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'The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell' for Thursday, May 12th, 2011

Read the transcript to the Thursday show

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Guests: Howard Fineman, Melanie Sloan, Gov. Deval Patrick, Jonathan Alter, E.J. Dionne

           

LAWRENCE O‘DONNELL, HOST:  The United States Senate Select Committee on Ethics chaired by Senator Barbara Boxer throws the book at John Ensign.  And while they‘re at it, they call the cops on him, too.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

FMR. SEN. JOHN ENSIGN ®, NEVADA:  This will be my farewell speech to the United States Senate.

L. O‘DONNELL (on camera):  On May 3rd, Republican Senator John Ensign resigned as the ethics committee closed in on him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  By resigning, what Senator Ensign has done is basically cut short whatever investigation the Senate Ethics Committee had.

NORAH O‘DONNELL, NBC NEWS:  John Ensign may have left the Senate, but that doesn‘t mean he‘s done with public scrutiny.

L. O‘DONNELL:  Today, the Senate Ethics Committee presented its case against Ensign, saying he committed federal crimes.

KELLY O‘DONNELL, NBC NEWS:  It‘s hard to really point out to people how unusual this is, because you have senators coming to the floor to talk about a colleague who resigned.

SEN. BARBARA BOXER (D), CALIFORNIA:  When you are in a position of trust and power, don‘t abuse it.

K. O‘DONNELL:  That kind of thing just doesn‘t really happen around here.

N. O‘DONNELL:  This is a big deal.

L. O‘DONNELL:  And as a former senator tries to clear his name, a former governor tries to do the same—over health care.

TAMRON HALL, MSNBC ANCHOR:  We are waiting—Mitt Romney‘s attempt to overcome one of the biggest hurdles he faces in the quest to become the next president.

MITT ROMNEY ®, FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR:  That was a time when my Massachusetts health care plan was considered, at least by me, to be an asset.  It‘s gone from being seen as an asset to being seen as a liability, politically.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Mr. Romney is compromised and not credible.  If he does not change his message, he might as well try to knock off Joe Biden and get on the Obama ticket.

CHUCK TODD, NBC NEWS:  They know it‘s not going to be on their rearview mirror.  They know their primary opponents are going to try to use it to say he‘s not a true conservative, that he‘s not a true small government guy.

ROMNEY:  President Obama‘s plan, in my view, doesn‘t work properly and should be revealed.

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  Governor Romney seems to be running away from some of the goals of his own law that he passed and signed into law in Massachusetts.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  The reason he is doing it so he can say in a debate, I addressed this.  This is old news.

ROMNEY:  If I‘m the nominee, and I get the chance to debate President Obama, this is what we‘re going to be talking about.  Who has a better plan for America?  The American people will say, the Mitt Romney U.S. reforms, that‘s a lot better than Obamacare.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

O‘DONNELL:  In a history-making moment on the floor of the United States Senate this afternoon, the select committee on ethics confirmed what we suspected the day Senator John Ensign announced his resignation last month.  If he had not resigned, John Ensign would have become only the 16th senator in the history of the Senate to be expelled.  Today, the Senate Ethics Committee announced that it has uncovered substantial credible evidence that former Senator John Ensign, Republican of Nevada, conspired to violate and aided and abetted violations of federal law by trying to cover up an affair Ensign had with a political aid who was the wife of one of his top Senate staffers.

Barbara Boxer, the chair of the ethics committee, announced on the Senate floor that the committee is referring the case to the Department of Justice for possible prosecution.  The committee found substantial credible evidence that Senator Ensign aided and abetted violations of a post-employment lobbying ban by helping his former aide, Douglas Hampton, find work after having an affair with Hampton‘s wife; made false statements to the Federal Election Commission about a $96,000 payment from Ensign‘s parents to the Hamptons; and that payment may have violated campaign finance laws.

The report also found that Senator Ensign may have obstructed the committee‘s preliminary inquiry when he tried to get rid of documents.

Before Senator Ensign‘s affair became public, Oklahoma Republican Senator Tom Coburn tried to help his friend negotiate a seven-figure settlement with Ensign‘s legislative aide Doug Hampton.  Those talks fell apart, and Hampton went to the media with details of Ensign‘s affair with his wife.  Ensign announced his resignation on April 21st to take effect on May 3rd.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ENSIGN:  My caution to all of my colleagues is to surround yourself with people who will be honest with you, about how you really are and what you are becoming, and then make them promise to not hold back no matter how much you may try to prevent them from telling you the truth.  I wish that I had done this sooner.  But this is one of the hardest lessons that I‘ve had to learn.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  The chair of the Senate Ethics Committee, Barbara Boxer, said today that her committee had enough evidence to warrant the consideration of Ensign‘s expulsion if he had not resigned.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BOXER:  When you are in a position of trust and power, don‘t abuse it, don‘t misuse it, because people can get hurt—very, very hurt.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  Joining me now is Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Melanie, thanks for joining me tonight.

MELANIE SLOAN, CITIZENS FOR RESPONSIBILITY AND ETHICS IN WASHINGTON: 

Thanks for having me.

O‘DONNELL:  On page 47 of the Senate Ethics Committee report, Section A, you are given full credit for starting this investigation by filing a complaint.

It says, “On June 16th, 2009, Senator Ensign held a public press conference in which he admitted he had an extramarital affair with a member of his staff, later identified as Ms. Hampton.  On June 24th, 2009, the committee received a request for investigation of Senator John Ensign from CREW.  The request alleged that Senator Ensign‘s conduct with Cynthia Hampton constituted employment discrimination on the basis of sex in the form of sexual harassment and referred to the press report in which an anonymous source stated that the senator had made a severance payment to Ms. Hampton.”

It goes on to specify how they asked to you submit more documentation.  You did.  And then following that, they began their investigation.  The report issues no other initiating action other than getting your request for the investigation.

How do you feel this evening having in effect started this investigation in the Senate and see where it has come out?

SLOAN:  Well, we‘re obviously quite pleased.  It could have been a little sooner than the 22 months it‘s taken, obviously.  But it‘s clear that Mr. Ensign did resign because he was under threat of expulsion, which as you said earlier is so rare.  And that certainly is what we were calling for all along, that Senator Ensign should be expelled.

But I think this report also highlights how much the Department of Justice has fallen down here.  Earlier, just a few months ago, the Department of Justice declined to prosecute Mr. Ensign, instead focusing only on Doug Hampton, his former aide, prosecuting him for violating the lobbying ban.  But now, we see the ethics committee sending the matter back to justice, and maybe the Justice Department will be embarrassed enough to reconsider and finally bring charges against Mr. Ensign.

O‘DONNELL:  Yes.  This was a very strong language in this referral today.

Let‘s listen to what Senator Boxer said on the floor today about sending this to the Justice Department.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BOXER:  Ethics committee rules make it clear that whenever the members of the committee have reason to believe that a violation of law has occurred, we shall report it to the proper authorities.  So, we have a solemn responsibility indeed.  It‘s actually a mandate to refer possible criminal or civil violations to the Department of Justice and to the Federal Election Commission, and that is what we have done today.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  Melanie, one of the surprising things, I think, in what the ethics committee reported today is that there are no surprises, that the story actually unfolds once fully investigated exactly the way it seemed to, as these facts were coming out in dribs and drabs in press reports.

SLOAN:  That‘s exactly right.  The one thing that had never seemed true at all was when Mr. Ensign had said the $96,000 that was paid to the Hamptons was really just a gift from his parents.  And that, of course, seemed like severance right away—a severance payment to the Hamptons.  And, of course, Doug Hampton also had a bunch of contemporaneous notes indicating that it was.

And today, we learned, indeed, there‘s lots of evidence that was a severance payment, which would violate Federal Election Campaign Act.  It also suggests that John Ensign‘s parents, Michael Ensign and his wife, submitted false affidavits to the FEC, as did Senator Ensign.  And, in fact, it seems like their lawyers in that situation knew and helped them to facilitate sending false affidavits, which suggests that, potentially, some legal disciplinary proceedings as well.

So, really, there‘s just a lot of wrongdoing all around here.  I think the one thing we hadn‘t previously known was that Mr. Ensign had also tried to destroy documents and destroyed records to continue covering it up.  And that‘s an obstruction charge and that will cause him even further legal problems.

O‘DONNELL:  Quickly, Melanie, before we go—what is your sense of what the Senate Ethics Committee would have done if you had not filed that complaint?

SLOAN:  Well, Mr. Ensign‘s conduct was so egregious and it was so well-covered in the press that I think it would have been hard for them to ignore even without CREW filing the complaint.  But, then, again, the ethics committee doesn‘t have the reputation for taking a tough action in any case.  So, I think CREW‘s action really helped to spur them on here.

O‘DONNELL:  Yes, it seems they do have to be pushed.  But when they go to work, they do have a history of doing a thorough job.

Melanie Sloan, thank you for joining me tonight.

SLOAN:  Thanks.

O‘DONNELL:  Joining me now is Howard Fineman, editorial director for “The Huffington Post” and MSNBC political analyst.

Howard, there‘s a lot of implications, first of all, just in the Senate, generally, in the recommendations they make.  These are—they make recommendations for all Senate offices to restudy the law controlling some of this behavior, especially the matter of dealing with lobbyists who have been employed by that same Senate office within a certain period of calendar time.  That‘s the law that seems to have been violated here.

So, this ripples going through the Senate tonight.  There‘s a lot of chill in the Senate tonight.

HOWARD FINEMAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Well, there‘s no question.  And it‘s a cliche, but it‘s true.  The place is a club.  Ensign fled the club.

But Senator Ensign—former Senator Ensign leaves behind a lot of concerns—yes, about the lobbyists.  But actually the story itself, as I‘m reading the details here, it‘s really an arrow aimed straight at the heart of the Republicans in the Senate.  Not just—Ensign is gone, but there are lots of other people to be looked at, as a matter of fact.

O‘DONNELL:  What is Tom Coburn‘s liability or risk in this investigation as it goes forward?

FINEMAN:  Well, in reading—in reading the report, you—there are a lot of questions that are going to be asked of Senator Coburn, because he acted as a kind of go-between here between former Senator Ensign and the lobbyist and the lobbyist‘s wife with whom Senator Ensign was having the affair, trying to—Senator Coburn evidently trying to facilitate a large payment to that couple to basically make them go away.

Now, you know, what the legality of that is isn‘t clear.  I think there are going to be questions asked about it.  Senator Coburn said he was just trying to help out a friend, a colleague, a fellow colleague and a Christian ministry that has a home up on Capitol Hill.  And I‘m sure he had heartfelt good intentions.

But when you start talking about possible payments of millions of dollars to people who might cause problems for a fellow senator, then Senator Coburn is going to have to answer a lot of questions.  And he‘s not necessarily the most liked guy around that place.

O‘DONNELL:  Howard, what does this do to the general prospects for Republicans in terms of congressional elections?  The parties have become sensitive to the idea that scandals, even though they seem isolated, involve certain individuals, can actually end up affecting the entire party.  Certainly, the Democrats felt that in 1994 that a history of certain individual cases of scandal in the House of Representatives hurt them and helped them lose the House in 1994.

Is this the kind of thing, with a Justice Department investigation going on, that will certainly drag into the election year?  Is this the kind of thing that Republicans have a larger political fear of?

FINEMAN:  Well, I think they have to worry about—and I don‘t think there‘s any sense that the leadership in the Republican Senate knew about it.  But, look, first of all, the Justice Department is going to be looking into possible criminal violations as you were discussing just a few minutes ago.  That‘s number one.

And that involves former Senator Ensign.  There‘s Senator Ensign‘s parents, who may be under investigation by the Department of Justice as well.  The questions that have been asked and will be asked about Senator Coburn.  There‘s the whole question about that fellowship ministry up on the Hill, the so-called C Street house, and what discussions were held there.  Whether they were all matters of the heart or whether they were matters of money and power as well.

And that really gets sort of to the heart of the party in the Senate.  But I really don‘t think—this case is so garish.  And as you said, it was so obviously laid on the table, I think it‘s more personal to those people now, still, than it is to the whole Republican Senate.

But there‘s no question that this story is going to drag on all the way through Election Day, especially with the Department of Justice on the case.

O‘DONNELL:  Howard Fineman of “The Huffington Post” and MSNBC—thanks for joining me tonight, Howard.

FINEMAN:  Thank you, Lawrence.

O‘DONNELL:  Coming up: Mitt Romney tried to confront his health care problem head on today after “The Wall Street Journal” said Romney might as well run on the Democratic ticket.  Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick joins me to explain the Romneycare problem.

And later, the Republicans thought they got rid of the headache when shirtless Congressman Chris Lee resigned his seat.  But now, the race to replace this guy has turned into something almost as out of control as Lee‘s short congressional career.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O‘DONNELL:  Coming up, on the very day Mitt Romney tries to get past his biggest political albatross, “The Wall Street Journal” says it‘s exactly why you‘ll never hear the words “President Romney.”  The man who followed Romney as governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick, joins me next to talk about Romney‘s health care plan.

And later, Meghan McCain tries to improve the nation‘s health by raising skin cancer awareness, and, of course, her efforts earn her the ridicule and hatred of Glenn Beck.  Tonight, Meghan McCain fires back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O‘DONNELL:  Republican front-runner Mitt Romney‘s presidential campaign is in trouble, deep trouble, before it even officially begins.  Today, “The Wall Street Journal” attacked the former one-term governor of Massachusetts on his most vulnerable issue in a Republican presidential primary.

In a lead editorial on the most influential editorial page in Republican politics, “The Journal” said, quote, “As everyone knows the health reform Mr. Romney passed in 2006 as Massachusetts governor was the prototype for President Obama‘s version, and gave national health care a huge political boost.  The debate over Obamacare and the larger entitlement state may be the central question of the 2012 election.  On that question, Mr. Romney is compromised and not incredible.  If he does not change his message, he might as well try to knock off Joe Biden and get on the Obama ticket.”

In a surely hopeless attempt to turn his worst liability into an asset for Republicans, Romney went to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, to deliver a major address about the health care plan he supported and signed as governor of Massachusetts in 2006; and why as president he would want to repeal the health care reform that President Obama modeled on Romney‘s plan and signed into law.

At minimum, Romney seems to be hoping to score political points simply by being brave enough to talk about the issue at all.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY:  I should note, by the way, that that was a time when my Massachusetts health care plan was considered, at least by me, to be an asset politically.  I hear some laughter in the room.  That‘s not the case now.

But you will note that despite the fact it‘s gone from being seen as an asset to being seen as a liability, politically, that the plan I‘m going to describe for you is the same.  I‘m not adjusting the plan to reflect the sentiment—the political sentiment.  And I respect the views of those who think we should have taken a different course and who think we should have taken a different course.

I always recognize that a lot of pundits around the nation are saying that I should just stand up and say, this whole thing was a mistake.  That it was just a boneheaded idea, and I should admit, it was a mistake and walk away from it.  And I presume that a lot of folks would conclude that if I did that, that would be good for me politically.

But there‘s only one problem with that.  It wouldn‘t be honest.  I, in fact, did what I believed was right for the people of my state.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  Romney went on to discuss his idea for repealing and replacing the Obama health care reform law, apparently not having noticed that Washington Republicans have shifted positions from “repeal and replace” to “repeal and good riddance” to the health care reform.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY:  I‘m going to talk today about repealing and replacing President Obama‘s health care system.  And I know that some people, when I talk about doing that, say, wait a second, I have heard that your plan in Massachusetts is an awful lot like President Obama‘s plan.  And so, why is it that you‘re so anxious to repeal his plan and replace it with something else if it‘s so much like something did you?

Our plan was a state solution to a state problem, and his is a power grab by the federal government to put in place a “one size fits all” plan across the nation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  Joining me now is the Democratic governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick.

Thanks for joining me tonight, Governor.

GOV. DEVAL PATRICK (D), MASSACHUSETTS:  I‘m glad to be with you, Lawrence.  Thank you for having me.

O‘DONNELL:  Governor, was “The Wall Street Journal” right today when they said, “As everyone knows, the health reform Mr. Romney passed in 2006 as Massachusetts governor was the prototype—the prototype—for President Obama‘s version, and gave national health care a huge political boost”?

PATRICK:  Well, he certainly is right—they are certainly right at “The Journal” that our plan is a model for the national plan, the Affordable Care Act.

They didn‘t mention, but I will, that we have now provided insurance to over 98 percent of our residents, over 99.8 percent of children.  No other state can touch that.  It‘s added all of 1 percent to state spending because we have managed it effectively and continue to adjust and refine it as we‘ve gone along.

More companies, private companies, are offering insurance to their employees today than did before the bill was signed into law.  It‘s been a wild success.

And we have ongoing challenges, like the rest of the country in terms of insurance premiums.  But just as we have seen the nation to expand coverage to everyone, I think we will here be the place that cracks the code on cost containment.

O‘DONNELL:  Governor, I was listening a little bit today to Howie Carr‘s radio show, as you know, in Boston.  I‘m from Boston, and I try to pick it up whenever I can.

And the general consensus that I picked up today was that—these are conservative listeners to that show, as you know—they like Romney as a person.  They have always kind of liked him.  But they just think this is absolutely impossible for him to get past, his health care history in Massachusetts, now running for president.

PATRICK:  It‘s an interesting kind of quandary as so many people see it, and apparently so does Howie Carr.  First of all, I want to agree that Governor Romney has always been a gentleman to me, and I think of him fondly on a personal level.  But to listen to him today, it sounds to me he likes most everything about the Affordable Care Act, except for the fact that the president of the United States, Barack Obama, is the one who signed it into law.

O‘DONNELL:  Yes, it was hard to find exactly what Romney would do differently if he was presiding over this same situation in Massachusetts today.  He wasn‘t—he wasn‘t backtracking from what he did.  And the individual mandate, which is the cornerstone of the Massachusetts bill, and the first real model we had for that in the country, to think about how it might work, is the thing that Republicans object to the most.  That‘s the thing that has driven Republicans to take the case, they hope, to the Supreme Court to rule the Obama bill unconstitutional.

It‘s just—it‘s hard for me to see how he can get by the first debate of Republican candidates where everything he supported is absolutely something they all oppose.

PATRICK:  Well, you know, it‘s interesting.  When the debate was

happening here in Massachusetts, six or seven years ago, we‘ve just had the

fifth anniversary of enactment—I remember personally being uneasy with

the idea of the individual mandate.  And as I listen to Governor Romney

describe it at the time, and many of the business people who were

supporting it, they said, look, this is a classic feature from insurance

that you spread the risk as broadly as possible in order to keep the risk -

the costs down for everybody.

           

And so I understand that.  And as I say, it‘s been a wild success here.  But I think there‘s a larger question here.  And that‘s about what kind of country we want to live in.  That‘s really what the underlying debate is.

And I think the job of the president is to help people, not to solve every problem in everybody‘s life, Lawrence, but to help people help themselves.  And what it sounds like is that Governor Romney wants to have that job and not do that job.

O‘DONNELL:  Governor, my favorite political comment I have heard about this, and I‘ve actually heard it through Howie Carr‘s radio show, where they quote the mayor of Boston, Mayor Menino, who every once in a while will misspeak on a word or two -- 

PATRICK:  But he‘s a great, great guy.

O‘DONNELL:  He has apparently said that Romneycare is an Alcatraz around his neck.  Can you check that for me and find out if that‘s exactly the way he said it?

PATRICK:  The mayor is a wonderful guy and a great supporter of what we have done to help so many men, women, and children have the security of health insurance.  And you know what?  What a great thing to be able to assure our population during the worst economic downturn in living memory.

O‘DONNELL:  Deval Patrick, Democratic governor of Massachusetts, proud of what Massachusetts has done with Mitt Romney‘s health care bill—thanks for joining me tonight, Governor.

PATRICK:  Thank you, Lawrence.  Be well.

O‘DONNELL:  Coming up, Senator John McCain returns to his old ways and bucks the Republican Party and says torture did not play a role in killing Osama bin Laden.

And retribution from al Qaeda: the terror network is now publicly threatening President Obama‘s family.  Details, up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O‘DONNELL:  An African branch of al Qaeda has issued a direct threat against President Barack Obama‘s step grandmother in retaliation for the killing of Osama bin Laden.  ABC News reports Kenyan police have stepped up security and are now patrolling Sarah Obama‘s home around the clock after al Shabaab, the Somalia based branch of al Qaeda, threatened her life. 

All visitors to the 88 year old‘s home must now go through security screenings, and that includes family members.  The group‘s threats of retaliation are particularly serious for Kenya, which was targeted by al Qaeda in 1998 with the bombing of the U.S. embassy in central Nairobi.  Two hundred thirteen people were killed in that attack. 

In 1967, John McCain was captured by the North Vietnamese after his plane went down over a lake.  McCain was a prisoner of war for over five years and was tortured. 

This morning, Senator McCain spoke out against torture and insisted it did not help in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.  That‘s coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O‘DONNELL:  In tonight‘s Spotlight, Senator John McCain today blasted the former Bush administration officials who have been claiming that harsh interrogation techniques, including water boarding, led to the killing of Osama bin Laden.  McCain offered proof in the form of new details provided to him by CIA Director Leon Panetta. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN ®, ARIZONA:  The trail to bin Laden did not begin with a disclosure from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times.  We did not first learn from Khalid Sheik Mohammed the real name of bin Laden‘s courier or his alias, Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti, the man who ultimately enabled us to find bin Laden.

The first mention of the name Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti, as well as a description of him as an important member of al Qaeda came from a detainee in another country. 

The United States did not conduct this detainee‘s interrogation, nor did we render into that country for the purpose of interrogation.  We did not learn Abu Ahmed‘s real name or alias as a result of waterboarding or any enhanced interrogation technique used on a detainee in U.S. custody. 

In fact, not only did the use of enhanced interrogation techniques on Khalid Sheik Mohammed did not provide us with key leads on bin Laden‘s courier, Abu Ahmed, it actually produced false and misleading information. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  McCain also said he‘s learned the Senate Intelligence Committee that the best information gained from a CIA detainee was obtained through standard, non-coercive methods.  In both his speech and an op-ed in today‘s “Washington Post,” McCain recalled his five and a half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam to repeat his condemnation of torture from both a moral and practical point of view. 

Writing, “I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners sometimes produces good intelligence, but often produces bad intelligence, because under torture, a person will say anything he thinks his captors want to hear, true or false, if he believes it will relieve his suffering.” 

Joining me now, MSNBc political analyst Jonathan Alter, columnist for “Bloomberg View.”  Thanks for joining me tonight, Jonathan.

JONATHAN ALTER, “BLOOMBERG VIEW”:  Hi, Lawrence.

O‘DONNELL:  Jonathan, I just got to say, when that guy is good, he is really, really good. 

ALTER:  Yeah.  You know, I got a lot against him.  I‘m sure you did too over the last couple of years, where he kind of rounded up his principles and deported them.  But on this issue, you have to give John McCain credit.  He has the standing and the credibility to correct this extremely important historical point. 

All this week, Dick Cheney and other veterans of the Bush administration have been all over tell television claiming that it was the waterboarding of KSM that led to bin Laden. 

It is not true.  We now have it from the director of the CIA that it is not true.  And that alcove, the wall in the Bush library that was going to give their enhanced interrogation techniques credit for getting bin Laden, they better not put that up, because it will be a lie. 

O‘DONNELL:  Yes.  The very simple and powerful clarity of the presentation that he just went through, the simplicity of it, is very, very powerful, very clear, and news making, using this information that he says he obtained directly from Leon Panetta.  He went out and did his own homework to go out there and make that speech.  Is the old John McCain back? 

ALTER:  Well, I think that remains to be seen.  He‘s still pretty bitter over the way some of his old allies sided with Barack Obama.  He got a scare in Arizona in that tough primary with J.D. Hayworth. 

So you‘re not going to see him playing tootsie with the Democrats the way you did a couple of years ago.  He almost became a Democrat. He had essentially a Democratic voting record.

Now he has one of the most conservative voting records in the whole Senate.  And I don‘t think that‘s going to change that much.  But on a few key issues, this being one of them, he‘s standing up and it‘s extremely important, because this is a fight over the way history will regard this tremendously important event. 

And the man who, you know, led us to bin Laden, Ahmed al Kuwaiti, he was not—the information leading to him, just to repeat what McCain said, because it can sometimes be a little tough when you see him on the floor talking about it.  His identity was not obtained either through torture or through what they call rendition, which is sending a suspect to be tortured someplace else. 

That was not the case in this critical event.  And the clarity of this is extraordinarily important, Lawrence. 

O‘DONNELL:  For the man who rode the Straight Talk Express in his first presidential campaign, the straight talk was back today.  And I don‘t see him getting any real flak from other Republicans in the Senate, Jonathan.  They do regard him as an authority on this. 

ALTER:  We‘ll see whether Cheney gets questioned now, next time he goes on Fox, based on this new information. 

O‘DONNELL:  Right.  Jonathan Alter, thanks for joining me tonight. 

ALTER:  Thanks, Lawrence. 

O‘DONNELL:  Glenn Beck versus Meghan McCain.  She tries to save us from skin cancer, and he calls her unattractive in the cruelest possible way.  That‘s in tonight‘s Rewrite.

And why this former congressman‘s difficulty with keeping his shirt on has led to an even bigger mess for the Republican party.  Coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O‘DONNELL:  In the Rewrite tonight, this man thinks that this woman has a weight problem, and is unattractive.  Glenn Beck stupidly described this video of Meghan McCain to his radio audience as depicting Meghan McCain naked, and then pretended to vomit on his radio show at the thought of Ms. McCain naked. 

Ms. McCain replied, in a “Dear Mr. Beck” letter on “the Daily Beast,” she pointed out that what Glenn Beck was referring to was a PSA for skin cancer awareness. 

Quote, “where I posed in a strapless, juicy dress to appear naked as a metaphor for the dangers of going out in the sun without sunscreen.  I thought that pretending to be naked, even if I only disrobed to my collar bone, would hopefully call attention to skin cancer, a disease that both my parents have suffered from.”

Ms. McCain went on to use most of her reply space to Glenn Beck to bring more attention to the problem of skin cancer, with some particular details about her father‘s difficult struggle with it.  She then gave Beck a parenting note that he needs to but most certainly will fail to take seriously. 

Quote, “you‘re a full grown man with teenage daughters who are probably dealing with the sexist, body obsessed media environment that is difficult for all women.  Is this really the legacy you want to be leaving for yourself?”

Not surprisingly, Meghan‘s mother, Cindy McCain, Tweeted her rage at Beck for his, quote, “vitriol and hate.” 

We can all now patiently await Beck‘s Tweet the day one of his daughters is attacked on the radio for the way she looks. 

Also today, as I pursued my habit of reading smart op-ed writers I disagree with, I came across John Podhoretz‘s op-ed in “the New York Post.”  John Podhoretz was a speech writer for Ronald Reagan and the first President Bush.  He also served as a consultant for the NBC series “the West Wing.”

This is how he welcomed Newt Gingrich into the presidential campaign.  “Newt Gingrich has an restless and outsized intelligence that is tragically unleavened by any kind of critical sensibility.  When he is seized by an idea, he believes in it wholeheartedly and makes a very good case for it.  Unfortunately, it‘s often immaterial whether the idea itself is sound or whacko.  He can‘t still his hunger to deliver grand pronouncements on life, liberalism, conservatism, religion and whatever else swims into his consciousness.  And while he may understand the kinds of hot button issues that get to people, what he does not understand is how he, Newt Gingrich, comes across to people. 

“The answer?  Not well.  His career as a public figure has been marked by the kinds of tenured pronouncements mostly about the personal misconduct of others that can only be likened to a brilliant professional golfer who consistently knocks the ball into the same water hazard again and again.  He has a weakness for wildly inappropriate Nazi analogies.  People like me, he said in 1994, are what stand between us and Auschwitz. 

“The two most famous instances of his foot in mouth disease came when he likened the Democratic party to Woody Allen‘s affair with his own pseudo-stepdaughter, and suggested that if you were upset by the fact that Susan Smith drowned her two children so she could run off with her boyfriend, you needed to vote Republican. 

“Yet while he felt free to hold others‘ personal conduct in moral

contempt, he only recently offered an almost comically self-aggrandizing

excuse for his own personal weaknesses in an interview with a Christian

broadcaster.  ‘There‘s no question at times of my life, partially driven by

how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and

things in my life that were not appropriate.‘ 

“Newt Gingrich never received more than 100,000 votes in his life. 

He‘ll never be president.” 

Well, nothing to Rewrite there.  I have never agreed with John Podhoretz more.  And if Michelle Bachmann decides to run, I can‘t wait to read how John Podhoretz welcomes her to the presidential campaign.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O‘DONNELL:  We are now only 12 days away from the special election to replace Republican Congressman Chris Lee who resigned from New York‘s 26th Congressional seat in February after this picture he emailed to a woman who was not his wife leaked to the media.  Lee‘s district is considered New York‘s most Republican district, electing only one Democratic candidate since 1953. 

Bush won the district in 2000 and 2004.  In 2008, it was one of only four districts in New York to vote for John McCain.  In 2010, Congressman Lee won re-election with over 70 percent of the vote.  Shortly after Lee resigned, District Republican leaders selected State Assembly Woman Jane Corwin to run for his seat, but she is struggling. 

In a recent robo poll, the Democratic candidate, Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul leads Corwin 35 to 31 percent.  That unlikely lead is explained in part by the candidacy of millionaire businessman Jack Davis, who is polling at 24 percent, despite being the only independent candidate on the ballot with Tea Party next to his name. 

The area‘s largest Tea Party group has endorsed Jane Corwin and encouraged Tea Parties not to be fooled by Davis‘ candidacy.  That‘s because Davis has run for that same seat as a Democrat three times. 

In 2008, he endorsed candidate Barack Obama. 

House Speaker John Boehner took a shot at Davis‘ candidacy when he visited the district on Monday to support Corwin‘s campaign. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JOHN BOEHNER ®, HOUSE SPEAKER:  There are several candidates in this election.  But there is only one conservative candidate in this election and that‘s Jane Corwin. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  In a bizarre incident last night, Corwin‘s chief of staff, Michael Mallia (ph), confronted Davis on why he chose to withdraw from a debate that included the Republican and Democratic candidates. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Jack, why did you back out of the debate? 

JACK CORWIN, CANDIDATE FOR CONGRESS IN NEW Y ORK:  Do you want to punch it out? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Why?  Why did you—ah! Sir—

(CROSS TALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Ah, ah, sir.  Why did you back out of the debate?  Why did you back out of the debate?  Ah!  Why did you back out of the debate?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  Joining me now, “Washington Post” columnist E.J. Dionne. 

Thanks for joining me tonight, E.J.

DIONNE, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  Good to be with you.

O‘DONNELL:  E.J., you wrote about this a few days ago.  This is the first and election since the House Republicans voted on Paul Ryan‘s budget.  What has the Republicans in more trouble up there, the three-way race or the Paul Ryan budget? 

DIONNE:  I think if it weren‘t a three-way race, maybe it would never have become competitive, but it definitely wouldn‘t be competitive without the Ryan budget.  The “Buffalo news” had a story up today saying Medicare is the big issue in the race. 

And I think this is an interesting test, because a lot of Republicans

had a false sense of security when they voted for the Ryan budget, because

a lot of Democrats tried to use Ryan‘s ideas in the 2010 election against -

a lot of Democrats tried to use Ryan‘s ideas against Republicans in the 2010 election, but it didn‘t work because these are the ideas of some wonky Republican from Wisconsin, and there was no bill. 

           

Well, now you‘ve got votes for it and you‘ve got an actual bill that was passed.  And it‘s really been very potent.  And Hochul has gone straight at Medicare cuts and Medicare being cut to support tax cuts for the rich. 

O‘DONNELL:  E.J., this is Jack Kemp‘s district that the Republicans are risking here, and they may be in serious trouble in.  You‘ve got to believe that the electorate up there is smart enough to distinguish Democrat, Republican, independent and how they split their vote and who‘s going to end up winning if they go with the so-called Tea Party candidate. 

It seems that there‘s got to be a warning shot just coming out of where the polls stand right now for Republicans in Washington. 

DIONNE:  I think that is the best news for Republicans.  Democrats would be better if that poll had come out about a week later, because you‘ve got Karl Rove and his friends now spending 650,000 dollars.  They are spending a lot of initial money trying to knock Davis down.  I assume they are going to go after Hochul at the end.

The republican national party, the congressional committee, never had to expect—never expected to spend money in this district.  And they‘re coming in. 

So there may be a warning shot.  But I think voters often use special elections to send protest messages.  I think that‘s part of what helped Scott Brown win in Massachusetts a year ago.  This may be a protest in reverse about Republican overreach. 

O‘DONNELL:  And Hochul deserves credit.  She is a well financed candidate.  Her husband, Bill Hochul,  is the local U.S. attorney.  Very, very credible candidacy that she‘s running.  It‘s hard to say whether—you know, Davis could be—with his past Democratic history, he could be pulling some Hochul votes aside too. 

DIONNE:  Although the polling suggests that more of his vote is coming out of Corwin, the Republican, than Hochul.  And I think you can be pretty sure of that when you see how aggressive the Republicans are in going against Davis.  They think that he really could stand in the way of Corwin‘s victory. 

O‘DONNELL:  If Karl Rove swoops into that district and puts a lot of money into Buffalo television and other things, will the Democrats have anything that can respond as quickly with as much money? 

DIONNE:  I don‘t think they‘ll have as much money as Rove can put in. 

But I think it really is a test case—a sort of a test run for 2012.  You‘ve got a generic Republican message about smaller government and lower taxes, against a specific Democratic message about Medicare and tax cuts for the rich.  And if Hochul can really cut into the Republican vote there, let alone if she can win, it really will tell us something about how 2012 might come out. 

But then everybody should beware of pundits using any special election to predict the future, including me. 

O‘DONNELL:  Well, Democrats will welcome her as a tremendous hero if she makes it to Washington. 

DIONNE:  You bet. 

O‘DONNELL:  E.J Dionne of the “Washington Post,” thanks for joining me tonight. 

DIONNE:  Thanks.  Good to be with you. 

O‘DONNELL:  You can have THE LAST WORD online at our blog, TheLastWord.MSNBC.com.  You can follow my Tweets @Lawrence.  “THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW” is up next.  Good evening, Rachel.

END   

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