updated 1/22/2013 11:01:13 AM ET 2013-01-22T16:01:13

HARDBALL
January 18, 2013

Guests: Buzz Bissinger, Dave Zirin, Willie Brown, John Nichols, Melinda Henneberger, Rob Simmelkjaer

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, GUEST HOST: Hey, Lance, tell us something we don`t
know.

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Michael Smerconish, in tonight for Chris Matthews.

Let`s start with this: Lance slide. It`s not like we didn`t see this
coming for a long time. Lance Armstrong`s cheating and deceptions have
chronicled, reported and testified to for years, but Lance Armstrong was no
ordinary cheat, no fourth outfielder looking for a little extra power or a
linebacker hoping for some extra muscle. No, Lance Armstrong was an
international hero, a seven-time Tour de France winner, the Babe Ruth, the
Muhammad Ali, the Usain Bolt of his sport, not to mention a very public
face in the fight against cancer.

Yet in his confessional last night with Oprah, he confessed only what was
obvious to anyone who wanted to see it, that he doped throughout his
cycling career. But Armstrong did not admit to cheating, denied he was a
doping ringleader, didn`t admit to bullying, and worst of all, seemed
emotionally incapable of sympathy for the people whose lives he ruined and
whose money he took when they tried to do nothing more than tell the truth
about what he had done.

Joining me, the DailyBeast`s Buzz Bissinger and sports editor for "The
Nation" Dave Zirin.

Buzz, have to bring it up. In August of 2012, just five months ago, you
wrote a cover story for "Newsweek" titled "I still believe in Lance
Armstrong." And yet last night, Armstrong`s interview with Oprah Winfrey
began with a series of yes and no questions.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OPRAH WINFREY, OWN: Did you ever take banned substances to enhance your
cycling performances?

LANCE ARMSTRONG, PROFESSIONAL CYCLIST: Yes.

WINFREY: Yes or no. Was one of those banned substances EPO?

ARMSTRONG: Yes.

WINFREY: Did you ever blood dope or use blood transfusions to enhance your
cycling performance?

ARMSTRONG: Yes.

WINFREY: Did you ever use any other banned substances, like testosterone,
cortisone, or human growth hormone?

ARMSTRONG: Yes.

WINFREY: Yes or no. In all seven of your Tour de France victories, did
you ever take banned substances or blood dope?

ARMSTRONG: Yes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Buzz, you are a Pulitzer Prize winner. You`re a smart guy, a
friend of mine. How was he able to roll you so recently as a couple months
ago?

BUZZ BISSINGER, DAILYBEAST: Well, you know, I cringe when I see that
cover, and I say that honestly. I think he was able to roll me because I
did not do my due diligence. And I think he aided and abetted just
slightly because I spoke to him before I did the story. This was in
August. He said he was giving up the fight against USADA.

But he still seemed defiant. He said, The odds were stacked against me.
These guys were out to screw me. I was denied due process. There was
never a hint, even, you know, a subtle off-the-record hint that something
was amiss and there really was a reason behind his wanting to give up the
fight.

So I bought it. I said I still believe in Lance, I still felt he was a
hero, despite the blood doping -- I assumed he did it, but because of the
foundation and overcoming cancer -- and just, you know, 2 percent, 3
percent, 5 percent, he really shot my credibility.

SMERCONISH: In retrospect, do you think that he should have reined you in,
that he owed it to you, knowing that you were going to come forth with that
kind of defense, to say, Hey -- hey, man, maybe you shouldn`t get out there
so far?

BISSINGER: You know, I do. And -- I do, but at the end of the day, I`m
not going to blame him. I`m going to blame myself. But I -- look, he`s
Lance Armstrong. What he wanted was the cover of "Newsweek." He wanted a
prominent -- someone prominent in the world of sports to come to his
defense because as we all saw last night, Lance is a clinical classic
narcissist who really only cares about himself.

So he didn`t care about me. He cared about getting what he could out of
me. But you know, journalists go through this all the time, and I bought
it, and I`m embarrassed.

SMERCONISH: Dave Zirin, you wrote that what he`s trying to do now is the
equivalent of riding a bike through the eye of a needle. Well, we watched
half of it. We`ll see the rest of it tonight perhaps. Did he succeed?

DAVE ZIRIN, EDGE OF SPORTS: Yes, no, he didn`t succeed at all. He didn`t
succeed on either front, and that`s the key point here, is that he had to
do two different things that were very different, very divergent, and he
failed at both.

This is what he had to do. First, he had to show USADA, the United States
Anti-Doping Agency, that he was contrite, that he was serious about taking
their findings as the new law of the land, that their findings about him
were correct. He had to show that he was serious about that. And if he
did that, maybe they would lift the lifetime ban they had imposed upon him.

And the second thing he had to do was build public sympathy, maybe try to
remind people why they fell in love with Lance Armstrong in the first
place.

On the first front, failed miserably. He actually drew a line through the
heart of the USADA report. The heart of the report said that Lance
Armstrong was actually a doping ringleader, that he wasn`t just another
cyclist who used PEDs, but that he organized his team to actually use dope.

SMERCONISH: He wasn`t accepting of that last night.

ZIRIN: No, he said absolutely not. And USADA today, they are not happy
with that interview. And on the second front about building public
sympathy, I mean, my word, I felt like I was watching the Titanic hit an
iceberg here.

I felt like Oprah kept trying to help him, you know, like throwing him
lifelines, like, Try to make yourself more sympathetic, please. And all he
could do is stare back with this reptilian look on his face and really have
no sense of regard for anybody but himself. The only thing that came
across was, I`m really, really sorry I got caught.

SMERCONISH: Let`s take a look at something else. Armstrong told Oprah
that when he was doping, he had a clear conscience. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WINFREY: Was it a big deal to you? Did it feel wrong?

ARMSTRONG: At the time?

WINFREY: Uh-huh.

ARMSTRONG: No.

WINFREY: It did not even feel wrong?

ARMSTRONG: No. Scary.

WINFREY: Did you feel bad about it?

ARMSTRONG: No. Even scarier.

WINFREY: Did you feel in any way that you were cheating?

ARMSTRONG: No. The scariest.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Buzz, I took that to mean that he thought he was doing this
rationalizing to the keep pace with everybody else. You know, everybody
was doing this, and this is the way -- the only way that he could stay
competitive.

BISSINGER: Well, you know, that`s what I thought, as well, but I think
Dave makes a really good point. To me -- I changed my position not because
of pressure from readers, although many said, Buzz, you know, you just have
the wool over your eyes.

I changed my position when the actual report came out in October, and as
Dave said, the worst thing about those allegations was that he coerced
teammates, that he was a ringleader, that it was the most sophisticated
system they had ever seen of evading detection by drugs. That took it to a
whole different level.

And during the interview, he denied, basically, all of that. And I also
think what happened is USADA said, The first step is you`re going to have
to confess. He didn`t want to do this, and I think USADA was floating a
trial balloon and saying, Let`s see how it plays with the public. Can we
afford to give him redemption? And it played terribly with the public.

SMERCONISH: Do you want a piece of that?

ZIRIN: Yes, because you know what he did that was really repellent that I
don`t think the media is remarking upon enough? But when he said, No, I
did not lead a doping ring, what he was doing was accusing the people who
were on his team of lying to USADA. He was accusing them of perjury.

SMERCONISH: Right.

ZIRIN: He was accusing them of lying under oath. So if last night was
supposed to be Lance Armstrong comes clean, the lies are done, well, guess
what? He either lied or he accused people who were at his mercy when they
basically worked for him with his team for the Tour de France -- he accused
them of a federal crime.

SMERCONISH: I thought a critical part -- and Buzz you address this -- he
discussed one of the most watched moments, one of the most pervasive
complaints of his teammates and crew, that he was a bully. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ARMSTRONG: I was a bully in the sense that you just -- that I tried to
control the narrative, and if I didn`t like what somebody said, and for
whatever reasons in my own head, whether I viewed that as somebody being
disloyal or as a friend turning on you or whatever, I tried to control that
and say, That`s a lie, they`re liars.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: And then there`s this. In this clip, Oprah confronts Lance
Armstrong with his own lying following his final Tour de France win.
Watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WINFREY: This is the clip that I cannot -- I just can`t reconcile what you
were thinking when you did this. Play the winning clip.

ARMSTRONG: And finally, the last thing I`ll say to the people that don`t
believe in cycling, the cynics and the skeptics, I`m sorry for you. I`m
sorry you can`t dream big and I`m sorry you don`t believe in miracles. But
this is one hell of a race. This is a great sporting event, and you should
stand around and believe. You should believe in these athletes and you
should believe in these people. And I`m a fan of the Tour de France for as
long as I live, and there are no secrets. This is a hard sporting event
and hard work wins it. So vive la Tour forever.

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

WINFREY: What were you trying to accomplish there?

ARMSTRONG: Yes, that was -- I`ve made some mistakes in my life, that`s for
sure. That would be one.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Heavy swallow, looked palpably uncomfortable. Buzz, you
thought that was the most telling moment of the interview.

BISSINGER: I mean -- I mean, to me it was. First of all, he`s not
gracious at all. And once again, it`s Lance playing the role of the
persecuted victim -- I did nothing wrong, the people who have spoken out
against me are cynics, they`re skeptics.

And it`s -- look, we all like to control the narrative in life. This guy
is not controlling the narrative. This guy has a coterie of lawyers who
are filing a suit against anyone and everything, trying to destroy the
lives of individuals, get a settlement against "The London Times." That`s
not controlling the narrative.

You saw the depositions last night, where he is boldfaced (SIC) under oath
lying. That takes lying to a totally new dimension. To me, it`s criminal.

SMERCONISH: Dave, what`s worse, bullying or doping? Because the whole
bullying subtext I thought was a big part of last night.

ZIRIN: Oh, I think by far bullying is worse.

SMERCONISH: How so?

ZIRIN: One could make a compelling case that if you want to be a
competitive cyclist, that doping was a prerequisite for doing so. One
could make a case that international cycling was like the Wild West
throughout the `90s and the early 2000s. And one could even make a case
that if you wanted to survive the Tour de France, you better take some of
these PEDs because most of them are about blood oxygenation. Like, one
could rationalize it, if one chose to.

But when you bully other people to make these kinds of unhealthy choices,
when you threaten them financially, and when you do what I think is one of
the ugliest parts of the American justice system, when you say, I`m rich,
you`re not, therefore I can sue you and destroy you, even though we both
know I`m lying -- there`s an ugliness to that that made even a relative of
mine who is a Livestrong person, a cancer survivor, say, I don`t like this
guy anymore.

SMERCONISH: He better hope that he played better than the jury of the
three of us, that`s for sure.

ZIRIN: Yes.

SMERCONISH: Thank you, Buzz Bissinger. Thank you, Dave Zirin. We
appreciate it very much.

Coming up: Lance Armstrong isn`t the only athlete who`s got some `splaining
to do. More and more people are wondering exactly what Notre Dame`s Manti
Te`o knew and when he knew it about the tragic death of a girlfriend who
never existed from a disease that she never had. And the longer that he
stays silent, the more people suspect he`s got something to hide.

Up next: Senator Ted Cruz is accusing President Obama of exploiting the
murder of children to strengthen gun laws. And a few steps to the right
are the truthers who claim the Sandy Hook shootings were engineered by the
government to gain sympathy for gun laws. In this atmosphere, how much can
the Obama administration really get done on gun safety?

Also, as President Obama prepares for a second term, which way is the
Democratic Party headed? Will it be a pragmatic middle-of-the road
alternative to the GOP, or will it try to seize the moment and move sharply
to the left?

And you can`t be president of the United States for four more years without
a couple of episodes like this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We cannot sustain -- whoops!
Was that my...

That`s all right. All of you know who I am.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: We`ll have more of the lighter moments of the first term in
the "Sideshow."

This is HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH: Heading into the weekend of Barack Obama`s second inaugural,
we`ve got some new poll numbers from our NBC News/"Wall Street Journal"
poll about what Americans think of their president.

Fifty-two percent approve of the job that he`s doing as president. That`s
a hair above the 51 percent that put him back in office in the November
election. Sixty-one percent say he`s easy-going and likable. Fifty-five
percent say he can handle a crisis. Fifty-one percent say he`s a good
commander-in-chief, while only 29 percent say that he works effectively
with Congress.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH: Welcome back to HARDBALL. One of President Obama`s first
major challenges in his second term will be trying to get significant new
gun control legislation through the Congress, but can he do it? If the
loud and at times outrageous opposition coming from the right is any
indication, the president has one major fight on his hands.

Already, the NRA has labeled him an elitist hypocrite and specifically
called out his daughters, who receive Secret Service protection.
Yesterday, Senator Ted Cruz accused the president of exploiting the murder
of children to push through gun control legislation.

And then there are the real nuts out there, a movement of people who say
that the Sandy Hook tragedy was a hoax. The real purpose was to create a
political environment to take away all of our guns. While the opposition
is intense, the American public is largely on board with at least some of
the president`s agenda. In a new NBC News/"Wall Street Journal" poll, more
than half, 56 percent, say laws covering the sale of firearms should be
stricter.

So what realistically can the president do? David Corn is Washington
bureau chief for "Mother Jones." Joy Reid is managing editor of
TheGrio.com. And both are MSNBC political analysts.

Joy, how large should he be looking?

JOY REID, THEGRIO.COM, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: Well, you know, I think the
president needs to go in with a large package, obviously. But when you
talk to individual lawmakers, particularly on the House side, you get the
sense that two things have to happen.

First of all, something has to pass the Senate. That theoretically could
be large. But the House is going to be a much tougher sled, although I was
speaking with a couple of lawmakers yesterday who seemed to think that
parts of what the president wants could actually pass in the House, things
that are pretty much non-controversial, thing like universal background
checks that even pro-gun, even pro-NRA people support, and that there is
even a possibility that you could get high-capacity magazines through the
House.

But whatever happens, it seems like the Senate once again is going to have
to act first.

SMERCONISH: David, I hope we get votes. One of the things that I was
offended by in the whole Simpson-Bowles process is that people at home
never knew how their member of the House or Senate felt because they didn`t
have clean up-and-down votes. I think we`re owed that.

DAVID CORN, "MOTHER JONES," MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, in the perfect,
even the close to perfect or the not so bad world, you`re correct. We
should have votes up and down on this.

I think right now, the people who are the obstructionists, the Republicans,
the gun lobby, are talking more reasonably than they will a month or two or
three down the road, when actually some of these things come up for
possible votes.

More important than deciding whether to have a big package, to do a series
of votes, the only way this is going to succeed in either scenario is if
the president can keep up the intensity level on his side, on the side of
those people who want to see these things pass.

We know that the gun lobby, the gun fanatics will be very intense not just
tomorrow but six months from now and a year from now. And to overcome that
opposition, which will manifest itself when the moment comes, he`s going to
have to keep cops engaged, educators, neighborhood groups, you know, public
educators and public safety advocates really as engaged in this issue as
the NRA. And that`s a challenge.

SMERCONISH: They might continue to shoot themselves in the foot, pun
intended. I want to just show a little bit of this. Earlier this week,
the NRA released the Web video that gets very personal with the president.
Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are the president`s kids more important than yours?
Then why is he skeptical about putting armed security in our schools when
his kids are protected by armed guards at their school?

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: To talk about the president`s
children or any public officer`s children, who have not by their own choice
but by requirement to have protection, and to use that somehow to try to
make a political point I think is reprehensible.

I think it`s awful to bring public figures` children into the political
debate. They don`t deserve to be there. And I think for any of us who are
public figures, you see that kind of ad and you cringe.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Chris Christie I think is on the right side of this
politically speaking for himself at home in New Jersey. Why aren`t more
Republicans -- he`s the only one that I`m aware of...

REID: Yes.

SMERCONISH: ... who took this position.

REID: Absolutely.

Well, Chris Christie once again -- first of all, he`s consistent because
he`s yelled at people for asking about his own kids being private-schooled,
if you remember that YouTube moment. But he`s also one of the only
Republicans who doesn`t seem beholden to the far right.

I think that`s part because he`s doing politics in New Jersey, which is
essentially a blue state where he wants to get reelected governor. I think
he`s ensuring he will get reelected governor, but I think this is one of
the reasons I can`t see Chris Christie being anywhere near being the
nominee for the Republican Party as president.

CORN: Well, I think he`s running for president, but as the Democratic
nominee.

(CROSSTALK)

REID: Right. He will never make it through the Republican primary.

CORN: But viewers of MSNBC, if they have watched the shows the past few
days, know that I have kept asking for any Republican in an elected
leadership position to say something about the craziness and excessive
rhetoric on their side.

And Colin Powell, I`m sorry, he doesn`t count as a Republican anymore. But
Chris Christie, I will give him credit. He has finally stepped up and said
at least this NRA ad is bad. But what about the guys who are calling for
civil war, impeachment, attacking the president for being a king, imperial,
Rand Paul?

I mean, it`s amazing the free run they`re getting from the more responsible
people, if they even exist, in the Republican Party.

SMERCONISH: What`s amazing to me is that the president in his remarks with
the vice president embraced the Second Amendment, made reference to the
creator, invoked the name of Ronald Reagan, and still comes out of the
thing as a socialist who...

(CROSSTALK)

REID: Right.

(CROSSTALK)

CORN: A secret Muslim socialist who wants to take your guns.

REID: Right.

SMERCONISH: Perhaps the most disturbing trend since the Newtown shootings
has been the rise of conspiracy theorists who claim the whole thing was a
hoax, part of an elaborate plan by the government to provoke enough anger
to warrant rounding up your guns.

Web sites, blogs, YouTube videos have attacked the veracity of officials
and official accounts of tragedy. They allege that many of the people
interviewed on TV were actually actors, that the parents didn`t show enough
emotion and therefore must be in the conspiracy.

Some claim that if the shooting actually happened, there must have been
more than one shooter and the government was involved somehow. One 30-
minute truther video on YouTube has been viewed over 10 million times, and
it`s not just the loons on the Internet.

James Tracy is a tenured professor at Florida Atlantic University. And
take a look at what he wrote on his blog -- quote -- "While it sounds like
an outrageous claim, one is left to inquire whether the Sandy Hook shooting
ever took place, at least in the way law enforcement authorities and the
nation`s news media have described."

David Corn, I remember growing up and going to the movies and paying
because I wanted to learn whether Bigfoot really existed.

CORN: Yes.

SMERCONISH: And somehow now in the 21st century, you know, those sort of
nutty ideas where nobody got hurt have morphed into this sort of loose
change-like garbage, if you remember, in the aftermath of September 11.

CORN: Yes. I hate to say it, but this was predictable. You knew that the
Alex Joneses and other people in the world would use this for their own
ends to sell books, to sell theories.

I mean, the professor`s statements is one of the best arguments against
tenure I have ever heard. And I feel it`s even sorry that we feel
compelled to have to debunk this. It`s just the craziness that goes even
beyond the gun fanatic craziness we have seen.

REID: Right. And I think there`s a part of the human psyche that doesn`t
want to believe bad things happens and the Occam`s razor applies to them,
right, that the simple explanation is the best, so that when something
horrific like 9/11 happens people look for a bigger conspiracy.

Or when the president, when John F. Kennedy was shot, people couldn`t quite
believe that the narrative that they were given was true. I think what is
difficult is that today there`s a commerce in it, and this same conspiracy,
that the government is going to grab your guns and use a false flag attack
on American citizens to do it has migrated from the Waco, from the Branch
Davidians to Oklahoma City, which Alex Jones also jumped on, to Oklahoma
City. It`s migrated to Fast and Furious. It`s gone to the Aurora
shooting.

Each one of these becomes the newest false flag attack whereby the black
helicopters are coming to get your guns.

(CROSSTALK)

SMERCONISH: Yes, and it`s made easy by just touching the send key.

I have got to run. But thank you both for being here.

Thank you, David Corn. Thank you, Joy Reid.

Up next: the lighter moments of President Obama`s first term.

And, remember, you can follow me on Twitter if you can spell Smerconish.
This is HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH: Back to HARDBALL.

Next time you tune into HARDBALL, we will be a few hours into President
Obama`s second term. Embedded in all the highs and lows of the past four
years have been those lighter moments that are equally tough to forget.
Let`s take a quick look back.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We cannot sustain -- whoops.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: Was that my -- that`s all right.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: All of you know who I am.

The guy forgot his keys, jimmied his way to get into the house. There was
a report called into the police station that there might be a burglary
taking place. So far so good, right? I mean, if I was trying to jigger --
well, I guess this is my house now.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: So it probably wouldn`t happen, but let`s say my old house in
Chicago.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: Here, I would get shot.

Bipartisan outreach will be so successful that even John Boehner will
consider becoming a Democrat. After all, we have a lot in common. He is a
person of color...

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: ... although not a color that appears in the natural world.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: Leaders of the Republican Party, they call the passage of this bill
Armageddon, end of freedom as we know it. So, after I sign the bill, I
looked around to see if there were any asteroids falling or sudden cracks
opening up in the earth.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: Turned out it was a nice day.

They said we needed to triple the Border Patrol. Well, now they`re going
to say we need to quadruple the Border Patrol or they will want a higher
fence. Maybe they will need a moat. Maybe they want alligators in the
moat.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: Lots of ups, lots of downs, except for my approval ratings, which
have just gone down.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: But that`s politics. It doesn`t bother me. Besides, I happen to
know that my approval ratings are still very high in the country of my
birth.

He seems all-American, but if you heard his real middle name, Tim Hosni
Pawlenty, what a shame.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: Governor Romney has said that he hoped a similar version of this
plan from last year would be introduced as a bill on day one of his
presidency. He even called it marvelous, which is a word you don`t often
hear when it comes to describing a budget.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: It`s a word you don`t often hear generally.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: I think Governor Romney maybe hasn`t spent enough time looking at
how our military works.

You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we
did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets.

I particularly want to apologize to Chris Matthews.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: Four years ago, I gave him a thrill up his leg.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: This time around, I gave him a stroke.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(LAUGHTER)

SMERCONISH: There`s no reason to think that we shouldn`t expect more of
those in the next term.

This is the official portrait of President Obama from four years ago. Here
is the new one. Sure, he doesn`t look quite as young, but clearly he opted
to go a much more cheerful route this time around.

Up next: As President Obama prepares for a second term, which way is the
Democratic Party headed? To the center or to the left?

And this Sunday, join Chris Matthews for a special airing of his
documentary "Barack Obama: Making History." That`s this Sunday at 6:00
p.m.

You`re watching HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JACKIE DEANGELIS, CNBC CORRESPONDENT: I`m Jackie DeAngelis with your CNBC
"Market Wrap."

The Dow gaining 53 points to finish at a five-year high today. The S&P
building on yesterday`s gains also at a five-year high and the Nasdaq
falling one point. One big mover today, Morgan Stanley, shares rising
nearly 8 percent after reporting better-than-expected earnings. And GE
also beating estimates, sending shares up more than 3 percent. GE is a
minority owner of NBC Universal, the parent of CNBC and MSNBC.

That`s it from CBS, first in business worldwide -- now back to HARDBALL.

SMERCONISH: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

While much of the focus and scrutiny has been on the very real challenges
confronting the Republican Party, there`s been less attention paid to
questions facing Democrats over the next four years. Though President
Obama handily won reelection, the Democrats face a challenge of their own.

As Politico`s Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman pointed out today --
quote -- "He presides over a party that has largely papered over its
divisions for the past four years thanks to the president`s commanding
popularity. But almost as soon as the echo of Obama`s inaugural address
fades and he becomes a lame-duck, Democrats are going to have to face a
central and unresolved question about their political identity. Will they
become a center-left "Democratic Leadership Council by a different name"
party or return to a populist left-leaning approach that mirrors their
electoral coalition?"

To tackle that question, we`re joined by former San Francisco Mayor Willie
Brown and John Nichols, Washington correspondent for "The Nation."

Mayor, how do you read the 2012 outcome? Did it validate a liberal agenda
or was it much more about the individual popularity of one Barack Obama?

WILLIE BROWN (D), FORMER MAYOR OF SAN FRANCISCO: It was more about the
individual popularity of the one Barack Obama, plus Bill Clinton. After
all, it was a decisive victory, but it was a victory for the man, not
necessarily the party.

SMERCONISH: Is that how you read it, John? Do you see that this being an
Obama victory, as opposed to a liberal victory, or are they intertwined?

JOHN NICHOLS, "THE NATION": Well, I never want to disagree too much with
one of the greater politicians in American history, but I would suggest
that there was a little more party there.

You won a couple of U.S. Senate seats that they weren`t supposed to win
sometimes because of Republican flubs; 1.4 million more people voted for
Democrats for the House than voted for Republicans. Only gerrymandering
kept the House where it is.

And so I think that this man has done a lot to build a broad progressive
coalition, but your core question is the important one. Can you hold that
coalition together?

SMERCONISH: But, Mayor...

(CROSSTALK)

SMERCONISH: Go ahead.

BROWN: Let me say this to you, though.

I believe that it would have been a more telling benefit for the party if
it had been Nancy Pelosi reemerging as the speaker of the House, and if
Democrat governors had won in the numbers that they needed to win in, as
well as legislative bodies being dominated by Democrats.

I think the cult of the personality had a lot more to do with the end
results this time around, in addition thereto, the defective candidacy of
the Republican nominee. After all, he was a legitimate burden for that
party.

SMERCONISH: The Republicans were the best friend of the Democrats because
of that whole primary process. Those debates I think had a collective
effect that was all to the benefit of President Obama in the end.

NICHOLS: You had one rational guy, Jon Huntsman, come out, and they all
pounded on him.

SMERCONISH: Who didn`t act as rationally as he really is. You remember
the old 10-for-one question, and he was one of the hands that went up in
the air.

(CROSSTALK)

NICHOLS: But he tried a little bit until South Carolina.

But this is where it gets interesting. It wasn`t just the debate. The
pathologies of the debate played out through the campaign. So you had
Senate seats in Missouri and Indiana that fell to the Democrats in part
because of Republican flubs. We have to go to that core question. What is
the Democratic Party now?

Is it a party that simply does well when the Republicans do badly? Is it
simply an alternative to the Republicans? Or is there a "there" there?
That`s something that Barack Obama is going to have to do a lot of defining
in and it will start in the inaugural speech.

SMERCONISH: Mayor, looking beyond the president, identify a face or faces
within the party that you think best represent where it needs to go.

For example, senator-elect Elizabeth Warren, is that an individual who you
think embodies where the Democratic Party needs to be moving?

BROWN: No, I do not.

I think the Democratic Party is still pretty much the cult of the
personalities that are involved. I think Elizabeth Warren won in the state
of Massachusetts simply because she was a better personality, a better
candidate, and the issues in that state were issues that were totally
marketable around her candidacy.

On the other hand, in other states, they were not equally as marketable.
In the state of Ohio, for an example, it was clear that the incredible
number of racial minorities who turned out did so for Barack Obama. They
didn`t do so just for the Democratic Party.

So I still think the Democratic Party at the moment has to rely upon the
incredible personality of the individual candidacies before they can even
get to the part of where they talk about a party agenda.

SMERCONISH: John Nichols, an interesting development today. The
administration has announced that its transitioning its campaign apparatus
into a new tax-exempt group called Organizing for Action. That`s the new
name for what was once called Obama for America. The goal, according to
"Politico", is to play an active role in mobilizing support for the
president`s legislative agenda.

Listen to what former Obama adviser Robert Gibbs said today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT GIBBS, FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president has the
most exciting campaign apparatus ever built. It`s time to turn that loose.
It`s time to turn that loose for something more than just an election,
right? If the NRA has got a list then Obama for America has a bigger list.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: I`m not sure what they think of that at the DNC, that all of a
sudden, this entity is going to have perpetual life.

JOHN NICHOLS, THE NATION: Let`s be really clear about this. The DNC is
always an extension of the president who is in office.

What`s interesting about this, and I talked to people who are engaged in
this today, and it`s still very much in definition. But this is where the
answer to your question comes. Because if OFA becomes a very effective
force as regards to legislation, then you begin to define the Democratic
Party based on a legislative agenda which as the mayor points out extends
from this president.

But, again, there`s one challenge in this. That agenda may not unite the
whole of the coalition as well as Barack Obama himself did.

SMERCONISH: It will be interesting to watch in the next couple years.

Thank you, Mayor Brown. Thank you, John Nichols. We appreciate it very
much.

BROWN: Thank you.

SMERCONISH: Up next, the curious case of star Notre Dame linebacker Manti
Te`o. More people are wondering what he knew and when he knew it, about
the death of a woman that he called his girlfriend but who never really
existed.

This is HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Looks like America is a nation of conspiracy theorists. A new
poll by Fairleigh-Dickinson University in New Jersey finds that nearly two-
thirds of Americans believe at least one of four conspiracies theories
presented to them.

Among the conspiracy theories, that President Obama is hiding information
about his background. Thirty-six percent believe that one.

Twenty-five percent, that`s one in four, say the government knew about 9/11
before it happened.

And 19 percent say the 2012 presidential election was stolen.

And how about this? The poll found that the more people knew about current
events, the less likely they are to believe conspiracy theories. That
makes sense, and that`s true in general.

But not among Republicans, where more knowledge actually leads to greater
belief in conspiracy theories.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH: We`re back.

You may not have known the name Manti Te`o before this week but odds are
you do tonight. Te`o, of course, is the Notre Dame football star who led
the Irish to the national championship game after losing his girlfriend to
cancer. Now, it turns out the girlfriend didn`t die, didn`t have cancer,
and didn`t even exist.

The question tonight is whether Te`o was the victim of a foul prank or
involved in the hoax himself. In September, Te`o valiantly played a big
game against Michigan State after he thought his girlfriend died of
leukemia. In fact, just days earlier, Te`o had told reporters and
teammates his girlfriend and grandmother had died within hours of one
another.

Notre dame says that Te`o was the victim of a cruel hoax who found out via
a phone call in December that he`d been pranked. He alerted the school 20
days later.

Te`o released a statement this week saying, "This is incredibly
embarrassing to talk about, but over an extended period of time, I
developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online. We
maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating
frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to care deeply about her.
To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone`s sick joke
and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating."

Melinda Henneberger is a "Washington Post" political reporter who is a
Notre Dame alum.

Rob Simmelkjaer is with NBC Sports Radio.

Notre Dame says that on December 6th, Te`o got a call from what he thought
was his late girlfriend`s phone and he realized he`d been the victim of a
prank. But two days later, he was referring to the girlfriend and their
relationship in interviews as if nothing had happened.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MANTI TE`O, NOTRE DAME LINEBACKER: Since I really got, you know, hit with
cancer, I don`t like cancer at all. Cancer -- I lost both my grandparents
and my girlfriend to cancer. So, I have really tried to go to children`s
hospitals and see, you know, children.

COLEMAN: Manti, you mentioned the tragedy. You lose your girlfriend and
your grandmother in the same week, right? I want to make sure I got that
correct.

TE`O: Correct. Same day, same day.

COLEMAN: Same day. So what do you think both of those ladies would say to
you being a Heisman trophy finalist?

TE`O: I hope that my grandma and, you know, my girlfriend would say that
they`re proud. Not only that I`m here, but the way that I conducted myself
and just always to remain humble, be gracious, and always to acknowledge
Heavenly Father in all things.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Rob, at a minimum, can we conclude that if he wasn`t in on it,
at least he had knowledge that the whole thing was a fraud and a hoax
before he publicly acknowledged as such?

ROB SIMMELKJAER, NBC SPORTS RADIO: Yes, I think we can. I mean, he`s made
a statement that he found out it was a hoax on one date, and then, as you
just played, a couple days later he hadn`t acknowledged that yet. Now,
Michael, that can be consistent theoretically with him just being
embarrassed by the situation and not wanting to go public with it, not
wanting to acknowledge at that time that he had been fooled, that he had
been hoaxed basically.

So I wouldn`t draw any conclusions, but -- what exactly what he said.

SMERCONISH: Initially -- in other words, a potential is that initially he
wasn`t in on it, but this whole thing just snowballed out of control, and
at some point, he made a decision to play along.

SIMMELKJAER: I think that`s right. I think I one could imagine a set of
circumstances where a young man on the national stage for the first time
might just decide it was too embarrassing to admit that he had been fooled
in this way.

So that is certainly a possibility. I think there`s a range of
possibilities here. And we still don`t know the facts. I think we all
need to hear from Manti Te`o to hear what those facts are.

SMERCONISH: Melinda, I know you`re still doing some reporting. What do we
know about his love life, generally?

MELINDA HENNEBERGER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Well, I think it`s important to
say again that, mainly, what we do know is we don`t have all of the facts.
But, on campus, there was apparently a great deal of skepticism before
this, not whether the girl existed or not but how serious the relationship
was. And there was, apparently, feeling among even some of his teammates,
that he was getting in over his head, there was concern for him, because
he`s very well-liked on campus, that he was giving in over his head,
describing this girl as the love of his life when, on campus, he was seeing
other young women.

SMERCONISH: He was. He was dating other women.

HENNEBERGER: Yes. And this fall, he was dating a young woman at St.
Mary`s College, across the street from Notre Dame. And so, there was a lot
of questioning about, you know, how this love of his life fit in with his
dating life on campus.

SMERCONISH: Pete Thamel of "Sports Illustrated" interviewed Manti Te`o
back in September. And looking back at his interview transcripts, he sees
now how his story became questionable.

Thamel writes, "In retrospect, there were some red flags. When I checked
Lexis Nexis to find out more about Kekua, I couldn`t find anything, though
that`s not uncommon for a college-age student. Nor was there anything on
her supposed brother, Koa. I was unable to track down any obituaries or
funeral notices. The Stanford assistant athletic director couldn`t find
her in alumni directory that we searched for details about the car crash.
And we couldn`t find any articles about that accident."

There`s a lot of questioning now in the media role of all of this. And I
have to say, I`m sympathetic to Pete Thamel because in the "Sports
Illustrated" explanation, now we know that he had a deadline of two hours
after he concluded that interview for what became a cover story.

HENNEBERGER: Well, we should all be humble and not be overly quick to
point the finger when we could all find ourselves in a situation like this.

On the other hand, I think, in general, the press has been very willing to
accept and even be part of the Notre Dame myth-making.

And I think that, you know, this player and the press maybe didn`t have the
usual hokum detectors fully engaged when you`re thinking, wow, this is a
lot like the story of the Gipper. How amazing that this woman lay dying
and saying, please, win one for me. Please don`t stop to come to my
funeral.

SMERCONISH: Very easy in retrospect to look back at what we now know and
say, oh my God, the alarm bells should have been ringing. But, of course,
in real time, it`s a much different circumstance as we all appreciate.

HENNEBERGER: Well, I look, though, at the Notre Dame officials who are
crying their eyes out for this poor young man and this is an unimaginable
tragedy --

(CROSSTALK)

SMERCONISH: They`ve got some explaining to do as well. I agree.

HENNEBERGER: I think so.

SMERCONISH: Thank you, Rob Simmelkjaer. Thank you, Melinda Henneberger.

HENNEBERGER: Thanks.

SMERCONISH: We appreciate you being here.

When we return, let me finish with what Winston Churchill could teach
President Obama.

You`re watching HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH: Let me finish tonight with this:

I really enjoyed Cita Stelzer`s brand new book. It`s called "Dinner with
Churchill: Policy-Making at the Dinner Table."

She writes about how while managing the war, the British prime minister
maintained an active palette, a taste for whiskey and cognac and a nose for
a fine Cuban cigar. But the real takeaway from the book was that this so-
called man of the 20th century was more productive at the dinner table than
the conference table.

And as we look to the start of the president`s second term on Monday, it`s
a lesson which needs to be appreciated by modern day Washington. That we
live in polarized times -- that`s not subject to debate. One of the causes
is incivility.

Elected officials, they spend very little social time with one another.
They don`t move their families and settle here anymore. They`re too busy
running home to raise money, to spur a climate where collegiality reigns
will require both sides extending themselves.

The president has many fine attributes, but this sort of socializing
doesn`t appear to come to him naturally, the way they it did to, say, JFK
or Reagan. He disagrees. Here`s what he said when asked about the insular
nature of his White House at this week`s press conference.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Most people who know me know
I`m a pretty friendly guy. And I like a good party.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Now, still, when he extends himself, his overtures -- they
need to be reciprocated.

Last week, ABC reported that Speaker Boehner has turned down an invitation
to every single formal state dinner that President Obama has held. That`s
six in total. And that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had turned
down at least two. And that McConnell even declined an invitation last
spring when the University of Kentucky men`s basketball team was honored at
the White House for winning the national championship.

In 2011, the White House held a reception for newly elected members of the
Congress, only 27 of the new Republican House members showed up. That`s
out of a record freshman class that totaled 87. And more recently, no
elected Republicans elected a White House screening of "Lincoln" last
month.

Had Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Lamar Alexander and Tom Coburn attended,
they were all invited, they would have joined not only Nancy Pelosi and
Harry Reid but also Steven Spielberg, Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, James
Spader and Tommy Lee Jones.

As Tip O`Neil famously said about his political foe Ronald Reagan, "love
the sinner, hate the sin." We need to get back to a time when the
president, President Reagan, would invite the speaker, Tip O`Neill, over to
the White House for drinks despite their ideological disagreement and
raised a glass to one another.

There`s no shortage of parties planned around inauguration 2013. Here`s
hoping that the conviviality spills over to the next four years, and both
sides of the aisle make a move to be more social, more civil and, hence,
more productive.

And that`s HARDBALL for now. Thanks for being with us.

"POLITICS NATION" with Al Sharpton starts right now.

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

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