updated 3/15/2004 12:09:00 PM ET 2004-03-15T17:09:00

Guests: Robin Wright, Mark Mellman, Terry Holt, Rick Atkinson, David Zucchino, Ronn Owens

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Rapid response in the ad wars.  In the battle for the White House, John Kerry shoots back within 24 hours of the Bush attack ad with a negative counter offensive of his own. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Once again, George Bush is misleading America. 

John Kerry has never called for a $900 billion tax increase.  He wants to cut taxes for the middle class. 

Doesn‘t America deserve more from its president than misleading negative ads?

John Kerry will crack down on the export of American jobs, get health care costs under control, and cut the deficit. 

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I‘m John Kerry and I approve this message because we need to do what‘s right for America‘s economy. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  John Kerry, a new direction for America. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

I‘m Chris Matthews. 

With just 234 days till the election, the campaign is already hyperventilating.  We‘ll have the latest on the ad wars a little later on. 

But first Basque separatists say they were not behind Thursday‘s string of train bombings in Spain.  And now one day after the deadliest terror attack in Europe, President Bush is reminding Americans to be vigilant. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  A reminder, that there are evil people in the world.  They‘re willing to kill innocent life.  Spanish people will stand firm against this type of killing, and they‘ll have a friend with the American people. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Robin Wright is the diplomatic correspondent to the “Washington post” and author of “Sacred Rage: The Rise of Militant Islam.”  And Norah O‘Donnell is an NBC White House correspondent. 

Let‘s begin with Norah.  What‘s the United States going to do for Spain, Norah?

NORAH O‘DONNELL, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Well, the White House today and the president called this a vicious attack. 

But what they have been unwilling to do is talk about who is responsible for this attack, whether it‘s Basque separatists or linked to al Qaeda.  There are some suggestions it could be linked to al Qaeda, but so far here at the White House, they are unwilling to even go that far and talk about that. 

What they have noted is that the Department of Homeland Security has issued warnings here at home, not raising the threat level but issuing warnings to Americans who may be traveling on trains and to the personnel who operate trains, the Amtrak, to be out on the watch out for small bags or backpacks or any type of small items that may look suspicious—Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Does the United States consider the Basque terrorists to be our enemy, as well?

O‘DONNELL:  Well, I would think so.  But I don‘t know that it‘s up there with al Qaeda. 

And certainly intelligence officials that we‘ve spoken with do not think that this type of attack that happened in Spain is indicative of the type of attacks the Basque separatists have been known for.  In fact there have been more similarities to al Qaeda terrorists. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me to go right now to Robin Wright and this question. 

Robin Wright, studying the international scene right now, what—how do you put this together?  Assuming we don‘t have the facts on who did it yet, is the enlargement of the attack and the amount of killing in one shot, or in 10 shots, to you automatically signal that this is not an ETA, an ETA, Basque-led operation?

ROBIN WRIGHT, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  Well, it would certainly be larger and more complicated and sophisticated than anything the ETA has ever carried out before.  It has all the hallmarks of al Qaeda. 

But the period over the next eight months is really going to be very difficult for everyone in the West, in the Islamic world, because of a number of critical turning points. 

You‘ve got the elections, not only here and next week in Spain, but also the offenses the United States is launching against al Qaeda in Afghanistan.  This is a time that if al Qaeda operatives want to strike out and intimidate the West, it‘s a good time to do it. 

But there are turning points politically as well in the election, in Afghanistan in June, as well as in Iraq. 

These are, you know, an extraordinary confluence of factors that provide incentives for both sides to act very firmly and send a strong message.  And that‘s why there are many people who have turned first and foremost, without any hard evidence, to al Qaeda because of those hallmarks you point out. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, does knocking out—or blowing up a train or a set of trains and killing hundreds of people, how does that help the cause of al Qaeda?

It seems to me it causes people to rally around the flag.  Here in the United States, it seems like it would inch up the support for the president, even among the doubters about the war with Iraq. 

And over there in Spain, it would seem like it would help the rolling of politics, the politicians are expected to succeed the existing government. 

You, first, Robin again, how does a terrorist attack do anything more than make the Western powers angry at the East and start more war in the Middle East?

WRIGHT:  Well, that‘s exactly.  Remember that terrorism is a war of psychology.  And this is a terribly effective tactic, if you are trying in fact to spark a clash of civilizations and to renew or deepen the kind of fear and anger that we all felt after 9/11. 

MATTHEWS:  Norah?  Does this—Do the political people in the White House you talked to today, do they sense that this will encourage support? 

I noticed the president is back to his familiar vocabulary.  The people that did this are the evil people.  Not to make fun of him but it is the same forces of evil that attacked us, attack them.  He sees terrorism as the united front we have to oppose. 

Does this help him make his case which he‘s going to make next week, that the war in Iraq was necessary?

O‘DONNELL:  Yes, that‘s right, Chris.  He did he use those words.  He said there‘s a grim reminder, there are evil people in the world willing to kill innocent people.  This is a battle between good and evil, right and wrong. 

It has been the hallmark of this presidency.  A war president to fight this war on terrorism.  It‘s not only a major issue on—certainly for this White House, it‘s going to be a major issue in the presidential campaign, as well.  It‘s certainly something that they point out, that voters should look at, that they want Americans to look at. 

What kind of commander in chief do they want when there is a very dangerous world that we live in?

I think one of the scary things, at least in talking to people, was that this letter from a group that claims it has links to al Qaeda claims that the United States is next.  And that‘s a very scary scenario. 

And that‘s why we heard, Tom Ridge, the director of homeland security, saying, “We take all threats seriously.”  That‘s what they said from the White House: “We take all threats seriously.” 

But they‘re not raising the threat level. 

MATTHEWS:  In fact, they point out here, in a quote from the president here, that he had an attack on Kerry, obviously the Democratic opposition here, that he‘s saying that there‘s a dangerous illusion out there that terrorists are not plotting and outlaw regimes are no threat. 

It‘s almost like, Norah, he‘s planning to say that this is proof that Kerry is wrong about Iraq because somebody attacked Spain. 

O‘DONNELL:  Well, this has been an argument.  It‘s been a very subtle one that has been made by the president and his campaign. 

And they have said that Senator Kerry would have dealt with the war on terrorism as a law enforcement operation, that after the first World Trade Center bombing in New York, that he would have just rounded up people and put them in jail. 

And they said that‘s not the type of response that was needed, that this president decided on a military, firm response.  And so of course they‘re trying to draw that distinction. 

But clearly, a big issue in—national security and the defense are going to be a big issue as we head into this next week.  It is the one-year anniversary for the war in Iraq. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.

O‘DONNELL:  And we‘re going to hear the president and the vice president making strong cases, not only for the war in Iraq but also the war in Afghanistan, as they launch this spring offensive. 

MATTHEWS:  Robin Wright, will this be perceived by the opposition in Spain as the price of joining the U.S. coalition to Iraq?

WRIGHT:  Well, there are probably some who will try to make that argument.  But that‘s why all members of the coalition, at least the major members, Australia and Britain included, also feel very vulnerable to attack, because they have joined and are playing a major role in Iraq and in Afghanistan, as well. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me ask you, both of you, first of all, Robin Wright, to size this up.  This as a phenomenon, is this to you—does this seem to you to be a follow-up on Zawahiri‘s threat of a couple weeks ago?

WRIGHT:  I don‘t know if it‘s a follow-up to Zawahiri.  I think that there are militarist extremist groups and not just al Qaeda, who have an agenda to spark real tensions between the West and the Islamic world. 

They‘re trying to signal, as well, and whether they‘re responsible for Spain or not, they are trying to signal that they have not been weakened by the war on terrorism, that they are still players in the international stage. 

This is a phenomena that‘s going to be with us for a long time. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you, finally, Norah, this question.  Will the president of the United States make reference to this attack yesterday when he makes his case on the war with Iraq next week?

O‘DONNELL:  That‘s a great question, Chris, and I have not asked that today.  But I would not doubt that he does include it as a reminder, not only for the United States, but also for the war, that this is a global war on terrorism that the president has talked about numerous times. 

MATTHEWS:  Great having you on tonight.  Thank you very much, Robin Wright of the “Washington Post,” Norah O‘Donnell of NBC at the White House. 

Coming up, ad wars.  Round two.  John Kerry strikes back with a direct attack on President Bush. 

And later, one year after the war in Iraq, I‘ll talk to three reporters who were there on the ground in Iraq alongside U.S. troops, to get their thoughts on the war and the uneasy peace that has followed. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Coming up, ad wars, part two.  John Kerry strikes back. 

And later, radio talk show host Ronn Owens, all ahead on HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome to HARDBALL.  The political air wars are heating up this week with the release of a new Bush ad attacking John Kerry by name. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH:  I‘m George W. Bush, and I approve this message. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  A president sets his agenda for America in the first 100 days.  John Kerry‘s plan: to pay for new government spending, raise taxes by at least $900 billion.  On the war on terror, weaken the Patriot Act used to arrest terrorists and protect America, and he wanted to delay defending America until the United Nations approved. 

John Kerry, wrong on taxes, wrong on defense. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, today, not wasting any time, John Kerry‘s campaign fired back. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Once again, George Bush is misleading America.  John Kerry has never called for a $900 billion tax increase.  He wants to cut taxes for the middle class. 

Doesn‘t America deserve more from its president than misleading negative ads?

John Kerry will crack down on the export of American job, get health care costs under control and cut the deficit. 

KERRY:  I‘m John Kerry, and I approved this message because we need to do what‘s right for America‘s economy. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  John Kerry, a new direction for America.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Terry Holt is a spokesman for the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign, and Mark Mellman is a senior adviser to the Kerry campaign. 

Is that the best you guys can do, is say no, it ain‘t true?

MARK MELLMAN, SENIOR ADVISER, KERRY CAMPAIGN:  Well, it‘s not true. 

There‘s not a fact in that ad. 

MATTHEWS:  The $900 billion, where‘s it come from?

MELLMAN:  It‘s completely made up. 

MATTHEWS:  Where did—didn‘t it come from the cost of the health care plan?

MELLMAN:  It does come from the cost of the health care plan, but John Kerry has never said he‘s going to raise taxes to pay for that health care plan.

MATTHEWS:  How‘s he going to pay for it?

MELLMAN:  In fact what he said he‘s going to do is he‘s going to cut taxes on the middle class.  He‘s going to roll back tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans... 

MATTHEWS:  How is he going to pay for the health care plan, if not by raising taxes?

MELLMAN:  He‘s going to roll back tax cuts for the healthiest Americans.  He‘s going to stop these tax breaks that encourage companies to export jobs overseas. 

So there‘s a lot of ways to pay for his plan.  He‘s going to reduce the cost of health care in the first place.  So a lot of ways to pay for the plan that involve not raising taxes at all. 

As every newspaper said, the “L.A. Times”, the “Washington Post,” A.P., all said this ad is completely fact-free. 

And we really should expect more from a president of the United States.  He‘s not telling us about what he‘s done in the past, his accomplishments.  He‘s not talking about his plans for the future.  He can‘t.  The only thing he can do is make up untruths about John Kerry‘s record.  It‘s a sad situation. 

MATTHEWS:  Terry?

TERRY HOLT, BUSH-CHENEY CAMPAIGN SPOKESMAN:  Yes, I was no math student but this is pretty simple. 

MATTHEWS:  Where did the 900 come from?

HOLT:  Well, the health care plan was $895 billion.  And this was the least—this was the least that we...

MELLMAN:  Did he say he was going to raise taxes?

HOLT:  Well, of course, you—Would any candidate for president say they‘re going to raise taxes?

MELLMAN:  He did not say it, yet your ad says he does. 

HOLT:  You‘ve got to add up the numbers: $1.5 trillion in new spending.

MATTHEWS:  Wait. 

MELLMAN:  You ad says...

MATTHEWS:  I don‘t have a chance. 

HOLT:  One point five trillion dollars in new spending, an $895 billion health care plan.  He‘s not going to increase the deficit.  And he says he‘s going to only raise tax by $200 billion?  We‘ve got a huge gap here. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, let‘s to go my favorite subject: Iraq.  Mark, the ad attacking your candidate, John Kerry, put out by the reelect committee, says that your candidate John Kerry refused to defend America unless he got the approval of the U.N. 

MELLMAN:  You know, that is so utterly ridiculous.  John Kerry went to Vietnam, defended this country with his body and his blood, Number one. 

No. 2 that the United States—the U.N. should have veto power.  In fact, he said exactly the opposite.  He complained that other candidates were giving the U.N. veto power.  He thought we should build an international commission.  He thought we should go to the United Nations and get their help...

MATTHEWS:  This is about Iraq. 

MELLMAN:  ... if we could.  The president said no, he really didn‘t think that was that important. 

MATTHEWS:  Where did the president of the United States...

MELLMAN:  That‘s why we‘re having trouble. 

MATTHEWS:  Where did the president of the United States request U.N.  support to defend this country?

MELLMAN:  Pardon me?

MATTHEWS:  When did the president ever ask—when did John Kerry ever ask for U.N. support to defend this country?

HOLT:  He has said that we should have exhausted all options. 

MATTHEWS:  No, no, no.  Talk about—I don‘t even know what you‘re talking about.  When did the United States ask the U.N.‘s approval to defend this country in history?  I never heard of it happening in 227 years. 

HOLT:  He‘s talked about secret deals between the French and the Germans to end the war on the eve of it, that we shouldn‘t have waited for that. 

MATTHEWS:  What war?

HOLT:  And then we...

MATTHEWS:  You‘re talking—you call the war on Iraq that we floated against Iraq, the war we waged in Iraq, as a war to defend the United States?

HOLT:  Absolutely. 

MATTHEWS:  That‘s how you define it?

MELLMAN:  To get those weapons of mass destruction?

HOLT:  Absolutely.  The clear and present danger that Saddam Hussein presented to this country. 

MATTHEWS:  I thought your guy said it was not an imminent threat. 

HOLT:  Of course he was. 

MATTHEWS:  They‘ve all said it was not an imminent threat.  I‘ve been hearing this for weeks now.  It was not an imminent threat.  The president said we never said it was an imminent threat.  It was an elective war.  But nobody would call that a war of defense, would they?

HOLT:  Well...

MATTHEWS:  It was a preemptive war, a preventative war.

HOLT:  This is a global war on terror.

MATTHEWS:  Right.

HOLT:  And you go to where the terrorists are going to be harbored.  Absolutely.  We had to go in to get Saddam Hussein out first, because he was a bad guy. 

MATTHEWS:  So in other words, any war we fight in the world today is a war to defend the United States, by definition?

HOLT:  Well, we‘re at war.  What do you call...

MATTHEWS:  Any war we fight, you‘re saying.  Any war, even if it‘s a question about whether we should have fought it, is in fact a war of defense?

HOLT:  Well, in fact yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Why do half the American people question the war with Iraq, if it‘s all about defense? 

HOLT:  Because...

MATTHEWS:  Every poll we take shows half the people are opposed to it.

HOLT:  I‘d love to get in a word in edgewise. 

MATTHEWS:  Go for it.

HOLT:  We‘re playing offense in the global war on terror, and we‘re not going to wait for them to come to us. 

MATTHEWS:  So you‘re not—It isn‘t defense?

HOLT:  On September 11, the world changed.  The world changed.  They can come to us and attack us, kill 3,000 people on our soil.  We‘re not going to wait for that to happen again.  We‘re going to Iraq and go after them. 

MATTHEWS:  Was there a bad week for John Kerry to be talking about peeling back the aspects of the Patriot Act and trying to catch dangerous people coming into this country, right at the time the Spain—Spanish were attacked by terrorists?

MELLMAN:  John Kerry...

MATTHEWS:  Is this a bad time to have that position?

MELLMAN:  John Kerry wants to do everything we can to go abroad and stop terrorism and to stop terrorism at home.  He does believe that we should respect our constitutional liberties.  American citizens should have...

MATTHEWS:  What about non-citizens?

MELLMAN:  ... constitutional liberties...

MATTHEWS:  What about the rights of non-citizens?  Should we protect the rights, so-called, of non-citizens in this country?

MELLMAN:  Non-citizens have some rights.  They simply have fewer rights than American citizens do.  There‘s no question about that.

MATTHEWS:  Are you comfortable defending the rights of people coming in this country that might be dangerous right now?

MELLMAN:  I‘m not defending the rights of anybody who‘s dangerous. 

What I‘m saying is...

MATTHEW:  Who might be dangerous. 

MELLMAN:  ... this Patriot Act has been used by this administration in a way that was not intended by the Congress and not consistent with our... 

MATTHEWS:  Liars and crooks, are you comfortable with that language of your candidate?  Liars and crooks, he called the Republicans. 

MELLMAN:  Frankly...

MATTHEWS:  Are those your words?

MELLMAN:  Those aren‘t my words.  Those are his words.

MATTHEWS:  Are you happy with them?  Are you comfortable with those words?

MELLMAN:  I‘m comfortable with those words, because it‘s true.  And frankly, you just heard it here today.  Terry Holt‘s admitting that this stuff is made up.  He‘s admitting that there was no tax increase called for...

HOLT:  I didn‘t say that.  I tried to do the math for you.  You fail math in high school?  I almost did. 

MELLMAN:  I didn‘t.  I did pretty well at it. 

The reality is you admitted that John Kerry never called for a tax increase.  You admitted that John Kerry never went to the U.N. ...

HOLT:  Why would your candidate to raising taxes?  It‘s an unpopular position. 

MELLMAN:  Your ads say he called for it. 

HOLT:  Look at the deficit...

MATTHEWS:  You know, I think it is a good question.  Your ads probably should have said he wants to increase federal spending by $900 million?

HOLT:  That would be terrible, too, wouldn‘t it?

MATTHEWS:  It would be honest. 

Anyway, thank you very much, Terry Holt and Mark Mellman.

It‘s been almost one year since the start of the Iraq war, and three reporters who were embedded with the military will be here to talk about what it was like to witness the battles firsthand. 

And later, a look at the politics of gay marriage.  Radio talk show host Ronn Owens.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  It‘s been nearly a year since the start of the Iraq war, and three journalists who were embedded with the military are here to reflect on their war correspondence and combat experiences.

Rick Atkinson with the “Washington Post” was embedded with the 101st Airborne and wrote a book about his experience, entitled, “In the Company of Soldiers.”

David Zucchino was an “L.A. Times” embed, the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division, when they conquered Baghdad.  His book is called “Thunder Run: The Armored Strike      That Captured Baghdad.”

And NBC‘s own Chip Reid was embedded with the 3rd Battalion of the 5th Marine Regiment as they worked their way up to Baghdad.  Chip will be returning to Iraq next week to report on the anniversary of the war.

Let me go to David Zucchino.

I was looking at your recount of how less than a thousand U.S.  soldiers took Baghdad against stronger resistance than expected.  How good a soldier was the average Iraqi trooper?

DAVID ZUCCHINO, “THUNDER RUN” AUTHOR:  Well, they weren‘t nearly as well trained as the Americans were, but they were very ferocious, particularly the Special Republican Guards and the Fedayeen, and there were 3,000 to 5,000 Arab mercenaries, mostly Syrians. 

And these guys were very tenacious.  They didn‘t give up.  They weren‘t particularly well trained or well coordinated.  But they did give the 3rd I.D. quite a bit of trouble up and down Highway 8 going into the city and really caused havoc with their supply lines. 

MATTHEWS:  Rick, you follow up, same question, because a lot of people want to know this.  How good were the Iraqi soldiers we went up against?

RICK ATKINSON, “IN THE COMPANY OF SOLDIERS” AUTHOR:  I think they were not very good, actually.  You know, the Iraqi army is about the size of the American army now.  A little under half a million.  They had 11,000 generals; 13,000 colonels. 

MATTHEWS:  Literally. 

ATKINSON:  Talk about over led. 

The American Army has about 320...

MATTHEWS:  It‘s like a pinochle deck.  It‘s all face cards.

ATKINSON:  If you‘re not a general—so that gives you some idea of the imbalance, both in the way...

MATTHEWS:  Was it a joke or was it a serious army?  Or in between?

ATKINSON:  I think it was not a serious army.  It degraded a lot since 1991 and the Gulf War. 

MATTHEWS:  Chip, your assessment?

CHIP REID, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Same thing, especially in southern Iraq.  The first ones we came across, all they wanted to do was surrender, take off their uniforms and go home. 

But we did come across some of these mercenaries from Syria, Yemen and Sudan. 

MATTHEWS:  And they were zealous?

REID:  They fought like hell.  They were—they fought to the death, literally.  There was a battle that we had just south of Baghdad, the Marines I was with.  And it went on most of the day, and almost all of them fought to the death. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about this, David.  You first, again, about the American soldier, the morale and the actual attack on—on Baghdad.  You—I think you intimate the soldiers did face more resistance than they expected.  But tell me about it. 

ZUCCHINO:  Well, they were, as I say, up against the Fedayeen mostly and these Arab volunteers who had dug these whole series of trenches up and down Highway 8, leading back into the neighborhood where they had this endless supply of weapons, mostly RPG‘s, some anti-tank weapons. 

And they were piling into all kinds of vehicles: ambulances, old Chevy Caprices, Volkswagens, taxis, and they just kept coming at them, up and down the highway.  They had several battles that lasted all day. 

The American came close several times to being cut off and actually had to have a battalion come around from the airport and help them out. 

The Iraqis and the Syrians were able to blow up five fuel and ammunition trucks.  And in a period of just probably five or six hours, killed five American soldiers on a brigade that hadn‘t lost anybody, you know, coming up from Kuwait prior to this battle. 

MATTHEWS:  How were the—Chip, how well informed were the American G.I.‘s in the fight?  Did they know what their mission was at each time?  Each day?

REID:  I‘ll tell you, I was amazed at how blind they were, really.  We were pretty much in—It‘s overused, but the tip of the spear of the Marines as we were moving up.  The Army was coming from the southwest mostly.  We were coming from the southeast. 

And every night, they would launch an artillery barrage.  And I sat down with the commanding officer one day to figure out exactly how they knew where these guys were hit. 

And he said, “We don‘t.  We look at the map and we try to figure out where they might be.  And we try to clear what we think would be the path that we need to clear.” 

MATTHEWS:  More with Rick Atkinson, David Zucchino and Chip Reid when we return.

And later as the presidential campaign gets red hot, we‘ll find out how the Bush-Kerry ad wars are resonating across the country, with radio talk show host Ronn Owens out in San Francisco.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  This half-hour on HARDBALL, war in Iraq one year later.  We‘re coming back with our roundtable of war correspondents.  Plus, radio talk show host Ronn Owens on why he thinks the political left and right are both wrong. 

But, first the latest headlines right now.

(NEWS BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

We‘re back with three reporters who covered the war in Iraq, “The Washington Post”‘s Rick Atkinson, a great author, as well as reporter, David Zucchino of “The L.A. Times,” and NBC‘s Chip Reid. 

Let me ask you about—I talked to a fellow who fought in World War II.  And you know all these war movies always make the Nazis look like 8‘-foot-tall, blonde scary guys, Gary Busey types.  And he said, no, when we were fighting in Northern Europe, Normandy and places like that, we just thought of them as a bunch of guys who had to do a job, not that they were good guys or bad guys, the troops the—he said, we weren‘t afraid of them as individuals. 

Is this a war where individual soldiers, however, on our side, thought we were superior individually man to man to the Arabs? 

ATKINSON:  I think the average soldier and the average Marine would believe that he is better equipped and better prepared, probably better motivated across the board than the average Iraqi. 

It is a professional Army and it shows in the way that they go out to fight and the way they prepare to fight.  I think that there‘s no question that the Iraqis were really overmatched across the board. 

MATTHEWS:  Is there any sense from you, Rick, covering the war from a G.I.‘s point of view, embedded, why they fought?  Why did the other side fight?  Why didn‘t they just all give up, day one?  Why didn‘t the guy running their country say, come on in, check out our weapons system.  We don‘t have anything available.  There couldn‘t hide anything.  There was nothing to hide, apparently. 

ATKINSON:  Well, clearly, on the individual basis, some of the Fedayeen that Chip referred to because they were being either motivated for political reasons or, in some cases, there was clearly a kind of blackmail going on.  We saw this in Najaf, to some extent, in Karbala and in Hillah, where a guy‘s family would be taken hostage or there would be threats made against his family. 

And he would be sent out to fight against the Americans in what was typically a suicidal mission. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  But to what effect?  Hold off the enemy for two days? 

ATKINSON:  Basically to do whatever you can to stall them from getting to Baghdad. 

MATTHEWS:  To what effect? 

ATKINSON:  Well, to no effect ultimately, as it turned out. 

But some of the hard fighting around Najaf that the 3rd Infantry Division and others encountered was really the kind suicidal blackmail operation that you saw throughout southern Iraq. 

MATTHEWS:  I want to talk to you all about the morale and the tremendous esprit of these units that we‘ve heard about all our lives.

David, I want to you talk about the 82nd Airborne and the 101st Airborne and all—you know them as well as an historian.  It seems like when you read—see movies even, like “A Bridge Too Far,” Cornelius Ryan‘s a great story about Operation Market Garden at the end of World War II, it is the 82nd.  It‘s the 101st

David, you first.  Tell me about the morale of these units as they go into this relatively bite-sized war. 

ZUCCHINO:  Well, these guys, first of all, were very, very motivated just to get job done.  They were completely focused on whatever the mission was that particular day.  That‘s all they cared about.  They didn‘t look that far ahead.  They were motivated to win, to get to Baghdad.  That was really their goal, because they were under the impression that, once they got to Baghdad, they would be going home.  It didn‘t turn out that way, but that‘s what kept them going. 

MATTHEWS:  But how does the history of a unit play a role in its current battle—its morale presently?  When they go into battle, do they think of themselves as members of the 101st, of the 82nd?  Do those things matter? 

ZUCCHINO:  Yes. 

In the case of the guys I was with, the 3rd Infantry Division, there was a whole lot of just pride in being part of that unit, pride in their equipment and in their training and a very tight little nucleus.  These guys had been training at the National Training Center a year before.  They had trained in Kuwait in the desert for several months.  And they had fought coming all the way up. 

So they were these really tight, integrated, secure little units that were used to fighting together and were amazingly efficient killers.  It was just astonishing to see what they could accomplish.

MATTHEWS:  What units did you cover, Rick? 

ATKINSON:  I was with the 101st Airborne the whole time.  And I was

specifically with

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  That was “Jumping Jim” Gavin‘s unit, wasn‘t it? 

ATKINSON:  It‘s the original band of brothers. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

ATKINSON:  It was a great unit in World War II.  I was specifically with the division commander, Major General Dave Petraeus.  And I was by his side all day every day long.  And, certainly, the legacy of the unit, the heritage of the unit was something...

MATTHEWS:  The battle ribbons they got. 

ATKINSON:  It was something that was really with them.  It is part and parcel of the way they think about war. 

MATTHEWS:  And do they think of their role in Iraq as being one of those?  Is that going to in the shy from the Halls of Montezuma?  Is it going to go in the history of their accomplishments as a unit? 

ATKINSON:  I don‘t think anybody would argue that it is up there with Normandy, where the 101st jumped into Normandy on D-Day, in terms of intensity or the durability of that battle.  But they had 69 dead.  They had almost 500 wounded.  And those 69 dead...

MATTHEWS:  Five hundred wounded? 

ATKINSON:  Yes, a substantial number of people wounded.  And the

majority of those were after the hard-core action ended with the fall of

Baghdad, because the 101st moved up to Mosul.  It was an occupation force

in northern Iraq really for the last 10 months.  They just came home

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  So the dream of really being on your way home once you get

to Baghdad was smashed pretty quickly by sniper fire

(CROSSTALK) 

MATTHEWS:  ... and, what, mines?

ATKINSON:  IEDs, improvised explosive devices, mines, snipers, you name it.  They died from it. 

MATTHEWS:  Chip, your feeling—your connection—I want to talk about you because I know you and your unit—as you bonded with your unit over there, what did that feel like to be almost a soldier? 

REID:  Well, I spent most of my time with the grunts right on the front lines, kids who are young enough to be my son. 

And one story will kind of tell it all.  I was having a rough day one time.  And I said to these guys, why do you do this?  And he said, that‘s easy.  The real question is, why you do it?  He said, I wanted to be a Marine since I was about 6 years old.  It‘s in my blood.  And he liked me up and down and said, it‘s obviously not in yours. 

MATTHEWS:  Hah!

(LAUGHTER)

REID:  And he was kidding.  These guys—we joke around with each...

MATTHEWS:  Because they‘re fit.  They‘re fit guys, right?

REID:  It is not just fit.  It is attitude.  They have been waiting for this moment, to cross that border into Iraq or whatever country they‘re invading all their lives.  These guys have just...

MATTHEWS:  Does that come from their dads?  Or does it come from John Wayne movies?

REID:  I will tell you, a lot of the time it doesn‘t.  Major Kevin Nave, who actually we lost out there. 

MATTHEWS:  It could be.  I‘m so old, I think John Wayne movies still matter. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  These kids don‘t know who John Wayne is, probably.

REID:  Yes, right.

Major Kevin Nave is the Marine I was closet to.  He was the executive officer and he died in camp in a horrible accident one night.  And I went to see his family in Michigan after I got back.  And they talked about how they didn‘t know where it came from.  He wanted to be a Marine since he was -- starting when he was 13, 14 years old.  They had no idea where it came from.  And they had to bargain with him and plead with him to go to college first and then join the Marines. 

These kids, in their blood, they just want to be Marines.  And they‘re so proud to be Marines.  You ask any of them, why did you join the Marines? 

And they will tell you, because it‘s the toughest.  It‘s the toughest

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Rick, is that your experience.

ATKINSON:  Yes, and also I find that they reinforce each other‘s attitudes. 

Soldiers typically today, yesterday, 1,000 years ago, fight and die for each other.  A unit esprit is very important, whether it‘s the 101st Airborne, whether it‘s the Marines.  But they‘re not fighting for a cause, per se.  They‘re not fighting because the president told them to go fight.  They‘re fighting for each other. 

MATTHEWS:  How about you?  Do they see you as an historian?  Do they know why you‘re there? 

ATKINSON:  Sure. 

They have some sense of why I‘m there.  They‘re a little curious I think about why I would be there voluntarily, particularly when conditions were really awful. 

MATTHEWS:  Were you guys all wearing uniforms? 

ATKINSON:  No. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Just khaki shirts.

ATKINSON:  Blue jeans and...

REID:  No, we were—well, chemical weapons suits the whole time. 

(CROSSTALK) 

MATTHEWS:  That‘s right. 

ATKINSON:  Sure.

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to David Zucchino to finish up.

Your sense just about your—give me your sense and feel of what it was like to be in the ranks? 

ZUCCHINO:  First of all, it was very terrifying.  It‘s extremely loud. 

It‘s extremely disoriented.  You don‘t know where you are half the time. 

You don‘t know where you‘re going. 

There are things—I was in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle on this thunder road into Baghdad on April 7.  And explosions are going everywhere.  The guns on the vehicles are going off.  You can see vehicles burning.  It is incredibly confusing.  They‘re all kinds of chatter on the radio.  But, at the same time, these guys are incredibly focused.  They are killing everything they saw.  They just went right up and down. 

If a car came up to them, there were all kind of suicide vehicles—they dealt with dozens of suicide vehicles that were crashing into tanks and Bradleys.  They took them out before they could hit them.  Unfortunately, civilians got killed in certain instances, civilians who didn‘t know enough to stop, because they went in on a Monday morning on April 7 right in the middle of rush hour traffic because people in Iraq had been listening to Baghdad Bob, the information minister, telling them that the American were trapped south of the Euphrates.  People in Baghdad didn‘t even know they were being invaded. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, you‘ve given us, all three of you gentlemen, an evocative Friday night.  And I appreciate you coming on the show.

Good luck with your books.  David Zucchino, the book is called “Thunder Run.”

ZUCCHINO:  Thank you. 

MATTHEWS:  And once again, Rick Atkinson, who never misses, “In the Company of Soldiers” about the 101st

And, Chip, when are you going to write a book? 

REID:  I‘m working on it. 

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Oh, good.

Thanks for joining us.

REID:  Thank you. 

MATTHEWS:  We‘ll be up next with San Francisco radio talk show host Ronn Owens, who is obviously at the center of the action over there in San Francisco on gay marriage, not quite as dangerous as war, anyway.  And we‘re also going to talk to Ronn about the battle for the White House from a West Coast, a left coast perspective. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

ANNOUNCER:  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

Now it‘s time for today‘s Marriott map facts.  Which state has the only royal palace in the U.S.?  Stay tuned for the answer.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Coming up, radio talk show host Ronn Owens on gay marriage and the battle for the White House—when HARDBALL returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER:  In today‘s Marriott map facts, we ask you, which state has the only royal palace in the U.S.?  The answer is Hawaii, with Iolani Palace on the island of Oahu.

Now back to HARDBALL with Chris Matthews.

MATTHEWS:  Yesterday, the California Supreme Court ordered San Francisco to stop issuing same-sex marriage licenses.  And Massachusetts lawmakers moved a step closer to banning same-sex marriages in favor of civil unions. 

Ronn Owens, a friend of mine, is a San Francisco-based radio talk show host and wrote the new book, “Voice of Reason: Why the Left and Right Are Both Wrong.”

Ronn, let me talk to you about your city, because you‘re an expert.  I want to ask you about your city.

RONN OWENS, AUTHOR, “VOICE OF REASON”:  Sure.

MATTHEWS:  California, San Francisco, especially, is it as left—is it the left coast?  Is it as bad in terms of the conservative thought in this country as they think it is? 

OWENS:  Absolutely not.  It is in terms of a presidential election because it goes very heavily Democratic.  But, of course, the cliche is, look at Orange County.  Look at how right-wing that is. 

As far as Bay Area is concerned, people confuse San Francisco itself with the entire Bay Area.  San Francisco is maybe 700,000 people.  Bay Area, 5.4 million, a huge difference there.  And once you start going into the suburbs, not much difference from anywhere else, maybe a little bit more to the left, but not that big. 

MATTHEWS:  What percentage of the town is gay? 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Everybody thinks it‘s—Jeane Kirkpatrick refers to San Francisco Democrats.  I mean, hint, hint. 

OWENS:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  We get it.  Is it a gay town?  I do know the answer, but I want to you say it. 

OWENS:  Well, you want me to...

MATTHEWS:  I want you to...

OWENS:  I‘m going to say 12.1 percent.  I don‘t know, Chris, what percentage is. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, is it a gay mecca? 

OWENS:  Is it a gay mecca?  Of course it is.  Well, obviously. 

There‘s a feeling of tolerance in the city.  There‘s a feeling of understanding.  There is a feeling of not being very judgmental.  So, in that sense, of course it is a gay mecca. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me ask you about the marriage issue. 

OWENS:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  Same-sex marriage.  Where are you on that?  You call yourself a centrist.  Are you a centrist on that one? 

OWENS:  No, I‘m—well, I‘m a centrist is one sense.

Look, I‘m totally for the concept of gay marriage.  I don‘t have any problem with it whatsoever.  I don‘t understand why—the first couple that got married, by the way, they were married—or together for 51 years, Chris, 51 years.  They finally got married.  I don‘t know why that is somehow less sacrosanct than Britney Spears and Jason Alexander 37 hours. 

Let‘s be realistic.  What is this institution that we are preserving?  Now, having said that, am I for gay marriage?  One hundred percent.  Do I understand—and here‘s where the voice of reason comes in—do I understand that there are people who are opposed to it just because of the word marriage?  Of course I do.  There are a lot of people who are. 

So, consequently, the way you compromise an issue like that is to say allow gays to be married, just like straights are married, but let‘s not use the term marriage.  Call it a contract.  Therefore, they have the same rights, the same responsibilities.  And yet, at the same time, we‘re not pushing away the word marriage.  In fact, let the religious institutions handle the concept of marriage. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, then you can‘t have a straight marriage before a justice of the peace, if you do that. 

OWENS:  You can‘t have a straight marriage?  Why? 

MATTHEWS:  Well, you‘re saying turn over the issue of the marriage to the churches. 

OWENS:  Well, overall, yes.  Make the justice of the peace a unitarian minister and you have whole thing solved. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, that‘s not the answer.  The problem here is the problem with what the law should say.  Should the law, the secular law of the country, recognize, celebrate, whatever, gay marriages or not?

(CROSSTALK)

OWENS:  Well, the answer is yes, Chris.  You want the direct answer?  Of course the answer is yes, because be realistic about it.  You‘re talking about legal responsibilities, legal rights, what happens with inheritance, what happens with visiting someone in a hospital? 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

OWENS:  How can you deny that to somebody because of the way they were born?  That‘s ridiculous. 

I‘m just trying to say, how do you figure out a way to let the rest of America, the reds and the blues, how do you get them along?  That‘s what I‘m trying to figure out.

MATTHEWS:  Oh, you think civil—some sort of contract that doesn‘t say marriage might be the compromise for the country. 

OWENS:  Without question. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, let me ask but this whole question of—you say that 60 percent of the American people fall in the middle politically.  How do you know that? 

OWENS:  Well, there are Gallup polls and Harris surveys.  They were between 60 percent and 70 percent of the people who did not affiliate themselves as being liberal or conservative, Democratic or Republican.  That‘s where the 60 to 70 percent comes in. 

The key word, Chris, is passion.  The more to the left and the more to the right you get, the more passionate people are about their point of view.  The 60 to 70 percent in the middle aren‘t as passionate, simply because it not preordained.  We look at each issue.  We decide whether it is a good or bad idea, a good or a bad candidate.  Without—without trying to butter you up, Chris, you fall into that category.  You‘re not always...

MATTHEWS:  I agree.  I agree with you.  I always wonder why people accept the blue-plate special.  If I go to a diner, I say, no, I‘ll take one of that and one of that and one of that.  And some people take the whole left-wing menu and they will say, I will buy that whole act.  I‘m for gay marriage.  I‘m against capital punishment.

OWENS:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  I‘m against war.  And they—I‘m against any kind of corrections, it seems.  And then they say, but I‘m a liberal.  I‘m for all union rights.  I‘m for everything the union wants.  You have to join the union if I‘m in charge. 

OWENS:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  And then somebody on the right buys the whole catechism of the right without saying, you know, on that issue, I think I‘m a libertarian.  I‘m not quite as right as other people.  I wish more people were like—like us, Ronn. 

(LAUGHTER)

OWENS:  Exactly.  Don‘t we all? 

MATTHEWS:  Will be right back with Ronn Owens.  He‘s the author of “Voice of Reason: Why the Left and Right Are Both Wrong.”  I‘ll ask him about Kerry fighting back.  It‘s getting a little hot out there. 

ANNOUNCER:  Follow all the action in the battle for the White House.  Just sign up for the best political briefing around.  Log on to our newly redesigned Web site at HARDBALL.MSNBC.com.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  I‘m back with more with Ronn Owens, radio talk show host and author of the new book, “Voice of Reason: Why the Left and Right Are Both Wrong.” 

Let me read you a quote from your book.  And I think it is pretty good: “Sixty percent of the people in this country place themselves somewhere in the middle of the political spectrum, voting on the left on some issues, while voting on the right on others.  They‘re the ones who in fact run this country and who determine its direction.  They‘re the ones who decide who is elected president.”

You know, Ronn, I like to believe that generally, but I think this year, there‘s a very narrow group of people, maybe, what, 10, 15 percent who haven‘t really made up their minds.  I don‘t know many people that don‘t either like Bush or don‘t like him. 

OWENS:  Well, yes, Bush, it‘s an up or down.  There‘s no question about that.  With the president by now, you‘ve formed an opinion, much of it based on the war, much of it based on what‘s being exploited right now, what we talked about before, the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. 

But when it comes to Kerry, you have got more of a blank slate.  Kerry has to define himself.  It‘s kind of why he is on the attack in ads right now.  And the American people who in the middle or in that 60 percent are going to go one way or the other based on how they perceive him to be in the next few months. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me ask you the three questions.  Is it going to be Iraq, the economy, or personality that decides where they swing? 

OWENS:  If it‘s personality, Bush wins.  If it is Iraq, at this point, lean towards Kerry.  The economy, who can predict?  So it‘s kind of 1-1-1.

MATTHEWS:  What about the debates?  Do you think last time around—I think so—Al Gore booted the election by even doing the debates with Bush.  It‘s his strong suit.  It‘s not Gore‘s. 

Can Kerry, a guy who is about a foot taller than the president, from New England, a man who looks like an elitist, and the president doesn‘t look like one, can he go in there and knock him off? 

OWENS:  Well, first of all, he has no choice.  He has got to do the debate. 

Secondly, what really got Al Gore the last time, Chris, remember, there were three different Al Gores.  Three debates, each one, he had a different personality.  I don‘t think you‘ll see that in Kerry.  That said, I think Kerry would probably do better if he were alive.  But, having said that, he‘ll come off a little bit dull, a little bit cautious.  But, hopefully, in the minds of those people who are leaning towards Kerry, a little bit more intellectual and therefore more in charge. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, let me ask you about talk, because you do—you‘re the most popular guy in California.  And, certainly, you beat Rush Limbaugh in your time slot.  Let me ask you out there, why do people call in to radio talk shows? 

OWENS:  First of all, you get maybe 1 to 2 percent, according to surveys, of people who listen to radio talk shows that actually do call in.  Why do they call in?  One of two reasons.  They feel they have really got something to ad or ego, a word that I guess neither you nor I are unfamiliar with. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  You mean they want to be heard.  They want to count. 

OWENS:  They want to be heard.  They want to be able to get to work and say, hey, I heard you on the way in. 

MATTHEWS:  And how many people keep trying to sneak back on your air by using different pronunciations or mask their identity, so they can come back on again and again?

OWENS:  Truthfully, not that many. 

The people who call, by now, people who have listened to me over the decades—And I hate to use that word, but over the decades—people who have listened, they call if they have got something to say.  Plus, if you have good producers, you‘re in good shape. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you a couple questions.  Who did you vote for, Bush or—Bush Sr. or Bill Clinton? 

OWENS:  I voted for Bill Clinton. 

MATTHEWS:  How about Bill Clinton or Bob Dole? 

OWENS:  Bill Clinton. 

MATTHEWS:  How about Al Gore or, let‘s see, George Bush Jr.? 

OWENS:  Gore, reluctantly.  The last Republican I voted president for was Reagan the second time.  In ‘80, I voted for Anderson.

MATTHEWS:  What are the chances you‘re going to vote for Bush this time? 

OWENS:  Slim. 

MATTHEWS:  Fifty/fifty? 

OWENS:  No.  I would say probably—probably 2-1 in favor of Kerry at this point, because the Senate Intelligence Committee hearings on Iraq take away a bit of his strong suit. 

And I just don‘t like a couple things that are going on, the FCC, the way Michael Powell is really dealing with—quote—“indecency,” this whole idea of the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

OWENS:  Stem cell research.  These are areas, it is pretty tough to compromise on. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, the center is now tilting left in California, in San Francisco especially. 

The book is great.  It‘s great for centrists, if there are any out there, also people on the left and right who want to understand what a centrist is these days, “Voice of Reason: Why the Left and Right Are Both Wrong.” 

Thank you very much, my pal.

(LAUGHTER)

OWENS:  Chris, it‘s a great pleasure.  Thanks for letting me come on. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.

Finally, tonight, it looks like our other friend Jon Stewart over at “The Daily Show” has been watching HARDBALL.  On Wednesday, we told you that Stewart had a little beef with our show over an issue with Bishop Desmond Tutu.  Last night, Jon Stewart took things one step further.  Let‘s take a look. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “THE DAILY SHOW”)

JON STEWART, HOST:  We‘re going to talk first about this MSNBC situation that we spoke about the other night.  I mentioned that Bishop Desmond Tutu is hopefully going to be a guest on the program. 

(LAUGHTER)

STEWART:  But MSNBC‘s “HARDBALL” show wouldn‘t allow him to join us before he went on their program, thus playing hardball with our program. 

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

STEWART:  But last night, apparently, on the MSNBC “HARDBALL” show, they said it‘s OK.  Mr. Tutu, Bishop Tutu, may do “The Daily Show.”  And I say to MSNBC‘s “HARDBALL” right now, I don‘t need your sloppy seconds.  

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

STEWART:  I don‘t need your—you know what?  Let me tell you this.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

STEWART:  Bishop Desmond Tutu is not a joint to be passed around at one of your MSNBC pot parties. 

(LAUGHTER)

STEWART:  Now, I didn‘t see the—by the way, what kind of way is that to start a feud?  I come out here and I say MSNBC won‘t let us have Bishop Desmond Tutu.  And then the next night, you go, OK, you can have him? 

(LAUGHTER)

STEWART:  Let me explain how you start a feud.  OK, I didn‘t see the MSNBC “HARDBALL” show last night where they discussed it.  I tried to tape it.  My TiVo, my DVR tried to record it but it wouldn‘t, not because of a technical malfunction.  It refused on moral grounds. 

(LAUGHTER)  

STEWART:  You see what I‘m saying?

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

STEWART:  That‘s how you start a feud.  My TiVo drew a line in the sand. 

(LAUGHTER)

STEWART:  Your move. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Jon, I have got three words for you. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Bring it on!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  And I‘m sticking to my deal.  Tutu does “Stewart.”  Stewart does HARDBALL.

Right now, it‘s time for the “COUNTDOWN” with Keith Olbermann. 

END   

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