updated 8/20/2009 12:59:04 PM ET 2009-08-20T16:59:04

Guests: Sen. Bernie Sanders, Frank Rich, John Ralston

           

RACHEL MADDOW, HOST:  Good evening, Keith.  Thank you for that late-breaking news.  We‘ll be sure to talk about that with Bernie Sanders who‘s also going to be joining us this hour.  Thanks.

KEITH OLBERMANN, “COUNTDOWN” HOST:  I‘ll be listening.

MADDOW:  Thank you also at home for staying with us for the next hour.

In Houston yesterday, at the Verizon Wireless Theater, there was a really big rally against global warming legislation that‘s now making its way through Congress.  In a city that gets an “F” from the American Lung Association for both of its measures of air pollution, ozone and particle pollution, in the middle of a work day on a Tuesday in August, 3,500 Houstonians turned out to exclaim their disdain for legislation to reduce carbon emissions—at least we think they were Houstonians.

As reported by “The Houston Chronicle,” which covered this event, the rally was organized largely by the American Petroleum Institute and the crowd consisted at least in part of oil company employees bussed in specifically for the event.  And honestly, this is sort of how we knew it would go down.  As we reported two days ago, an internal memo from the president of the American Petroleum Institute that was marked “sensitive” was obtained by Greenpeace and given to reporters.

In the memo, the American Petroleum Institute copped to organizing rallies like this.  The memo asked oil companies who are members of the American Petroleum Institute to commit to their own employees attending these rallies.  The goal according to the American Petroleum Institute memo was to deliver a, quote, “loud message” to members of Congress and to “put a human face” on the issue.  And by human—let‘s be clear—we mean a human who has been bussed in by an oil company.

At yesterday‘s rally, many oil company employees arrived wearing t-shirts and signs that featured the logo of an ostensibly grassrootsy-sounding organization called Energy Citizens.  Energy Citizens is not actually a grassroots organization at all.  It‘s a coalition of industry groups and conservative advocacy organizations.

But image is everything here.  So while the audience was filled with employees of oil companies who had been encouraged to attend by their employers, and in some cases bussed in, the American Petroleum Institute was smart enough to keep the oil companies off of the speakers list.  The keynote speaker was the owner of the Houston Astros, Drayton McLane.  The master of ceremonies was one of the announcers from the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.  Woo-hoo! And the entertainment highlight was a videotaped performance by country music sensation Trace Adkins.  Grassroots at its finest.

We actually called representatives for Mr. Adkins today to find out how much that sort of booking would cost, try to figure out if you really could do that if you were on a grassroots budget?  They told us that they would get back to us.

What‘s important about this story for American politics right now is that a number of oil companies that are members of the American Petroleum Institute who are represented by the American Petroleum Institute in Washington, they claim to be in favor of the climate change legislation.  These companies claim to be in favor of the legislation that this rally in Houston and many others like it are being held to oppose.  The companies are in favor of the legislation but they belong to an organization that‘s against it, that is telling them to even have their employees go to these rallies to put a human face on the opposition.

The sort of weird and contradictory, right?  Except, actually, it‘s not weird at all.  It‘s exactly the way these things work.  These guys are pros.

Here‘s another example.  This is UnitedforHealthReform.com.  It‘s a very lovely sort of relaxing Web site almost.  It‘s very well-laid out.  It‘s got an image of a happy family doing stretches in a field.  They‘re surrounded by the message, “Tell Congress to unite for health care reform.”  The Web site is full of glowing praise about achieving meaningful reform as a goal for all Americans.

Now, the “United” in UnitedforHealthReform.com refers to United Health Group, the second largest health insurer in the country.  United Health Group is most famous in the current health care debate for its connection to the Lewin Group.  The Lewin Group is part of one of United Health Group‘s wholly owned subsidiaries.  And the Lewin Group is the group that‘s producing these studies that are so frequently cited by Republican members of Congress about how risky health care reform would be.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  According to the Lewin Group, 119 million Americans would lose the private coverage that they currently have.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER ®, HOUSE MINORITY LEADER:  Lewin and associates, a consulting firm, health care experts.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  In fact, the Lewin Group did a study.

NEWT GINGRICH ®, FMR. HOUSE SPEAKER:  Well, the Lewin associates, which is a very respected technical firm.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  There is one study from the Lewin Group.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  One firm, Lewin Group, is telling us.

SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY ®, IOWA:  What you‘re going to have according to the Lewin think tank that specializes in health care.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  The Lewin Group providing the anti-health reform talking points for Republicans and the dramatic numbers about all the bad things that will happen if we reform health care, that happen to be off what the nonpartisan sources say by a factor of 10 -- that group is actually United Health, the insurance company.  But again, United Health on the surface maintains that it is supportive of health care reform.

The lesson here is to watch what these corporations do not just what they say.  The other lesson here is that when you see a big, organized, purportedly grassroots event, and just as a citizen or as a blogger or as a reporter or as an elected official, if you are trying to assess the political import of that big, organized, purportedly grassroots event, you should find out who organized it.  You should look at the fine print on the signs.

Energy Citizens?  Go to the Web site.  Go to EnergyCitizens.org.  Go to that Web site.  Click through the “about us” and participating organizations page.  Click on that benign-looking acronym API to see what that stands for—American Petroleum Institute.

The fine print is where you can make out the strategy through these sparse, sparse, ostensible grassroots.  Many of the groups that are listed in the fine print as Energy Citizens‘ participating organizations are also involved in promoting a march on D.C. on September 12th.  You can go to the Website: 912DC.org to learn more about it.  The fine print on this one is quite literally financial fine print.

This anti-tax, anti-big government, anti-special interest march on Washington, this citizen uprising, this against the man movement is being organized and run by—oh, FreedomWorks.  And non-profit FreedomWorks has just hiked up the amount of money that it‘s charging organizations to take part in this grassroots march.

So, if you want to distribute your group‘s materials at the march, that used to cost a low, low price of $2,500.  Now, that will be $10,000.  Please.  $10,000 will also buy your organization a speaking role at the march—which is after all very free markety.

FreedomWorks says that it is just trying to offset costs for stuff like stages and equipment, but charging 10,000 bucks to take part in a grassroots march?  Sort of like getting the millionaire owner of the Houston Astros to keynote your grassroots rally that‘s being attended by oil company employees who have been bussed in by their bosses.

When the press reports on these events to assess their political importance, when politicians consider the message for them from these types of rallies—trust me—the most interesting stuff is in the fine print.

Joining us now is Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont.  He is a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee.

Senator, thanks very much for coming back on the show.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I), VERMONT:  Great to be with you, Rachel.

MADDOW:  The common wisdom about the health care fight this year is that many of the big corporate interests in health care have been brought along, that they‘re pro-reform this time around, at least more so than they were in the ‘90s.  Is this a situation where we should be sort of watching what they do not what they say?

SANDERS:  Absolutely.  I mean, for a start, please understand, there is a reason why in the United States, we spend twice as much per capita on health care as any other nation on Earth.  And there is a reason why the insurance companies, year after year, make huge profits and pay their CEOs tens and tens of millions of dollars in compensation salaries.  And the reason for that is that these guys exert enormous influence over the political process in Washington.

Right now, according to “The Washington Post,” the health care industry is spending $1.4 million every single day on lobbying alone—just lobbying.  And then you got our friends on Wall Street who precipitated the great recession that we‘re in right now.  They‘re spending a fortune to make sure that there is not financial reform.  Then you have our friends in the oil industry and the coal industry spending huge amounts of money making sure we don‘t deal with global warming and greenhouse gas emissions.

So, what you are doing, Rachel, is extremely important.  And unfortunately, it happens far too rarely.  And that is, you are exposing how things happen and the power of big money in the political process, and I applaud you for doing that.

MADDOW:  Well, thank you.  I mean, we‘re just trying to report what‘s really happening.  And it started with these town halls, but it really is so many of these grassrootsy-looking events.

So, I have to ask you, as a long-time member of Congress, now in the Senate, after having been in the House for many years—is there a real impact on legislation of these industry ginned up events?  Does it affect votes?  Does it affect the way that members of Congress see issues to see people bussed in to these events?

SANDERS:  Well, of course, it does.

MADDOW:  It does.

SANDERS:  Absolutely, it does.  You‘ve got TV cameras there and people are yelling and screaming, “Get government out of health care.”  You know, and does that have an impact on the average member of Congress?  Of course, it does.  Of course, it does.

I think many members of Congress become intimidated by that, and then on top of that, you got lobbying.  On top of that, you got campaign contributions.  On top of that, you have all kinds of advertising.

Does this have an impact?  Of course, it is.  There is a reason why

the United States is the only nation in the industrialized world not to

have a national health care program guaranteeing health care to all people

and that is one of the reasons.

           

MADDOW:  We are getting some late-breaking reporting tonight that on the health care issue, the White House may be considering breaking up the legislation into parts.  Some parts of it to be passed presumably through budget reconciliation rules so it would only require 50 votes.  It wouldn‘t be susceptible to a Republican filibuster in the Senate.

Do you know if—do you know if that reporting is true?  Is that being considered, and what‘s your opinion about that idea?

SANDERS:  Well, look, first thought, I have believed from day one that when the Democratic Caucus has 60 members, we have a strong majority in the House, we have a Democratic president.  While we, of course, want bipartisanship, but if you have the Republicans stonewalling, stonewalling, stonewalling, if you don‘t have one Republican in Congress who is supportive of a public option, then finally, what you have to say to the Democratic Caucus from the Senate, “Look, we got 60 votes.  Let‘s say no to Republican filibusters and let‘s come up with strong legislation.”

Now, there has been discussion about dividing this thing up.  For example, I think it is very clear that the overwhelming majority of the American people are disgusted with the private health insurance companies who deny health care.  We hear story after story about this in my office—deny people health care because they have a preexisting condition.  And then you have these private health insurance companies who are refusing to renew people‘s insurance because they committed the crime of being sick in the previous year.

Meanwhile, we got 1 million people a year—this year—going bankrupt in the United States because of medically-related bills.

So, I think what you can do is you can be dealing with insurance reform.  We could deal with primary health care reform.

Rachel, we have 60 million Americans in this country who do not have access to a doctor on a regular basis.  They end up in the emergency room at great costs or they get sick and they end up in the hospital.  That is insane.

So, what we can do is greatly expand community health centers all over this country.  We can greatly expand the National Health Service Corps.  Get doctors—primary health care doctors into rural areas, into urban areas.

We can do a heck of a lot more in terms of disease prevention.  So that we‘re not just spending money treating diabetes or heart conditions, we are trying to prevent it.

We can do more in quality control, understanding why certain facilities provide high quality care at low cost while others do exactly the opposite.

So, there‘s a lot that you can do quickly which I think should have the support of the vast majority of the American people.  We say we‘re making progress and we can tackle some of the harder issues a few months down the line.

MADDOW:  Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, provocative stuff—thank you very much for your time tonight, sir.  It‘s nice to see you.

SANDERS:  Good to be with you, Rachel.

MADDOW:  Earlier in the 2000s, Americans weren‘t really allowed to show up for some of President Bush‘s official appearances if they were wearing t-shirts that opposed President Bush.

Now, we‘ve got people showing up at President Obama‘s public events carrying assault rifles.  And at least one of these “show off your guns” Obama protestors has ties to the militia movement—specifically the part of the militia movement where people ended up in federal prison on weapons and explosives charges in the ‘90s.  “New York Times” columnist Frank Rich joins us to discuss that—next.

But first, “One More Thing”: A follow-up to a story we‘ve been covering about the right-wing lobbying firm Bonner & Associates and its admission that it forged letters on behalf of the so-called clean coal industry, to look like they came from local nonprofit organizations.  You‘ll recall Bonner‘s explanation was that it was a temp—it was temporary employee who has since been fired who sent out just a few letters purporting to be from the NAACP, from a Hispanic group, from a women‘s group, from a board on aging.  These were letters that urged three House Democrats to vote against climate change legislation that was making its way through Congress.

Well, now Congressman Ed Markey has released five more fake letters. 

A busy temp, huh?

And we can reveal the identities of the second batch now of local groups that had their identities stolen by Bonner & Associates on behalf of the coal industry.  They are the Dunmore Senior Citizen Center in Dunmore, Pennsylvania, the Butler Senior Center in Lyndora, Pennsylvania, the Erie Center on Health and Aging in Erie, Pennsylvania, the Slippery Rock Senior Citizen in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, and the Senior Center Inc. in Charlottesville, Virginia.  All of these groups had their identities stolen.

The House committee investigating the fraud has asked Bonner & Associates to review a total of 50 hate letters that were sent before the vote on climate change in order to determine if there are still more frauds, still more local nonprofit and advocacy groups that have their letterhead and their good name stolen on behalf of coal.

We will keep you posted.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW:  We have two important updates to a story we brought you earlier this week.  When President Obama spoke to the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention in Phoenix on Monday, you‘ll recall that he was greeted by a dozen or so regular citizens, not police officers, not Secret Service officers, who were openly carrying firearms.

It‘s now been revealed that a right-wing online radio host organized the “people with guns near the president” stunt, including the man who‘s carrying an assault rifle who we pictured and talked about on this show.

But the second important update about this story is about the “not just metaphorical ties” between the open display of weaponry by protestors against the president—in other words, the use of intimidation as a political tactic—and the political violence in our own country‘s history, even our own country‘s recent history.  We‘re now learning about actual, direct links between the gun stunt this week at President Obama‘s event in Arizona and a militia group that was convicted in the 1990s of conspiring to blow up federal buildings.

Ernest Hancock, the right-wing online radio host who carried a .9 millimeter pistol himself at the Phoenix protest and who interviewed the other people who were carrying guns—he used to work for a group that defended a violent militia group called the Vipers.  It was a group that called themselves the Viper Reserves and they formed to defend the Viper Militia.

The Viper Militia said they were opposed to what they called the “new world order.”  They practiced advanced weapons training, including exploding rockets and making fertilizer bombs in a desert town about a hundred miles from the one-time home of Timothy McVeigh.  Twelve members of the Viper Militia were charged in 1996 with plotting to blow up at least seven government buildings.

Federal agents seized as evidence dozens of firearms, including machine guns, tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition, grenades, body armor, gas masks and hundreds of pounds of ammonium nitrate which, of course, is the main ingredient used in the bomb that blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people.  In the end, 11 of the Viper Militiamen were sentenced to federal prison terms, ranging from one year to six years.

In a phone interview today with this show, Mr. Hancock, who again was not part of the group but who defended them, he describes himself as having done P.R. for the group, he called the sentences for the Viper Militiamen, quote, “an injustice like you wouldn‘t believe.”  He also—in his interview with our staff—did not deny any of the ties he—the ties he‘s alleged to have with the Viper Militia.  When we asked him about convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, Mr. Hancock told us, quote, “I don‘t know which role he played.  I know he got blamed.”

So, when a dozen people openly display firearms near the president—again, not police officers, not Secret Service officers, but citizens, and they‘re organized by someone with this kind of backgrounds, what‘s the next thing that we talk about in our political discussion in this country?

Joining us now is “New York Times” columnist Frank Rich.  His most recent piece on Sunday gives some historical context to the gun-toting protestors that are showing up at these town hall events.

Mr. Rich, nice to see you.

FRANK RICH, NEW YORK TIMES COLUMNIST:  Nice to see you.

MADDOW:  In your column this weekend, you talked about similarities between the political climate today and the political climate in the early ‘60s—of course, with looming large in that political climate the assassination of John Kennedy in 1963.

Were you intending to make that explicit allegory because you‘re worried about assassination attempts?

RICH:  You know, the truth is, I‘ve been worried for sometime even before the events surrounding these health care town halls.  It began during the campaign where people were shouting treason and worse about Obama at Palin rallies, and essentially, no one would—in the Republican Party—would condemn it.  There were people, you know, appearing in sort of Nazi regalia and all the rest of it, and it‘s just been stepping up ever since then.

The Department of Homeland Security, as you know, released a report in April talking about a rise in 1990s-like militia activity on the far-right and had various, you know, incidents, including the George Tiller killing, the shoot-up of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, and now, we have this stuff going on at these town halls.

So, I think we have to worry about right-wing political violence,

whether we have to hope and pray really that the president is well-

protected, but doesn‘t necessarily manifest itself in a presidential

assassination.  It can manifest itself in things like Oklahoma City or what

as you were just talking about—what was contemplated apparently in Phoenix only a year or two later.

           

MADDOW:  I have to say that I am—we‘ve been talking about this a lot on the show because of what‘s been happening at these town halls, because I think it has been shocking.  And to see people then turning up with guns—especially, people turning up with guns in conjunction with threats that reference earlier acts of political violence in the United States—I‘m thinking specifically of that young man at the New Hampshire event holding the sign with the saying on it that McVeigh was wearing on his shirt the day he was arrested after Oklahoma City—after the bombing.  We‘ve been talking about this stuff because you have to, but I‘m uncomfortable talking about it.

RICH:  I am, too, and I‘m uncomfortable writing about it.

MADDOW:  Yes.

RICH:  And I‘m just old enough, I was a kid, I remember I woke up in 1963 to the horrible events in Dallas.  Even as a kid, I happened to be growing up in Washington, D.C., it was palatable to me all this hate talk about Kennedy and this sort of crazy fear.

Then it was the John Burke‘s Society.  They were worried that the government was trying to fluoridate the water and poison everybody.  They thought that Dwight Eisenhower was a communist tool.

But there were a lot of threats.  There was a lot of stuff going on that in tone resembles this.

And I think we have to try to tread a cautious line here but we have to be vigilant about it.  I think we have a problem.  This has been going on for too many months and has started with the ascent of Barack Obama.

And it always seems to happen when there‘s a new liberal group taking over.  It‘s not coincidence that the militias started up again in the 1990s when Clinton came in or when Kennedy came in, the right-wing stuff in the early ‘60s.  It‘s now, of course, complicated by the fact that we have an African-American—which is even more of an affront, unfortunately, to some of these people.

MADDOW:  I have incredible faith in the Secret Service and I have—I have incredible faith in the professionals whose job it is to actually keep not only politicians safe but also to keep federal building safe.  I think that we have—we have great security officers in this country and I think that they—one of the things that we can be sort of proud of and sure of is the professionalism of that class of people involved in law enforcement.

And, therefore, I worry about and wonder about what citizens who aren‘t law enforcement officers, who aren‘t directly responsible for keeping other people safe, what responsibility we can all take, us in the media and just us as citizens in trying to change the tone, and trying ratchet it down, and trying to make it a safer atmosphere.

RICH:  Well, I think we all have a role to play and I also think that politicians have a role to play.  And it‘s shocking to me that very few Republican leaders have really condemned this kind of activity.  In fact, they‘ve sort of encouraged it.  Well, it‘s the Second Amendment right and so on.

Where does that get us?  While I have the same faith you do in the people who protect us, the Holocaust Museum was not some obscure little back water.  It was very understandably a well-protected site in the center of Washington, D.C., and an 80 something-year-old man could go in there and create havoc and commit murder.

MADDOW:  Yes.  You also said in your column this Sunday that the twisted distortions about “death panels” and federal conspiracies to pull the plug on grandma are too unhinged from the reality of any legislation.  These bogus fears are psychological proxies for bigger traumas.

Do you mean that health care is essentially—essentially, a vehicle to get into much deeper pathologies and much—things that were much more irrational they‘re upset about?

RICH:  Yes.  I don‘t think health care, per se, but the—but I think that this talking about death panels, this bogus stuff, has ratcheted up for people who are automatically paranoid about the federal government, feel it‘s out to get them—it‘s now become a proxy for everything they don‘t like about the government, everything they don‘t like about a liberal-leaning administration, everything they don‘t like about to change.  And that‘s another thing that‘s going on now.

There‘s—it‘s not just the Obama brand of change.  We‘ve gone through this economic turmoil.

MADDOW:  Sure.

RICH:  People are frightened.  Manufacturing industries have collapsed.  My own industry is sort of half-collapsed.  And so, people are on edge anyway.  And these town halls seem to be a handy way to vent.

MADDOW:  Frank Rich, “New York Times” columnist and very welcome guest on this show—thanks very much for coming in.

RICH:  Thank you.

MADDOW:  Here‘s the quote of the day, “I haven‘t done anything legally wrong.”  That was Senator John Ensign‘s hearty defense today of his affair with an underling who is married to another of his underlings—which that affair featured getting that couple‘s son a job with the Republican Party and paying the mistress nearly 100 grand after the wacachika wacachika was all done.  But just to be clear—John Ensign wants you to know, he did nothing legally wrong.  That story is coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW:  Coming up, Sen. John Ensign of Nevada and of the secretive C Street house in Washington tells reporters that his affair while in office wasn‘t nearly as bad as Bill Clinton‘s affair, the one Ensign said Clinton should resign for. 

That story is coming up along with a sharp, serious international hatred between two countries that‘s now playing out over a pop music contest.  Plus, Sen. Max Baucus is attacked by the YouTubes.  Kent Jones investigates. 

But first, it‘s time for news from Iraq and Afghanistan and life during war time.  It was six years ago today that a suicide bomber crashed a truck packed with explosives into the United Nations compound in Baghdad.  That bomb killed 22 employees including the top U.N. coordinator for Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello.  It was the deadliest attack ever on U.N.  personnel. 

Today, on this anniversary of that attack, another tremendous wave of bombings in Baghdad.  Nearly 100 people killed, another 600 wounded.  At 11:00 a.m. local time, a suicide truck bomb hit Iraq‘s finance ministry killing at least 30 people.  The blast was so strong it knocked down part of a nearby overpass. 

Then, just minutes later, a second, more powerful bomb tore apart the 10-story foreign ministry building killing at least 60 people and destroying part of a main highway.  The explosion left a crater 30 feet deep and 60 feet wide.  Cars were seen burning in the streets, many with people still inside of them. 

Elsewhere on the capital, mortars and rocket fire landed in a central market and in a residential area west of the city killing at least eight people.  Reuters reports that there was even a mortar attack inside the supposedly secure green zone today.  That attack disrupted a ceremony in which U.N. workers were commemorating the blast six years ago that destroyed their headquarters and killed Sergio de Mello. 

Meanwhile, in the other country in which we are at war, in Afghanistan, that country is having a presidential election tomorrow, the second since Hamid Karzai was installed after we invaded back in 2001.  The Taliban had threatened violence leading up to this election which they do not want to take place and they apparently meant that threat. 

Today alone, six American troops were killed in Afghanistan - six, killed by both gunfire and a roadside bomb.  That brings the total death toll for American troops in Afghanistan this month to 32.  Fourteen Afghans, including police officers and election workers were also killed by roadside bombs today. 

In Kabul, the capital, there was long, deadly gun fight at a bank and rockets landed near the presidential palace and the police station.  The Afghan government is responding to this upsurge in violence by announcing that the press will not be allowed to report it.  At least, they won‘t be allowed to report it on election day. 

The foreign ministry issued a statement yesterday that news media would be prohibited from broadcasting any incidents of violence between 6:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. tomorrow. 

Journalists have reacted exactly the way you‘d expect them to.  The head of the Independent Journalists Association of Afghanistan saying, quote, “We will not obey this order.  We are going to continue with our normal reporting and broadcasting of news.” 

Another news outlet, the Pajhwok News Agency, told CNN today that they won‘t heed the order either because they consider it to be unconstitutional.  That said, to the extent the news blackout is effective, thanks to the Internet machine, we might have a bit of a work-around for getting on-the-ground news reports out of Afghanistan. 

There is a new Web site called “AliveInAfghanistan.org.”  And it‘s almost a formalization of the kind of citizen reporting that the world watched on Twitter from Iran during the post-election protests there.  People in Afghanistan, including professional journalists, can submit incident descriptions and interviews and reports by E-mail or by text or even by Twitter.  They can even fill out a form on the Web site if that‘s all they can get to. 

Then, “Alive in Afghanistan” maps those incidents and indexes them so anybody can go to this Web site, click on one of the red dots on the map of Afghanistan that they post there that indicates that there‘s news from that spot.  And then, you can read about what has happened there. 

It‘s also got a really handy news feed over there on the right side of the website.  “AliveInAfghanistan.org,” just the latest demonstration of the futility of censorship from above, how that fails in the face of superior technology.  The geeks shall inherit the earth.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW:  On June 16th, while standing in front of a public restroom sign, Sen. John Ensign admitted that he had had an extramarital affair with someone on his staff.  Now, for the first time since then, Sen. John Ensign is speaking publicly about that affair. 

He told an assembled crowd at the chamber of commerce in Fernley, Nevada that, quote, “I‘ve said I‘m sorry.  I can‘t say I‘m sorry enough.  I made a big mistake in my life and I apologize once again to all of you.” 

Now, the initial major reason that Sen. Ensign‘s affair was big news was because he had railed against Bill Clinton and against Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho when each of those men was caught out for sexual indiscretions.  He said both of those men should resign. 

But when Sen. Ensign was caught - no resignation.  Before the speech he gave today, Sen. Ensign did speak with the Associated Press.  He told the reporter that his infidelity was different and less terrible than Bill Clinton‘s infidelity because, quote, “President Clinton stood right before the American people and he lied to the American people.  You remember that famous day he lied to the American people, plus the fact I thought he committed perjury.  That‘s why I voted for the Articles of Impeachment.” 

Of course back in 1998, as Kenneth Starr was alleging that President Clinton committed perjury, then-Rep. John Ensign had a different perspective, calling on Clinton to resign - resign rather than face impeachment, explaining at the time, quote, “I came to that conclusion recently and frankly it‘s because of what he put his whole cabinet through and what he has put the country through.  He had no credibility left.” 

That‘s what he said at the time, nothing about perjury, nothing about lying, just a call for President Clinton‘s resignation based on the effect of his actions, what he had put the country through and, of course, his credibility. 

It‘s worth noting that Sen. Ensign‘s original confession left out lots and lots and lots and lots of really tawdry, verging on even maybe not very legal details, like the job that he gave his mistress‘s son at the Republican Party and the money that his mom and dad paid to his mistress and her family after it was all said and done. 

But according to Sen. Ensign today, resignation is still not on the table for him because, quote, “I haven‘t done anything legally wrong.” 

Joining us now is John Ralston, columnist for “The Las Vegas Sun” and host of “Face to Face with John Ralston.”  John, thanks very much for coming on the show tonight. 

JOHN RALSTON, COLUMNIST, “THE LAST VEGAS SUN”:  Thanks for having me back, Rachel. 

MADDOW:  Sen. Ensign chose for his first public appearance since admitting to the affair the Fernley, Nevada chamber of commerce luncheon.  He got big applause, standing ovation, and he answered only prescreened questions from the audience.  Do you think that was all by design today? 

RALSTON:  Oh, there‘s no question about it.  Fernley, which is not far from Reno, Nevada, was just the kind of place that John Ensign wanted to go, a chamber of commerce crowd.  And as you said, they had these note cards.  He wasn‘t going to take any questions that were uncomfortable at all.  I was surprised that he even answered any questions from the AP reporter, Rachel. 

MADDOW:  Well, when the AP asked why his situation was different than President Clinton‘s when he had called on Clinton to resign, Ensign volunteered his rationale for the other resignation that he called for. 

He said, “The other two times, one was an admitted felon and the other was a convicted felon, so you know, I mean, I never called for anybody else, OK, as far as if you look at, you know, other people who have been accused of things or any of that kind of thing.  I never said anything.  But it was when it was passed over the legal, it was when it passed over the legal limit.” 

I think what he‘s saying there is, you should resign if your sexual indiscretion produces some sort of felony conviction, not when you‘re merely accused of things? 

RALSTON:  Well, of course, as you pointed out, that‘s not what he said back then.  And I find some of what he said today to be just remarkable.  First of all, this is a guy who spent most of his career up on a high horse moralizing. 

He gets knocked off that horse and so what does he do now?  He gets back up on it and starts moralizing again and putting himself on a higher moral plane than Bill Clinton and whoever these other two people are.  I assume Larry Craig is one of them even though he doesn‘t have his facts straight. 

But what‘s most remarkable about this to me, Rachel, is by bringing up Bill Clinton, Bill Clinton and what he said about Bill Clinton makes the case for John Ensign to resign better than anybody else.  You had the quote.  He said that Bill Clinton had lost credibility and should resign. 

How can John Ensign make the case if he hasn‘t lost credibility?  Whatever you think of Bill Clinton, he wasn‘t out there moralizing and pointing his finger at people who had committed indiscretions.  If that doesn‘t cause a loss of credibility on the guy who talks so much about the sanctity of marriage is found to have had an affair with a staffer who is the wife of his best friend who also worked for him and he still has credibility?  I just find that astonishing he would bring up Bill Clinton. 

MADDOW:  Sen. Ensign said today that he won‘t comment any further on the affair because of these ongoing investigations.  But as you point out, it is remarkable he did answer at least some questions from this Associated Press reporter today. 

It would seem to me like if he‘s been quiet for this long, for this many weeks since June 16th, not making himself publicly available, he would at least know what he was going to say on this issue when he was asked the inevitable question. 

He seems to not have anything planned to say when asked these things.  What do you make of that in terms of what you know about him as a politician leading up to this scandal? 

RALSTON:  You know, it‘s the opposite of the John Ensign that we‘ve known.  He‘s very polished.  He‘s very glib.  He‘s very quick on his feet usually.  You read that entire quote there, Rachel.  It was remarkable for its inarticulateness, I thought. 

What‘s amazing is you would say this guy has chutzpah to actually go in there and try to take an interview.  But it‘s not chutzpah - I don‘t think.  That‘s a positive quality.  It‘s just the unbridled arrogance that he‘s shown throughout this and he doesn‘t have to answer questions. 

Nobody wants any more details of the affair, thank you very much.  But what people do want to know is about these payments.  He claimed they were gifts from his father, $96,000 to the family.  That story again - we‘re going to use the word - has no credibility whatsoever. 

He won‘t answer any questions about that using the cover of the Senate Ethics Committee investigation.  But he has not produced any canceled check or checks whatsoever to back up his original story.  Why should anyone believe that story?  And I think those are the questions he really doesn‘t want to answer. 

MADDOW:  John Ralston columnist for “The Las Vegas Sun,” host of “Face to Face with Jon Ralston” and one of the tip-of-the-spear reporters on this story.  John, thanks very much for joining us. 

RALSTON:  Thanks, Rachel.

MADDOW:  Coming up on “COUNTDOWN,” it turns out insurance companies are making more profit on the dollar than casinos.  Whistleblower Wendell Potter will take Keith inside the dark side of the insurance business. 

And next on this show, now, if you‘re a Red Sox fan, you‘d think you hate the Yankees right?  Hatfields think they hate McCoys.  You want bitter rivalry?  Stand by for Azerbaijan versus Armenia.  And the European equivalent of “American Idol” factors into it.  There‘s bad Euro pop, there are cops involved and they are all so-not-kidding about this story.  It‘s totally worth sticking around.  Trust me. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW:  That horrible, rotten, terrible Cash for Clunkers program continues to ruin everything for people who hate government programs that work really well and that are very popular.  General Motors has announced that Cash for Clunkers has increased demand so much for its vehicles that it‘s boosting production by 60,000 cars in the third and fourth quarters. 

In order to boost the production, GM is rehiring 1,350 GM workers in North America.  Somewhere in the anti-government corners of American politics, someone right now is trying to figure out a bumper sticker-ready slogan to try to make that news seem like bad news.  Good luck.  Let us know how you do. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW:  In this country, we have “American Idol,” and its many spinoffs like “So You Think You Can Dance” and “America‘s Got Talent” and “Nashville Star,” et cetera.  In Europe, they have “Eurovision” which, believe it or not, is a way bigger deal. 

“Eurovision‘s” been broadcast every May since 1956.  It‘s one of the longest running TV programs of all time.  Each of 43 countries picks a musical act to represent that country and then millions of people vote for the winner.  We have “Eurovision” to thank or blame, depending on your perspective, for Abba, for Celine Dion, for Julio Iglesias, for Cliff Richard and even for the poor river dance who can‘t move their arms. 

Although only Europe participates, “Eurovision” has gained fans and grown its audience worldwide because it frankly is an Olympic-grade display of truly over-the-top, “I can‘t believe this is really happening” kitsch. 

But there‘s no news about this year‘s Eurovision contest that is way darker than your usual, you know, Belgium versus Holland, sequins versus satin shriek-off.  Azerbaijan and Armenia fought a war 15 years ago over a region called Nagorno-Karabakh - don‘t worry, there‘s no spelling test here. 

The important point is that both countries are still really sore about it.  And they‘re right on top of each other and there‘s an Azerbaijan enclave right in the middle of Armenia, everything that is a sore issue between these two. 

In the “Eurovision” contest this year, both of these countries did pretty well.  Azerbaijan came in third.  Armenia came in 10th.  Here‘s Armenia from this year. 

(MUSIC PLAYING)

Now, you see why I‘m into this.  All right.  This was the Azerbaijan entry. 

(MUSIC PLAYING)

MADDOW:  So good.  Sorry.  Which of those would you vote for?  Hard to choose.  But the BBC reports today that now, three months after “Eurovision” - because remember, it happens in May, police in Azerbaijan have called in for questioning people who live in Azerbaijan but who voted for Armenia, the country‘s archrival. 

Apparently, they know for sure somehow that 43 people in Azerbaijan voted for the dreaded Armenians.  You vote by text message.  And the Azerbaijani national security ministry has been calling people who voted for Armenia in for questioning. 

The national security ministry has confirmed that they‘ve done this to Reuters.  They have confirmed that they are questioning Azerbaijanis for the crime of voting for the wrong song, which is, of course, another reason why “Azerbaijani Idol” is going to stink.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW:  We turn now to our inter-Webs terminology correspondent, Kent Jones.  Hi, Kent.

KENT JONES, POP CULTURIST:  Hi, Rachel.  You know, sometimes it‘s hard to keep up with all of the computer lingo ...

MADDOW:  Fair enough. 

JONES:  ... like this

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(voice-over):  Montana Senator Max Baucus, in whose conservadem bipartisan blue dog hands the healthcare reform bill rests faced noisy protesters at a conference in Bozeman last week.  Sen. Baucus told the “New York Times,” “There were a couple of people in the crowd with YouTubes.”  Yes - YouTubes plural.  Hang on, I‘m having a flashback. 

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER UNITED STATES PRESIDENT:  Hang on, I hear there‘s rumors on the Internets.  One of the things I used on the Google is to pull up maps. 

JONES:  And who can forget Alaska Senator Ted Stevens‘ description of the Internet? 

FMR. SEN. TED STEVENS (R-AK):  The Internet is not something that you just dump something on.  It‘s not a big truck.  It‘s a series of tubes. 

JONES:  When it comes to talking about the digital world, some of our politicians seem to have their heads up their analog.  Let‘s see if I can help.  First, it‘s not YouTubes, it‘s just YouTube.  There‘s just the one. 

It‘s like the plural of “moose,” which is “moose,” not “mooses.”  Same with Internet - there are no “Internets,” just like there are no “sheeps.”  Also, YouTube is a video sharing site, not some kind of device to record images and sound.  People call that a camera.  Not that new, really. 

Another tip, it‘s not the Google but it is correct to say the Internet.  For instance, it‘s “I Googled poppy on the Internet,” not, “I use Internets to find poppy with the Google.”

One more piece of advice, Sen. Baucus, it‘s pronounced public option.  It gets easier the more times you say it. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MADDOW:  Excellent work, Kent.  Thank you. 

JONES:  Thank you. 

MADDOW:  Thank you for watching.  “COUNTDOWN” with Keith Olbermann starts right now. 

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

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