Guests: John Barry, Ken Davis, Marie Cocco, Pete McCloskey
CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Navy records now confirm that John Kerry‘s claim that he was under fire when he rescued a Green Beret in Vietnam in 1969 was accurate. That was, of course, the action that earned him the Bronze Star. We‘ll talk to the “Newsweek” reporter who uncovered the document. Plus: Tapes from the National Archives record a 1971 conversation between Richard Nixon, then the president, and Kerry‘s chief accuser, John O‘Neill. Will the tapes bolster John Kerry‘s claim to have been in Cambodia? And an eyewitness account of the abuses at Abu Ghraib.
Let‘s play HARDBALL.
Good evening. I‘m Chris Matthews. A newly discovered Navy document discredits one of the biggest claims by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. The group contends that John Kerry was not under hostile fire when he rescued Jim Rassmann from the water. But a citation awarded to a radar man who was part of the same five-boat flotilla as John Kerry says that all five boats came under small arms and automatic weapons fire from the riverbanks.
John Barry is the reporter who uncovered the document and broke the story for “Newsweek” magazine. Let me ask but this document. Tell us in your words, as a reporter, how this document makes the case that John Kerry was under enemy fire when he saved that fellow from the water, Rassmann?
JOHN BARRY, “NEWSWEEK”: There were five boats in the river that day, and there were three Bronze Stars that were awarded as a result. One was to Kerry. The second one was to one of Kerry‘s main accusers, the guy who -- Larry Thurlow, who was the skipper of the second boat.
MATTHEWS: He‘s been on here.
BARRY: He‘s been on. And the citation to Thurlow‘s Bronze Star says he was under fire. Well, Thurlow, says, No, the citation was wrong. It‘s a lie. I wasn‘t under fire. And he says, Oh, by the way, John Kerry wrote the citation. All right.
Well, now, the military archives, the National Personnel Records Office in St. Louis, Missouri, has turned up the citation for the Bronze Star, the third Bronze Star awarded that day, which was awarded to a guy called Robert Lambert, who was on Thurlow‘s boat, OK? Not Kerry‘s, Thurlow‘s boat. That citation says, as you remarked in your intro, that they were under small arms and automatic fire. It says that Lambert directed suppressive fire against the ambushers, and then it shows that what happened was that Lambert basically did what Kerry did, which is he fished someone out of the water. Who? Actually, Thurlow, who was the boat‘s skipper.
MATTHEWS: So the main accuser of John Kerry was taken out of the water in an award-winning act of courage by this guy, Lambert.
BARRY: By his chief petty officer.
MATTHEWS: And his write-up, his citation said?
BARRY: He was under fire. They were under fire the whole time.
MATTHEWS: How do you—I mean, studying these things—we‘ve got now report of Jim Rassmann, who was fished out of the water by John Kerry. He said he was under enemy fire. John Kerry has all along not contested the idea that he was under enemy fire.
MATTHEWS: Thurlow, who‘s one of the swift boat guys who doesn‘t like Kerry for numerous reasons, he says there was no fire (UNINTELLIGIBLE)
MATTHEWS: And now we‘ve got three reports for three. We‘re now three for three...
MATTHEWS: ... that say we‘re under enemy fire at the time of the these actions that won the three Bronze Stars.
BARRY: Yes. Actually, we‘re four for four because the after-action report, which is different from these, that was filed by the division commander afterwards also says they were under fire.
MATTHEWS: Well, is this like the four Gospels or the three Gospels of the New Testament?
MATTHEWS: No, because I studied this, as you probably did, too. Three Gospels (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the synoptic Gospels are very similar because of the theory that a lot of this was not only divinely inspired but it actually came through hand of maybe one person...
BARRY: One person.
MATTHEWS: ... and was sort of rewritten by the others.
BARRY: That—I mean, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, as they call themselves, get around this problem by saying, Well, it was Kerry who wrote up everything. OK.
BARRY: Now, the problem with that is that when you read the citations for Lambert and for Thurlow, OK...
BARRY: ... they talk in intimate detail of what was going on on Thurlow‘s launch. Now, Kerry can‘t have known that because he was on...
MATTHEWS: How far away was he?
BARRY: He was on another launch on other side of the river.
MATTHEWS: How far do you estimate—here‘s Kerry, saving Jim Rassmann. We need to get a reenactment thing from NBC on this...
MATTHEWS: ... where you saw one guy saving one guy from the water. Over somewhere else in that big waterway, I guess, somebody else is saving the guy. And then there‘s the other action of Thurlow himself, of course, helping save that ship that had been mined.
BARRY: Yes, that had been mined. That‘s right.
MATTHEWS: How many yards or leagues were they apart?
BARRY: They were—the distance varied. At the minimum, they were about 40 yards apart. And at the maximum, because...
MATTHEWS: That‘s more than a football field.
BARRY: Right. They—at the maximum, they were more than that because what happened was that Kerry took off and went some distance down river as the small—as these swift boat veterans always point out, before he turned around and came back to rescue Rassmann. So you know, the two launches were significant distances apart the entire time. There was no way that Kerry could have known what was going on on Thurlow‘s boat and what Thurlow and Lambert were doing at the time.
MATTHEWS: How much reporting‘s going on right now in the archives? Because we came across this interesting little tidbit today. I think John Erlichman would call it a sugar plum.
MATTHEWS: We find out now that Richard Nixon had a conversation with one of the chief accusers who‘s been sort of this guy‘s, you know, Javier (ph) for the last 30-some years...
BARRY: Ever since ‘71, yes.
MATTHEWS: He‘s been chasing him. John O‘Neill was apparently having a conversation with Richard Nixon in which he claimed to have been to Cambodia, the very assertion which has gotten John Kerry on the verge of being incredulous here, or incredible.
BARRY: Yes. And the- well, to answer your specific question, yes, there‘s a lot of digging going on in the archives, and the Navy archives down in the Navy yard are kind of swamped with inquiring reporters. But on the point about—on the point about Cambodia, a group of the swift boat veterans were in town today, and I talked to them, and they focussed on the Cambodia issue. And I think that it‘s pretty clear—and indeed, the Kerry campaign doesn‘t really now deny—that to say he was in Cambodia on Christmas day of 1968 was poetic license, to put it politely.
MATTHEWS: Why is penetration so important here of Cambodia? Why does it matter whether he‘s on the border, the way John O‘Neill says he was, or Kerry was, and Christmas day, rather than Groundhog‘s day or any other day of the year? Why is it important?
BARRY: Because they think it gets to Kerry‘s general credibility, and that has wider political implications.
MATTHEWS: I see.
BARRY: I mean, it does look...
MATTHEWS: You mean he was sort of a Hemmingwayesque character who made up good stories and began to believe them.
BARRY: I think their argument—they have very mixed motives. I mean, if you talk to them, they come across as decent, honorable guys with mixed motives. The main motive, I think, is anger at Kerry‘s campaign biography by Douglas Brinkley because they believe that that biography essentially disrespects the guys in the group. And one of them said to me today that he had actually forgiven Kerry for his testimony in Congress in 1971, when, you know, Kerry talked atrocities, and so on, in language which Kerry himself has now said he regrets having used. One of the guys said to me, you know, I‘ve forgiven him for that. But then I read what he wrote about us in his memoirs, and he said, and I was furious all over again.
MATTHEWS: How did his account of his own—or rather, Doug Brinkley
· Doug Brinkley‘s a good historian.
MATTHEWS: Why was his—is his account too glorified?
MATTHEWS: Too glowing?
BARRY: Yes, they say two things. I mean, one, that it makes him out to be this sort of—this kind of warrior intellectual, perceiving things that others don‘t, and so on. And the second is that he was—actually, his memoir‘s pretty rude about the small boats commander in Vietnam at the time, a guy called Captain Hoffman, who later retired as admiral. And it was Hoffman who read the account...
MATTHEWS: Did he slight him? Did he say he wasn‘t quite up to the job or what?
BARRY: He essentially said he was kind of a mad dog warrior. And it was—we know that it was Hoffman who read the account of what Kerry said about him in his book and was absolutely furious and started to go around and basically put together this swift boat veterans group. So it was—you know, it was...
MATTHEWS: This is so fraught with unintended consequences.
MATTHEWS: Somebody writes a campaign...
BARRY: The iron law strikes again!
MATTHEWS: ... a glowing account of a man‘s heroism, it turns out, ticking off all the guys who served with him as making him—singling him out for greatness.
MATTHEWS: And people tell me the ethos of the guys who served in Vietnam is, Don‘t brag. Nobody brags.
BARRY: Nobody bragged. And on the whole, it‘s the ethos of people who fought in wars. I mean, it‘s—you know, it‘s very hard to get warriors to talk about what they did in World War II...
MATTHEWS: I know.
BARRY: ... or the Korean war, you know? And they—and in some fashion, they think Kerry broke a rule.
MATTHEWS: It is great having you on, John.
BARRY: Good to be with you.
MATTHEWS: You‘re an amazing reporter to get this stuff. It‘s great stuff. Instead of just arguing about it, we‘re learning stuff here. John Barry of “Newsweek.” To get John‘s “Newsweek” story, go to hardball.msnbc.com.
Coming up, an eyewitness to the abuses of Abu Ghraib. I mean an eyewitness. Ken Davis talks about what he saw personally and who he thinks should be held responsible in just a moment. That‘s going to be a hot story coming up. And still ahead, John McCain speaks out about Bush, Kerry and those swift boat ads that keep running. I keep watching them.
You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. The Army‘s official investigation into the abuse of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison goes beyond other military inquiries into the scandal and implicates military intelligence personnel for playing a significant role in directing and participating in the abuse of Iraqi prisoners.
Ken Davis served with the seven accused military police soldiers in the 372nd Military Police Company and witnessed abuse of the Iraqi prisoners at the hands of military intelligence officers.
Sergeant, thank you very much for coming on tonight to clear up at least your version, your reality over there. What did you see people doing that you think was wrong?
KEN DAVIS, FORMER U.S. ARMY SOLDIER: First of all, Chris, thanks for having me. And I just wanted to state that the 372nd is full of some great soldiers.
DAVIS: So it‘s not indicative of it being a terrible unit.
MATTHEWS: OK. And what did you see?
DAVIS: What I witnessed was, whenever I accidentally walked up to tier 1-A, 1-Alpha, on the hard side (ph), was there was two—what appeared to me two MI soldiers at the back of the tier interrogating naked detainees by handcuffing them to cells.
MATTHEWS: And what struck you as the wrong part, the fact that they were naked?
DAVIS: I wasn‘t sure. I thought maybe I had missed something by catching up with my unit late. But I had never heard of interrogating or interviewing naked detainees. But then again, we were never trained to interrogate, as MPs. So as I was walking in to the tier, one of the MI soldiers walked over to me, and he asked me, sarcastically, Have we crossed the line? And again, I had just gotten there. And I had told him, I said, I don‘t know. You‘re military intelligence. He says, Well, you‘re the MP. I said, Well, then, I would have to say yes. And he looked at me and he says, Well, we‘re military intelligence. We‘re interrogating these detainees, and we know what we‘re doing.
MATTHEWS: Yes. I think the only time I saw that before was in a movie called “The Little Drummer Girl” about the Mossad that interviewed Arabs this way. But—it was totally new to you, the—what about the whole idea of sexual humiliation as an effort to break down prisoners and get them to talk?
DAVIS: I don‘t know who would have come up with something like that or even if it was come up with. But again, it was in chaos over there. There was a lot of confusion about who was in charge, who was calling the shots. But it was always told to the MPs that military intelligence is in charge of this compound.
MATTHEWS: So you actually eyewitnessed this naked—this interrogation of a guy who‘s naked. Anything else?
DAVIS: Yes. After I walked onto the tier, they un-handcuffed and re-handcuffed the two naked detainees together. And then they ended up bringing in a third detainee that had his orange jumpsuit on. And that‘s when military intelligence told the detainee to get undressed. He refused. They told him again. And all the time they‘re telling him is through an interpreter. And they refuse again. And then they look at Graner and said, Graner, he‘s refusing to get undressed. Make him get undressed. Tell him to get undressed. so Graner yelled at him to get undress, and he did.
MATTHEWS: What about the dogs?
DAVIS: No dogs were present whenever I was there. I was there in November, when they brought canine units into the compound, and I was aware of them using canine on searches. And then the reports coming out about two juveniles being humiliated or scared by dogs—I remember there was a captain in the MI unit that had requested us go pick up a juvenile detainee of Jordanian descent. And we went and actually picked up two juveniles. One was much bigger than the second one, so I‘m not sure, if this happened in November, if it‘s the same two.
MATTHEWS: So your testimony, at least for your firsthand experience here, your eyewitness report to us right now and before was that you saw military intelligence people—these are not MPs. They‘re not from the 372nd. These are military intelligence people interrogating people who are naked and then handcuffing them together. Did you get—in their response to you when you asked them about it, when they asked you what you thought, you got the message from them that this was policy.
DAVIS: I got the message from them that they knew what they were doing. They‘re military intelligence. Plus, by them not wearing rank, not having to wear their names or rank on their uniforms, and they‘re sanitized, you don‘t know who they are. You don‘t know...
MATTHEWS: Were they contractors, do you think, or were they definitely military people?
DAVIS: These are definitely MI personnel. And then we always ran into contractors from the different agencies while we were over there, and you didn‘t know who they were because they wore civilian clothes.
MATTHEWS: Let me tell what you I‘ve been theorizing. And it‘s only a theory, so maybe you can knock it down or bolster it up. I don‘t think regular people, enlisted people, come up with cockeyed, crazy ideas about to sexually humiliate people. They don‘t think of tying people together like they‘re hot dog packages or something and tying them all together to humiliate them. They don‘t think of ways in which to sexually humiliate people. They may—maybe slug a guy who‘s giving them a hard time or whatever reason, but this kind of, sort of fantastic perversity seems to me to be something that comes out of somebody who‘s studied the culture of the Islamic people and how to especially humiliate Arab men.
What‘s your sense, coming back, as to where it came from, just—that this was something that was theorized as a way to crack these prisoners and crack the resistance in Iraq, or what we‘re seeing at home here was mainly tomfoolery by a couple guys who were a little nutty?
DAVIS: At first, it was stated that it was a couple of rogue MPs from a unit that were doing this, but now we see there‘s a lot more that are being charged. Somewhere, the system broke. Some way...
MATTHEWS: But where did the ideas about how to humiliate these people
· the stuff we saw, where did those notions come from? I just don‘t get the answer to this from anybody. Is it from techniques used by intelligence forces in dealing with Muslim men? Is it—does it come from study of their culture? Or does it come from nowhere?
DAVIS: I‘m not sure because I know, as MPs, we were never trained to interrogate or to humiliate anyone. So someone opened a door to this kind of tactic to be done, and there was innocent soldiers at the time that walked down this path, and now they‘re caught up in it.
MATTHEWS: Why do you think these enlisted fellows and commissioned officers and—non0commissioned, I should say, and some of them enlisted people, the specialists, for example—why do you think they‘re pleading to these charges? Is it they‘re afraid of—one of the lawyers said the other day to Mr. Frederick (UNINTELLIGIBLE) he said, You know, I‘m giving a prudent defense for my client because—I think the language was something that suggested this would be the best deal he‘d get. Like, I got the reading, he was facing 5 to 10 or something like that. And they were saying, Well, if the guy pleads to a year and shuts up, that‘s the smart move.
is that what‘s going on there, I mean, lenient sentences, relatively lenient sentences for cooperation?
DAVIS: See, the military‘s got an advantage. They have those soldiers overseas right now, and they can press them as hard as they want.
BARRY: Just like I heard—I was talking to a gentleman today. He said there‘s excuses and there‘s reasons. There‘s no excuse for what we see in those pictures. Pictures state a thousand words, but there‘s a rest of the book somewhere. And the reasons are out there, how it started, where it started and how it got carried away. And I believe that a lot of our soldiers got carried away with it. It probably started off honestly by what...
DAVIS: ... the way I understand it...
MATTHEWS: Jim Schlesinger, The former secretary of defense, former CIA director—he‘s had many posts, secretary of energy, et cetera, under both Republican and Democratic administrations—I know the fellow. He said, basically, that this was Saturday—this was, what do you call it, “Animal House.” This was nighttime craziness. In other words, it was a perversion of what was going on in the daytime. To me, that struck me—well, he didn‘t exactly say that. I‘m saying that. He‘s acting like it‘s completely made up. And my theory is it‘s some version of what these guys were trained to do or told to do. What do you think?
DAVIS: It had to be taught. Someone had to show the way, and then it came out that they said, Use your imagination to soften up these detainees.
DAVIS: So for them to say it‘s an “Animal House”—it was very chaotic. Not only did everyone around us know we needed more troops, they know that an MP company was in there that did not have the training to do this type of mission. We are combat support. We‘re law and order. We‘re supposed to be out on the streets providing security. So to put them under MI, already that‘s causing confusion. And the abuses started in September, before I had even got there.
MATTHEWS: OK, let‘s talk about ordnance, or rather materiel, whatever you call it. where did the dog collars come from? Where did the hoods come from? These guys didn‘t bring them over from Western Virginia, western Pennsylvania or western Maryland. These GIs didn‘t show up with all this equipment. Who gave them this kind of torture equipment?
DAVIS: It‘s interesting you say that. We didn‘t even show up into the war with the right equipment, with the right body armor. One of our soldiers...
MATTHEWS: Well, why did you end up with dog collars and hoods?
DAVIS: That‘s a very good question. I don‘t know where they came from. The sandbags were prevalent. That‘s what they hooded people with.
MATTHEWS: OK. I don‘t think Mommy mailed them over. Anyway, thank you very much, Ken Davis, Sergeant Davis.
Up next: After days of controversy over the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and John Kerry‘s overall Vietnam record, Senator John McCain speaks out again. We‘ll have more on that in a moment. He‘s becoming the referee in this one.
You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.
MATTHEWS: Just 68 days until the election now, and a new poll shows John Kerry losing ground to President Bush. It comes after weeks of debate over attacks on John Kerry‘s record in Vietnam, of course. And today President Bush‘s former nemesis, John McCain, who spent five years as a POW in Vietnam, weighed in. Here‘s HARDBALL election correspondent David Shuster.
DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL ELECTION CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): On his way back to the campaign trail today, the president was greeted by an interview in “The New York Times” with Arizona senator John McCain. The Vietnam veteran, who has been campaigning about Mr. Bush, said the president had not done enough to rein in the Texas-based veterans group attacking John Kerry.
Quote, “He has condemned the 527s, which I‘m pleased that he did,” said McCain. “I‘d like to see him go further.”
McCain was so irritated with the focus on Vietnam, he vowed to talk about it with the president personally. Mr. Bush called Senator McCain from Air Force One. And according to White House spokesman Scott McClellan, the men agreed to work together to fight shadowy interest groups in court. “If the court action doesn‘t work,” said McClellan, “the president would be willing to pursue legislative action with Senator McCain.”
It‘s not clear when those steps would be taken, but McCain said he was satisfied. Meanwhile, the Kerry campaign said it would honor McCain‘s request to pull this ad...
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN ®, ARIZONA: I don‘t know if you can understand this, George, but that really hurts. That really hurts.
SHUSTER: ... featuring McCain‘s anger at Mr. Bush and his supporters four years ago.
The debate over John Kerry‘s Vietnam record has been dominating the race.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I served with John Kerry.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: John Kerry cannot be trusted.
SHUSTER: And it appears to have had an impact. The latest poll from “The Los Angeles Times” shows Kerry now losing to President Bush by 3 points. In July, before the Democratic convention, Kerry was up by 2. When voters were asked about Kerry‘s overall military experience, 23 percent said it made them more likely to vote for him, 21 percent less likely. And 53 percent said it would make no difference, a setback for Kerry after he focused so heavily on his military background during the Democratic convention.
JULIE KIRTZ, FOX CORRESPONDENT: I‘m John Kerry, and I‘m reporting for duty!
SHUSTER: And an NBC/”Wall Street Journal” poll now finds Kerry losing by 2 points, a slight improvement for Kerry from July.
But there is potential trouble for President Bush. While the president‘s overall approval ratings haven‘t changed much, on the economy, his numbers continue to drop. Only 43 percent approve, 52 percent disapprove.
(on camera): The president will try to tackle that problem by laying out his economic plan for a second term during the Republican convention, a convention that begins in four days. I‘m David Shuster for HARDBALL at MSNBC.
MATTHEWS: It sure does. Thank you, David Shuster.
Up next: The latest polls show the controversy over John Kerry‘s Vietnam service may have hurt his bid for the White House. We‘ll talk to Howard Fineman, Patrick Buchanan and Marie Coco of “Newsday” about it in just a—for the next half hour.
In fact, you‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.
MATTHEWS: This half-hour on HARDBALL, a preview of the Republican National Convention and a look at how the controversy over John Kerry‘s military record is playing in those opinion polls.
But, first, let‘s check in with the MSNBC News Desk.
MATTHEWS: Today, President Bush called Senator McCain from Air Force One to tell him he wants to work with him against political ads from outside groups, but did not condemn the swift boat ads, as McCain had asked him to do.
Joining me to talk politics tonight, “Newsweek”‘s Howard Fineman, who is also an MSNBC analyst. MSNBC contributor Pat Buchanan joins us, as well Marie Cocco, a columnist for “Newsday.”
Pat Buchanan, let‘s start with a couple of these things here. “Newsweek,” as we mentioned earlier in the show, has reported the fact that there‘s now new evidence that there was hostile fire coming from the shore described as small-arms and automatic weapons fire at the time that John Kerry won his first Bronze Star—Bronze Star. And we know it because the guy who has been accusing him of it, Larry Thurlow, had his life being saved as he was being pulled from the water by a guy named Robert Eugene Lambert at the time.
And his, Lambert‘s, citation said that there was hostile fire. Is this the end of the discussion, whether there was hostile fire at the time that John Kerry saved Rassmann from the water?
PAT BUCHANAN, NBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Of course not. Look, what you‘ve got there is the written report.
BUCHANAN: And we have got to find out who was behind the written report.
MATTHEWS: Well, what makes you assume
BUCHANAN: Chris, hold it.
The captains of the three other boats, the people who rescued those guys, you‘ve got Pees, you‘ve got Chenoweth, and you‘ve got Thurlow. And you‘ve got O‘Dell on that side of the river. They say we did a good thing. We fired into the bank, but nobody was firing at us. They‘re saying, we did a good thing but we aren‘t all that heroic. The question is, who is behind those written reports? Who filed those documents? So I believe them.
I also believe Rassmann when he says he was in the water and he came up. He hears all this firing. So I think there‘s a lot of truth here. Let‘s find out who wrote the written reports.
MATTHEWS: According to the “Newsweek” report, it could not have been John Kerry because he was too far away from that particular action to have given a credible report that would have been used in the citation.
BUCHANAN: Kerry—isn‘t this the case where Kerry said he‘s taken 5,000 meters of fire? Chris, there‘s not a single individual in that exercise who was wounded by bullet wounds, who was injured. You don‘t hear of windows being shot out on boats.
But if all this firing were going on, those guys would be dead in that 75-yard river. There would have been casualties left, right and center. I think these three guys on those three boats who rescued the three boat are telling the truth.
BUCHANAN: Because, look, if I‘m the one getting a Bronze Star
MATTHEWS: I mean why do you believe when it says came under a small-arms and automatic weapons fire from the river banks, why do you disbelieve that?
BUCHANAN: Because nobody was wounded. Nobody—where are the reports that Kerry‘s boat had to be repaired? Where are the wounds—I mean, where are the windows shot out on these boats with all that fire? Where are the bullet wounds on anybody? Nobody except the guy on the three boat.
What happened is, they exploded a mine under the three boat. All the other two boats on that side of the river fired for 45 minutes everything they had. They thought they were ambushed. When he they realized they weren‘t being fired on, they rushed to rescue their buddies. They ought to know whether they‘re being fired at.
BUCHANAN: As for Kerry, he took off up the river. Rassmann falls.
Rassmann comes up. He hears all this firing going on. I understand him.
Kerry comes back. Find out who wrote the reports.
MATTHEWS: Well, OK. The question is whether John Kerry could have written the reports based on not having seen the incident.
Let me ask you, Howard, I don‘t know whether they filed damage reports as well as casualty reports back in those days. I don‘t know if it‘s like renting a car, and whether you do get damage reports on your boats.
MATTHEWS: No to put this too ludicrously. But constantly we keep seeing this phrase, came under small arms and automatic weapons fire. And that was dug up by your magazine, again, from another source in the Navy files. I don‘t think this is the issue of the campaign. Damn it, I don‘t think it is the issue, because I think a lot of these medals are probably given without full accounting and some aren‘t given that should have damn well been given to guys who were heroic, and women, too, I suppose.
HOWARD FINEMAN, NBC CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes.
MATTHEWS: So I don‘t think that‘s the issue, but let‘s finish out the argument here.
FINEMAN: All right.
MATTHEWS: Who is going to solve this?
FINEMAN: Well, nobody is going to ultimately solve the question. The preponderance of the legal documents that have been unearthed out of the Pentagon seem to support John Kerry‘s view, the official documents.
And what John Berry, our reporter at “Newsweek,” found was a document that clearly contained details that Kerry could not have seen. So it does help Kerry‘s case some. But, politically, this is a question of Kerry winning these battles but losing the larger war, because the last two weeks has been devoted to all these details.
FINEMAN: The whole country has been transported back to the
FINEMAN: ... river.
MATTHEWS: I know.
FINEMAN: Kerry seems to have had some doubts planted about his leadership and he hasn‘t had a chance to say anything good about himself.
FINEMAN: Through the media for the last two weeks. He hasn‘t had a chance.
MATTHEWS: Marie, it‘s become an inquest, not a campaign.
MARIE COCCO, “NEWSDAY”: Well, it has, but I think Howard is making the point. The point here, whether President Bush is directly or only indirectly behind this swift boat attack on John Kerry, here is the point.
MATTHEWS: How do we know either is true?
MATTHEWS: How do we know either is true?
COCCO: It does—it‘s not with Vietnam. It is about John Kerry‘s character. And the Republicans knew from the get-go with John Kerry that they were going to have a candidate who was going to have certain strengths on character issues that they may not have seen in a Democrat before, i.e., he leaves Yale and what does he do? He goes to Vietnam.
They needed very badly to undercut his character and integrity. And I think they‘re succeeding with this series of ads and all of the discussion of it.
MATTHEWS: Well, there‘s another development.
MATTHEWS: Pat, I want to get to you on something. You may have been in the room. O‘Neill, who is his bete noire, certainly John Kerry‘s No. 1 attacker since 1969 or whatever, ‘71, the guy who also served over there who has come back and criticized his performance over there and what he said afterwards, the Senate testimony.
O‘Neill apparently in a tape with Richard Nixon—those famous tapes have come up again, Pat. And the tapes now show a conversation with the president at the time. He told the president he had been in Cambodia now. Now one of the shots at Kerry lately has been, he was not telling the truth when he said he was in Cambodia. Now you have his chief accuser bragging to Richard Nixon that he was in Cambodia. So doesn‘t that knock down the attackers‘ charges?
BUCHANAN: Not at all. John Kerry made it a road to Damascus moment. Christmas Eve, he is inside Cambodia. He is taking fire, when his officers in Vietnam and his president are lying about it. And here this heroic guy is there taking fire secretly. He said it again and again and again as a seminal experience in his life. And it turns out to be fraudulent and John Kerry turns out, the man, to be lying.
MATTHEWS: Pat, I don‘t know why you‘re picking this point. Does it matter whether it is Christmas or Groundhog‘s Day? What difference does it make if he was in Cambodia?
BUCHANAN: All right, I‘ll agree with you. Well, look, because it is a very—Look, if Kerry says it wasn‘t Christmas, actually, it was New Year‘s Eve that I was in there taking fire, no commander agrees with him. None of the men on his boat agree with him. Everybody says it is an impossibility. Kerry is the only guy that says he was in Cambodia now. Even his campaign said he wasn‘t there.
MATTHEWS: No, John O‘Neill says he was there. John O‘Neill told Richard Nixon, your old boss, he was there. Why would he lie to Nixon?
BUCHANAN: But, look, look, look, I don‘t know what that is all about.
But very honestly, Chris
MATTHEWS: Well, it is about this exact thing we‘re talking about, two
BUCHANAN: You seem to be going after...
MATTHEWS: No, I‘m just trying to explain...
BUCHANAN: Chris, whether or not John O‘Neill was on the border in Cambodia is irrelevant. Was John Kerry there under fire when his commanders were lying about him being there?
BUCHANAN: He has used that story again and again and again to describe why he changed his life.
MATTHEWS: Well, it may turn out to be true, Pat.
Two points. Here‘s my point in the line of questioning. I‘ve said it tonight. The two chief accusers are John O‘Neill, who has written a book, “Unfit For Duty” or whatever it is. And the other guy who has come out of nowhere, Larry Thurlow, who said there was no gunshots at the time he did what he did.
Now we find out there is a new battlefield report saying that Thurlow was under gunfire, that he is wrong in his testimony, at least contradictory with the reports.
MATTHEWS: And we now find out that the other chief accuser, the other chief accuser also was in Cambodia. And he was the guy telling us that Kerry was a liar.
MATTHEWS: It seems to me the two chief accusers are nailed right now today. It is a bad day in Black Rock for the accusers.
MATTHEWS: We‘re coming back with Pat.
Do you have any more to say?
BUCHANAN: Chris, I don‘t think so.
MATTHEWS: OK. We‘ll be right back.
And, by the way, sign up for HARDBALL‘s daily e-mail briefing. Just log on to our Web site, HARDBALL.MSNBC.com.
MATTHEWS: Coming up, more with our convention eve political panel on whether the controversy over John Kerry‘s Vietnam record is hurting the candidate in the polls—when HARDBALL returns.
MATTHEWS: I‘m back with Howard Fineman, Pat Buchanan and Marie Cocco.
Let me just say that I don‘t know who organized this firing squad against John Kerry this week, but it‘s brilliantly timed, because, Pat, what it is doing is, it is going toward the Republican base of men, older men, I guess, regular guys, who may be politically Republican, but not exactly red-hots like yourself.
MATTHEWS: And they‘re basically now red-hots, because I looked at the poll. The newest NBC poll shows an eight-point spike among people who are very negative on Kerry. Is that what this is about, bolstering up the Republican side, not finding new recruits to the cause?
BUCHANAN: All right, first, let me just say briefly, I think the swift boat guys are authentic, serious, angry, bitter, legitimately so.
But you‘re right, Chris. It is working. It is working with me, quite frankly. This is a tremendously emotional issue for me. I was involved in all that. And we‘re caught up in it. We‘re intoxicated with it. It is the hottest issue going. And you look at that poll out in California. Kerry now only gets 3 percent of Republicans.
This is driving Republicans back to Bush and it is bringing home some Reagan Democrats. There‘s about 15 or 20 percent. They are moving toward Bush. And this for some of us—I know it may be a minority.
MATTHEWS: Is it character or courage?
MATTHEWS: Pat, is it character or courage that is pivoting these voters?
BUCHANAN: It is about truthfulness. It is about character. It is about courage. It is about Vietnam.
Did this guy come home and slime all these guys while you have got POWs in North Vietnam who are being tortured to say the things Kerry was saying for free? That‘s the outrage, Chris, that you‘re feeling and you‘re seeing from a lot of folks.
MATTHEWS: OK. I get you. It‘s not the medals. It is the testimony.
Let‘s go to...
FINEMAN: Yes, I do think the testimony is the emotional thing here.
I was talking to a Republican strategist very close to the White House. I said, aren‘t you guys just sort of talking to yourselves about this thing, this whole swift boat thing? And he said, what‘s wrong with talking to yourself? That‘s what the aim is here. And that‘s what the effect has been. And in Ohio, where I have spent a lot of time, I know a diner out there on the highway in Canton in the swing county of Stark. Those guys and those women are talking about this issue. No question about it.
MATTHEWS: So, in other words, Bush ain‘t no great shakes, but he is not no lying, medal-grabbing, rat fink, like this other guy is.
FINEMAN: Right. This is all about, as an independent or not, making Kerry unacceptable. That‘s what it is all about.
MATTHEWS: To change the focus of a reelection campaign from the usual focus on the incumbent, Marie, to the challenger. Brilliant move.
COCCO: Well, if I were George Bush and I had 61 percent of the people in your poll saying that the economy is not getting better for the middle class, I would want to change the subject, too.
I think what Kerry has to do after all of this talk and chatter—every piece of allegation against him is disproved by the actual Naval records. I think what Kerry ought to do is say over and over again, this isn‘t my story. This is the U.S. Navy‘s story.
COCCO: Mr. President, do you not believe the U.S. Navy?
MATTHEWS: I think the only way he is going to change this story is to say he‘s gay.
MATTHEWS: I think he has got to say something so different.
MATTHEWS: Changing the subject now is going to have to be a full McGreevey.
MATTHEWS: Go ahead, Pat.
BUCHANAN: Chris, hey, Chris, he can handle the one issue you and I are arguing about it. He can handle. Get him on “Russert” and Russert says, were you in Cambodia at Christmastime taking fire or some other holiday or some time there? Did you drop off secret guys in there?
BUCHANAN: Just ask him the simple question and explain what happened there.
As for the reports, all the reports say the same thing. So, clearly, they come from one source. But you have got to believe if Thurlow is pulling a guy off a boat, he knows whether he‘s under fire. So does Pees. So does O‘Dell. And so does Chenoweth.
MATTHEWS: Well, why does Rassmann say—why does the guy whose life
was saved by John Kerry
MATTHEWS: Because he was under water. He‘s coming up.
MATTHEWS: ... and says he was under enemy fire? Why would he make it up?
BUCHANAN: He‘s not making it up. He‘s telling the truth.
He is bounced off this boat when Kerry takes off. He is under the water. He drop off his pack, his gun. He comes up. He hears World War IV going on, on the other end of the river, 75 yards. He goes down. He come up. The guy is fighting for his life.
BUCHANAN: And finally Kerry‘s boat shows up.
MATTHEWS: Coming up, a man who was a real veteran of the Vietnam debate back in the 1970s, former U.S. Congressman Pete McCloskey. He‘s the guy that challenged Nixon in the Republican primary.
So, don‘t forget, you can keep up with the presidential race on HardBlogger, our election blog Web site. Just go to HARDBALL.MSNBC.com.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.
The controversy over John Kerry‘s service in Vietnam and his subsequent anti-war protests have stirred emotions on both sides of the debate, particularly with the Vietnam veterans themselves. Yesterday, I spoke with former Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey, a highly decorated Marine who served in Korea, earning the Navy Cross, a Silver Star and two Purple Hearts. He testified before Congress that Americans had committed war crimes in Vietnam. He also marched with John Kerry in the 1971 peace march.
I started with Pete McCloskey by asking him why the Vietnam War is still an issue here in 2004.
PETE MCCLOSKEY, FORMER U.S. CONGRESSMAN: Well, there is still a division between the people who fought honorably there and are angry because they were criticized.
But we were pursuing policies there that were war crimes. We were burning down villages that harbored terrorists or harbored Viet Cong. We had executed General Yodel (ph) after Nuremberg for doing that very thing. We knew it was a war crime, burning those villages down. Kerry had the guts to come back. He testified I think the same day as I did in front of Kennedy‘s or Fulbright‘s subcommittee about the same things. It wasn‘t about cutting off heads or arms.
It was about deliberately burning down villages in a war we were
MATTHEWS: But he did say in his testimony, we were people cutting off ears and cutting off heads.
MCCLOSKEY: Well, there were people that said that. And I...
MATTHEWS: He did, too.
MCCLOSKEY: Well, I‘ll tell you, we ran across General Patton‘s son, a colonel, who was flying around in a helicopter man collecting ears of Viet Cong, cutting off ears, shooting at them with his pistol out of a helicopter. But that was the exception.
Most of the men served honorably. And Vietnam veterans ought to be treated better than most veterans, because they fought in a war that was unpopular at a time. But I think these men have been so carried away by their anger over that testimony that he gave that I think they have forgotten the truth.
The men that served with him knew him as a leader and as a war hero. I knew him as a principled, probably idealistic young man. It took courage to speak out in ‘71 against a war. We had Marines fighting over there. I had friends fighting over there. But the war was wrong. It‘s just like Iraq today. You can support the troops, but you don‘t necessarily need to support the policy that put them there or keeps them there.
MATTHEWS: Why are we arguing about one man‘s war record in terms of the medals he‘s won? What is that strategy about? Why are we doing that right now?
MCCLOSKEY: Well, the other guy...
MATTHEWS: You got a number of medals. You got the Navy Cross, which is a much higher distinction. Do people usually go back and question the Navy‘s decision in awarding these medals?
MCCLOSKEY: I‘ve never known a man to get a Silver Star that didn‘t earn it. A lot of people that earned them didn‘t get them, because there weren‘t people around to tell about them. But don‘t give the Silver Star lightly. That‘s a medal for heroism. And it‘s shameful that they‘ve made this attack, I think.
MATTHEWS: Because there‘s a foolproof system for awarding it?
MCCLOSKEY: It‘s not foolproof, but when a junior officer, an enlisted man got a Silver Star, it was earned. Sometimes, colonels and generals gave themselves. Lyndon Johnson I think had a Silver Star for flying over a Japanese island when he was in Congress. But, at that level, a junior whose men respect him, he can‘t get a Bronze Star or Silver Star without their support.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about national policy.
We‘re at war now in the country of Iraq. We are still fighting a war of resistance over there. And certainly in Najaf and places like that, we‘re facing local militia, lots of resistance still. We will probably lose by the Election Day, there‘s probably to count it, 1,000 people in combat, maybe 7,000 seriously wounded now.
Is that why this scab has been ripped off, that we‘re at war now and people question it just about 50/50 whether we should be there?
I‘m afraid it‘s because Bush joined the National Guard at a time when you joined the Guard only to avoid combat. Kerry volunteered for combat.
That‘s the issue. And the issue is—it‘s a fair issue as to who can best
lead this country. And my experience has been that the presidents who are
most likely not to go to war are like Jack Kennedy and George Bush Sr., who
were shot at when they were young. People that have been combat don‘t want
to do it again unless they have to. The people that want to make war,
prove their manhood and how tough they are
MATTHEWS: Right. Is that what Cheney‘s up to?
MCCLOSKEY: I don‘t know. I liked Dick when I was in the House with him.
MATTHEWS: What happened to him and Rumsfeld? Why did they become—well, I always thought Cheney was a tough customer. When I worked on the Hill for Tip O‘Neill, I knew he was a tough customer politically, but the hard-nosed attitude about war, about not really being against war, what‘s that about? I always thought Rumsfeld was a moderate Republican. What happened to him?
MCCLOSKEY: I couldn‘t tell you. I like Don. Bob Dole is one of my favorite Republicans. We had marvelous Republican leadership. George Bush Sr. would not be doing what his son is doing today, in my judgment. He would not have gone to war without U.N. support. He wouldn‘t have gone to war unless he had to.
And that‘s the way I think. In this election, where the choice is between a man who dodged combat, two men who dodged combat when they were young, against a man who volunteered for it, we‘re safer in the hands of the person who has been shot at.
MATTHEWS: Pete, the Vietnam War was not popular in the world. I remember just traveling around Africa and places like that when I was in the Peace Corps, and everybody, they all loved Angela Davis. They loved anyone who was against the war. How this is different? This war is extremely unpopular. I know that.
MCCLOSKEY: Well, my old rifle company is outside Fallujah right now. And they‘re superb young Marines, well officered. The commanding general of the Marine division said don‘t hurt anybody you don‘t have to, marvelous kind of a humanitarian, but they‘re an occupying force. And I don‘t think we‘re going to be loved in Iraq or any country.
The Irish, we had a great saying. It was a song. Oh, the strangers came and tried to teach us their ways. And we‘re strangers over there. And we were strangers in Vietnam. And that‘s the parallel to me.
MATTHEWS: It sounds like my mother.
MCCLOSKEY: ... run the world if they had a better whiskey.
MATTHEWS: The best thing they ever did for the Irish is make them speak English, though.
MATTHEWS: That wasn‘t a bad move.
Do you think this election is going to turn on this war?
MCCLOSKEY: I don‘t know. I think it‘s so close.
MATTHEWS: Will it turn on John Kerry‘s war record?
MCCLOSKEY: I think he‘s been hurt by these attacks and I think the attacks were leveled because they knew it would hurt him. And I know how these guys feel.
MATTHEWS: How come they‘re angrier at him, Pete, than they are at the guy who didn‘t serve, the president?
MCCLOSKEY: They‘re angry because they feel he betrayed their honorable service by coming back and testifying in front of the Senate of the war crimes. And we were committing war crimes.
MATTHEWS: Did contribute—my sister-in-law e-mailed me the other day, said that he contributed, John Kerry, to the atmosphere for returning veterans, like my brother, who was a Naval officer in Vietnam, along the coast—he was in that same kind of coastal Naval service. The way they were treated when they came back, that John Kerry contributed to that sort of spirit of blaming the soldiers for the war.
MCCLOSKEY: I don‘t think so. Kerry never sought to blame the
soldiers. They were individuals or
MATTHEWS: Well, they took it that way.
MCCLOSKEY: They shouldn‘t have.
MATTHEWS: They do today, don‘t they, Pete?
MCCLOSKEY: Well, everybody I talked to, the country is divided, 44 percent on both sides. And you can‘t change anybody‘s mind. So the election is between 8 percent or 16 percent. I don‘t know how it‘s going to turn out.
MATTHEWS: Do you think some of these Vietnam vets, who have had not it so good since they‘ve come back from serving their country honorably, resent the fact that John Kerry has had it pretty damn good? Do you think it‘s a bit of personal envy there?
In other words, if he had been a loser the last 30 years, nobody would hate him. But since he‘s married well, he has had this good life, he lives in all these nice places, he‘s a senator. he‘s a hero, do they resent that part of his life?
MCCLOSKEY: I don‘t know. You know,
MATTHEWS: Because it seems so personal. It‘s so personal.
MCCLOSKEY: I know. Well, but that‘s goaded by this political apparatus. Politicians are venomous and vicious today. I don‘t like many of them.
MATTHEWS: Pete McCloskey, one of the most courageous. Thank you very much, Pete McCloskey, for coming on HARDBALL.
Join us again tomorrow night at 7:00 Eastern for more HARDBALL. We‘ll be in New York for the Republican National Convention Friday. And on Sunday, we‘re live from Harold‘s Square in the heart of Broadway to kick off a week of coverage of the Grand Old Party. Among our guests next week, Senator John McCain.
Right now, it‘s time for the “COUNTDOWN” with Keith.
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