Guest: Larry Thurlow, Michael Dobbs, Max Cleland, Michelle Malkin, Willie Brown, Dana Milbank, David Gergen
CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Tonight, political war breaks out over the swift boat ad, and John Kerry come out swinging against the president.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: Well, if he wants to have a debate about our service in Vietnam, here is my answer: Bring it on!
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: Plus, do military records contradict one of Kerry‘s harshest critics? We‘ll talk to the former swift boat commander at the center of this political firestorm, Larry Thurlow. And Kerry-Edwards supporter former senator Max Cleland talks about why the war in Vietnam haunts this election.
Let‘s play HARDBALL.
Good evening. I‘m Chris Matthews. The shots at John Kerry‘s Vietnam record were dealt a blow today when a “Washington Post” reporter uncovered military records of one of Kerry‘s war critics that, in fact, support Kerry‘s version of events in Vietnam. We‘re going to talk to that reporter in a minute.
But first, Larry Thurlow is the Vietnam veteran who was the subject of today‘s “Washington Post” report. He commanded a Navy swift boat alongside Kerry in Vietnam and says Kerry‘s boat did not come under enemy fire when he retrieved Lieutenant James Rassmann out of the water. He also appeared in the swift boat veterans ad that‘s called Veterans for Truth.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. JOHN EDWARDS (D-NC), VICE PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: If you ask any question about what John Kerry‘s made of, just spend three minutes with the men who served with him.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I served with John Kerry.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I served with John Kerry.
GEORGE ELLIOTT, LT. COMMANDER, 2 BRONZE STARS: John Kerry has not been honest about what happened in Vietnam.
AL FRENCH, ENSIGN, TWO BRONZE STARS: He is lying about his record.
LOUIS LETSON, MEDICAL OFFICER, LT. COMMANDER: I know John Kerry is lying about his first Purple Heart because I treated him for that injury.
VAN ODELL, GUNNER‘S MATE 2ND CLASS: John Kerry lied to get his Bronze Star. I know. I was there. I saw what happened.
JACK CHENOWETH, LT. J.G., NAVY COMMENDATION MEDAL: His account of what happened and what actually happened are the difference between night and day.
ROY HOFFMAN: John Kerry has not been honest.
ADRIAN LONSDALE: And he lacks the capacity to lead.
LARRY THURLOW: When the chips were down, you could not count on John Kerry.
BOB ELDER: John Kerry is no war hero.
GRANT HIBBARD: He betrayed all his shipmates. He lied before the Senate.
SHELTON WHITE: John Kerry betrayed the men and women he served with in Vietnam.
JOE PONDER: He dishonored his country. He most certainly did.
BOB HILDRETH: I served with John Kerry. John Kerry cannot be trusted.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Swift Boat Veterans for Truth is responsible for the content of this advertisement.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: Larry Thurlow, thank you very much for joining us tonight. I admire your service, certainly. Let me ask you, sir, about the quote that you have in this ad. It says—and these are your words, speaking them in the advertisement—“When the chips were down, you could not count on John Kerry.” Why do you say that?
LARRY THURLOW, ANTI-KERRY SWIFT BOAT VETERAN: Mr. Matthews, the main reason I say that is because it became apparent early on that John Kerry had a master plan that went far beyond the service in the swift boats, and because of the fact that he was trying to engineer a record, so to speak, for himself, he was not a trustworthy member of a very tightly-knit unit that counted on each other at every second. And once it became apparent that he had this plan that kind of excluded what was required of us at certain times, it became apparent to me that you could not count on him.
MATTHEWS: When did you first become aware of this plan?
THURLOW: I became aware of it as a combination of events started to transpire, where it became apparent to me that he wasn‘t being truthful about how he reported certain incidents and how he—in his own description back then was, he was quite a cowboy, which at that particular time, that you didn‘t follow orders, did you as you pleased and you kind of just looked out for yourself and didn‘t really care about your shipmates.
MATTHEWS: Tell me about the time you discovered that he wasn‘t honest about his account of events. When did you first discover that habit of his, as you say?
THURLOW: Well, on a firsthand basis, I understood that the Purple Heart that he received at Cam Ranh Bay was fabricated and wasn‘t based on any factuality at all, but...
MATTHEWS: How did you learn that, sir?
THURLOW: I learned that from the people who had been with him at that time, when he reported that he received an injury from hostile fire, when in fact, there was none.
MATTHEWS: Who was the person who told you this, that he didn‘t deserve the Purple Heart?
THURLOW: The people—keep in mind...
MATTHEWS: Can you give me a name, sir?
THURLOW: The name I would give you, after the fact, is Dr. Letson.
MATTHEWS: No. At the time. At the time. You said at the time this happened, you discovered he had a habit of fabricating the truth.
THURLOW: I can‘t give you a specific name. It was a crew member that came from Cam Ranh Bay to our division.
MATTHEWS: But could you help us figure out who it might be? You‘re saying the man had a record of not being honest about his battle bravery. I just want to know how we know this is true or not.
THURLOW: OK. The only name that comes to mind now is a guy that is actually a member of our group. But what I‘m telling you...
MATTHEWS: What‘s his name?
THURLOW: ... is the story...
MATTHEWS: We want to talk to him.
THURLOW: Steve Gardener (ph).
MATTHEWS: Since he‘s your—since he‘s your source, we just want to know who he is.
THURLOW: Steve Gardener.
MATTHEWS: Steve Gardener. And he told you at the time that John Kerry received his first Purple Heart that he didn‘t deserve it?
THURLOW: Well, what happened is he said that he received an injury due to a mistake he made when he fired an M-79 close aboard and was hit by his own shrapnel. That doesn‘t constitute a Purple Heart. You‘ve got to be injured by hostile fire.
MATTHEWS: And he told you that at the time? Steve Gardener—in other words, if I get him on the show, he‘ll say he told you, Mr. Thurlow, at the time this happened...
THURLOW: He‘s going to say...
MATTHEWS: ... that he didn‘t deserve...
THURLOW: He‘s going to say...
MATTHEWS: ... that John Kerry got an award he didn‘t deserve?
THURLOW: He‘s going to say that he reported—John Kerry was awarded the Purple Heart eventually. Or actually, he‘s going to tell you that John Kerry applied for a Purple Heart that he did not merit.
MATTHEWS: At the time he told you. OK, let‘s go on to the issue of the Bronze Star, which is far more important here. You received a Bronze Star in action for going back to that—or going to that ship that had—your fellow swift boat, that had hit a mine. Why did you get the Bronze Star?
THURLOW: I felt like I got the Bronze Star because I helped save the guys that were injured on there and then helped save boat from sinking.
MATTHEWS: Were you under enemy fire at this time?
THURLOW: No, I was not.
MATTHEWS: Why did your citation say so?
THURLOW: Because John Kerry had written an after-action report to cover the entire incident. And in this after-action report, he reported that we were not only under enemy fire, we were under intense enemy fire.
MATTHEWS: Did his after-action report—did that become the report that was the language in your citation? Do you know that for a fact?
MATTHEWS: For a fact? Do you know the—in other words, do you know for a fact that it was his account of the action that you both survived that led to the language in your citation? Do you know that for a fact, sir, Mr. Thurlow?
THURLOW: Well, because my commanding officer wrote up the citation, and the only thing he had available to him was that report, yes, the part about the hostile fire would have come from that report.
MATTHEWS: Do you know for a fact that it was John Kerry‘s words or account that led to your—the language in your citation? Do you know it for a fact? Would you swear to it? This is what we‘re getting into here. We need clear accounts of what happened with John Kerry and whether he really did deserve to get a Bronze Star or not.
THURLOW: The fact of the matter...
MATTHEWS: Can you say for a fact that he wrote himself up, that he got credit because he gave himself credit and that‘s why you got credit for taking the action you did, the brave action you did to save the men and save that boat, that fellow swift boat? You both benefited, you‘re saying to me now, because of his after-action report. You both benefited in the citations.
THURLOW: Well, actually...
MATTHEWS: You‘re saying that.
THURLOW: His after-action report reported none of the action I took about saving the men or the boat. His after-action report...
MATTHEWS: But do you know now—right now that the testimony that you were both under fire, intense enemy fire...
THURLOW: Came from his report.
MATTHEWS: ... you say that was not the case—you know for a fact it was his report that led to the language in your citation? That‘s all I want to know.
THURLOW: The reason I believe it was from his report is because he‘s the only one that filed one and the fact that he—and the reason I know he filed it is because his boat was the central figure in the report. The 3 boat was the one that was mine and badly damaged, but yet the report tells about John Kerry coming back to get Rassmann under intense fire and only casually mentions anything else that even happened that day.
MATTHEWS: What I don‘t understand is why you deserve a Purple Heart for taking the action you did, and you say...
THURLOW: I (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Purple Heart.
MATTHEWS: ... you were not under—no—no—no, not the Purple Heart...
THURLOW: I didn‘t get a Purple Heart.
MATTHEWS: ... the Bronze Star. The Bronze Star, that you deserve the Bronze Star, you were awarded the Bronze Star, fair enough, and you say you were not under enemy fire. You‘re now saying that John Kerry doesn‘t deserve the Bronze Start because he wasn‘t under enemy fire. Aren‘t you both in the same boat? Didn‘t you both do about the same thing, both get same award? And why are you complaining that he doesn‘t deserve it, if you deserved it?
THURLOW: I felt like I got the award because I saved some people‘s lives and saved the boat. What I say...
MATTHEWS: Well, he saved Rassmann‘s life, according to Rassmann‘s own account.
THURLOW: OK...MATTHEWS: Why doesn‘t he deserve the award?
THURLOW: Well, I—I don‘t—I‘m not quibbling about the award.
I‘m saying he lied about the...
MATTHEWS: Oh, yes, you are, sir!
THURLOW: ... account.
MATTHEWS: You are out here in an advertisement saying, quote, “When the chips were down, you could not count on John Kerry.”
THURLOW: That‘s exactly right.
MATTHEWS: That‘s a pretty strong—because of what are you saying this?
THURLOW: Because he had this master plan that was...
MATTHEWS: You got—give me an example.
THURLOW: ... to promote his...
MATTHEWS: OK, let‘s to go your theory of the plan. Have you seen it written down? Have you heard him tell his account to someone? How do you know, in any real way, he had this plan?
THURLOW: Because of the fact that he engineered three Purple Heart incidences that allowed him to go home after he spent about one third of his tour there.
MATTHEWS: But that‘s your account of what happened. He was there for four months.
THURLOW: That‘s exactly right.
MATTHEWS: He did win the three Purple Hearts. He did get the Bronze and the Silver. And you say he had some plan to get an award as a battle hero ahead of time, but you can‘t tell me how you know he had this plan.
THURLOW: I know he had this plan because of what happened not only then but after the fact.
MATTHEWS: Did you have a plan to win the Bronze Star? You won the Bronze Star. Did you have a plan?
THURLOW: No, in fact, I didn‘t...
MATTHEWS: Why is winning the Bronze Star...
THURLOW: I didn‘t apply for it.
MATTHEWS: Why is winning the Bronze Star evidence of having had a plan to win one? I don‘t get it.
THURLOW: Well, I—we‘re not even talking about him having a plan to win the Bronze Star.
MATTHEWS: Can you honestly tell me now, sir, that you could swear in open court that you know that John Kerry, when he was a lieutenant JG in the same theater you were in had some plan for winning medals? Do you know that for a fact?
THURLOW: OK. In other words, present evidence that he had this plan?
THURLOW: Of course, I couldn‘t.
MATTHEWS: Well, what...
THURLOW: I‘m basing it on my observations.
MATTHEWS: These are after-the-fact observations. You say he had a plan ahead of time to make himself a war hero to get elected to office.
THURLOW: I‘m saying that he had a plan that included not only being a war hero but getting an early out.
MATTHEWS: But you admit you have no tangible evidence.
THURLOW: I have my own personal observations.
MATTHEWS: Of what?
THURLOW: And you‘re right, it is not tangible evidence.
MATTHEWS: OK, so you don‘t. Let me ask you about...
THURLOW: I‘m not in a court of law here.
MATTHEWS: Well, I‘m just trying to get...
THURLOW: I‘m telling you what I...
MATTHEWS: I‘ll tell you what. You have involved yourself in a presidential election. Let me ask you this.
THURLOW: Yes, I have.
MATTHEWS: Is John Kerry‘s war record a legitimate issue in this presidential campaign?
THURLOW: I think it is because he‘s made it the central plank of his run for nomination.
MATTHEWS: Fair enough. Then should the president have a legitimate right, should he choose to do so, to talk about it?
THURLOW: Should the president?
MATTHEWS: Should the president of the United States, who‘s running against John Kerry, have the—does he have the right, as we speak, as you see it, to raise this issue in debate, if it comes up?
THURLOW: Does the president...
MATTHEWS: Is he allowed to talk about it?
THURLOW: You talking about President Bush?
MATTHEWS: That‘s right.
THURLOW: Does he have the right to bring it up?
THURLOW: President Bush wasn‘t there. So why would he bring it up?
THURLOW: No, no. I‘m talking about, is he allowed to raise what you‘ve said about your fellow officer? Is he allowed to go into the debate and say, I hear from your fellow officers that you were not the hero you claim to be? Is that a fair enough tack for the president to take in this campaign? Is it a legitimate issue? You‘re raising it as a campaign issue. I‘m asking you, if it‘s a campaign issue, why can‘t both candidates talk about it? That‘s all I‘m asking.
THURLOW: No, I‘m not—I‘m raising the campaign—the reason I‘ve raised this issue is because I want the American people to hear the truth that I know...
MATTHEWS: Right, but you‘re...
THURLOW: ... and then let them make a decision.
MATTHEWS: But isn‘t it fair to say you‘re doing this because John Kerry is a candidate for president?
THURLOW: This is the first time I would have ever had a chance to vote for him.
MATTHEWS: Well, of course. Of course. That‘s fair enough. But is it fair enough for the president to counter-charge and say he doesn‘t believe John Kerry‘s the hero he claimed to be at the Democratic convention?
THURLOW: I don‘t think so because he wasn‘t there. He doesn‘t have the evidence I do.
MATTHEWS: Is he allowed to believe you?
THURLOW: He‘s allowed to believe whoever he wants.
MATTHEWS: In other words, you want everybody in the country...
THURLOW: He‘s an American citizen.
MATTHEWS: ... to believe what you‘re saying right now, Mr. Thurlow...
MATTHEWS: ... but not to let the president of the United States count on it as a campaign issue.
THURLOW: That‘s entirely up to him. I‘m telling you...
MATTHEWS: Oh, it is up to him. OK. I‘m (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Why do you think it‘s OK for a person who didn‘t serve in Vietnam to criticize someone who did?
THURLOW: I did serve in Vietnam.
MATTHEWS: I‘m asking you about the president. You said it‘s up to him. If it‘s up to the president whether to attack John Kerry for being in Vietnam, what did he over there, is it OK with you, that a guy who didn‘t serve criticizes a guy who did?
THURLOW: Well, I don‘t know that he has criticized...
MATTHEWS: As a veteran.
THURLOW: As a veteran?
MATTHEWS: I‘m just asking you a simple question. Is this a campaign issue for both candidates to contend with or isn‘t it?
THURLOW: Well, it‘s a campaign...
MATTHEWS: Or is it just you against John Kerry as a side shot at one of the candidates?
THURLOW: ... issue that John Kerry ran out there. And the thing I think is that the president wouldn‘t have any—you know, what would he base...
MATTHEWS: OK, let me ask you this...
THURLOW: ... the statements on?
MATTHEWS: ... very simply. If President Bush the other—is asked a question, he come out and says, Well, I hear from this fellow officer, in fact, he was the commander of the swift boat, the head of the team—he says this guy didn‘t deserve all the acclaim he got at the convention. Would that be OK with you?
THURLOW: Well, it would be OK with me if he wanted to do it, but why would he want to do it?
MATTHEWS: To defeat his opponent.
THURLOW: He‘s got—he‘s got...
MATTHEWS: The same reason you want to defeat this guy. You don‘t think he should be president.
THURLOW: Well—that‘s exactly right. I don‘t think he should be president.
MATTHEWS: Well, that‘s fair enough. There‘s nothing wrong with it. Say it—you have a million times in this country a free opportunity to say so. I‘m asking you...
THURLOW: You‘re—you‘re exactly right.
MATTHEWS: ... should George Bush be allowed to raise this issue in the campaign?
THURLOW: If he wants to, he...
MATTHEWS: Otherwise, it‘s just you.
THURLOW: ... certainly should be able to.
MATTHEWS: In other words, it‘s OK, for you, for a guy who didn‘t serve in Vietnam to attack a guy who did? That‘s all I want to know.
THURLOW: Well, I don‘t think a guy that didn‘t serve in Vietnam should attack some guy‘s record that did serve in Vietnam, if he has no personal knowledge of it.
MATTHEWS: But if he has the knowledge because of you, should he be able to do it?
THURLOW: He has no personal knowledge. He‘s...
THURLOW: What my—what I feel...
MATTHEWS: OK, we‘re going back to your personal knowledge, sir.
THURLOW: ... on him is he hasn‘t...
MATTHEWS: The problem is, you haven‘t produced any personal knowledge about this plan you talked about, Mr. Thurlow, and that‘s the problem tonight.
THURLOW: No, what I—what I...
MATTHEWS: This plan has not been authenticated. That‘s the concern I have. Anyway, thanks for coming on.
Coming up, the “Washington Post” reporter who broke the story about Larry Thurlow‘s Bronze medal and the citation accompanying it.
You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.
MATTHEWS: Michael Dobbs is the “Washington Post” reporter who broke the story today about Larry Thurlow‘s Bronze Star citation. Let‘s talk about that citation. You report on a front page story in “The Washington Post” today, Michael, that the citation for Larry Thurlow, the gentleman we just talked to, his award was—his Bronze Star was earned because of—he was—as well as other things, he was under enemy fire at the time. He denies that again today on the show, and he says not only did he not go under enemy fire when he took the action he did, the brave action he took to save those crewmen on the other swift boat, but that that language in the citation came from John Kerry. Any evidence of that?
MICHAEL DOBBS, “THE WASHINGTON POST”: There‘s no proof of that at all. It‘s based on his claim and the claim of some other swift boat veterans that it was John Kerry that wrote the after-action report. In fact, Mr. Thurlow was the senior officer in that particular engagement, so it‘s just as possible to suppose that he wrote the action—after-action report as Mr. Kerry. There‘s no evidence from the document itself as to who wrote the report. Also...
MATTHEWS: Is it a fair assumption on the part of Mr. Thurlow that it was John Kerry‘s words because he was the only one that issued a report, or submitted one, that they would have had to get that information about being under constant enemy fire, automatic weapons fire, et cetera, from the person who filed a report, if no one else did?
DOBBS: I think probably the after-action report could have been the work of several different people, each reporting on what their own boat did. I don‘t think that all the language in Mr. Thurlow‘s citation could have come from that after-action report, either. And there were many things that Mr. Thurlow was doing that are mentioned in his citation that John Kerry was not in a position to observe.
MATTHEWS: I was out in Iowa covering the campaign when Mr. Rassmann made his very dramatic appearance on the stage out there in one of the cities in Iowa during the fight for the caucuses out there. And it was very dramatic when he came out on the stage and he talked about how he was in the water, in enemy water, and he was afraid for his life, to stay least. And he saw the boat commanded by John Kerry come and save him. He said he was under fire at the time. I‘m almost positive. That has been his account right through today, that he was under enemy fire.
MATTHEWS: Is he to be believed? I‘m talking about Rassmann himself.
DOBBS: Well, Mr. Rassmann—he is convinced that bullets were hitting the water around him. And his account is corroborated by the crew members on John Kerry‘s boat. It‘s disputed by...
DOBBS: ... Thurlow and two of the other skippers who were on the river at the time.
MATTHEWS: So we have very close-in eyewitnesses, numerous eyewitnesses, including the man whose life was saved, and we have John Kerry‘s word up against the commander of another boat on the scene. And then we have to look at what was in the citation and assume that some battle commander made a decision as to who was telling the truth.
DOBBS: Well, all the boats were within a few hundred yards of each other. But I think that not a single—not—both the citations and the after-action reports were probably the work of more than just one commander...
DOBBS: ... because they all mention several different boats.
MATTHEWS: What do you make of this belief that John Kerry had a plan?
I mean, it was almost doctrinal in Mr. Thurlow‘s account a couple minutes ago about he had this plan. Now, I can imagine a person having a notion they‘d like to be a notion in a war. I guess a lot of guys would like to be heroes. He may have thought somewhere down the line it might have helped him if he was politically intended somewhere along the line. But the idea he had some specific plan to doctor evidence, to try to create the notion he was a hero out of whole cloth—where‘s that notion coming from besides Mr. Thurlow?
DOBBS: Right. Well, it‘s Mr. Thurlow‘s personal opinion. Some of the other swift boat officers who are opposed to Mr. Kerry say...
DOBBS: ... something very similar. There‘s no evidence for it, you know, apart from their statements.
MATTHEWS: That‘s right. Mr. Thurlow had no tangible evidence, and he admitted that, of what he was saying. Anyway, thank you very much, Michael Dobbs of “The Washington Post.”
Up next, Senator Max Cleland on the Kerry campaign‘s new ad defending his Vietnam service and the candidate‘s accusation that ad groups are really doing the dirty work of this administration.
You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. Former Georgia senator Max Cleland is a Vietnam veteran and a supporter of John Kerry for president.
Senator, why do you think John Kerry put up with this—he held fire for what, days now, if not weeks of these attacks on his war record. Why‘d he come back today?
MAX CLELAND (D-GA), FORMER U.S. SENATOR: Well, he came back today because he‘s a real man. He is an authentic American hero. And you can put up with this stuff only for so long, and then you go out there and say, Look, you know, you want to talk about Vietnam? You want to talk about war? You want to talk about injuries? Come on, George Bush. Let‘s duke this out right now.
I mean, George Bush is hiding behind this swift boat fantasy that is funded out of Texas by multi-millionaires that support George Bush. It‘s about George Bush. And he has set Vietnam veteran against Vietnam veteran here.
CLELAND: That is not fun to watch. Now, our friend, John McCain, fellow Vietnam veteran, has said that this is dishonest and dishonorable and has called upon the president to disavow this ad.
But let‘s go directly to the couple of points just raised. First of all, you don‘t put yourself in for medals. Anywhere—Vietnam, World War II, Korea, whatever. You don‘t put yourself in for medals.
And secondly, it was Jim Rassmann who put John Kerry in for the Silver Star, not the Bronze Star with vida vise (ph). The award was downgraded by someone else. So John Kerry did not put himself in for a medal when he rescued Jim Rassmann. And secondly, the award was actually less than Jim Rassmann recommended.
Third, you don‘t go to war, at least I didn‘t, and I don‘t think John Kerry did or anybody on his crew, saying, Gee, this is a great day to get blown up. This is a terrific plan for my life. I‘m going to get blown up once. Then I‘ll get blown up twice. Then I‘ll get shot three times, and I‘m going to bring that shrapnel home so I can be a war hero. And then, finally, I‘m going to risk my life for some special forces officer in the drink that I don‘t even know.
CLELAND: But he‘s a fellow American. I‘m going to risk my life for him. And then next, here‘s a B-40 rocket with a—held by a VC, and he‘s going to blow my boat up, and I‘m going to turn in to him and I‘m going to go out and kill him.
CLELAND: Now, that‘s John Kerry at war. And I think that this is incredible, what we‘re seeing here, but it‘s further trash from the George Bush campaign. They tried to trash John McCain, and he knows how that feels.
MATTHEWS: OK. We‘ll be right back with Senator Cleland.
And later, the political war of the campaign ads with Michelle Malkin and Willie Brown.
You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.
MATTHEWS: This half-hour on HARDBALL, we‘ll talk about the politics of the Vietnam War.
And later, will Democratic Senator Zell Miller‘s key note address to the Republican Convention help show the that President Bush is a uniter or a divider? But first let‘s check with the MSNBC News desk.
MATTHEWS: We‘re back with Vietnam veteran and former Georgia Senator Max Cleland. Here‘s, by the way Senator, the new Kerry ad featuring James Rassman, the man the Senator saved.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I‘m John Kerry and I approved this message.
ANNOUNCER: The people attacking John Kerry‘s war record are funded by Bush‘s big money supporters. Listen to someone who was there, the man whose life he saved.
JAMES RASSMAN, VIETNAM VETERAN: It blew me off the boat. All these VietCon were shooting at me. I expected I would be shot. When he pulled me out of the river, he risked his life to save mine.
ANNOUNCER: The Navy documented John Kerry‘s heroism and awarded him the Bronze Star. Today, he still has shrapnel in his leg from his wounds in Vietnam.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: Well that was pretty powerful.
What do you think is driving these men to come out, like Mr. Thurlow? He seems like a reasonable guy. Why is he so driven to get Kerry out of this race?
CLELAND: I don‘t know. But the American people just saw the truth there. I mean, Jim Rassman was dodging bullets, going under the water, down to the bottom, holding his breath. Coming back up, getting shot at, going back down.
Meanwhile, John Kerry realized he was in the water. Turned the boat around, came back. Rassman tried to climb up the webbing, but he got stuck in it. And that‘s when John Kerry, wounded in the firefight, reached down and pulled him up and saved his life. And Rassman put him in the for the Silver Star. John Kerry won the Bronze Star with (INAUDIBLE) for valor.
And for anybody to try to trash that, or belittle that is beyond me.
MATTHEWS: Why is there so much venom from these 250 guys?
CLELAND: I don‘t know. You know, this is a great country, everybody has got a right to their opinion and to vote the way they want to vote. But why trash somebody‘s record?
MATTHEWS: Because they want to beat him.
CLELAND: Well, yes. But is this what George Bush is all about? That‘s his modus operandi normally. He went after John McCain, challenging his patriotism, me, John Kerry and others came to John McCain‘s defense. And I think there‘s a band of brothers gathering around John Kerry now...
MATTHEWS: Did he go after McCain‘s patriotism?
CLELAND: Yes. He questioned John McCain‘s patriotism in South Carolina. And mine in Georgia. Now that‘s what‘s going on here.
MATTHEWS: Let‘s talk about what‘s really going on right now in this country. We have people fighting in Iraq right now. We‘re going to lose by election day, based upon the way we‘re going, a thousand people will be killed over there. 6,500, a lot of amputees, a lot of really serious woundeds from which they won‘t come back from. They aren‘t just knicks. Why aren‘t we talking about that?
CLELAND: Because it is funded with his Republican cronies out of Texas. This kind of swift boat ad, which puts Vietnam veteran against Vietnam veterans. We ought to be talking about those kids that are losing arms and legs and eyes and full of shrapnel that are coming back from Iraq due to this president‘s failed policies and lack of strategy to win, or strategy to get out.
MATTHEWS: How does John Kerry, you want him to win. I can tell. How does John Kerry avoid this entanglement that these Republicans have got him in to those handlers around Bush, and the president himself, are geniuses in tying him into this little box he‘s been in the last week‘s. Where he‘s fighting about medals or ribbon, or whether it was this medal or that medal, or how deep did that first purple—I mean, he has got him in this defensive mode. I thought incumbents had to play defense?
CLELAND: Well, I think George Bush is putting a lot of flak out there. There that‘s what this is. It all goes back to him, because he cannot stand the real exposition of his record.
MATTHEWS: Why isn‘t the record being the issue?
CLELAND: I think it is. Every night on the evening news, we just saw this, we have turmoil and a mess in Iraq. And that‘s what John Kerry focused on today.
He also said that he won‘t let this distract him from talking about the real issues facing the I country, the lack of jobs in this country. The fact that the president has made abroad more enemies than friends. And we‘re in deep trouble in terms of healthcare. Those are the real issues. And that‘s what John Kerry is going to be talking about.
MATTHEWS: Have you noticed that there‘s a kind of a lingo that these guys, who don‘t like Kerry, keep talking about. They talk about the plan. You dismissed that as pretty ridiculous a minute ago.
CLELAND: My lord!
MATTHEWS: They keep using these terms.
CLELAND: I can‘t believe that anybody would have a plan to get wounded. Why? Especially 1, 2, 3 times. I mean, John Kerry is an authentic American hero, and people in this country know that. And that‘s why George Bush is losing and he never went and he doesn‘t know what it is like the feel the wound. And we need a commander in chief who does.
MATTHEWS: Do you think—I want to ask you the same question, because you‘re a Vietnam veteran, do you think it‘s all right for a president who didn‘t to go war to attack a guy who did on the issue of how he behaved in war?
CLELAND: Not this way. No. There‘s no credibility. If you‘ve not been there, you‘ve not walked in those moccasins, you haven‘t felt a wound in the sting of battle, don‘t criticize somebody who has.
MATTHEWS: Well, how is he doing it? He‘s doing it indirectly, you‘re saying.
CLELAND: Of course he‘s doing it indirectly. He always tries to run a notch above. But this is slime ball politics. And the American people see that.
MATTHEWS: Is this like Willie Horton?
MATTHEWS: OK. Thank you very much, Senator Max Cleland. In just a moment. Note, when we requested a representative from the Bush campaign tonight to join us this evening, they did not want to come up against the people on the show.
Up next, former mayor Willie Brown and Michelle Malkin on the campaign ad war. Boy, it is getting hot.
And don‘t forget, sign up for HARDBALL‘s free daily briefing, our e-mail briefing. Just log on to our Web site, hardball.msnbc.com.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. Today Senator Kerry accused President Bush of relying on front groups to challenge Kerry‘s service in Vietnam.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KERRY: Of course, the president keeps telling people he would never question my service to our country. Instead, he watches as a Republican funded attack group does just that. Well, if he wants to have a debate about our service in Vietnam, here is my answer. Bring it on!
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: John Kerry‘s speech was part of a new strategy to fight back.
Joining me is San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, and Michelle Malkin.
Malkin is that the correct pronunciation?
MICHELLE MALKIN, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Malkin.
MATTHEWS: Malkin, I like it better.
She‘s the author of in “Defense of Interment: The Case for Racial Profiling.” We‘ll get to that in a minute, that sounds hot enough.
What do you make of the president‘s—this campaign being run on behalf of the president, if not officially to try destroy John Kerry‘s war record?
MALKIN: I don‘t think that President Bush orchestrated this at all.
MATTHEWS: Why doesn‘t he call up and say stop it.
MALKIN: Well, look he‘s already made his statement. The White House said, it doesn‘t associate itself with these 527 campaigns, any of them. And he said that Kerry has served nobly. What else do you want him to say?
MATTHEWS: Well, back when we had the Willie Horton Act, back in 1988, all that Jim Baker or anybody at the White House campaign had to do was call on behalf of President Bush Sr., and say stop running that racist ad. Nobody ever did, OK. I‘m asking if you‘re speaking on behalf of President Bush, why doesn‘t he make a phone call to these veterans, including Mr. Thurlow and say stop running the ads. Why doesn‘t he do that?
MALKIN: Well first I‘m not here speaking on behalf of the Bush campaign. Second of all...
MATTHEWS: Well, do you think these guys should be running.
MALKIN: Well, second of all, you brought up Willie Horton. I think that‘s quite interesting that you did. The underlying implication is that some how this is a Republican orchestrated thing, just like the swift boat campaign. Of course, it was Al Gore who brought up Willie Horton first.
MATTHEWS: No, the ads. No the ads were ran, by something called the American Security Council supporting President Bush.
MALKIN: And who made the issue—who made the issue germane, Al Gore and the Democrats. And it‘s the same thing here, John Kerry said, bring it on and the Swift Boat Veterans have brought it on.
MATTHEWS: Fair enough. So you—lets get your position here on the program, since you are on the program. Your position it‘s OK, for the veteran groups to attack John Kerry on this issue?
MALKIN: They are exercising their free speech, absolutely.
MATTHEWS: And the president is totally innocent in this campaign. He has nothing to do with it.
MALKIN: Well, I don‘t think so. Yes. Yes, there were Bush supporters who helped fund the ads. But this was not directed from the White House.
MATTHEWS: When the president says publicly that he has no problem with John Kerry‘s war record, in fact he finds it noble, is that hypocritical or is that honest?
MALKIN: I think it is absolutely honest.
MATTHEWS: Because what? What makes it honest?
Because how they are attacking Kerry?
MALKIN: He can‘t—he did not control these—there was no—can you show me directive that said, Swift Boat Veterans do this.
MATTHEWS: I‘m waiting for the phone call that said stop doing it, buddies.
MALKIN: It is interesting. I saw the interrogation of Larry Thurlow. All I can say if the main stream media interrogated these private citizens, and did that as aggressively as...
MATTHEWS: Nobody has ever called me mainstream before but thank your for the (UNINTELLIGIBLE). I guess I‘m big time now.
MALKIN: Aggressively as...
MATTHEWS: I think the president, if he wanted this to stop would make one phone call. Karl Rove, would make one phone call and that would be the end of the ads. That‘s what think, and you know that‘s true, right?
MALKIN: Well, there...
MATTHEWS: Is that true? If he wanted to stop them, he could stop them.
MALKIN: No, I don‘t think he could. No. I don‘t.
MATTHEWS: OK, let me go to Mayor Brown. Mayor Brown, what do you make of this salient attack from these 527 groups, they‘re called, they‘re independent groups attack the war record of John Kerry.
Do you believe in any way the president could be held politically responsible for these attacks?
WILLIE BROWN, FORMER SAN FRANCISCO MAYOR: He should be held politically responsible, Chris. When I served as speaker of the California legislature as well as mayor, whenever any independent group did anything that was for my benefit, and it was a slimy and as below the belt and as dishonest as these ads are, I had for purpose of my own integrity, denounced them and asked that they be stopped, just as I would if I was just being not effective at all. Period.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask but the nature of this campaign. Why is John Kerry so unsuccessful as a candidate, that he‘s allowed his challenging role to be determined to be transformed into a defendant‘s role?
Instead of him carrying the fight against incumbent president which is the norm in a American society in a reelection campaign, he has become the issue himself. How did he let that happen?
BROWN: John Kerry is the kind of a guy who is always laid back. He is always been dealing with people who were gentle, who were in every way respectful, who have a sense of dignity about themselves and a sense of honor. John Kerry may not be fit for the terrible battles and wars of the world of politics.
He may be absolutely perfect as a president. But in term of a candidate, he probably has a series of imperfection that‘s may be fatal in his successful, in his pursuit of a successful candidacy. That‘s not to take anything away from his integrity. He should have been doing exactly what he‘s doing today. He should have been doing that from day one.
MATTHEWS: Do you think Massachusetts politics is softball?
BROWN: I think Massachusetts politics is always been very respectful of the other person‘s view and very committed to the idea they don‘t want to seem negative and they don‘t want to be criticized for an absence of integrity.
MALKIN: He is a boy in the bubble, Chris. And...
MATTHEWS: What does that mean?
MALKIN: He hasn‘t been subjected to this kind of heat. And as Willie Brown is suggesting, if he can‘t stand the heat from his fellow veterans, do we really want to trust him to stand up to Islamic extremists?
By the way, it‘s not just—not just these right wingers who have been questioning his record. The “Boston Globe” isn‘t, aren‘t operatives of the Bush campaign and they have said the same thing as the veterans did about all three incidents regarding the purple hearts. You were hammering Larry Thurlow about specific name.
BROWN: He volunteered twice. He volunteered twice in Vietnam. He literally got shot. There‘s no question about any of those things. So what else is there to discuss? How much he got shot, how deep, how much shrapnel?
MALKIN: Well, yes. Why don‘t people ask him more specific questions about the shrapnel in his leg. They are legitimate questions about whether or not it was a self-inflicted wound.
MATTHEWS: What do you mean by self-inflicted? Are you saying he shot himself on purpose? Is that what you‘re saying?
MALKIN: Did you read the book...
MATTHEWS: I‘m asking a simple question. Are you saying that he shot himself on purpose.
MALKIN: I‘m saying some of these soldiers...
MATTHEWS: And I‘m asking question.
MALKIN: And I‘m answering it.
MATTHEWS: Did he shoot himself on purpose.
MALKIN: Some of the soldiers have made allegations that these were self-inflicted wounds.
MATTHEWS: No one has ever accused him of shooting himself on purpose.
MALKIN: That these were self-inflicted wounds.
MATTHEWS: Your saying there are—he shot himself on purpose, that‘s a criminal act?
MALKIN: I‘m saying that I‘ve read the book and some of the...
MATTHEWS: I want an answer yes or no, Michelle.
MALKIN: Some of the veterans say...
MATTHEWS: No. No one has every accused him of shooting himself on purpose.
MALKIN: Yes. Some of them say that.
MATTHEWS: Tell me where that...
MALKIN: Self-inflicted wounds—in February, 1969.
MATTHEWS: This is not a show for this kind of talk. Are you accusing him of shooting himself on purpose to avoid combat or to get credit?
MALKIN: I‘m saying that‘s what some of these...
MATTHEWS: Give me a name.
MALKIN: Patrick Runyan (ph) and William Zeldonaz (ph).
MATTHEWS: They said—Patrick Runyan...
MALKIN: These people have...
MATTHEWS: And they said he shot himself on purpose to avoid combat or take credit for a wound?
MALKIN: These people have cast a lot of doubt on whether or not...
MATTHEWS: That‘s cast a lot of doubt. That‘s complete nonsense.
MALKIN: Did you read the section in the book...
MATTHEWS: I want a statement from you on this program, say to me right, that you believe he shot himself to get credit for a purpose of heart.
MALKIN: I‘m not sure. I‘m saying...
MATTHEWS: Why did you say?
MALKIN: I‘m talking about what‘s in the book.
MATTHEWS: What is in the book. Is there—is there a direct accusation in any book you‘ve ever read in your life that says John Kerry ever shot himself on purpose to get credit for a purple heart? On purpose?
MATTHEWS: On purpose? Yes or no, Michelle.
MALKIN: In the February 1969 -- in the February 1969 event.
MATTHEWS: Did he say on it purpose.
MALKIN: There are doubts about whether or not it was intense rifle fire or not. And I wish you would ask these questions of John Kerry instead of me.
MATTHEWS: I have never heard anyone say he shot himself on purpose.
I haven‘t heard you say it.
MALKIN: Have you tried to ask—have you tried ask John Kerry these questions?
MATTHEWS: If he shot himself on purpose. No. I have not asked him that.
MALKIN: Don‘t you wonder?
MATTHEWS: No, I don‘t. It‘s never occurred to me.
Look, thank you Mayor Brown. We‘ll stay with Michelle Malkin.
Still ahead, David Gergen and Dana Milbank on the battle for the White House. We are going to keep things clean on this show. No irresponsible comments are going to be made on the show.
And don‘t forget you can keep up with presidential race on Hardblogger, our election blog Web site. Just go to hardball.msnbc.com.
MATTHEWS: Dana Milbank is a White House correspondent for “The Washington Post” and David Gergen was an adviser to four presidents. He is now the director of the Center For Public Leadership at Harvard University. Dana, what did you make of that exchange we just had with Michelle Malkin there saying that there are rumors out, there are certain people out there that say that John Kerry shot himself on purpose to get a Purple Heart. This is how bad it‘s gotten, I think—Dana.
DANA MILBANK, “THE WASHINGTON POST”: We have heard just about everything, but that one is yet to occur, but I guess that‘s...
MATTHEWS: I think it occurred right here to our problem here. I hope I corrected—nobody who is watching now believed that, should get some facts on a case like that. Don‘t believe that one. Let me ask you about the state of play here, Dana. It is getting very hot. It is all focusing on this battle over what happened in Vietnam many, many years ago, 30-some years ago. Why do you think the Kerry campaign was so slow to return fire, if you will?
MILBANK: Well, this time they were quicker. They were really beaten up badly last time. It became this whole dispute over whether he threw his ribbons away or did he throw his medals away and the Democrats were kicking themselves and saying, why are we on the defensive here when our guy was in Vietnam getting shot at or shooting himself and the other guy was out in the Texas Air National Guard and not around, according to records for a period of time.
So they‘re trying to be much more on the offensive this time and they‘re taking John McCain as an ally and trying to put pressure on the White House to denounce this Swift Boat group. It‘s very interesting that we all pressed Scott McClellan today in Crawford to take a stand on that ad. He‘s being careful not to do that. He says that John Kerry served honorably there. He‘s very firm about that but they‘re reluctant to criticize the Swift Boat Vets.
MATTHEWS: But you know back in 1988, there was a practice like this. The George Bush campaign, the senior George Bush campaign against Michael Dukakis was careful not to raise any racial flags. They had the revolving door ad that was totally diversified in terms of all the criminals involved and then there was a sideline thing paid for by some group called The American Security Council that showed this sort of shrouded (UNINTELLIGIBLE) look, a picture of this guy, this guy Willie Horton, which definitely was played in particular blue collar areas to help them get that vote roused up.
Of course being the gentleman that he is, George Bush Sr. can say, I had nothing to do with that ad. When are we going to be able to identify responsibility—let me go to Gergen on this. David, when are candidates going to take responsibility for the ads running on their behalf?
DAVID GERGEN, FMR. PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER: It would be better to take responsibility, but I think everybody knows these are Republicans who are funding this. And John Kerry is getting the best of this argument. When he says, it‘s fronting for the Bush people, the money does come from Republicans and everybody connects the dots. The conclusion is that they are doing the dirty work. The president ought to denounce this ad and move on. It‘s a losing proposition for the president.
MATTHEWS: Do you think the people around him share that assessment politically?
GERGEN: Well, I guess they don‘t because they seem to—Dana said they‘re dancing away from it in Texas and not denouncing the ad, but they‘ve—I think the Democrats—it is interesting to me, Chris. The last couple of weeks, we thought George Bush was politically more adept and boxing in John Kerry on Iraq and he did a good job. On this issue, it defies belief that the Bush administration would like to keep the issue of John Kerry‘s war record and shrapnel in his leg and his heroism front and center in the campaign. This is Kerry‘s strong point not his weak point.
MATTHEWS: It seems to me watching the state of play tonight, we have Mr. Thurlow who seems like a good guy and he doesn‘t like Kerry and a lot of people don‘t. He came on tonight saying that this guy wrote up his own citation. John Kerry‘s the one who put together the words to make it look like he was under enemy fire when he picked up the bronze medal. Can we prove that one way or another?
MILBANK: It‘s possible, but my colleague Michael Dobbs reported that the citation—that the accuser had for his own medal in Vietnam talks about the hostile fire.
MATTHEWS: But he said it came from John Kerry‘s after-action report.
MILBANK: Right. But to now go and suggest that John Kerry has written the reports for everybody else‘s citation as well. Obviously, it‘s getting stretched here. As David said, this is an area where John Kerry does not mind fighting, because it reminds everybody that he served in Vietnam. The principal of all the negative ads and external ads is one that will not go away, despite the efforts to reform campaign finance because these things work. They worked for George Bush in 2000. They worked for his father in 1988 and they‘ve worked for Democrats in the elections as well. We can denounce them, but the fact is that‘s how you win elections.
MATTHEWS: Go ahead, David. My concern is that if we‘re going to have a serious election in this country and not one about personality like last time, how can we get back to talking about the war that‘s going on now? We‘re losing almost 1,000 men right now. 6,500 men seriously injured, in some cases worse than Max Cleland, lots of amputations. We‘ve seen some of them on the program. How come we‘re talking about a war that‘s 30 years ago?
GERGEN: That‘s the point, Chris. More than whether Kerry gains or Bush gains is the fact that it‘s not good for the country. To have an argument about the past when we should talk about the future is trivializing what we face as a nation. How will we come up with a strategy to win this war on terrorism?
Where will the next president go over the next four years? To divert attention from that issue is harmful to the process. I will tell you—the Republicans do not help themselves. Over time when you have a pattern from—when they went after John McCain in South Carolina when they went after his war record and then went after Max Cleland in 2002 and one of the Republican leaders Ann Coulter said maybe it‘s his own fault that he lost three limbs in Vietnam.
Now they‘re going after Kerry on his war record. This is really a mistaken, terribly wrong-heading pattern for the Republicans. It only drives people away. These things can work in the short term, but in the long term McCain was helped. His stature grew after the South Carolina primary and the president‘s stature, while he helped himself in the short-term, he was hurt in the long-term.
MATTHEWS: Well said, David. You are my kind of Republican. Thank you, David Gergen, Dana Milbank. Make sure to watch “SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY” at 10:00 as Joe continues this look at the Swift Boat controversy.
Joe will also be joined by Larry Thurlow who was on with us tonight.
Join us again tomorrow at 7:00 for more HARDBALL here.
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