updated 8/26/2004 10:29:45 AM ET 2004-08-26T14:29:45

Guests: Max Cleland, Bradley Smith, Laura Ingraham, J.C. Watts, Patrick Guerriero, Tony Perkins

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MAX CLELAND (D-GA), FORMER SENATOR:  I tried to deliver a letter to the president‘s home and hand it to either him or one of his aides, but that was unsuccessful.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Tonight: returned to sender, political theater as former senator Max Cleland attempts to deliver a letter of protest to the president‘s ranch in Crawford, Texas.  And are special interest groups being used as mercenaries by both political parties?  We‘ll talk to the chairman of the Federal Election Commission.  And did Vice President Dick Cheney‘s remarks on gay relationships yesterday ignite a culture war within his party?

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.  Ben Ginsburg, the top lawyer for the Bush campaign, resigned today after acknowledging that he had been advising the anti-Kerry group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.  In a letter to President Bush himself, Ginsburg maintained that he had not violated an election law that bans any coordination between presidential campaigns and independent groups.

Meanwhile, two Vietnam veterans, informer Georgia senator Max Cleland and Jim Rassmann, the man who was rescued by John Kerry in Vietnam, tried to deliver a letter to President Bush at his Crawford ranch, asking the president to denounce the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads.  Signed by nine senators who are veterans, the letter reads, quote, “We call on you to specifically condemn the recent attack ads and accompanying campaign, which dishonors John Kerry‘s combat record in the Vietnam war.  Our pain from seeing these slanderous attacks stems from something much more fundamental, that if one veteran‘s record is called into question, the service of all American veterans is questioned.”

NBC‘s Norah O‘Donnell‘s in Crawford.  Norah, a day of theater.  What is it about?  Why did the president refuse to accept the entreaty from Max Cleland today?

NORAH O‘DONNELL, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Well, the White House called this a political stunt organized by the Kerry campaign.  Former senator Max Cleland said, yes, it was a stunt, but it was a genuine one.  And so Max Cleland came here to the president‘s ranch in Crawford, Texas.  He pulled up to the gates for a Texas showdown.  And while there was a representative from the president‘s campaign at the gates to meet Mr. Cleland, he did not hand over the letter to that individual.  And then Cleland spoke with reporters afterwards, saying that the president should denounce these scurrilous attacks and that the president is behind these attacks.

And also, Senator Cleland said—asked sort of rhetorically, Where is his shame, where is his honor, referring to the president, saying that the president had smeared three Vietnam veterans, first with Senator McCain, then with Cleland, who lost his reelection battle for the Senate, and he says now with Kerry, and that—and Cleland also said that the president should stop trashing Kerry‘s military service record.

Now, it should be pointed out that just the other day, of course, the president spoke publicly and praised Kerry for his record.  But nevertheless, this has to some degree put the Bush campaign on the defensive, as they‘re sort of stuck in the position, if you will, of defending the swift boat ads and these 527s...

MATTHEWS:  Right.

O‘DONNELL:  ... even though they say there is no connection between...

MATTHEWS:  Well, let‘s talk about what...

O‘DONNELL:  ... the Bush campaign and this independent group.

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s decide if there is a connection.  Let me ask you, Norah, what role did the campaign play today in this event down in Texas?  They apparently got this guy Jim Patterson out there.  They provided him with a letter that they wrote.  Is that all true?

O‘DONNELL:  It‘s interesting.  Yes, Chris.  You know, for days, the Bush campaign says, We don‘t want to talk about this.  Why don‘t you talk to the Kerry folks?  They‘re the one that keeps bringing it up.  But nevertheless, the Bush campaign has been involved somewhat, and they have to respond and certainly defend themselves.

So today, when they found out that Max Cleland would be coming here to Crawford, Texas, they got on the phone and called the Texas land commissioner, a former Vietnam veteran himself.  He told us he was on his way to Dallas, do another trip, and he got a call from the president‘s campaign that said, We‘ve got a letter for to you sign.  Come down here to the president‘s ranch and hand it and talk to Senator Cleland.  That letter from the campaign was then faxed to Bush‘s ranch.  And the president even spoke with the Texas land commissioner and sent him out there to talk to Cleland today.

MATTHEWS:  But the big development I see in the letter that was written by the campaign committee, the Bush campaign committee, seemed to have escalated the president‘s position.  Until today, the president‘s position was, I will not tell these swift boat people to stop running their ads.  In this letter put out by the Bush campaign, written by the Bush campaign today and delivered by—or attempted to be delivered by Patterson, it says, quote—it defends the veterans‘ right to openly express their feelings about you, Senator Kerry‘s activities in returning from Vietnam.

For the first time, the president‘s campaign is now endorsing the efforts of the swift boat campaign, ad campaign.  Doesn‘t that put him in bed with the guys he‘s been trying to keep separate from?

O‘DONNELL:  Well, to be clear, there was somewhat of a change.  And what it was, was that—that this letter that was written by the Bush-Cheney campaign and signed by several Vietnam veterans says, Listen, veterans have the right to speak out on that matter.  And the campaign itself has not yet vocally said that.  It‘s not necessarily a green light, if you will, to the swift boat veterans, but clearly, somewhat of a change, if you will, because on the one hand, the president just days ago is saying, Denounce all these ads.  They should all be pulled off the air, all these 527s.  And now this letter today seemed to suggest that these veterans have a right to speak their mind.

MATTHEWS:  Well, it specifically says the veterans have a right to openly express their feelings.  It sounds like an endorsement of their right to do what they‘re doing.  Thank you very much, Norah O‘Donnell, who‘s down in Crawford, Texas.

We asked, by the way, a representative of the Bush campaign to come on the program tonight, and they decided not to send us a representative tonight.

(MAX CLELAND INTERVIEW)

Coming up, the commission chairman Bradley Smith on the swift boat ads.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  After accusations by the Kerry campaign that Swift Boat Veterans for Truth is a front group for the Bush campaign, President Bush called for an end to all ads by independent political groups.  To date, Republican special interest groups have spent about $12 million during this campaign.  Democratic special interests groups have spend approximately $69 million.  That‘s unusual.

Bradley Smith is the chairman of the Federal Election Commission, the regulatory body that enforces campaign regulations.  Well, Ben Ginsburg quit today because, apparently, the was embarrassed or the party was embarrassed by the fact he was counselling both the president‘s reelection campaign and these independent campaigns, these swift boat guys.  Now we‘ve got a charge by the Republicans that Bob Bower (ph) not only represents the Democratic campaign of John Kerry but also represents a number of other Democratic Party organizations and independent groups.  Why isn‘t he in the same mix, the same mess, as the other guy, Ginsburg?

BRADLEY SMITH, FED. ELECTION COMMISSION CHAIR:  Well, people to have decide how they want to handle their own affairs.  But I was surprised to see, for example, Senator Cleland be so aggressive on saying that‘s proof that they‘re violating the law because, clearly, a lawyer can advise two clients.  What he can‘t do is transfer inside information from the campaign from one to another.

MATTHEWS:  Well, why did Ginsburg quit, if he did nothing wrong?

SMITH:  Well, because he thought appearances were perhaps bad.  I mean, the thing is, if that‘s the standard, merely having the same lawyer, then the Kerry campaign and a lot of these Democrats have a big, big problem on their hands for the reasons that you‘ve already suggested.

MATTHEWS:  So you think, on its face, prima facie, there‘s no case to be made for coordination simply by the presence of a shared lawyer.

SMITH:  That in and of itself wouldn‘t be enough.  Now, it might be something that might be enough to trigger an investigation into various ties between the groups.  But again, that‘s going to be sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander.

MATTHEWS:  How do you prove that some guy like Bob Perry didn‘t get a call from somebody like Karl Rove or anybody else in the Bush world and said, You know, we could use a little money.  Shake some money loose for these vets.  They don‘t have much money, but they got a lot of anger and they got a good cause.

SMITH:  Well, this is very hard stuff to prove.  I mean, how do you prove that Americans Coming Together isn‘t coordinating with the Kerry campaign?  They‘ve got offices next to one another.  Kerry‘s former campaign manager runs one of these...

MATTHEWS:  Well, do you have the money to check these things out?.

SMITH:  We have money.  We could almost always use more.  We have subpoena power and deposition power.  But these are fact-intensive investigations, and they take quite a bit of research and, you know, shoe leather.

MATTHEWS:  Well, we have a famous case back in ‘88, where you had a very strong campaign by George Bush‘s father, when he ran for president, going after the furlough program up in Massachusetts run by the governor, Governor Dukakis.  It was certainly questionable.  He was letting murderers and rapists out for the weekend.  And then to support that campaign from the outside, you had a group that was running ads with pictures of Willie Horton‘s picture all over the place.  Now, those were purportedly separate campaigns, and I accept that.  But how do you know that?

SMITH:  Well, it‘s always tough, but one of the thing about politics is, you know, how much brains does it take to figure out what are the key battleground states?  I mean, it‘s—all you have to do is read the paper.  How much brains does it take to know what is the key message of the different campaigns?  So it‘s very easy for groups to do things that compliment one another without doing any kind of illegal coordination.

MATTHEWS:  What about when it looks like synchronized swimming?  Do you think they might be synchronizing?

SMITH:  Well, again, these would be fact-intensive investigations.  Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.  And again, I‘m surprised to see how aggressive the Kerry folks have come out on this.  But if we get the complaints, we‘ll be investigating them.  Like I say, we have subpoena power, but they‘re going to be fact-intensive.

MATTHEWS:  Does silence under common law mean consent?

SMITH:  I don‘t think so, no.

MATTHEWS:  It doesn‘t?  In other words, if the president, this Bush or the former Bush, were able to say, I‘m staying silent on whether these ads are good for the country or not, that doesn‘t mean I‘m supporting them.  Does that—is that reasonable to assume, that a person who‘s the head of a political faction, the Republican conservatives, is really not making a statement by being silent?

SMITH:  Let‘s put it this way.  You‘ve got 200 -- you‘ve got—John Kerry has said, my war record is a vital part of my background...

MATTHEWS:  Right.

SMITH:  ...why I should be president.  You‘ve got 260 veterans who are making charges.  I don‘t know about the president.  I don‘t know about his people.  I have no idea whether these charges are true.

MATTHEWS:  Right.

SMITH:  I know it‘s unusual for me, from the vets I know, to imagine 260 of them telling falsehoods.

MATTHEWS:  Right.

SMITH:  My guess is it‘s a confusing story and there‘s, you know, different memories, and so on.  But I‘m not sure that I would want to go out on either side and say these are great ads—I‘m not sure how some of these people who weren‘t there, either, are going around saying these ads are false.  But I‘m not a political commentator.  At the FEC, we don‘t care whether the ads are true or false.  What we care about is were they were coordinated in a way that would violate the law.

MATTHEWS:  Have you caught anybody coordinating?

SMITH:  We do find coordination from time to time.

MATTHEWS:  Oh, you do?

SMITH:  But it is hard to find.

MATTHEWS:  What have you done?

SMITH:  Well, people are penalized.  They pay fines.  The practical matter is that we‘re about 65 days out of the election.  Under the statute under which we operate, there‘s an absolute minimum, if the FEC took no time at all in our own procedures, of 60 days before we could issue a finding publicly.  So as a practical matter, you‘re not going to see anything...

MATTHEWS:  So they‘ll probably get away with it.

SMITH:  ... before the election.

MATTHEWS:  Anyway, thank you very much, Bradley Smith, chairman of the Federal Election Commission.

Up next, more on the resignation of top Bush-Cheney campaign lawyer Ben Ginsburg and a look at the latest special interest group ads.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  This half-hour on HARDBALL, is the Bush campaign playing games with the swift boat issue?  And will the gay marriage debate start a fight on the eve of the Republican Convention? 

But, first, let‘s check in with the MSNBC News Desk. 

(NEWS BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

A Republican group has released a new ad that uses the ruins from 9/11 to trash John Kerry.  And President Bush‘s top election lawyer has resigned after acknowledging he helped an anti-Kerry group that‘s been criticizing his record on Vietnam. 

HARDBALL election correspondent David Shuster has this report. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, NBC ELECTION CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Known for the crucial role he played four years ago during the Florida recount, Ben Ginsberg, the president‘s top election lawyer, resigned today, after acknowledging he gave legal advice to the swift boat veterans group attacking John Kerry—quote—“I cannot begin to express my sadness, “ said Ginsberg, “that my legal representations have become a distraction from the critical issues at hand in this election.”            

The Bush campaign and the anti-veterans have said repeatedly they have not been coordinating anything.  But Ginsberg is now the second member of the Bush campaign to resign after helping the veterans group.  And today the Kerry campaign pounced—quote—“ Now we know why George Bush refuses to specifically condemn these false ads.  People deeply involved in his own campaign are behind them.”  That, of course, has not been proven. 

But there was yet another sign today the attack ads from 527 groups are only going to intensify.  A Republican organization called the Progress For America Voter Fund announced it has raised $35 million.  That‘s more than any single Democratic group.  The Republican 527 bankrolled by Bush donors, including Alex Spanos, owner of the San Diego Chargers, is the first to use 9/11 to slam John Kerry. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, AD)

NARRATOR:  But what if Bush wasn‘t there?  Could John Kerry have shown this leadership, the Kerry who voted against billions for America‘s intelligence even after the first World Trade Center bombing, the Kerry who voted against 13 weapons systems our troops depend on?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  The ad is misleading because years ago Dick Cheney as a congressman and then secretary of defense also tried to cut most of those same weapons.  And Porter Goss, the president‘s nominee to run the CIA, voted for deeper cuts in intelligence than John Kerry. 

Meanwhile, the Democratic group MoveOn.org is also on the air with new attack ads. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, MOVEON.ORG AD)

NARRATOR:  What if the same men who profited from the war had to fight it?  Since declaring war on Iraq, companies with close ties to the Bush government have made billions.  They‘re getting rich.  Our soldiers are putting their lives on the line.  George Bush, he‘s not on our side. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER (on camera):  But both sides say the special interest groups slug fest has only just begun.  And while campaign veteran Ben Ginsberg is now free to join that fight full-time, several Republicans say his departure from the Bush campaign is a major setback. 

I‘m David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, David.

It‘s been a busy day in politics.  And we have got our all-star panel to sort things out.  J.C. Watts is a former U.S. congressman of course from Oklahoma.  Dee Dee Myers if former White House press secretary for President Clinton.  And Laura Ingraham is a radio talk show host. 

What‘s the name of your network?

LAURA INGRAHAM, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  Talk Radio Network.

MATTHEWS:  Talk Radio.  It‘s very good.  I listen to it a lot, more than I should. 

Let‘s go right now to Dee Dee. 

Dee Dee, you‘ve been through these fights over images.  Was that a smart tactic to go down to Texas today, for J.C. Watts and for Jim Rassmann, the man that John Kerry saved from that situation in Vietnam? 

DEE DEE MYERS, FORMER CLINTON WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: 

Absolutely. 

I think the Kerry campaign is engaging on this now.  Initially, they were slow off the blocks.  They didn‘t want to I think elevate the charges against Kerry.  But now they seem very engaged.  I think Kerry seems energized by it and they‘re taking the fight right to the president.  Obviously the point they‘re trying to make is that the president, the White House and the president‘s campaign all support these ads. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

MYERS:  Whether or not they‘re bankrolling them is a different issue.  But, clearly, if the president wanted them off the air, he would say pull them off the air and they would stop. 

MATTHEWS:  J.C., this is a forward-leaning campaign tactic.  It‘s like when George Bush Sr. went up to the Boston Harbor and showed how mucky it was up there. 

J.C. WATTS, FORMER U.S. CONGRESSMAN:  Well, this is—it was political theater.  I saw that caption under when I was back in the green room, “political theater.”  That‘s what this was.  Chris, consider this.

MATTHEWS:  Was it tragedy or comedy? 

WATTS:  A little bit of both. 

But consider, over the last six months, John Kerry hasn‘t talked about taxes, hasn‘t talked about defense, hasn‘t talked about education.  This is really a good thing for him, because he doesn‘t have to talk about any of those issues.  He can try to make these ads the issue, which, if I was him, I would be wanting to get away from this, because when you say, elect me because I‘m a football coach or put me in the position because I‘m a football coach, and then you look at my resume and you find out I‘m a soccer coach, that‘s—that‘s open for scrutiny. 

(CROSSTALK)

MYERS:  J.C., what are you saying?  What are you saying, J.C.? 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  How about if you were a football coach and somebody called you a soccer coach?  Who would look like the fool? 

(LAUGHTER)

WATTS:  Well—but the point is, but the point is...

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

WATTS:  John Kerry—I think it is unfair to take a snapshot of someone‘s life 30, 35 years ago and they‘re running for something and you try to project that that is who they are. 

But if I‘m saying that I‘m a football coach and it turns out that I‘m a baseball coach, that‘s the issue that these veterans are talking about. 

(CROSSTALK)

WATTS:  They‘re saying that you didn‘t represent—you‘re not

representing yourself

(CROSSTALK)

MYERS:  That‘s not the issue at all, J.C.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to Laura. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to Laura. 

INGRAHAM:  The Kerry campaign has stunned me in how they‘ve treated this issue. 

I think their reaction seems panicked and desperate.  Now we learn that John Kerry is calling veterans on a Sunday night, not knowing, of course, that the veteran he‘s calling actually supports the swift boat vets?  They send Max Cleland down to Crawford, Texas, calling it not a political stunt.  It clearly was a political stunt.  I think the bottom line is this.  Do all veterans have a right to speak? 

If they don‘t have a right to speak, I want Max Cleland, I want John Kerry and all of them to just say that:  No, only people who support John Kerry have a right to speak.  No one knows what happened in the spring of 1969 on that river.

MATTHEWS:  Do you believe there‘s any coordination between the Bush campaign and these veterans? 

INGRAHAM:  I was a lawyer.  I had all sorts of different clients in Washington, Democrats, Republicans. 

MATTHEWS:  No, but do you think there‘s any coordination? 

INGRAHAM:  I don‘t think anyone knows yet. 

All I can say is, to say that there‘s coordination between Ben Ginsberg because he has two clients, swift boat vets...

MATTHEWS:  Well, why did he quit? 

INGRAHAM:  Because I think he‘s a good guy and he knows it is going to be a distraction. 

You know what might be coordination, Chris, if that‘s coordination?  Having Michael Moore sit in the presidential box at the DNC, when he and MoveOn.org are so cozy and Michael Moore is alleging that Osama bin Laden is being hidden by the Bush campaign and is going to be pulled out before the election. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.  Well, do you think Bob Bauer should quit?  He‘s the lawyer representing both MoveOn.org and the Kerry campaign.

INGRAHAM:  I think lawyers can have all sorts of clients.  I think, as Brad Smith just that, the federal election commissioner just said, that that doesn‘t mean that anyone is breaking the law.  This is nonsense. 

Everyone in Washington would have to quit if

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Let me just ask the issue.  Let‘s skip the law for a second.  Is it fair ball to use a third party to triangulate your opponent?  Is that fair?  Is it good politics, J.C.?  Just get somebody else to smear the guy.  Don‘t do it yourself.

WATTS:  Chris, I don‘t think it‘s a good deal. 

I do think the president thought that he was curing that problem when he signed the McCain-Feingold bill. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.  Well, apparently not.

WATTS:  Well, he hasn‘t.  And you pointed out in the previous section $68 million of outside money from the Democrats, $12 million by Republicans.  Everybody needs to call it off. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Dee Dee, one of the nice things about the new campaign law is the president or the guy running against him or woman running against him has to stand on television with the cameras rolling and say, my name is George Bush and I approve this ad, my name is John Kerry and I approve this ad. 

MYERS:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  What good does do it to have a law where you don‘t have to do that and somebody in a third-party situation is able to do your dirty work for you? 

MYERS:  Well, very little good, as we‘re finding out. 

I think, look, I mean, the president did sign, against his will, against his wishes, McCain-Feingold.  And, as we know, every time there‘s a new law trying to fix campaign finance problems, there‘s new problems created.  That‘s always going to be true.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  But why is it always true?  Is it because the lawyers want to create loopholes every time they write a law?  Is that the game? 

MYERS:  Because we live in a market-based economy.  And money is going to find its way into the process.  That‘s just the bottom line.

(CROSSTALK)

INGRAHAM:  What are people afraid of? 

(CROSSTALK)

INGRAHAM:  Dee Dee, what are people afraid of here?

INGRAHAM:  They‘re not afraid of anything. 

(CROSSTALK)

INGRAHAM:  Why do the John Kerry people, why, if they believe that these veterans don‘t have a right to speak out, 250-plus veterans have no right to speak out. 

(CROSSTALK)

MYERS:  That‘s a total false issue.  That‘s not the point. 

(CROSSTALK)

INGRAHAM:  Do you think that?  Do you think they have no right to speak out? 

MYERS:  I think everyone has a right to speak out. 

(CROSSTALK)

INGRAHAM:  End of story. 

MYERS:  No, it‘s not the end of the story.

INGRAHAM:  Yes, it is the end of the story.

MYERS:  Look, let me speak, at least, since that‘s the end of the story. 

They have every right to speak and I think the issue about what John Kerry said when he came back from the war are totally fair game.  If they want to have a debate about that—it‘s a distraction from what I think are the really important issues in this campaign.  But, nonetheless, that‘s fair game. 

To go back and to smear a guy who put his life on the line, to

question the valor that he showed, when all the official records and all

but one of the guys that served on the boats with him and almost everybody

that was in position to see it

(CROSSTALK)

INGRAHAM:  Seventeen of 23 fellow officers disagree with those views. 

(CROSSTALK)

MYERS:  They weren‘t there, Laura.

(CROSSTALK)

INGRAHAM:  Isn‘t that curious? 

(CROSSTALK)

MYERS:  It‘s curious. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I think there‘s a lot of conflict here.  Let me tell you one thing. 

(CROSSTALK)

MYERS:  Let me make one more point, Chris.  What is curious is that

until as recently as a year ago, a lot of these guys had a different story

to tell.  And I think what is curious is why all of a sudden in a

presidential election

(CROSSTALK)

INGRAHAM:  They‘ve been a lot more consistent than John Kerry over 35 years.  That‘s all I can say.

(CROSSTALK)

MYERS:  Why were they supporting him up until as recently as a year ago, the people that are leveling some of the most vicious charges now?  And do we want to go back and question why—how people who served honorably won their medals?

(CROSSTALK)

INGRAHAM:  John Kerry wrapped himself in Vietnam.  Why is he wrapping himself in Vietnam if he wants to talk about the issues? 

(CROSSTALK)

MYERS:  He went, Laura.  And he served with distinction.  And he served with honor. 

(CROSSTALK)

MYERS:  That‘s the end of the story.  Now, if you want to debate his policies, if you want to debate going forward, let‘s have that debate.

(CROSSTALK) 

MATTHEWS:  I got a commercial problem here. 

I want to say one thing.  What I would like to see as the moderator here is a debate between John Kerry...

INGRAHAM:  And John O‘Neill.

MATTHEWS:  ... and George W. Bush over John Kerry‘s war record. 

We‘ll be right back in a minute, and our panel. 

And don‘t miss “SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY” tonight at 10:00.  Joe has got a big guest tonight, Senator Bob Dole, who is right in the middle of this fight.  Here‘s a clip.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY”)

BOB DOLE ®, FORMER U.S. SENATOR:  John, stop talking about what a great veteran you were.  There are 25 million of us still around, and every one of them and a lot of their families and others that provided a lot of service to America.  And don‘t berate your fellow veterans as you did when you came back in 1971.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Coming up, more with our political panel.  And later, a division in the ranks on the eve of the Republican Convention over gay marriage—when HARDBALL returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, life gets curiouser and curiouser. 

John O‘Neill, who is the chief critic of John Kerry with regard to

what happened in Vietnam has apparently now been caught in National Archive

tapes telling Richard Nixon, the president at the time back in ‘71 -- quote

·         “I was in Cambodia, sir.  I worked along the border.”

One of the biggest issues, Dee Dee, has been that John Kerry said many times as senator that he was—on Christmas Eve, he was in Cambodia, against U.S. policy.  Now the guy who is his chief critic is caught now saying that he was in Cambodia. 

MYERS:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  I don‘t think it is the most important thing in the world, but, God, what a debate.  It gets more and more complex.  What do you make of this development? 

MYERS:  Well, once again, I think it undermines the credibility of some of the swift boat attacks, which is certainly what the swift boat people are worried about and what the Republican are worried about, which is why Ben Ginsberg resigned today. 

And I don‘t know if we‘ll ever get to the bottom of who was in Cambodia when.  And I think it is beside the point.  Can we get back to talking about the more important issues in this election?

(CROSSTALK)

MYERS:  I think the public is out there scratching their heads. 

MATTHEWS:  Why did John Kerry make himself, fashion himself G.I. Joe at the Democratic Convention?  Why did he say reporting for duty? 

(CROSSTALK)  

MATTHEWS:  Didn‘t he at the moment he did that set up the game as to what kind of soldier he was? 

MYERS:  Well, I think that there‘s no question that the emphasis on his record, on his time spent in Vietnam and his duty as a soldier did elevate the stakes in that debate.  But let‘s look at the record. 

MATTHEWS:  No, it started the debate. 

MYERS:  No, I think it elevated it.  Chris, this has been an issue in

every campaign that John Kerry has ever been in.  People have wanted to

question his service, because he came home and he made a lot of people mad

by coming out in an act of conscience against the war. 

I think the Cambodia thing is small potatoes, but we‘re going to have to talk about it now for a week. 

WATTS:  You know what, Chris?  I would rather talk about taxes.  I would rather talk about education.  I would rather talk about the defense bills and intelligence bills that John Kerry voted against. 

(CROSSTALK)

MYERS:  And I would rather talk about jobs and health care. 

WATTS:  Jobs and health care, you bet.  I think that‘s how George Bush

is going to win this election.  I don‘t think he‘s going to win the

election by talking about John Kerry back in 1960

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, what about the argument...

WATTS:  But the swift boat...

MATTHEWS:  OK.

WATTS:  The swift boat veterans, Chris, you know in that military community, those veterans, loyalty, trust, and honor is important to them. 

These veterans believe that John Kerry, that he hasn‘t told the truth about

his record.  Now

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  OK.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  But you know what‘s fueling their anger is not whether he got a medal, one of the three Purple Hearts.  What‘s fueling their anger is what he said about them when he came home. 

(CROSSTALK)

WATTS:  And I think that‘s more stinging to them, a lot more stinging.

(CROSSTALK)

MYERS:  It‘s also been distorted, by the way.

MATTHEWS:  Laura‘s turn.

INGRAHAM:  Colonel Bud Day, Medal of Honor winner, six years in the Hanoi Hilton, cell mate of John McCain, Bud Day, he said that what really hurt him were the fact that he heard over loud speakers at the Hanoi Hilton John Kerry‘s words at that Senate testimony in 1971. 

I think that‘s more powerful than medals or what happened with what

medal or rice and a flesh wound or bruise.  What did they feel like when

they were being accused of widespread atrocities when they were serving

time in the Hanoi Hilton or doing the hard work in Vietnam?  That‘s the

long memory

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Why is there no war crimes trial for the people who kept the Vietnam War going?

MYERS:  Right.  

MATTHEWS:  If you want to get really big here about this.  Who kept it going after it was clear we weren‘t going to win, who kept it going all through the Nixon administration, when it was clear that guys were going to die in a cause that was going to fail.  And they knew it.  They knew it.  It was wrong for diplomatic reasons and what we call linkage and all the thing—that Kissinger was involved in.

MYERS:  Right.  

MATTHEWS:  No crime trials for them.  No arguments over that.  We‘re arguing over one guy. 

INGRAHAM:  Maybe we can get to that after the election.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I would like to see a serious debate over that war. 

INGRAHAM:  But when John Kerry admits that he‘s a war criminal when he comes back and accuses everyone else of war crimes.

(CROSSTALK)

MYERS:  No, he didn‘t accuse people of war crimes. 

(CROSSTALK)

INGRAHAM:  Widespread war crimes. 

(CROSSTALK)

MYERS:  A lot of it was quoting what other people saw.  And I think we ought to try to put that debate in context.

INGRAHAM:  Right.  That‘s irresponsible.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, I got to tell you, Dee Dee, go back and read his testimony.  It‘s brutal. 

MYERS:  It is. 

(CROSSTALK) 

MYERS:  And I think that‘s why, as I said, I think that‘s a fair place to have a debate.  But let‘s have a debate about that and let‘s have a debate about what was happening in the war, Chris, as you pointed out. 

INGRAHAM:  Yes.  Don‘t shut down the veterans.  Don‘t shut down the veterans.  Let them speak.

(CROSSTALK)

MYERS:  John Kerry is a veteran.  And the veterans can speak. 

But let‘s talk about things that matter, as opposed to trying to smear a guy who served his country with honor. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I want to see the debate on the national television when the president has to take a fight and join this fight and he‘s got to defend his position during Vietnam and take on John Kerry to his face. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I wish they would do that tonight, in fact.  Around 10:00 at night, I would like to see them both in the same room and not have to wait a month and a half. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Anyway, thank you, J.C. Watts.  Thanks for having—Laura Ingraham, thank you.  Dee Dee Myers, thank you.

Up next, will Dick Cheney‘s comments about gay marriage separate the Republican Party at the convention?  I think it already has if you look at the platform being drafted as we speak. 

And don‘t forget, you can keep with the presidential race on HardBlogger, our election blog Web site.  Just go to HARDBALL—I love this lingo—MSNBC.com.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

With just days to go until the Republican Convention, Vice President Dick Cheney may have started a civil war within his own party over gay marriage.

Joining me right now to talk about this hot issue, Tony Perkins, who is president of the Family Research Council.  He‘s on camera right.  And Patrick Guerriero is with me.  He‘s director of the Log Cabin Republicans, a group that I‘ve been friendly with and like. 

You guys are all Republicans and you are gay men.

Let me ask you about—or gays, generally.  Women, too? 

PATRICK GUERRIERO, DIRECTOR, LOG CABIN REPUBLICANS:  Correct. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about this question.  The president‘s party, the Republican Party, has drafted a platform tonight as we speak that‘s very hard-line.  It calls for a ban, a Constitution ban on any kind of gay marriage.  It also opposes any kind of civil union, any kind of a sort of a halfway situation.  What do you make of that as a gay Republican? 

GUERRIERO:  Well, you have to have thick skin to be the head of the Log Cabin Republicans and a bit of a sense of humor.  I have to tell you, it‘s hard to make me shocked.  I‘m shocked with the platform that I have just heard was finalized tonight. 

As you said, it not only supports a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage that was defeated in the United States Senate, opposed by Vice President Cheney.  It also, as you said, excludes civil unions, domestic partnership.  It goes way overboard.  It actually goes on the opposite side of 70 percent of Americans, who may not support gay Americans, but do support some type of tax fairness.  It‘s a huge step backwards for the party.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you Tony Perkins.

Why do you think that this blanket approach, this sort of no-way-Jose approach to this, is a smart move or even an appropriate move for a political party like the Republicans? 

TONY PERKINS, PRESIDENT, FAMILY RESEARCH COUNCIL:  Well, I think it addresses not only the policy at the federal level, which has been an amendment to define marriage, but also addresses the policy issue at the state levels as well, where we‘ve already had 38 states that have gone on the record defining marriage between a man and a woman and many of those prohibiting the benefits of marriage being extending to couples other than those that are married. 

MATTHEWS:  Why not leave it—I know the Republican Party is historically—or at least in the last century or so—believed in decisions being made at the local level as much as possible.  It‘s the principle of subsidiarity.

PERKINS:  Certainly.

MATTHEWS:  Why in this case do you want the federal government to make the decision and not the states?

PERKINS:  Well, the federal government is not making the decision.  The party platform addresses policy not only at the federal level, but at the state level as well.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  But if you ban gay marriage at the federal level, then you won‘t have a call at the state level. 

PERKINS:  Well, you do on the issues of civil unions.  That certainly would be addressed at the state level.

But in the amendment—the amendment is needed because we have the issue of unelected federal judges that can simply impose this upon the states. 

GUERRIERO:  What is remarkable here, Tony, is that you have said this issue is about gay marriage. 

What was exposed tonight is, this issue has a lot more to do with the place you think gay and lesbian people deserve in the American family.  The vice president‘s family is like so many families across America, liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, who at their Thanksgiving dinner share the diversity of the American family.  This language, the language that is supported by your allies tonight marginalizes a piece of the American family. 

PERKINS:  No.

GUERRIERO:  It goes further than a constitutional amendment.  And it denies hospital visitation, tax fairness, pension benefits. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me ask you, Tony, is that your position? 

PERKINS:  No, that is not.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Are you against any kind of—any kind of rights or privileges for people who are in these relationships? 

PERKINS:  What we see as—what the social science says, the best environment for a child to be raised is that with a mother and with a father.  And public policy should reflect that. 

If we go forward with what Patrick is pushing and those working with him would be to deny children a mother or a father. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  What about partnership rights as city ordinances, decisions by municipalities?  They may be liberal towns.  Are you against that as well? 

(CROSSTALK)

PERKINS:  They certainly have those rights to take up that debate. 

But we see, as the social science has proven over the last 30 years in abundance, is that the best environment for a child is with a mother and a father. 

(CROSSTALK)

PERKINS:  And public policy should be promote that which is best for our children. 

GUERRIERO:  Tony, I am going to be in New York tomorrow.  I‘ll be with you.  Let‘s do a joint press conference.  We‘ll agree that gay marriage is something that is certainly not going to be accepted as of today by the majority of the American people, but we‘ll do a conference saying all gay families in America deserve tax fairness, hospital visitations, basic domestic partnership legislation.

I bet you would not be willing to do that. 

(CROSSTALK)

GUERRIERO:  And that tells the real story here, which is that there is a part of the American family, including part of the White House family, that is marginalized in this country and is unfortunately insulted by the platform language that came out today.  This wasn‘t a good moment to unite the party heading into a very close election.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you, Tony.  Should a gay person vote Republican this year after this decision by your platform? 

PERKINS:  Well, there‘s many things that the Republican Party advocates, economic development, jobs, reduction in government and taxes.  So there‘s many reasons to vote for the Republicans. 

MATTHEWS:  But if you were about to get married and the political party you were active in said you can‘t because we say so, what would be your reaction to the party?

PERKINS:  Well...

MATTHEWS:  Would you say, I‘m quitting this party or I‘m sticking with it and I‘m not getting married because my party told me that I shouldn‘t?  I know it‘s a little bit of a stretch, but what would be your reaction in that case?

PERKINS:  Well, I‘m already married, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, try to use your imagination. 

PERKINS:  Well, I would say this, that we look at the vast majority of the—or the core and the vast majority of grassroots supporters of the Republican Party.  They reflect the view that they believe marriage should be between a man and a woman. 

And it‘s just like public policy; 3 percent of the American public should not dictate and describe what marriage should be for the rest the country. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Fair enough.  Fair enough.  Why don‘t your 3 percent or whatever quit the Republican Party over this?  Why do you stick with it?

GUERRIERO:  You know, the president won a pretty close race in 2000. 

One million gay and lesbian voted for the Bush-Cheney ticket. 

MATTHEWS:  How many voted Democrat?

GUERRIERO:  We believe in a strong -- 25 percent voted Republican.

MATTHEWS:  Are you going to still do that?

GUERRIERO:  We believe in a strong national defense.  We believe in a free market.  We believe in family values.  And we believe in low taxes. 

MATTHEWS:  The party trumps orientation. 

GUERRIERO:  This year, there are a lot of gay and lesbian Americans and families who wonder who they are voting for.  The platform effort tonight is a mistake.

MATTHEWS:  Well, you are one loyal Republican. 

Thank you very much, Patrick Guerriero.  Thank you, Tony Perkins.

Join us again tomorrow at 7:00 Eastern for more HARDBALL. 

And starting Friday, we‘ll be in New York, as Cary Grant would say, New York, for the Republican National Convention.  Among our guests, John McCain.

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

END   

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