updated 9/24/2004 12:50:31 PM ET 2004-09-24T16:50:31

Guests: John O‘Neill, Frank Rich, Michael Weisskopf, Ellen Tauscher, Dan Burton

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Tonight, John Kerry turns up the heat on the president and the war in Iraq. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN KERRY, (D-MA) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I want victory.  I want to win.  And I have a better plan to win than George Bush does.  The president says that things are getting better in Iraq, and we must just stay the same course.  Well I disagree, they‘re not getting better.  And we need to change the course to protect our troops and to win. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  And President Bush fires back at our Rose Garden press conference with the Iraqi Prime Minister Allawi saying Kerry is accepting mixed messages that could embolden the enemy.  Even Prime Minister Allawi got into the debate. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AYAD ALLAWI, INTERIM PRIME MINISTER OF IRAQ:  I understand why this will be making daily headlines, there are those doubts.  I know, too, that there will be many more setbacks and obstacles to overcome.  But these—doubters underestimate our country, and they risk fueling the hopes of terrorism. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Plus, the TV ads wars will keep the Iraq war front and center.  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I will never relent in defending...

KERRY:  For America, the hope is here, the sun is rising, our best days are still to come.

BUSH:  We‘re on the path to the future, and we‘re not turning back.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.  The battle lines have been drawn in Iraq today.  President Bush held a joint press conference with Iraqi prime minister Allawi and reiterated his position that we need to stay the course in Iraq in order to defeat terrorism. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH:  My message is that we will stay the course and stand with these people so that they become free.  It‘s in our national interests that we do so.  I believe this is a central part in the war on terror.  I believe that when we succeed in Iraq, that America will be more secure.  I also know that a free Iraq will send a clear message to the part of the world that is desperate for freedom. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  And Senator John Kerry came out swinging and said the president‘s plan in Iraq is failing, and a new course of action is needed. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KERRY:  A president‘s true test of leadership is how he responds when things are going wrong.  You need to be prepared to tell the truth.  And I think that a president who fails to admit his mistakes is a president who proves that he doesn‘t know how to make the course correct. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  NBC‘s Norah O‘Donnell was at the White House—Norah.

NORAH O‘DONNELL, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Chris, that‘s right.  This was a very high profile visit by the interim Iraqi leader Prime Minister Allawi, invited by President Bush to address the joint session of Congress and then come here to the Rose Garden.  The president trying to make that case, that they should stay the course in Iraq, that freedom is winning, that despite the violence, progress is being made on the ground. 

And he had Allawi essentially echo many of the themes that President Bush says out on the campaign trail.  It was as if Allawi‘s comments had been written by President Bush‘s speech writers.  The two of them echoing that same very clear message, that progress is being made on the ground. 

And with six weeks before our own election here in the United States, the president‘s advisers admit, this visit was in part to address the concerns of American voters about what is going on on the ground in Iraq. 

Senator Kerry had a very different view today.  And I think there was a clear contrast between the two candidates for voters to see.  President Bush saying stay the course.  John Kerry saying it is time to change the course. 

MATTHEWS:  Prime Minister Allawi seemed to be saying, correct me if I‘m wrong, that we shouldn‘t have this fierce debate right now in our country about what‘s going on in Iraq, because it emboldens the enemy over there? 

O‘DONNELL:  Allawi was very clear, both in his address to Congress, and in the White House about doubters and skeptics.  He sent them a message, at one point saying that the political leaders who sound the sirens of defeatism embolden the terrorists.

Clearly, the president‘s campaign has said that Kerry is someone who is preaching retreat and defeat.  This was a message from Allawi today that that type of talk emboldened terrorists.  So clearly, a signal being sent there, if you will.  But Kerry said today, he wants victory.  He wants to win.  He just has a different idea, a different plan about how to move forward. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you very much.  Norah O‘Donnell at the White House. 

Democratic Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher of California recently returned from a fact-finding trip to Iraq.  She‘s a member of the House Armed Services Committee.  She‘s joined by Republican Congressman Dan Burton of Indiana.  He led a delegation to Iraq earlier this year.  He also met with the troops.  He sits on the House Committee on International Relations. 

Congresswoman Tauscher, who is right?  The president, the national intelligence estimates, or the press?  Who has given us the best picture of what you saw in Iraq? 

REP. ELLEN TAUSCHER, (D) CALIFORNIA:  Well, I can tell you I saw a much more chaotic Iraq than I saw a year ago, and a much more dangerous Iraq than I saw a year ago.  And the idea that the interim prime minister came to the United States to bolster the president‘s argument that things are going fine, is the exact opposite of what we should be doing. 

We‘re supposed to bolster the Iraqi people, not only to secure their own borders and to defend their own country, but to have an elected government.  And the mismanagement of this administration so far has left us with very few choices and very few—very little time to execute that plan.

MATTHEWS:  Congresswoman Tauscher, just again, the national intelligence estimates, which leaked into the papers a couple weeks ago, said that we face the possibility of a civil war over there as the worst possible, I guess, scenario is the word for it.  Could you see something like that brewing? 

TAUSCHER:  Absolutely.  We‘re in a mini civil war as it is.  And as you saw today, the Grand Ayatollah Sistani that is basically been kept quiet by agreeing with him that we have to have elections as soon as possible is beginning to believe that the elections that are coming up in January will be neither legitimate, nor around the country. 

So I think frankly, the president has been just trying to mislead to American people one more time into the fact that things are going well.  But the facts on the ground show that we have a dramatic increase in violence in September and the month isn‘t even over yet.  That we have really no coalition there to support us.  Certainly not a coalition of the capable.  And that we don‘t have enough Iraqi troops so they can take this fight over for us.

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s go right now to Congressman Burton.  Your sense, you were there in March, sir.  What‘s your sense of what‘s happening on the ground over there? 

REP. DAN BURTON, ® ILLINOIS:  First of all, I was a little disappointed that Norah O‘Donnell indicated that President (sic) Allawi‘s speech was written by the White House.  That is a bias that the media...

MATTHEWS:  She didn‘t say that. 

BURTON:  Well yes, she did, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  No she didn‘t.  She said it could have been written. 

BURTON:  Well, it could have been.  But the inference was there.  And the fact that the matter is, Mr. Allawi was speaking from the heart.  You know, if he said today that 15 of the 18 provinces over there could have an election today.  The transfer of power took place on time.  The constitution took place on time.  And he says the elections are going to take place on time. 

Now, these prophets of doom go on and on and on because they want to elect Mr. Kerry president of the United States.  The president is on the right track.  We‘re going to have bumps in the road.  There‘s going to be problems,  but we are going to win this thing. 

MATTHEWS:  What about the Ayatollah Sistani?  What do you think of his statement? 

BURTON:  Well, I think you‘re going to hear all kinds of statements from all kinds of leaders.  But the fact of the matter is, we‘re going to have elections on time.  As I said, they won‘t be real smooth.  There‘s going to be terrorist activity trying to disrupt them.  But the fact of the matter is, they want democracy and freedom over there, they don‘t want any more tyrannical governments like Saddam Hussein and they‘re willing to pay the price for it and we need to support them. 

MATTHEWS:  What do you make of the national intelligence estimates? 

BURTON:  What do you mean, what do I make of the national...

MATTHEWS:  Well, the possibility they draw the scenarios, a number of the scenarios, none of them particularly rosie.  One of them being that there will be a civil war over there. 

BURTON:  There‘s always the possibility that there is going to be problems during this process.  And I think there will be problems.  You‘ve got people coming from Iran.  You‘ve got people coming in from Saudi Arabia.  You‘ve got terrorists coming from Syria.  And all of that combines for a terrorist activity. 

But the fact of the matter is, that government is stable.  They want to stop the terrorists.  They were working with us.  And 15 of the 18 provinces are stable right now.  There‘s three that we‘re working on, and we‘ll work with the coalition and the coalition and the government to get the job done. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to Congresswoman Tauscher.  What do you make of this emerging brouhaha by the top Ayatollah over there, Ayatollah Sistani, who is, of course, head of the Shia over there, who are the majority, about 60 some percent of the people.  He is afraid that the exile community, who stayed out of the country for all those years and were recently allowed back in, because of our successful liberation over there.  He‘s afraid they‘re going to put together some sort of coalition party that‘s going to be able to run the country and beat him in the elections? 

TAUSCHER:  Yes.  The Ayatollah was assured about six months ago, as we were moving to the transfer to this new second interim government that there will be free and clear elections as soon as possible.  And he was given a January 31 date by Lokhdar Brahimi, the U.N. envoy. 

He went back to Mr. Brahimi today, because he thinks he‘s the only one he can talk to, to basically say, look, the deal I‘m getting isn‘t the deal I agreed to.  Don‘t tell me we‘re going to have elections when whole swathes of the country are controlled by the counter insurgency.  Don‘t tell me that we‘re going to not have an election, but not have a census.

I know that we‘re more than 55 -- the Shia are more than 55 percent of the population.  And if you use old numbers, I‘m not going to be able to get majority I think I can get.  And don‘t tell me we‘re going to use a bunch of lists that don‘t give us a kind of choice that we think we need in the country. 

So, he send a very strong signal that the support and the cooperation he‘s given so far is eroding, because once again, our plan hasn‘t worked. 

And with all due respect to my colleague, one of the reasons why all these foreign fighters and terrorists are coming through border is because we never had enough troops there.  And that‘s why the president cherry picks who he listens to. 

He didn‘t listen to General Shinseki when he said we needed 200,000 troops, fired him.  And he didn‘t listen to his own CIA and national intelligence estimate. 

So once again, cherry picking of facts, only agreeing with people who agreeing to you.  And frankly, he has not set the stage for the kind of counter offensive we‘re going to have in November that‘s going to cost America a lot of fighting men and women. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s listen to the president, Congressman.  Here‘s what President Bush said today when asked about General Abizaid‘s statement that more troops may be needed to secure Iraq‘s elections. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH:  He didn‘t say that to me.  If he were to say that, I would listen to him.  Just like I‘ve said all along, that when our commanders say that they need support, they‘ll get support. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Congressman Burton, do you think we have enough troops on the ground? 

BURTON:  You know, I think the president is absolutely correct.  That‘s the thing that you have to assess on a day-by-day basis.  You know, I‘ve been in the Oval Office.  And I‘ve sat around the conference table with the president.  He listens to advice from a whole host of individuals who have differences of opinion.  And then after he gets the best opinions that he can, he makes the decision. 

Now colleagues like my colleague that‘s on with you right now can second guess the president all they want and start pointing to people who have differences of opinion with the president.  The fact of the matter is, the buck stops with him.  He‘s the commander in chief and he‘s doing the thing that he thinks needs to be done.  And he‘s the man many will lead to us victory in this war against terrorism. 

Make no mistake about it.  This is a world war against terrorism.  And right now battleground is Iraq.  And we need to stay the course.

MATTHEWS:  What do you make of Jack Murtha, Congressman Murtha‘s statement that he believes that come after the election, after November 2, a lot more reserves are going to be called up, guardspeople are going to be called up, even the ready reserve, a lot more action in term of troops going into that country once we‘ve voted? 

BURTON:  I don‘t have a crystal ball.  I can‘t tell what‘s going to will happen.  You know in world War I and World War II, nobody thought we were going to lose 40 or 50 million people, or have all these 500,000 American troops killed.  You don‘t know until the war takes place.  All I can tell you is that we‘re committed to winning the war again terrorism,  whatever it takes to the protect the American people. 

MATTHEWS:  All right.  We‘re going to come right back with Congressman Dan Burton and Ellen Tauscher. 

And later, the latest in the battle for the White House, one week before the presidential debate.  Frank Richards of the “New York Times” is coming here.  And “TIME” magazine‘s Michael Weisskopf, he‘s also going to be here.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  We‘re back with Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher from California.  She‘s a Democrat.  And Congress Dan Burton from Indiana.  He‘s definitely a Republican. 

At today‘s news conference, President Bush seemed to dismiss the new national intelligence estimate on Iraq. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH:  This is a report that talks about possibilities, about what could happen in Iraq, not probabilities.  I used an unfortunate word, guess.  I should have used estimate.  The CIA came and said, this is a possibility, this is a possibility and this is a possibility.  But what‘s important for the American people to hear is, reality. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Congresswoman Burton, you‘re a passionate supporter.  I‘m so glad you came on the show tonight, because we don‘t get many passionate supporters here.  Let me ask you about this thing here.  Do you think the president is giving us not just a, I hate to use the word a boosters approach to the war, which he has to as commander-in-chief, has he been giving as you realistic view of what‘s going on over there based on what you know? 

BURTON:  I think he is.  I think the president is about as straight a shooter as you‘re going to find in the White House.  I mean, I know the guy personally.  And what you see is what you get.  I don‘t think he‘s feeding the American people a bunch of baloney. 

He believes we‘re going to win the war.  He‘s going to do whatever is necessary to win the war against terrorism.  And if it means more troops, there will be more troops.  If it doesn‘t, we won‘t send more.  But we‘re going to do whatever Prime Minister Allawi says he needs in order to win this thing and bring freedom to not only Iraq, but to the region. 

MATTHEWS:  What do you make of the polls, we have a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.  It‘s a damn straight poll, I can tell you.  There‘s no bias in this.  You talk about bias.  I don‘t thing there‘s any damn bias.  Look at this poll number here.  The latest NBC/Wall Street Journals Poll: 52 percent of those surveyed think that removing Saddam Hussein from power was not worth it.  That was 52 to 40.

What do you make of that number? 

BURTON:  Let me say this: you can‘t run a war by polls.  From day to day, things are going to change, attitudes are going to change, the news that you see on television is going to change.  What we‘re—we‘re in this for the long haul.  This is a war against terrorism, al Qaeda, the Taliban, the terrorist that‘s come in and out of Iraq from Syria, from Iran, from Saudi Arabia, we‘ve got to root out all of these people.  And so you can‘t judge on a day-by-day basis the attitudes of the war.  This is a war we must win.  We don‘t have any choice. 

MATTHEWS:  Congresswoman Tauscher, that number, 52, my gut estimate is it will probably grow a bit just because of the casualty figures now and the next couple months.  The way things are going right now.  That would suggest that John Kerry would be leading the polls right now.  Why isn‘t he? 

TAUSCHER:  Well, I don‘t know why. 

MATTHEWS:  There must be some other factor here, because of the people on balance don‘t think we should have gone to Iraq, and the president has made that his main mission really, the last couple years, why aren‘t the people turning against him?  They don‘t seem to be in all the polls I‘ve seen. 

TAUSCHER:  Well, I think the people have got to see the real facts.  And I think my colleague is right, you don‘t run a war with polls.  But you also don‘t run it by misleading and mismanaging, which is effectively what we have had right now. 

MATTHEWS:  Who is it?  Is the president misleading the country? 

TAUSCHER:  The president is misleading the country. 

MATTHEWS:  What is he saying that you know to be wrong? 

TAUSCHER:  He is misleading the country to believe that we didn‘t waste an entire year with a coalition provisional authority that didn‘t train any troops and didn‘t turn any power over to the Iraqi people.  That we didn‘t put an Iraqi face on this.  The idea that we have a coalition of more than just the willing and not the capable is stunning to me.  There are many things.

MATTHEWS:  That‘s not misleading though, is it?  It doesn‘t sound like misleading.  It sounds like you don‘t like his policy. 

TAUSCHER:  Currently he‘s misleading about what‘s going on in the ground.  We‘ve had a major jump in the escalation of violence.  700 attacks on our troops in August, 2,700 this month and the month isn‘t over.  That‘s a big difference. 

MATTHEWS:  Congressman Burton, respond. 

BURTON:  Let me just say that as we get closer to the election, you may rest assured that the terrorists coming in from Iran, from Syria, from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere are going to do their very best, their damndest,  to disrupt that election.

TAUSCHER:  Why haven‘t we closed the border then, my colleague? 

BURTON:  We haven‘t closed the border between us and Mexico.  Let me just say this.  This is a war that‘s going to be very difficult.  It‘s going to take some time, it‘s going to take some effort, but I‘m confident that the government of Iraq, working with the coalition forces and the United States of America, will prevail.  The elections will take place on time.  And the terrorists will be defeated. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, I want to thank, Congresswoman Tauscher and Congressman Burton. 

Congressman Burton, I asked Norah O‘Donnell about the speech.  There was a particular question I put to her.  BURTON:  The elections will take place on time.  And the terrorists will be defeated. 

And she came back and said the speech is exactly as if the White House speech writers had written it meaning, it was very supportive of the president.  There was not a tad of bias in her report.  And we‘ll be right back after this with more on the presidential debate. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Forty days before the election and only a week until the first presidential debate.  HARDBALL election correspondent David Shuster joins us now with a look at the latest campaign commercials. 

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL ELECTION CORRESPONDENT:  Another sign that John Kerry wants Iraq to be the number one issue in this campaign.  His latest television ad takes dead aim at the president‘s optimism over the war in Iraq. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  George bush keeps telling us things are getting better in Iraq.  The facts tell a different story.  Terrorists are pouring into the country.  Attacks on U.S. forces are increasing every month.  A thousand American soldiers have died.  We need a fresh start to fix the mess in Iraq.  The Kerry solution.  Allies share the burden.  Train Iraqis to protect themselves. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Chris, I‘ve got to ask you, what do you think? 

Is that effective? 

MATTHEWS:  If you believe that Europe is waiting in the wings to help us in Iraq, I think it‘s a great ad.  The negative part probably works, but you always run the risk of looking like you‘re cheering against our troops. 

SHUSTER:  Well, that‘s a good point.  And the Bush campaign is making the point that what Kerry is proposing is essentially what they‘re already trying.  But in any case, let‘s move to an independent ad.  This is from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.  They have an ad trashing John Kerry.  Here‘s their latest spot. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Even before Jane Fonda went to Hanoi to meet with the enemy, John Kerry secretly met with enemy leaders in Paris.  Though we were still at war and Americans were being held in North Vietnamese prison camps. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  The problem, according to historians, is that Kerry went to France not to meet with the North Vietnamese but because he was a newly wed.  He did accept a briefing invitation just like other Americans, including Senator Eugene McCarthy months before.  But the meeting was not secret.  Kerry talked about it in open testimony later.  And historians say Kerry didn‘t negotiator or attend any peace talks.  And by all accounts, Kerry talked about an initiative by the Vietnamese to release P.O.W.‘s. 

But nonetheless, Chris, as you know, these ads can be pretty effective. 

MATTHEWS:  I think it made him look like a traitor when in fact he disagreed with U.S. policy and made that very clear in his testimony to the Senate, which included an acknowledgment he had met with those North Vietnamese.  It wasn‘t secret in the sense that it was subversive, this ad makes it look that way. 

SHUSTER:  Now, Chris, there‘s another independent group that has an ad on one of your favorite topics, and that is the allegations of a connection between Saudi Arabia—efforts by the Bush administration to somehow protect Saudi Arabia.  This is from the Democratic independent group known as the Media fund.  Watch this. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The Saudis have invested millions of dollars in Bush business ventures.  Rich Saudis bailed out George W. when his oil company went bust.  And even though 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, top Bush advisor James Baker‘s law firm is defending Saudi Arabia against the victims‘ families.  It kind of makes you wonder, are Bush and Saudis too close for comfort? 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Conspiracy theories!

MATTHEWS:  That‘s some what ridiculous, because that‘s like saying, we‘re responsible for Jane Fonda.  We‘re responsible for every generational dispute.  I mean, obviously, there‘s a whole lot of intramurals going on in Iraq, I mean, in Saudi Arabia.  And to suggest that the royal family is running with bin Laden is a mistake.  In fact, it is a lie.  Because bin Laden is after them. 

SHUSTER:  Well, in fact, with Chris, we can have a lot of fun on this show pointing out all the those that James Baker‘s law firm represents.  But in any case, the Kerry campaign pulling their ads down from four states, trying to narrow the field as to where they‘re going to spend their money.  We‘re going to see more of that over the next couple of days. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, that reminds me of the first half of the Michael Moore, movie “Fahrenheit 9/11”, which isn‘t the best part.  Anyway, thank you David Shuster. 

SHUSTER:  Thanks, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  When we come back, we‘ll be joined by John O‘Neill, co-author of the anti-Kerry book, “Unfit for Command.” 

Your watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  This half-hour on HARDBALL, John O‘Neill, the co-author of the anti-Kerry best-seller “Unfit For Command,” plus, Frank Rich of “The New York Times” and “TIME” magazine‘s Michael Weisskopf on the presidential race one week before the first debate.

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

(NEWS BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

As David Shuster reported, the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth released a new ad that says John Kerry secretly met with enemy leaders in Paris while we were still at war in Vietnam. 

John O‘Neill is a member of the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth and co-author of the book “Unfit For Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry.”  Mr. O‘Neill succeeded John Kerry‘s command of PCF-94, the swift boat in Vietnam. 

Mr. O‘Neill, thank you very much for coming back. 

JOHN O‘NEILL, SWIFT BOAT VETERANS FOR TRUTH:  Thank you very much, sir.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about those.  What do you think are the—is the importance of that meeting between John Kerry and the North Vietnamese leaders in Paris? 

O‘NEILL:  He met once and possibly twice, Chris, with the North Vietnamese, for the first time in May of 1970 and we believe on a second occasion in July of 1971. 

I think the significance is, he was a Naval officer.  He was prohibited by the Uniform Code of Military Justice.  In the United States, we don‘t negotiate separately.  We negotiate through our commander in chief. 

MATTHEWS:  All right, that‘s a Logan Act violation, you‘re saying.  Is that right?

O‘NEILL:  Not only that.  It is simply a betrayal.  We were in the field, Chris.  We lost a lot of people by coincidence in May of 1970.  I don‘t think one of the guys that served with us should have been meeting with the North Vietnamese. 

Your mentor was a fabulous man, Tip O‘Neill.  He never met with the North Vietnamese.  He never called the guys like us war criminals. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  John, what do you think—you fought in the service.  You faced the enemy bullets.  You have as much guts as anybody.  Let me ask you this.  What would be the appropriate role, looking back, on someone like yourself, an officer, an enlisted guy or woman, who decided during the course of the war they thought it was bad for the United States to be doing that, for whatever reason?  What was their American, appropriate manner in which they should have expressed that?

O‘NEILL:  I think a great example was Lieutenant Colonel Corson, who was my professor at the Naval Academy, “Wild Bill” Corson.

He gave up his entire career in the Marine Corps.  He wrote a book.  He protested the war openly because he thought it was the wrong thing to do.  None of us had anything but courage—excuse me—but respect for Colonel Corson, because those were his feelings, even if we disagreed with him.  But he didn‘t meet with the enemy and he didn‘t take the position we were all criminals.  And he didn‘t lie—he didn‘t claim that Ho Chi Minh was George Washington, all of which John Kerry did.

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

Among your—the troupe you‘ve kept very loyal to, you‘ve been very much a community, I can say, a fraternity of men, a band of brothers all these years.  You‘ve stuck together since way back in the late ‘60s.  And you‘ve met a lot and you‘ve probably spent a lot of time in bull sessions together.  What is the general sense among you guys who fought the war, didn‘t protest it at the time, about what it was about?  Was it a good war for the United States? 

Forget the morality for a second here.  Was it effective for U.S.  foreign policy to have fought that war through the 1970s? 

O‘NEILL:  You find mixed feelings, to tell you the truth, Chris. 

Some people believe it was a mistake to have gotten involved in the Vietnam War.  Other people feel, if we had supported the Vietnamese after 1972, that it would have turned into a nation like South Korea. 

MATTHEWS:  That we could have held the line.  We could have helped them hold the line. 

O‘NEILL:  People—all of us, though, believe, even if we lost in South Vietnam, we did win the Cold War.  It is a lot like we lost at Pearl Harbor, but we won World War II.  And so we take pride in that accomplishment. 

MATTHEWS:  And people believe that even though the war turned bad and we ended up leaving and the Vietnamese ended up losing their government in the south, that it did play an efficacious role in the Cold War?

O‘NEILL:  We stood.  We fought.  We fought in a battle that was lost in a war that was won, Chris.  The Vietnam War was a terrible tragedy.  There were four million people killed after we left.  There‘s nothing, no way to paint it except as a terrible tragedy.  That‘s what it really was. 

MATTHEWS:  You have an amazing pulpit now, sir, having had a book on the best-seller list at No. 1 for all these weeks.  And you‘ve written a book that has had an impact on this campaign and will have an impact on Election Day.  We had you on to talk about the particulars of the book. 

Can you summarize, based upon your firsthand experience, and those of your fellows, with John Kerry, what the voters should know from that experience?  Distill it down to what you know that‘s relevant to them when they vote. 

O‘NEILL:  Based on my investigation, and, much less importance, John Kerry exaggerated his role in Vietnam.  Much more important, and firsthand experience, when John Kerry came back, it wasn‘t clear who he was for anymore. 

He was telling people that Ho Chi Minh was like George Washington.  He was meeting directly with our enemies.  Most important to me, he was characterizing all of our guys as the army of Genghis Khan.  We weren‘t that.  I don‘t believe he would be fit to be commander in chief.  I would not entrust my son or my nephew to John Kerry to be the guy in charge of them. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think he believed that the North Vietnamese and the V.C. were the good guys and we were the bad guys?  Did he go that far?

O‘NEILL:  He really did.  That‘s the sad thing, Chris. 

When you read his speech where he says Ho Chi Minh is like George Washington and he wants to impose a constitution that will be like our Constitution, that‘s a speech he gave that‘s in the book.  That‘s what he actually said.  I don‘t know how he could believe that.  We saw them, Chris.  They were killing people.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  General Eisenhower—President Eisenhower—he was General Eisenhower—when he was president said he was fearful of having an election in South Vietnam during the last part of the 1950s for fear that Ho Chi Minh would win the election.  So he was a very popular figure. 

O‘NEILL:  And he might have.  I can‘t speak to that. 

But I can tell that you by the time we were there, we were watching the communists shoot people in the back of the head.  We would recover their bodies two and three a week in the area that we were in.  These were not—these were not—this is not George Washington or anything like any of us saw. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you this about the impact of your book.  It‘s sold, what, a half-million, a million copies by now? 

O‘NEILL:  I think it has sold 830,000 copies.  It is really the book of 60 of us, to be fair.  I‘m proud of having my name on it, but there are more than 60 people from our unit that contributed to it. 

MATTHEWS:  Five years, 10 years from now, what impact will it have had? 

O‘NEILL:  This book? 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

O‘NEILL:  I can‘t say.

MATTHEWS:  Because I don‘t think you did it for the money.  So what impact will it have? 

O‘NEILL:  Oh, I hope the first thing it does is that the election that occurs will be an informed election.  People will make up their own mind, that we won‘t be in a situation where an election occurs without all the facts, no matter what the result is. 

The second thing is, I hope people realize that the average Vietnam veteran is not a war criminal.  He is not a—he is just a kid, just like the kids from Holy Cross that I taught, Chris, my last year. 

MATTHEWS:  I know you did.

O‘NEILL:  They were good kids. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, both my brothers were

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... as you know.  Both went over. 

O‘NEILL:  And you know they‘re great people.  You know that they were doing their best. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Well, it‘s great having you on.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Congratulations, John O‘Neill.  We may disagree, but all in good civility. 

O‘NEILL:  Thank you. 

MATTHEWS:  Anyway, up next, with one week before President Bush and John Kerry meet for the first debate, we‘ll get the latest on the race.  Frank Rich—he‘s a smart guy—of “The New York Times” and “TIME” magazine‘s Michael Weisskopf, a courageous guy, will both be here.

And don‘t forget, sign up for HARDBALL‘s daily e-mail briefing.  Just log on to our Web site, HARDBALL.MSNBC.com.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  When we come back, Frank Rich of “The New York Times” and “TIME” magazine‘s Michael Weisskopf on the presidential race, next week‘s debate and the mess at CBS.

HARDBALL returns after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Joining me right now is Frank Rich, associates editor and columnist for “The New York Times,” and “TIME” magazine senior correspondent Michael Weisskopf have. 

This week, Iraq emerged as the main issue for both campaigns.  Which candidate benefits more from this? 

Let me ask you, Frank, first, why do you think John Kerry has settled on the position 180 from the president on Iraq? 

FRANK RICH, ASSOCIATE EDITOR, “THE NEW YORK TIMES”:  Because, basically, that‘s the card he has to play. 

Iraq has always been the elephant in the room of this election.  They do disagree about it somewhat, although, if you look at their policies, they‘re really not that different.  But that‘s what is at play right now.  I think things like the economy and the war on terrorism, exclusive of Iraq, we know people know where the two candidates stand.  This is what is in play right now. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to Michael.

Michael, do you think a vote for the president is a vote for Iraq?  A vote for Kerry is a vote against it? 

MICHAEL WEISSKOPF, SENIOR CORRESPONDENT, “TIME”:  Not necessarily, because Kerry, of course, claims to have his own plan for ending this war, Chris. 

But, as Frank says, this is where the votes are.  Both on the war on terrorism and Iraq, the president trumps John Kerry.  However, the issue here really is, on what ground is this issue going to be fought?  Is it going to be fought on the question of toppling Saddam Hussein or what are the costs of that toppling? 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let‘s look at the polling right now.  “The Wall Street Journal”/NBC poll shows the latest answer to that is that people by 52-40 don‘t think going to Iraq was worth the cost, Frank. 

RICH:  Well, yes, I think, to pick up what Michael said, the grounds it is going to be fought on politically are on the ground.  It is what‘s going to be happening in Iraq, what is happening now, what‘s happening in the run-up to the election and what is going to happen after the election.

Do people believe that we have enough troops over there to actually support security for elections that are supposed to happen?  Do we think there‘s not going to be a call-up of more troops after the election?  And if so, how and where are they going to come from?  All this stuff I think is on the table, because the one thing that‘s clear is that there is no exit strategy or end game in Iraq, as it‘s distinct from the war against al Qaeda. 

MATTHEWS:  Michael, it seems to me, my rough estimate—and let me propose this to you—since a number of people are going to vote for President Bush who do oppose the war, their gut says this war is not our war.  They think of it as a Madeleine Albright, complicated war they don‘t get.  He needs—you need about 60 percent of the people to say it was a mistake to go to Iraq for Kerry to win. 

WEISSKOPF:  The arithmetic may not be precisely like that, Chris. 

But, clearly, this is the hot iron in the election right now.  And you really need to put this question on the issue of Bush‘s leadership.  And that‘s what Kerry is trying to achieve.  However, interestingly, that criticism of this war is not necessarily a vote for John Kerry, because he has yet to prove to many, many people that he is the guy to fill the gap. 

RICH:  And, indeed, picking pup point, Kerry, at least in my view, has been a very, for most of the time, a very ineffectual candidate, obviously tongue-tied, particularly on the issue of Iraq, that, in this new NBC/”Wall Street Journal” poll, the spread is so small, it shows really how weak Bush is.  It doesn‘t mean Kerry is going to win.  Bush could still pull it out. 

But it shows how much I think people are still looking for Kerry to make that sale.  Clearly, he hasn‘t done it yet. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, he got 45 percent of the vote this week on the worst campaign in history.  If he even has a decent six weeks ahead, he should get over 50, right, Frank? 

RICH:  You‘d think.  But we don‘t know yet that he is escapable of doing it.  He has not run an effective campaign and particularly on the issue of Iraq, which he tried to sort of finesse and now at least is stepping up to the plate about, but only in the past few days. 

MATTHEWS:  Michael what is your hunch based on being over there about where the news is going to go the next six weeks?  The news coming out of Iraq, is it going to be worse over the next six weeks base upon casualty levels, wounded, etcetera?

WEISSKOPF:  The context for this, for Iraq, is not unlike the context here.  And that is, electoral.  There is a key election that is scheduled for January, Chris, that supposedly is the litmus test of our policy there, but is increasingly—as increasing number of provinces in that country become ungovernable, it is impossible to circulate ballots there. 

If they have to delay that election, it will be a big, big blow to the president‘s policy. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, won‘t the Ayatollah Sistani, who has been our anchorman over there, blow the whistle? 

WEISSKOPF:  Well, Sistani is concerned right now about whether or not political parties there, the large ones, are forcing out the Shia representation and is making a direct appeal to a former U.N. envoy to try to resolve that issue.  So he may blow the whistle on this election himself. 

MATTHEWS:  Is Chalabi behind this?  Is there some sort of scam going on to try to put together such a blanket of political parties that the election doesn‘t really choose any group over another? 

WEISSKOPF:  Well, Chalabi is one—represents one of the large political parties which flourished in exile, his Iraqi National Congress.

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

WEISSKOPF:  And of course, the current premier‘s party, the Iraqi National Accord, is another one. 

These are the kinds of parties Sistani worries about because they will

·         they are in a position to organize and to fund candidates, which may not be representative of the population at large. 

MATTHEWS:  And they‘ll probably score a couple seats for the American Enterprise Institute. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Frank, let me ask you this about Kerry‘s willpower.  Suppose during the first debate next week the president coldcocks him and says you‘re the guy that voted against the first Iraq war, when we had a coalition of the country, including the Arab League.  What‘s your problem? 

RICH:  He‘d better have an answer. 

If Bush can knock him out in the first 30 or 40 minutes of that debate, that may be it, because most people believe most Americans are only going to watch the first debate or that‘s going to be the greatest number of viewers.  People are still waiting to see who Kerry is, a lot of the public.  And so—and it‘s about foreign affairs.  So he‘d better damn well have answers to those questions and good ones. 

MATTHEWS:  Michael, you‘ve been over there.  You got injured badly over there, of course.  Tell me about the troops, because Allawi, the prime minister of the—the interim prime minister said today that this is somehow hurting the war effort if we have a debate in this country.  Do they understand, our troops?  Forget the Iraqis for a second. 

Do our troops, the men and women taking the risks over there, or getting killed, do they get reason why we‘re having a debate over this war?  Or do they hold it against the Democrats for challenging the president? 

WEISSKOPF:  Chris, in my experience, the same debate is reflected within the troops itself. 

They are highly professional, highly disciplined to a man.  However, they do debate reasons for being over there.  And the longer we‘ve been there, and the longer their rotations are, the more they‘ve soured on the effort.  There‘s no question about it.  I spent almost a month with a platoon there last winter.  And you could—you see the changes palpably. 

MATTHEWS:  And they can take the debate reading it in the newspapers and getting it over the wires and the networks.

WEISSKOPF:  Yes, they can. 

But, more importantly, they‘re seeing this war firsthand.  They‘re seeing the increasing divisions between our representation there and the population at large.  And like having house guests, after a certain amount of time, it goes bad. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.  Well, that‘s quite an apt metaphor.

Anyway, we‘re going to come back with Frank Rich and Michael Weisskopf.

And up next, we‘ll talk about the mess at CBS.  Got to do a little more on that.

And don‘t forget, you can keep up with the presidential race on HardBlogger, our election blog Web site.  They play a big role in this thing.  Just go to HARDBALL.MSNBC.com.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with Frank Rich of “The New York Times” and time‘s Michael Weisskopf. 

Gentlemen, we went to war with Iraq based upon a national intelligence assessments.  We now have a fresh one saying we‘re facing civil war over there at the worst.  Why is the president and the other people in the administration able to not admit that, Frank? 

RICH:  It‘s hubris.  I think that this administration always wants to

turn white into black and black into white.  They have a message of the day

and they‘re going to deliver it.  And the message is very clear:  We‘re

making progress.  Freedom is on the march.  People want freedom.  What, we

worry?  And so

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  But it seems like one of those cartoon characters that walks off a cliff and hasn‘t looked down yet and therefore hasn‘t fallen yet. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Does the president not get these intelligence estimates from the 17 agencies? 

RICH:  Of course he gets them. 

And it seemed when he spoke to the press today that he was aware of them, even as he dismissed them as being dated, etcetera, etcetera.  But this is their calculated plan.  And it‘s kind of interesting.  Just, indeed, step off that cliff, pretend it isn‘t happening and hope that no one will see you fall in the six weeks remaining to the election. 

MATTHEWS:  Michael, a president who often, I think, suggests he doesn‘t read polls today cited a poll from Iraq putting out that the people of Iraq are more optimistic about being on the right track in their country than we Americans are on being on the right tack in our country.  Were you surprised by that statement from the president? 

WEISSKOPF:  Well, surprised at his admission that Americans were not confident about the track they‘re on in this country.

But anyone who‘s spent time in Iraq finds it hard to locate supporters of the American occupation there unless they are directly benefiting from it, such as Premier Allawi, who was here today.

MATTHEWS:  You know, I saw a piece by Peter Beinart of “The New Republic” the other day that cited a poll that showed that 92 percent of the people of Iraq believed they are occupied, they are under an occupation, and only 2 percent believe they are under a liberation.  Is that fair estimate to look at or is that—is there something lost in translation, Michael?

WEISSKOPF:  Well, this is just terminology, of course.  And occupying is—can be without a value-laden approach.  Clearly, we are there and in control.

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

WEISSKOPF:  And I don‘t think it necessarily has to carry a bad judgment. 

However, in the times that I was in Iraq, and it lapped the time from liberation to occupation, there was a very understandable and palpable change in views of our position there. 

MATTHEWS:  That euphoria we saw when the statues went down right after we went in, was that accurate?  Was it an accurate depiction, an accurate portrait of what was really being felt by those people when we first went in? 

WEISSKOPF:  No question about it.  There was a real sense of relief that the great dictator had moved aside and a great sense of optimism that as a kind of small brother to the United States, that they would be able to benefit tremendously. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go back to the CBS mess. 

Frank, you‘ve studied this pretty well up there in New York and it‘s very much part of the New York culture, with the media, the big media, CBS.

RICH:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  Is there a sense that they‘re really going to get a report from the former attorney general, Dick Thornburgh, within a couple of weeks? 

RICH:  I don‘t know what the timetable is going to be. 

Actually, one of the two people, the former editor in chief of the AP, who is involved with this report, was involved with the report on “The New York Times”‘ scandal with Jayson Blair.  It didn‘t happen in two weeks, as I recall. 

But I don‘t think it really makes any difference.  They‘re going to get to the bottom of it one way or the other.  Meanwhile, the damage has been done in credibility to really big media in general. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, they‘re going to have to find out who believed in Bill Burkett‘s credibility.

RICH:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  And whoever did that made a huge mistake.  And then the question of who shared in that belief, because he was the linchpin on the providence of those papers.  And if Dan Rather believed in that guy, he‘s got a big problem, doesn‘t he? 

RICH:  He does have a big problem.  And, meanwhile, by the way,

there‘s a second parallel track of investigation going on, in that other

news organizations that I know of, not necessarily CBS, are continuing to

look at what actually did go on in the National Guard with Bush, which is

sort of the forgotten thing in

(CROSSTALK) 

MATTHEWS:  I know.  Well, it‘s a long time ago, Frank. 

(LAUGHTER)

RICH:  I know.

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to Michael Weisskopf. 

In terms of establishing the providence and credibility and authenticity of documents, what is the “TIME” magazine method?  Apparently, CBS could benefit from it. 

WEISSKOPF:  Well, my method is, and to the extent that I‘m doing the reporting, it‘s “TIME”‘s methodology, of course, is to trace a source as deeply as you can and to judge his veracity and to try to understand the extent to which he may be bringing bias to the story. 

In this particular case, the journalistic lapses were egregious, in that the source of the document had a obvious horse in the race and that he wasn‘t revealing the source.  And when he did reveal the source, CBS failed to identify him. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, there‘s a lot of problems with that guy. 

(CROSSTALK)

RICH:  And, furthermore, just the forensic evidence, if what we hear is true from experts, that they weren‘t even in the ballpark in terms of typography and so on...

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

RICH:  It‘s going to be a—it‘s going to be a series of dominoes falling, obviously. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, guys, you know, I think you‘re right. 

Anyway, thank you, Frank Rich.  Thank you, Michael Weisskopf.

RICH:  Thank you. 

MATTHEWS:  Join us again tomorrow night at 7:00 Eastern for HARDBALL:

THE HORSERACE, our weekly wrapup of all the hottest polls, TV commercials, speeches and inside stuff from this week‘s campaigning. 

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

END   

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