updated 9/11/2009 10:50:03 AM ET 2009-09-11T14:50:03

Guests: Lincoln Chafee, Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Sen. Mark Begich, Kent Jones

RACHEL MADDOW, HOST:  Good evening, Keith.  Thank you very much for that.

And thank you at home for tuning in tonight.

President Obama followed up on last night‘s speech with a personal visit with 16 conservative Democratic senators today.  One of them, Mark Begich of Alaska.  He‘ll be joining us live this hour to tell us how that all went.

But we begin tonight with what could fairly be judged as a distraction from the president‘s health care message last night, but it is a distraction that‘s also turning out to be a very clarifying look at American politics.  The South Carolina Republican Congressman Joe Wilson, who yelled “You lie” at the president in the middle of his address to Congress last night, today felt himself on the receiving end of support and congratulations for that outburst.

While many of his Republican colleagues in Congress express their disapproval of what Congressman Wilson did, a steady stream of well-wishers descended upon the congressman‘s office in D.C. today to say quite the opposite.  Among them were radical anti-abortion activist Randall Terry and members of the Montgomery, Alabama Tea Party Patriots.  Congressman Wilson also found a wealth of support from conservative outposts on the online machines.

Today, the conservative Web site Palmetto Scoop began giving away “I‘m with Joe Wilson” t-shirts.  The RedState blog dubbed Congressman Wilson, quote, “A great American hero,” urging its readers to “open our wallets for Joe.”

For his part, Congressman Wilson released a YouTube video tonight incredibly trying to raise money off his newfound notoriety saying, “I will not be muzzled,” and railing against, quote, “the liberal who is want to give health care to illegals.”

The groups that have come to Congressman Wilson‘s defense over the past 24 hours, that have even literally come to his office to show their support can help us understand the state of American politics right now, at least the state of Republican politics right now—the extent to which the Republican Party has integrated itself with its own fringe extremes.

Joe Wilson is not a well-known congressman.  And he‘s not a well-known congressman for a reason.  He‘s not considered to be an extremist in his party.  He‘s considered to be a typical back-bench Republican congressman.

And right now, in American politics today, being a typical back-bench Republican member of Congress means doing things like opening the doors of your congressional office to participants in the 9/12 March on Washington, which Congressman Joe Wilson is planning to do this Saturday.  The 9/12 March on Washington is essentially a national tea party, a big organized ostensibly grassroots march on the nation‘s capital.

If you go to their Web site, you‘ll see that, quote, “We‘ve had enough of the out-of-control spending.  We are gathering on 9/12/2009 to deliver our message in person that we‘ve had enough.” The “we” here is actually the Republican-run corporate-funded organization called FreedomWorks.  FreedomWorks is charging some groups tens of thousands of dollars to take part in these grassroots events.

Today, during the kickoff event for this whole weekend of 9/12 things, the head of FreedomWorks, former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey, came to Congressman Joe Wilson‘s defense, arguing that we should, quote, “cut Mr. Wilson a little slack.”

The crowd of several hundred people who were listening to Mr. Armey at that rally reportedly shouted “You lie, you lie!”—not because they thought Dick Armey was lying but because they liked that Congressman Joe Wilson yelled that last night at the president in the middle of his address to Congress.

If you look at 9/12 march Web site, you can see the organizations who are sponsoring the event.  One group that‘s listed as a bronze co-sponsor of the event is called the National Association of Rural Landowners, or NARLO.

If you surf on over to the NARLO Web site, it turns out that they‘re calling for violent revolution.  They‘re calling for the overthrow of the United States government.  The government and the media both described as, quote, “our enemy within.”  “Unless we come together in a cohesive, fighting unit, our freedoms and liberties shall fade into the dark chasm of socialism and radical environmentalism.”

Included on the Web site of this group that, again, is a bronze sponsor of the 9/12 march on Saturday, is an ominous warning that, quote, “a day of reckoning is at hand.”  They also encourage people who are visitors to their Web site to buy guns now.  They also posted a video that forecasts massive protests followed by the rapid secession of states, followed by a new civil war.

Congressman Joe “You lie!” Wilson is opening his congressional office to these nice folks for the 9/12 march.  The march will also be addressed by Republican members of Congress, including Tom Price and Mike Pence and Marsha Blackburn.  Also, Republican Senator Jim DeMint will be speaking.

It doesn‘t make sense anymore to talk about the relationship between the extreme fringe of the conservative movement and the modern Republican Party, because you can only discern a relationship between two things if you can tell those two things apart.

About half an hour ago, the top-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives—not some anonymous back-bencher nobody‘s ever heard of until he had a tantrum on television—the top-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, the minority leader, John Boehner, appeared on a webcast organized by the lobbying arm of the Family Research Council.

This is an anti-health care reform webcast.  It features the top Republican in the House of Representatives and it is hosted by a group that describes health reform as, quote, “Obama‘s tax-and-death power grab” which will, quote, “produce a moral disaster and enable the Washington liberals to use your taxes to turn their entire anti-life agenda—from unrestricted abortion on demand to euthanasia—into national health care policy.”

Getting called a liar was a distraction from President Obama‘s speech on health care last night.  It created a circus-like spectacle last night and, frankly, all day today.  And, it was also a clarifying moment about who the opposition is right now, for the president and for Democrats—and maybe for some moderate Republicans.

Joining us now is former Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island.  He left the Republican Party.  He‘s now an independent.  He‘s exploring a possible run for governor in the great state of Rhode Island.

Senator Chafee, thanks very much for joining us tonight.

FMR. SEN. LINCOLN CHAFEE, LEFT GOP, NOW AN INDEPENDENT:  My pleasure,

Rachel.

MADDOW:  Let me ask you about the premise here of this—of the introduction that I just did.  Do you agree that the fringe of the conservative movement has really been invited into the mainstream of your former party?

CHAFEE:  Absolutely.  And we certainly saw it with vice presidential pick with Sarah Palin.  It‘s that same population within the party that revels in driving out moderates such as myself, more mainstream Republicans.  And the ramifications, of course, are that the Republican Party is in an ever-shrinking minority.

And you mentioned Minority Leader John Boehner.  And that‘s the problem with this strategy, if you will, by the Republican Party.  They‘re going to keep losing seats.  They‘re down to 40 in the Senate.  It‘s 60/40.

And although the money is pulling in to Mr. Wilson, Congressman Wilson, around the country, in states such as Rhode Island, Minnesota, and Oregon, people are embarrassed and appalled by this behavior.  And that causes any Republicans that are left to have a harder time winning.  So, it‘s the ever-shrinking Republican Party.

MADDOW:  When we look ahead to a Republican Party‘s future that obviously, right now, the Republican Party is not in good electoral shape.  But when we try to forecast the future of the party, what do you think is more likely?  Do you think it‘s more likely that the fringe continues to be courted and welcome within the mainstream, or do you think other forces within the Republican Party decide that there needs to be a more moderating influence?

CHAFEE:  Well, I think the former.  And that is, after losing all the seats in 2006, and me being the victim of that, having high approval ratings in Rhode Island but still losing my seat just because I was a Republican, and then in ‘08, again another big wipeout, nothing has changed.

And so, I think that the fringe is still going to dictate the agenda in the Republican Party.  And I do think that that means that there‘s going to be an opening such as I‘ve stepped into to run as an independent.  I think things are going to change, that people are going to look at running on something different.

In Massachusetts, there‘s a former Democrat that‘s running, former attorney general elected statewide, Cahill, running for governor as an independent.

So, even from both parties—I, as a former Republican, Cahill as a former Democrat—looking at running in a new third party, if you will, independent.  I think that‘s going to be something—a tectonic shift in American politics.

MADDOW:  Wow.  A major legislative issue on the table right now obviously is health care.  There are a handful of Republicans—mostly Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins we‘re talking about—whose support the White House is hoping for.

Let‘s say they did—those two senators did vote for health reform, they did vote with an overwhelming number of Democrats and they were the only Republicans who did it.  What do you think the reaction would be from the Republican Party and from party activists to them voting for health reform?

CHAFEE:  Well, you always worry in those circumstances of having a primary.  And I‘m sure that that‘s what Senators Collins and Snowe definitely worry about.  The right will challenge them in a primary and the money will pour in.

That‘s what happened to me as a moderate Republican in a very, very—maybe the most Democratic state in the union, Rhode Island.  And here I was a Republican having a Senate seat from this Democratic state, yet I was primaried.  And the money poured into my primary opponent.  I was able to defeat him, but it cost me in the general, definitely.

So, that‘s what you worry about if you step out of line.

(CROSSTALK)

CHAFEE:  And it doesn‘t make any sense.  As I go back to what I first said, the Republicans are losing seats, it makes no sense.  You want to win elections.

MADDOW:  Do you—when we look at what happened last night with Congressman Wilson shouting at the president in the middle of that speech, and that‘s what caused the whole circus of coverage and everything today—is that a canary in the coal mine sort of moment?  Is that an indication that it‘s not just that the fringe is being welcomed into the mainstream, but their tactics are, as well, the types of destructions we saw at town hall events, for example, may be seeping into mainstream elected Republicanism?

CHAFEE:  Absolutely.  The canary in the coal mine.  Absolutely.  Address to the joint session of Congress, the House and the Senate, gathered there to talk about an important issue, reforming our health care system, a very, very important issue to all Americans, having the best health care system, and we cannot have that conversation without the president of the United States being heckled by a major party member.

Yes, definitely a canary in the coal mine moment I think, as we see the Republican Party just shrink down into South Carolina and Alabama, Idaho, whatever.

MADDOW:  Former Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, now an independent, and always a very welcome guest on this show—sir, thanks very much for your time tonight.

CHAFEE:  Thank you, Rachel.

MADDOW:  Tomorrow is the eight-year anniversary of the attacks of September 11th, 2001.  Some conservatives plan to honor this somber event by cutting loose in Washington a tea bag rally sponsored by Glenn Beck—a movement that they are branding September 12th.  That‘s a way to camouflage the cynicism, right?  Make it September 12th, not September 11th.  Right.

More on that next with Melissa Harris-Lacewell.  Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW:  No right-wing fury over anything President Obama does is complete until we‘ve heard from former half-term Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin.

Her take-away from last night‘s speech on health care reform, according to her Facebook page, was this—quote, “President Obama delivered an offhand applause line tonight about the cost of the war on terror.  As we approach the anniversary of the September 11th attacks and honor those who died that day, and those who have died since in the war on terror, in order to secure our freedoms, we need to remember their sacrifices and not demonize them as having had too high a price tag.”

OK.  Never mind that the president‘s remark was a cost comparison between health reform and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and never mind that the Iraq war and 9/11 still have nothing to do with one another despite how inconvenient that is, Sarah Palin is staying in the news now by using 9/11 to try to score political points against President Obama on the eve of the anniversary of the attacks.

But that cynical patriotism, it turns out, is merely an appetizer before the main course of exploiting a national tragedy that this year has been prepared for September 12th by the sous chef of politics as performance art, Mr. Glenn Lee Beck.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GLENN BECK, FOX NEWS HOST:  And the answers have never come from Washington.  We weren‘t told how to behave that day after 9/11.  We just knew.  It was right.  It was the opposite of what we feel today.

Let us find ourselves and our solutions together again with the nine founding principles and the 12 eternal values.  This is the 9/12 Project.

Are you ready to be that person that you were, that day after 9/11 on 9/12?

I launched a project back in March and it comes together Saturday, September 12th, 9/12.  Thousands of people are going to gather in Washington, D.C., and around the nation to stand up for the principles and the values that have made America great.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  So, it‘s called the 9/12 Project.  It‘s not the 9/11 project

·         presumably because 9/11 falls inconveniently on a Friday this year, not a Saturday.

           

Joining us now is Princeton University politics and African-American studies professor, Melissa Harris-Lacewell.

Professor, thanks very much for joining us.  Nice to see you.

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL, PRINCETON UNIVERSITY:  Good to be here.

MADDOW:  Is there a statute of limitations or something on when it‘s OK to start being really blatant about exploiting a national tragedy for other purposes?  Did that statute expire this year, do you think?

HARRIS-LACEWELL:  Well, you know, interestingly, our friend Keith was very critical about how the GOP deployed 9/11 even in the context of the RNC‘s nominating convention last summer.  So, it‘s possible that this is already expired, that it‘s already been used in some blatantly kind of personal political ways.

But I think what I want to say here—it‘s not necessarily wrong to take a moment of great national tragedy in order to reflect on who were we, what does it mean, what was that moment of possibility.  That, in and of itself, is not exploitive.

But the idea that who we were on September 12th, 2001 is who we want to be right now—people who were terrified, people whose cities were burning, people who had a vague sense of an enemy but not knowing who that enemy was, mothers and fathers still waiting for their children to come home and spouses hoping that their partner would call—I mean, is that really what Glenn Beck is calling us to be again?

MADDOW:  I was struck today when I was reading about the kickoff events for the 9/12 weekend.

And Dick Armey, who‘s the head of FreedomWorks, which is a corporate-funded group that‘s organizing the march, and that is charging groups a lot of money to participate—even though it‘s supposedly a grassroots group - - he was speaking at a rally.

And at that rally, he defended the congressman who shouted down the president last night during his speech to Congress, Congressman Joe Wilson, and then the crowd, which was reportedly about 800 people, started yelling “You lie, you lie, you lie,” not because they thought Dick Armey was lying but because they thought that was a good chant to support that member of Congress who had interrupted the president.

What‘s the connection between disrupting the president in a speech to Congress about health care and the day after 9/11?

HARRIS-LACEWELL:  Well, it‘s a particularly odd connection, because if there‘s anything that we all were on September 12th, it was rallied behind our president regardless of ideology, regardless of party.  You know, I sometimes mention that African-American men were in the city of New York while Rudy Giuliani was still the mayor and they were wearing NYPD hats, right?

So, despite everything that had happened on questions of race and that mayor, people were willing to, you know, really look to our national leadership.  If there‘s a connection to be made between 9/12 and our current situation—it ought to be that our health care crisis is similarly facing down our country, that we are in a serious time of crisis, and so, so it‘s a time for kind of somber reflection and for supporting your president regardless of your ideology, finding the common ground on which Americans stand.

MADDOW:  When we look at—ahead to this weekend, and there‘s going to be a weekend-long celebration of these events, or I would usually call it a commemoration, but it does seem quite celebratory in terms of their tone—do you think that when we look at those crowds, we should expect that they‘re really only speaking for themselves?  Or is this one of those incidents where a protest movement actually reflects a larger group that sympathizes with them but is not interested in getting to Washington on the weekend to be there themselves?

HARRIS-LACEWELL:  You know, it‘s really hard to tell.  I mean, that—you know, as we would say in the academy, that‘s an empirical question, and I‘m not—I‘m not sure I have the answer yet.  It does seem, as your first guest said, that this is a shrinking party, an exceptionally vocal, incredibly well-organized faction, but still a minority faction, even relative to what we know about the strong support for the president‘s health care plan after his speech last night.

So, I‘m going to say that for now, let‘s take it as just a group of individuals who apparently are as terrified today as they were the day after our country was attacked on September 11th, 2001.

MADDOW:  And they want the rest of us to feel that way, too.

HARRIS-LACEWELL:  And you‘re a truth teller, by the way.  Sorry.

(LAUGHTER)

MADDOW:  You lie!

Melissa Harris-Lacewell, professor of politics and African-American studies of Princeton University—it is great to have you on the show.  Thank, Melissa.

HARRIS-LACEWELL:  Thanks.

MADDOW:  After last night‘s epic health care address, President Obama zeroed in today on his real audience.  He had a sit-down audience with 16 moderate Democrats at the White House.  Were ears bent, were arms twisted, what happened?  Alaska Senator Mark Begich was one of Democrats who was there.  He will join us live in just a moment and I will try to get him to tell us what happened.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW:  President Obama summoned 16 conservative Democrats to the woodshed—sorry, White House today to have a friendly chat about passing health care reform.  Alaska Senator Mark Begich was one of those senators there this afternoon.  He will be here with us in just a moment.

But, we begin with news of life during wartime.  On Friday, German NATO troops in Afghanistan called in American aircraft to drop bombs on two fuel tankers that had been hijacked.  Afghan officials say those bombs ended up killing 70 people.  That would make the bombing the deadliest incident initiated by the German military since World War II.  The Germans initially insisted that all those killed were insurgents.  The Afghans said, no, the casualties were civilians.  And NATO says that it is now investigating the incident.

But the day after the bombing, a “New York Times” reporter named Stephen Farrell and his interpreter, Sultan Munadi, headed out to the site to interview villagers there, despite being warned that was Taliban-controlled territory, that the villagers were angry about the bombing and that it wasn‘t really safe at all to travel there.  Sure enough, scarily enough, Farrell and Munadi were both kidnapped by the Taliban at the site of the bombing.

But here‘s where this story changes from a war movie script to a Steven Soderbergh war movie script, and one with a brutal ending.  Stephen Farrell, “The New York Times” reporter, is Irish.  He‘s a dual Irish/British citizen.

By 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, which is the day that Farrell and Munadi were kidnapped, a Web site called IrishCentral had already broken the news about the abduction.  Then, right away, IrishCentral un-broke the story.  They erased the story from they‘re Web site.  They erased it from the other Web sites they share content with, and erased it from all their news feeds.  They disappeared the story after “The New York Times” called them and told them they wanted to keep the kidnapping under wraps because they thought that would be in the best interest of the hostages.

We‘ve seen this before, sort of.  Current TV, for example, wouldn‘t tell us anything about Laura Ling and Euna Lee when they were being held in North Korea.  At first, “Newsweek” magazine wouldn‘t say anything about its reporter, Maziar Bahari, when he was first being held in Iran, though they have since changed their mind and are publicizing his case.

“The Times” kept the Taliban abduction of another one of its reporters, David Rohde, under wraps for the full seven months—Mr. Rohde was in captivity earlier this year—until Rohde escaped.

The reason we know about and can talk about the abduction of Stephen Farrell and Sultan Munadi now is because it‘s over.  At 7:30 on Tuesday night, Mr.  Ferrell called his editor and said, “I‘m out.  I‘m free.”  Despite some reports that quiet negotiations had been happening behind the scenes for their release, ultimately the way that Stephen Farrell was freed was by a British commando raid on the compound in which he and Mr. Munadi were being held.

Now, in the resulted chaotic firefight, Mr. Munadi was shot dead, as was one of the British commandos, as was one local woman and one child.  The reporter, Stephen Farrell was unharmed.  The media embargo was ended, and now, a new association of Afghan journalists who work with western reporters is protesting both that military raid and the fact that Mr.  Munadi‘s body was left behind on the scene afterwards.

Now, here in the U.S., “The New York Times,” having had two of its marquee name reporters abducted in Afghanistan this year alone and having one of its longtime translators killed, “The New York Times” now says it is reviewing security procedures, reviewing the dangers that it‘s willing to have its reporters face in Afghanistan in order to cover what it is that western troops are doing there.  Just as we here at home are reviewing the danger we are willing to put our troops in eight years into this war in order for us to be there at all.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW:  OK.  This is going to end one of two ways - either the president and the Democrat leadership in Congress are going to agree on a relatively conservative health reform bill, a conservative bill that would dare liberal Democrats to vote no on health reform on the grounds that that bill wasn‘t reforming enough.  It could go that way. 

Or the president and the Democratic leadership in Congress could agree on a relatively progressive health reform bill.  And a progressive health reform bill would put conservative Democrats on the spot, daring them to vote no on health reform on the grounds that the bill was just too Democratic-y. 

With Republicans largely out of the legislative equation except to the extent they make news by walking out in the middle of the president‘s speech to Congress or by screaming at the president in the middle of that speech, the distance between liberal Democrats and conservative Democrats is really what defines the range of potential outcomes for how the battle to finally get America a healthcare system is going to end. 

Today, Mr. Obama asked 16 conservative Democrats and Joe Lieberman to meet with him at the White House.  Don‘t you wonder how it went? 

Joining us now is Mark Begich of Alaska.  He is one of the Democratic senators who met with the president today.  He‘s the first Democrat that Alaskans have sent to Congress since 1981.  Sen. Begich, it‘s great to have you back on the show.  Thanks very much for taking the time. 

SEN. MARK BEGICH (D-AK):  Thank you very much, Rachel.  Now, you‘re not going to beat me up tonight, are you? 

MADDOW:  Well, it depends on what you say, sir, of course.  And I assume it would be mutual. 

BEGICH:  It‘s always a pleasure to come on your show.  I mean, last time, we had a little back-and-forth on a Mr. Bill and how to write a bill.  Oh, I hope you got the book I sent. 

MADDOW:  I did get the book.  It‘s awesome.  Thank you.

BEGICH:  It‘s a great book.  We had the author sign it, too, to boot.  So I thought it would be a great future for you there to read that book there. 

MADDOW:  Now, I‘m worried that you didn‘t get my thank you note and it‘s stuck in some anthrax-free zone in Ohio somewhere.  I‘ll redouble my efforts. 

BEGICH:  You know, the amazing part - let‘s talk about this for a second - the mail system in the Capitol is outrageous ...

MADDOW:  Yes.

BEGICH:  ... because you never get anything because they sanitize it to death.  There‘s nothing left except maybe the postage stamp that maybe someone put on it, and that‘s it.  So - well, I appreciate again being on here.  It‘s a pleasure.

MADDOW:  Absolutely.  And with that important ground covered, I have to just ask you how the meeting went today with the president.  I don‘t know how much of it was - you‘re able to communicate to us.  But I‘d love to hear how it went. 

BEGICH:  Well, there are some obviously I can talk to you about.  First, I have to say last night, the president‘s presentation, his speech, was incredible.  I think he put to rest a lot of concerns that I know the public has called our office about and set the pace of what we need to do in the next couple months.  I think they‘re as clear as you said last night, 80 percent, you know, of the issues we agreed upon.  It‘s just the last 20 percent. 

And I heard your opening and I want to say that I think it‘s a little bit of both on both ends of within the Democratic Party that will get to a solution here with regard to health care. 

And I think today‘s meeting was an opportunity to be blunt with the president but also talk about the concerns we have on how to sustain it fiscally, whatever healthcare plan we have.  I was very pleased and I know members who were there today were very pleased about the point that the president made about deficit neutral, but not only for today but into the future. 

That last part we really hadn‘t heard.  So, that was kind of new information last night, and we were able to discuss it a little bit more today. 

He had his OMB director there to kind of lay out some of the issues and get our questions on what we were concerned about, which was, you know, the financial costs, making sure that whatever bill we come up with that we can financially support it, not only today, but for generations to come if we truly want health care. 

But I thought it was a very cordial, positive meeting.  I think your point was well taken that it‘s time that all the Democrats sit down and resolve their differences and move forward.  I think the president sees that as an opportunity to get this on the road and get this show on the road and get it done. 

MADDOW:  I looked at the statement that your office released yesterday about how congruent your goals are with the president‘s stated goals now.  And it seems like you are very much in line with one another, things like covering preexisting conditions has been a real priority for you. 

BEGICH:  Yes, absolutely. 

MADDOW:  You can keep your coverage if you want to.  Increasing the number of people with insurance, as you mentioned, not adding to the deficit.  If all those things are preserved, those things you‘ve campaigned on, that you‘ve defined as your real priorities - if all that is preserved and there is a public option - public insurance option included as part of this bill, would you be able to vote yes? 

BEGICH:  Well, let me - can I define it a little bit further?  There are two other pieces.  One is, and the president talked about it today and of course last night, and that is the important impact on small business.  He has, I think, a plan that‘s going to save small business folks future costs in regard to insurance and make sure that they have access, which is important from Alaska‘s perspective and I know across this country. 

I guess I don‘t want to put the word “public option.”  What I‘d rather say is that there‘s going to be some mechanism, I guess, at the end of the day to ensure that insurance companies are held accountable, that they are not going to be able to jack up rates and have changes in their formulas in the future that cost American taxpayers and rate payers. 

What I don‘t want to have happen is that the bill lives or dies

by that issue, that we have to get healthcare reform, we have to get

insurance reform.  And if it means that that‘s part of the equation, we‘ll

deal with that at that time.  But it shouldn‘t be the item that makes it

live or die.  And we have to -

MADDOW:  It‘s not the basis on which you‘ll make your own decision about how to vote, in other words. 

BEGICH:  Exactly.  It‘s a combination of the things you just mentioned as well as - you know, I have to say last night, he helped at least from an Alaskan perspective the issues he laid out on the seniors. 

He really hammered down that seniors are not going to lose benefits.  They‘re going to gain from this, that - he did a lot of things that I was looking forward to.  But now, it‘s about fiscal discipline on it and making sure that it has long-term stability and that it can be paid for and do it with the savings and the efficiencies that he talked about. 

MADDOW:  Sen. Mark Begich, Democrat of Alaska, thanks very much for joining us tonight.  A lot of people curious about your exact position on this.  It‘s great to have you on the record.  Great to have you here. 

BEGICH:  Thank you, Rachel.  Always a pleasure. 

MADDOW:  Just ahead on “COUNTDOWN,” Congressman Joe Wilson is the subject of a very special, special comment by Mr. Olbermann. 

Next on this program, it‘s the intersection at last of Barack Obama and the L-word.  Hold on - different L-word.  Sorry, not at all what you‘re thinking right now.  Totally different idea all together.   

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  Senator, you criticized the Bush administration frequently. 

But you almost never criticized the Republican Party itself.  Other

Democrats -

BARACK OBAMA, UNITED STATES PRESIDENT:  Much to your chagrin.

MADDOW:  Well, yes, actually.  I mean, other Democrats, you will hear them talk about the GOP as the party that‘s been wrong in all the big stuff, creating social security, civil rights, the war in Iraq. 

OBAMA:  Right. 

MADDOW:  But you don‘t really do that.  Do you think there is a stark difference between the two parties? 

OBAMA:  Well, I do think there‘s a difference between the parties.  But here‘s my belief, that - I‘m talking to voters.  And I think there are a lot of Republican voters out there, self-identified, who actually think that what the Bush administration has done has been damaging to the country. 

And what I‘m interested in is, how do we build a working majority for change?  And if I start off with the premise that it‘s only self-identified Democrats who I‘m speaking to, then I‘m not going to get to where we need to go. 

If I can describe it as not a blanket indictment of the Republican Party but instead describe it as the Republican Party having been kidnapped by an incompetent highly ideological subset of the Republican Party, then that means that I can still reach out to a whole bunch of Republican moderates who I think are hungry for change as well. 

MADDOW:  Now, they did not see you the same way when they talked -

when John McCain calls you a socialist -

OBAMA:  Right. 

MADDOW:  This “redistribute the wealth” idea.  He calls you soft on national security. 

OBAMA:  Yes. 

MADDOW:  That‘s not just an anti-Barack Obama script.  He‘s reading from an anti-Democrat and specifically an anti-liberal script.

OBAMA:  Yes.  Absolutely. 

MADDOW:  And so you have the opportunity to say John McCain, George Bush, you‘re wrong.  You also have the opportunity to say conservatism has been bad for America, but you haven‘t gone there either. 

OBAMA:  Yes.  I tell you what, though, Rachel.  You notice I think we‘re winning right now, so maybe I‘m doing something right.  I know you‘ve been bruising - you know, cruising for a bruising here for a while, looking for a fight out there. 

But I just think people are tired of that kind of back-and-forth, tit-for-tat ideological approach to the problems.  Now, there is no doubt that there is a set of premises in the reigning Republican ideology that I just think are wrong. 

The important thing, though, is I just want to make sure that I‘m leaving the door open to people who say to themselves, well, you know, I‘m a member of the Republican party and I remember people like, you know, Chuck Percy in Illinois or Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, a pretty good Republican, that there are - that there are some core values that historically have been important in the Republican Party but just have not been observed over the last several years. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  That was then-candidate Barack Obama last October, just five days before he was elected president, refusing to take the bait from me, right?  Overtly declaring his disinterest in talking about ideology in America, the really big picture of political disagreement that exists among American, the philosophical divide that separates the American right from the American left. 

Since then, in his acceptance speech the night of the election, in his inaugural, in his not exactly state-of-the-union address, in his press conferences and his town hall meetings, even in his legislative strategy as president, President Obama has kept to that same course, calling for bipartisanship time and again, even as it‘s become clear that the hand he is reaching for across the aisle is actually a closed fist. 

Speaking charitably of individual Republican members of Congress, even those who have made wild accusations against him and leaving his own most ardent supporter, liberals, to argue among themselves as to whether they should trust that this president isn‘t just above the fray. 

But this president understands that the fray is there for a reason, that his election was not just about him seeming like a competent guy.  It was also a rejection of the proud and professed conservatism of the last president and the last vice president and their whole proudly conservative administration and their party. 

The election of Barack Obama and the landslide victories of Democrats in Congress in the last two elections weren‘t just about all those individual candidates seeming like nice, competent people.  They were a national endorsement of doing things differently than conservatives. 

And in America, doing things differently than the conservatives has a name.  It‘s a thing.  It‘s got a long history.  It‘s got a cogent world view.  It‘s got a track record of bringing us advances that Americans have come to sort of like, such as the weekend, civil rights, Medicare, social security. 

Last night, for the first time in his presidency in a high-profile setting, President Obama talked liberalism.  He did so in the context of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, a man as proud of his own liberalism as he was vilified for it by conservatives. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  Figuring out the appropriate size and role of government has always been a source of rigorous and, yes, sometimes angry debate.  That‘s our history.  For some of Ted Kennedy‘s critics, his brand of liberalism represented an affront to American liberty. 

In their minds, his passion for universal health care was nothing more than a passion for big government.  But those of us who knew Teddy and worked with him here, people of both parties, know that what drove him was something more. 

Ted Kennedy‘s passion was born not of some rigid ideology but of his own experience.  It was the experience of having two children stricken with cancer.  He never forgot the sheer terror and helplessness that any parent feels when a child is badly sick. 

And he was able to imagine what it must be like for those without insurance, what it would be like to have to say to a wife or a child or an aging parent, “There is something that could make you better but I just can‘t afford it.” 

That large-heartedness, that concern and regard for the plight of others is not a partisan feeling.  It‘s not a Republican or Democratic feeling.  It, too, is part of the American character.  Our ability to stand in other people‘s shoes.  A recognition that we are all in this together, that when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a there to lend a helping hand. 

A belief that in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play.  And an acknowledgment that sometimes the government has to step in and to help deliver on that promise. 

This has always been the history of our progress.  In 1935, when over half of our seniors could not support themselves and millions had seen their savings wiped away, there were those who argued that social security would lead to socialism, but the men and women of Congress stood fast.  And we are all the better for it. 

In 1965, when some argued that Medicare represented a government takeover of health care, members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans did not back down.  They joined together so all of us could enter our golden years with some basic peace of mind. 

You see, our predecessors understood that government could not and should not solve every problem.  They understood that there are instances when the gains and security from government action are not worth the added constraints on our freedom. 

But they also understood that the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little.  That without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopoly can stifle competition, the vulnerable can be exploited. 

And they knew that when any government measure, no matter how carefully crafted or beneficial, is subject to scorn.  When any efforts to help people in need are attacked as un-American, when fact and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom that we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter, then at that point, we don‘t merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges.  We lose something essential about ourselves. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  The White House also released the letter from the late Sen.  Ted Kennedy that keynoted that passage in the president‘s speech from last night.  And the letter may give some insight as to why the president was moved at last, last night, to talk in those philosophical terms that he has so studiously has avoided from so long. 

The letter of the late senator to President Obama in part says this, “When I thought of all the years, all the battles and all the memories of my long public life, I felt confident in these closing days that while I will not be there when it happens, you will be the president who, at long last, sings into law the healthcare reform that is the great unfinished business of our society.” 

“There will be struggles - there always have been - and they are already underway again.  But as we move forward in these months, I learned that you will not yield to calls to retreat - that you will stay with the cause until it is won.  I saw your conviction that the time is now and witnessed your unwavering commitment and understanding that health care is a decisive issue for our future prosperity.”

“But you have also reminded all of us that it concerns more than material things; that what we face is, above all, a moral issue; that at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.” 

Moral issue.  Fundamental issues of social justice.  The character of our country.  Them‘s liberal fighting words, the kind that made people call the senator who wrote them “the liberal lion.” 

Was last night‘s speech by the president a tribute to another man‘s liberalism?  Or was it the first public sign of his own?  Tell me what policy does this president really fight for, for health reform and we will be very close to answering that question. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW:  We turn now to our popular diversions correspondent.  Hi, Kent.  I don‘t know what that means. 

KENT JONES, POP CULTURIST:  Popular diversions. 

JONES:  Huge “American Idol” news is what that means.  Ellen DeGeneres is going to replace Paula Abdul as a judge this season.  Breathe, take a minute, allow the enormity of the news to sink in.  There you go. 

MADDOW:  OK.  All right.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ELLEN DEGENERES, HOST, “THE ELLEN DEGENERES SHOW”:  I am going to be the new judge on “American Idol.”

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

JONES:  Fox made the big announcement last night because obviously there was nothing else going on that might command the public‘s attention.  That aside, hiring Ellen was a savvy show business move.  Who doesn‘t love Ellen?  Of course, when you sit next to Simon, everyone‘s likeability quotient kicks up a notch or two. 

SIMON COWELL, “AMERICAN IDOL” JUDGE:  I thought your performance was robotic.  It was a little bit like a Chihuahua trying to be a tiger. 

JONES:  And clearly, Paula Abdul had been in the fridge past her expiration date. 

PAULA ABDUL, “AMERICAN IDOL” JUDGE:  It‘s a wild party where you are. 

JONES:  But Ellen as a judge of vocal quality?  I don‘t know.  Now, I‘m not saying she isn‘t qualified.  OK, I‘m saying she isn‘t qualified.  What do you say to your kids, “If you work your heart out and sing for hours every day, someday you‘ll get a shot at being judged by a comedian”? 

And I don‘t buy the whole “a performer knows performance” argument.  I mean, I wouldn‘t hire Chris Angel to judge “Larry the Cable Guy‘s” jokes or vice versa. 

Is Ellen psyched about music?  Sure, lots of people are.  A lot of people cook, too.  That doesn‘t make everyone Julia Childs.  Sure, she‘ll know when it‘s bad.  But will she be able to tell good from great?  Color me skeptical.  It‘s a little like trusting health care to these guys. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  You know, the Ellen dancing with the other people. 

JONES:  Yes.

MADDOW:  It was a little flashing back to “Star Search.” 

JONES:  A little bit, yes.

MADDOW:  “Star Search” was roughly the last time I had a television, so that‘s why that‘s my flashback. 

JONES:  Not the precious reference. 

MADDOW:  No.  I‘m sorry.  That‘s why we have you here, Kent, thank you.  I have a cocktail moment for you. 

JONES:  Great. 

MADDOW:  Remember when it was floated that maybe Mitt Romney should be the replacement for Sen. Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts? 

JONES:  Right.

MADDOW:  A lot of coffee flew out of a lot of noses when that was announced. 

JONES:  Influence -

MADDOW:  Yes, exactly.  If you‘re drinking coffee, right now might be a good time to put it down. 

JONES:  Right.

MADDOW:  The latest Republican leading light to continue throwing their hat in the ring for the Ted Kennedy seat?  George W. Bush‘s chief of staff.  Yes, in Massachusetts. 

Yes, Andy Card says the chances of him running are much better than 50 percent, but he has to talk it over from his wife who‘s a minister at a church where they live, which is Virginia. 

Let‘s talk with her before moving to Massachusetts.  Yes. 

JONES:  Sounds good. 

MADDOW:  George W. Bush‘s chief of staff wants Ted Kennedy‘s Senate seat in Massachusetts. 

JONES:  No coffee, no spraying. 

MADDOW:  I have nothing else to stay. 

           

JONES:  Wow.

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

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