all stops.  and You heard in the interview, in its context, he not only does he not know certain things about the—about our privacy rights, but doesn‘t seem to care.  You know, he thinks if there‘s that one percent chance out there. 

SHUSTER:  Well, Clarence and Chrystia are both staying with us.  Because there is something really big happening tonight in the state of Michigan.  We‘re going to get into that next.  You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  And we‘re back with Clarence Page and Chrystia Freeland for more of the politics.  There‘s a very basketball game tonight in Detroit.  The NCAA basketball championship will be decided.  And in the interest of full disclosure, let me clarify for everybody who may or may not realize, I‘m a graduate of the University of Michigan.  And normally I can‘t stand everything related to Michigan State University. 

However, given all of the problems that the state of Michigan has these days, the unemployment above 12 or 13 percent, those of us who are from the Midwest tend to love Michigan, the state of Michigan more than we hate Michigan State.  So tonight, I‘ll be rooting for Michigan state to beat North Carolina.  Chrystia, a lot of other people across this country who don‘t follow sports have also been captivated by this incredible run that Michigan State has had, lifting up the spirits in the state of Michigan.  How significant is it in terms of unemployment there, the problems there in the state of Michigan? 

FREELAND:  Well, certainly this basketball team is not going to save the Detroit car industry.  But psychologically, it has to be important for the people of Michigan.  I think one of the things that is really interesting and painful about this crisis is the feeling that people in Michigan and in Detroit have, in particular, of being somehow not liked by the rest of the country.  And you hear that a lot in the commentary about the perceived different in treatment of the big three, versus the way that Wall Street has been treated. 

So I think that if there‘s any state in the union that needs a little bit of a break it‘s certainly Michigan. 

SHUSTER:  Clarence, fair to say that everybody who is not routing for North Carolina is going to be rooting for Michigan state?  They are the die-hards, North Carolina fans, but it feels like everybody else in this country, Detroit has had it so bad. 

PAGE:  Especially for us Rust Belt folks.  By the way, I‘m an Ohio U alum.  I feel the same way about Ohio State, except when I‘m outside of Ohio, we‘re all Buckeyes.  But Ohio, like Michigan, they have been through a terrible economic crisis.  They‘re still going through it.  There was I understand about 5,000 Michigan State fans at the Detroit Riverfront over the weekend.  I‘m sure it did a lot for beer sales. 

SHUSTER:  Well, it‘s going to be a terrific game tonight.  And best of luck to the Michigan State Spartans and everybody in the state of Michigan.  Most of us are pulling for you.  I think everybody on this show is pulling for you.  Clarence Page, Chrystia Freeland, thank you so much.  We appreciate it.  Join us again tomorrow night at 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern for more HARDBALL. 

Right now the premier of “THE ED SHOW” with Ed Schultz.

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

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