updated 10/19/2004 10:21:45 AM ET 2004-10-19T14:21:45

Guest: Jimmy Carter, Ron Suskind, Tony Blankley, George Carlin

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Fifteen days to go until the election, and the latest national polls show President Bush has the edge going into the home stretch.  We‘ll talk presidential politics with former President Jimmy Carter. 

Plus, the political mean season has begun with new attack ads playing nonstop in a shrinking battleground.  Will only nine states decide this presidential election?  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.  It is a numbers game now as the campaigns calculate where to focus their time and their money in the final weeks of this campaign.  And as the number of tightly contested states shrinks, Florida remains crucial, just as it was in the year 2000.  That‘s where both candidates campaigned today and where early voting hit some speed bump.  Joining us now, someone who knows a thing or two about presidential campaigns, our 39th president and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Jimmy Carter.  He also has two books out now in paperback:  “The Hornets Nest:  A Novel of the Revolutionary War,” and “Christmas in Plains.”

Mr. President, thank you.  It‘s an honor to have you on.

JIMMY CARTER, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Thank you Chris, good to be with you and your folks.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you the question about—this is going to cause some trouble with people—but as an historian now and studying the Revolutionary War as it was fought out in the South in those last years of the War, insurgency against a powerful British force, do you see any parallels between the fighting that we did on our side and the fighting that is going on in Iraq today?

CARTER:  Well, one parallel is that the Revolutionary War, more than any other war up until recently, has been the most bloody war we‘ve fought.  I think another parallel is that in some ways the Revolutionary War could have been avoided.  It was an unnecessary war.

Had the British Parliament been a little more sensitive to the colonial‘s really legitimate complaints and requests the war could have been avoided completely, and of course now we would have been a free country now as is Canada and India and Australia, having gotten our independence in a nonviolent way. 

I think in many ways the British were very misled in going to war against America and in trying to enforce their will on people who were quite different from them at the time.

MATTHEWS:  The president has said he had miscalculated in terms of not realizing how the war would proceed from the initial knockout of Saddam‘s forces, including the Revolutionary Guard, and then what he faced on the ground in terms of the insurgency. 

Do you think as an historian you would have foreseen, had you been president, the nationalistic fight of those people in Iraq once we got in there?

CARTER:  Well, I think almost any reasonable person who knew history would say that you can‘t go into an alien environment and force by rule of arms by forcing the people to adopt a strange concept.  And also when we were so destructive in going into Iraq with tens of thousands of innocent civilians killed and now it‘s still, up until this moment now many months later there is still a great deal of animosity toward American troops.  And there is no doubt that American troops‘ presence is stimulating additional violence.

MATTHEWS:  What do you make of this new philosophy, Mr. President, that we can go into countries like Iraq and that we can use our force of arms and our economic might to transform them into democracies?  It‘s the new conservative philosophy.  It‘s the Bush doctrine, whatever you want to call it.  What do you make of it?

CARTER:  I don‘t think it‘s ever been proven to be accurate as a premise that you can go into an alien society, win with force of arms, destroying a major portion of that country and killing their people to make them adopt a new form of government and to accept new rulers. 

Obviously, the only way out of this quagmire that we have formed in Iraq now is to have some guarantee of withdrawal of American troops and turning their premises of the Iraqis over to them politically and to the international community to help on an equal basis and a shared basis with many allies both in economic and military concerns in the future.

MATTHEWS:  One of the things you—let me talk to you about it as an historian, Mr.  President, not just as a former president.  And if you look at the American Revolution, one of the things that I understand the British were surprised by, Burgoyne and such when he came down from Canada, he didn‘t expect to see local nationalism.  He never saw anything like the power of the local militia, that they would spring up and defend their neighborhoods.  It was a very local kind of nationalism.  

Is that something that we should just expect in the world, that people are a bit tribalistic, they‘re a bit nationalistic, they are prideful?  If anyone comes into their country, no matter whether it was knocking off a bad leader or not, they‘re going to fight.

CARTER:  Well, you have to realize that at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, about which I wrote this novel “The Hornets Nest,” all of the people in this country, they call them colonials, were loyal to the King of England.  In fact, habitually and repeatedly, throughout their adult lives they had taken an oath before God, “I will be loyal to my King.”

And it was an ill-advised abuse and misunderstanding from London of the colonials that caused them one by one to renounce that oath and take up weapons against our own king. 

And quite often in the Revolutionary War, Chris, the division was not geographical in nature as it was in the Civil War or the Vietnam War or Korea or in the World Wars but it was within families, where one person, Sr.‘s son would say I‘m going to take up weapons against the King of England and he‘d soon be fighting against his own brothers and father. 

And then of course as it went on and the British became more abusive and more determined through military arms to put us down, that‘s when the massive objection to the British took place and that‘s when the Americans finally won with the help, I might add very quickly, of the French.  Had we not had the alliance with France, orchestrated by Benjamin Franklin and others, we would never have defeated Cornwallis at Yorktown.  We would never have won that war.

MATTHEWS:  Let me talk about another parallel you drew a couple minutes ago, and that is how war became unnecessary.  The war we have had with Iraq, and it is an ongoing war, was it possible that if the president or his secretary of state could have reached Saddam Hussein, Saddam Hussein could have explained to the president no matter what we think of him and his tyranny over there that he didn‘t have weapons of mass destruction or was it a case where are people because of ideological reasons simply wanted to take over that country and they were using WMD as an excuse?  Do you think there was any way to have avoided that war if people were of good heart and mind?

CARTER:  I don‘t think with President Bush and Vice President Cheney and other leaders in Washington that would—that small cadre of deeply committed people—that it was possible for that war to be avoided because quite early in the process, long before the United Nations had exhausted its effort to reveal that there were no weapons of mass destruction there, I think the Bush administration had decided to go to war.  It was almost an inevitability. 

And of course the premises under which we went to war, as is well known, have been proven to be fallacious:  One is they had massive weapons of mass destruction; secondly they had direct threats to the security of our own country; and, third, after 9/11 that somehow or another Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11 which we know now that all of those premises were incorrect, maybe even false, but certainly a misinterpretation of the available intelligence.

MATTHEWS:  Was WMD a reason for the war or simply the sales pitch?

CARTER:  Well I think it turned out to be a sales pitch because all of the evidence then and since then up until this moment is that the weapons of mass destruction did not exist so they had been there in the past when Iraq was fighting Iran, a lot of those weapons and support from the Reagan administration to Saddam Hussein when we were friendly with him against Iran.  But obviously the weapons of mass destruction were not there.  That is known by everyone of your viewers I think.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about your other book.  “Christmas in Plains,” it has a nice texture to it.  But there are some rough bumps in it.  It‘s particularly 1979 which is hardly a folksy tale.  It‘s a tale of the hostage crisis. 

When you look back on when 50 Americans were taking hostage by the Iranian so-called students, you must have thought about this so many years and so many times since then.  Have you ever thought of a way you could have ended that?  Could going to war have worked or that just would have been a holocaust?  Do you ever think through alternative ways of approaching that horror which may have cost you the presidency?

CARTER:  Well, from the first day the hostages were taken, I had two major and unshakable goals in mind that never changed.  One was that we would protect the integrity and interest of my country, and that every hostage would come home safe and free.

And eventually, after 444 days, we achieved on both those goals. We never betrayed the interest of my country, and every hostage came home safe and free.

But obviously, I tried everything I possibly could, through international diplomacy and through direct appeals, even through people like Muhammad Ali, who had a relationship with Muslims, to try to convince the Iranians to return the hostages.  And they wouldn‘t.

They made a serious mistake which brought catastrophe on their country, and Iran has never recovered its international prestige and its influence that they lost during that ill-advised experience.

MATTHEWS:  You mentioned that Muhammad Ali and all the efforts you tried.  Is there anything—I can imagine the current administration being so tough.  I can imagine them going to war over it.  Did you ever think that would have been justified?

CARTER:  Well, it had a lot of influence on me, some of which you knew about at the time, people trying to convince me that the best way to get the hostages out was to launch a military attack on Iran, which in my opinion would have been quite popular among the American people.

MATTHEWS:  I think you‘re right. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I think you‘re right. They wanted you to swat him hard.  I know that.

CARTER:  But any president goes to war, you immediately become not just an administrator of difficult things like welfare and health and education and taxation, but you become the commander in chief of our forces in danger overseas.  And it greatly escalates the popularity of a president.

And of course, that was one of the things that were offered to me, but I, you know, thought about it a lot and I finally decided that if I did attack Iran, I could have destroyed Iran with our weaponry. There‘s no question about that.  But our hostages would have been lost.  And also tens of thousands of innocent Iranians would have been lost.  And all the troops that we sent there subsequently, many of them would have been casualties.

I think I made the right decision.

MATTHEWS:  What do you think Bush and Cheney would have done in the same situation?

CARTER:  I don‘t know.  If you judge this by the Iraqi war, and if they had a predisposition to go to war, I think they would have done so.  I don‘t think that in the case of Iran there was any predisposition on our part to go to war against Iran.

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s come back and talk about politics today and also about your books, “Christmas in Plains” and “The Hornet‘s Nest,” about the American Revolution.  Former President Jimmy Carter.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Former President Jimmy Carter is with us.  He‘s the author of “The Hornet‘s Nest,” about the American Revolution, in the South especially, and “Christmas in Plains,” which is a great story.

Let me ask you—I also have to point out, I did work for you, Mr.  President, as a humble writer back in the ‘70s.  I also like to bring out the humble role I played of course.

Let me ask you about religion.  I mean, I guess when you ran in 1976, you were so open about your commitments, religious background and commitments.  And I guess people accepted that, and it didn‘t seem to be anything that was very particularly controversial at the time. I don‘t remember that.

What do you think about the president‘s more obvious, I think, religious connection, more obvious mentioning of it?  I don‘t know what the word—how would you phrase it?  It seems like this election‘s between now a very religious man publicly and a man who may be privately religious but doesn‘t talk much about it.

CARTER:  Well, I have always been religious person, but I was very careful never to mix the church and state.  I would have foregone any sort of effort by—say—Baptists or Christians even to give me overt support just because of my religion.

And when I was in office, I was very careful to separate completely any religious commitment of mine and assuring of favoritism or preference to Christianity or my own faith.

Since then, not because I blame it on President Bush, but there has been a melding, as you know, in this country of the Republican Party and the Christian right-wing fervent believers. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.

CARTER:  I don‘t criticize either one of them, but I think that‘s an obvious fact.  And that has brought about a closer intermixing, or overlapping, of religion and government that our forefathers certainly have deplored and which has never been the case until the last 25 years.

MATTHEWS:  What do you make of this sort of odd coalition on the right side between people who are very right-wing about the Middle East and Christians who are very—obviously, very Christian and concerned about the holy land.

It does seem to me that there‘s almost an odd coalition out there of people who are Christian conservatives and people who are very pro- Israeli and the way the president has used that in terms of his support for his foreign policy and his reelection.  Have you noticed that?

CARTER:  Well, one of the deepest commitments I ever made in public life and private life since then for 25 years or more has been to bring peace to the Israelis and peace and justice, as well, to their immediate neighbors.  I devoted a large portion of my administration to that and formed a treaty between Israel and Egypt, not a word of which has ever been violated.

And every president...

MATTHEWS:  You got a lot of credit for that, didn‘t you, Mr.

President?

CARTER:  Well, I did...

MATTHEWS:  I‘m just kidding.  I don‘t think you did get enough.

CARTER:  Not enough.

MATTHEWS:  I mean, you brought together Israel with its most threatening strategic enemy...

CARTER:  Well, you don‘t ever get enough credit when you do something nice like that.  But the point is that every president since Eisenhower, I‘d say, including me and including George Bush Sr.  and including Bill Clinton, have made every effort to bring peace to Israel and justice and peace to their neighbors...

MATTHEWS:  Right.

CARTER:  ...  until the last 3.5 years.  And now everybody knows that looks at it objectively that this effort has been totally abandoned.  There is no effort now being made to negotiate or to bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians. 

And this is a festering cancer that has caused not only disfavor of our country as a biased protagonist in this altercation, but it‘s also abandoned any hope in the immediate future that we can build upon what Bill Clinton and his predecessors did in the White House and bring true peace to Israel and justice to the Palestinians.

MATTHEWS:  I think the New York Times editorialized on that yesterday. 

They made the point that there‘s an absent partner there. That‘s us.

CARTER:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  Do you still have hopes for a two-state solution?

CARTER:  It depends on who the next president is and whether Bush, if he is reelected, will do anything about it.  Right now, of course, there is no effort on his part to bring peace to the Middle East.  And I hope that that will change.

MATTHEWS:  Have you ever seen anything like a religious effort by religious leaders—I‘m talking about my own religion, too, Roman Catholicism—the bishops are out there basically saying vote pro- life?  They‘re making it very clear they‘re pushing a particular candidate in this election, although they don‘t use the name.

I don‘t remember it—and I don‘t know is this is going on in Protestant churches or not—but it seems to me this is the strongest influence I‘ve ever seen on an election in terms of religion.

CARTER:  Well, it is.  And of course, what these misguided religious leaders do, in my opinion, is to take two or three individual elements that are not the foundation of Christianity and elevate them to the detriment of others.

But I worship, and many Christians worship, the Prince of Peace, not war.

MATTHEWS:  Right.

CARTER:  People worship a savior who dedicated his commitment, his life and his words to the alleviation of the plight of the poor and the deprived and the scorned and the forgotten people, instead of elevating the rich to a position of preeminence.  And I feel, as a steward of God‘s world, that I should take care of the environment. 

So there are many elements of Christianity—peace and justice and humility and service and compassion and love—that have been forgotten, with the elevation of a few other items.

MATTHEWS:  What do you make of this fight over gay marriage, as a Christian, as a Baptist?  Is there a position you‘ve taken on this, or do you let it go, or do you finesse it?  How do you handle an issue like this?  Is it just too hot to handle?

CARTER:  Well, I never have been in favor of marriages between people of the same sex.  I don‘t favor that now, don‘t think John Kerry does, and I know that George Bush doesn‘t.

But I do believe that people who have tendencies to be gay...

MATTHEWS:  Right.

CARTER:  ...  if they form an alliance or partnership under secular law, which is our law of this country, ought to be treated fairly and equitably.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you former president, Jimmy Carter.

Up next, a look at the latest campaign commercials, leading into the final days of the battle for the White House.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Insiders call at it the third rail of American politics.  And now with two weeks before the election, Social Security is front and center in this campaign.  HARDBALL election correspondent David Shuster joins us now with the latest in the ad war—David. 

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL ELECTIONS CORRESPONDENT:  Chris, at this stage, the ads are simply misleading and nasty.  Democrats are desperately, desperately trying to make inroads among elderly voters and among baby boomers.  And the Kerry campaign believes it has been handed a golden opportunity. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SHUSTER (voice-over):  It‘s based on a meeting that President Bush had last month with 100 top financial supporters.  The president‘s remarks were first reported this past weekend in “The New York Times Sunday” magazine. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  “I‘m going to come out strong after my swearing in,” Bush said, “with privatizing Social Security.”  First, George Bush threatened Social Security with record deficits of over $400 billion.  Now Bush has a plan that cuts Social Security benefits by 30 to 45 percent.  The real Bush agenda?  Cutting Social Security. 

SHUSTER:  The president has never supported cutting Social Security, and the Bush campaign denies he ever used the word “privatize.”  But the campaign refuses to release any tape of the president‘s remarks.  And “The New York Times” says its reporting, which relied on Republican sources, is accurate. 

Regarding the overall issue, the president does want to allow younger voters to invest a portion of their Social Security taxes into private accounts, but even top Democrats, including the late Senator Patrick Moynihan, said that to describe it as privatization is misleading. 

Meanwhile, the Kerry campaign is also trying to hammer the president for the shortage of flu vaccinations. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Seniors and children wait.  Not enough vaccines for pregnant women.  A George Bush mess.  It‘s time for a new direction. 

SHUSTER:  While another ad slams the president over 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  In Afghanistan, the Bush administration relied on Afghan warlords to go after Osama bin Laden.  He got away.  Bush said, “I don‘t spend that much time on him.  I truly am not that concerned about him.”  It‘s time for a new direction. 

SHUSTER:  As for the Bush campaign, the president‘s latest commercial also focuses on national security.  But the ad ridicules John Kerry and his Democratic colleagues. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  They opposed Reagan as he won the Cold War.  Voted against the first Gulf War.  Voted to slash intelligence after the first Trade Center attack.  Repeatedly opposed weapons vital to winning the war on terror. 

SHUSTER:  The problem is, Dick Cheney, as secretary of defense, opposed those same weapons, and some Republicans wanted bigger intelligence cuts than many Democrats. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SHUSTER:  Accuracy and fairness, though, is not something you would expect here at the very end of the campaign, and Chris, one little surprise two weeks out, and that is this is the time when the candidates are trying to chart how they‘re going to spend their money.  It does appear that the Bush campaign has about $10 to $20 million for the final two weeks.  John Kerry, $15 to $25 million.  A little more money for the Kerry campaign.  The Republicans think they can make up that difference with more money from the Republican Committee, the Republican Party. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you mind if I ask you an obnoxious question? 

SHUSTER:  Sure.

MATTHEWS:  What dodo would be affected by a TV ad at this point in the campaign?  Wouldn‘t you make up your mind after four years of President Bush, for or against him on all the big issues—the war, the economy, social issues.  Why would an ad change anybody‘s mind at this point? 

SHUSTER:  It might not change anybody‘s mind, because the Democrats are looking at four years ago when President Bush made a gaff.  He talked about Social Security being run like it‘s sort of government program. 

MATTHEWS:  I remember that.  I remember that. 

SHUSTER:  And Democrats believe that that had an impact, especially with elderly voters.  And that if they can bring up Social Security at the end, that there might be some elderly voters who are having problems with their Social Security check who might somehow worry, and that could make a difference. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  This is like yelling fire in a movie theater, isn‘t it? 

SHUSTER:  Yes, it‘s like yelling fire, but it‘s also like throwing darts.  You‘re not exactly sure which one of these is going to land, but you throw a whole bunch of them hoping one will make a difference. 

MATTHEWS:  We‘ll talk more about the rest of the show.  Lots of questions about what the Democrats are going to try to do to try to pick up in this race they‘re losing right now.  Thank you, David Shuster.  

Up next, a look at the latest polls, and we talk about the Democrats falling behind, and the shrinking number of swing votes, with Ron Suskind and Tony Blankley when we come back.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

We‘re joined right now by Ron Suskind.  He‘s the author, of course, of that blockbuster book “The Price of Loyalty” about Paul O‘Neill, the former secretary of the treasury.  And in this Sunday‘s “New York Times” magazine, Ron writes about President Bush and his intolerance of those who doubt him. 

Ron quotes Republican columnist and former adviser to the first President Bush, Bruce Bartlett, who says: “This is why he dispenses with people who confront him with inconvenient facts.  He,” the president, “truly believes he‘s on a mission from God.  Absolute faith like that overwhelms a need for analysis.  The whole thing about faith is to believe things for which there is no empirical evidence.  But you can‘t run the world on faith.”

Well, that‘s a judgment.  Is this the first president we‘ve had who really believes he has an almost messianic ambition, a messianic mission from God? 

RON SUSKIND, AUTHOR/JOURNALIST:  There are other presidents who have spoken in grand terms, Wilson and others. 

The difference is this, is that this president increasingly seems to believe, from what he has said publicly and what people around him have said to me and others, believes that he is essentially being guided by a divine mission, by God or his conversation with God. 

This conversation with God is what we try to get to, I try get to in this story. 

MATTHEWS:  But a lot of people, me included, get up in the morning and, on our good days, we try to do good.  We try to be good that day. 

SUSKIND:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  We try to follow—we don‘t know how to interpret it, but we try to do what we think God would want us to do.  This isn‘t some bizarre guy here, George Bush.  He is like a lot of us. 

SUSKIND:  Well, you know, I think...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I‘m not saying we believe—or most of us believe that we‘re somehow Michael the archangel, the avenging angel of history.  Are you saying the president believes something like that? 

And I‘m not so sure that separates him from most politicians, either. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  I know a lot of guys who have gotten elected to Congress who believe they were elected because God was on their side and then they have to deal with the fact they get defeated at some point along the way or things don‘t work out.  But are you sure he‘s that different than most politicians? 

SUSKIND:  Well, what do I in the story, Chris, is, I show a four-year progression of this president‘s first—his battles with critical, basic traditional critical analysis, which he had struggles with all the way certainly through first year. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

SUSKIND:  After 9/11, those struggles, which frankly he had for much of his life, became the stuff of crisis.  As the demands grew after 9/11, the president increasingly turned to a kind of faith that frankly is not traditional for presidents.  And I‘ve talked to every historian on the planet about this. 

What is interesting and different here is that the president doesn‘t have the competing dictates of a kind of, let‘s search for the facts and let‘s look at reality, not just the best-case scenarios, but the worst-case scenarios.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Why don‘t we just get rid of the State Department and CIA and go by his guiding lights? 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I‘m pushing this as an obvious sarcasm, because do you really think he believes he knows what is going on in Turkey right now, what‘s going on in Iraq, what‘s going on in Jordan, all those countries we‘re involved with on the front line over there?  Do you think he has some sort of belief that he can channel that information? 

SUSKIND:  Well, when he is asked questions like that, often he says, I went with my gut.  I went on instinct. 

MATTHEWS:  How can you have a gut about Iraq when you grew up in Texas?  I don‘t have any gut about Iraq.  Who does?

(CROSSTALK)

SUSKIND:  The fact is, the president trusts his gut on Iraq. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

SUSKIND:  And his gut on things that he hasn‘t worked on.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Let me ask you a tougher question.  Nothing wrong with following your gut.  A lot of people do.

SUSKIND:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Does he learn from evidence?  In other words, when he sees the insurgency grow over there, not just outside agitators, outside terrorists showing up over there like Zarqawi, that SOB.

SUSKIND:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  But just the people over there who don‘t like us being there, did that surprise him?  And, if so, has he learned from that? 

SUSKIND:  Well, I think certain things did surprise him.  Did he learn from it is a different story. 

One of the things that‘s interesting about Bush in office is that he doesn‘t have the capacity or a willingness to show weakness or even show doubt to senior advisers.  Chris DeMuth, the head of AEI, says in the story something I thought was interesting about how tight the circle around this president is and how it limits alternatives as to what he can hear.  An echo chamber of his own making was the line from... 

MATTHEWS:  What snuffed the policy input of Colin Powell?  He‘s still there. 

SUSKIND:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  But I don‘t sense he‘s a policy adviser. 

SUSKIND:  No. 

MATTHEWS:  What happened?  Why did the president stop listening to Colin Powell?  When he was picked as secretary of state, a lot of people in America were thrilled. 

SUSKIND:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  They thought it meant—first African-American, obviously

·         but this great man who had won the war before was going to have an influence, a moderating influence. 

SUSKIND:  Absolutely.

MATTHEWS:  What happened? 

SUSKIND:  Colin Powell, Paul O‘Neill, there‘s a whole bunch of people who were brought in as pragmatists and moderates. 

MATTHEWS:  For real or for show? 

SUSKIND:  Well, O‘Neill says largely for show.

But they were clearly in the counsels of state.  A message was sent to them early that the president is not happy with these sorts of confrontations.  And, eventually, those confrontations, with people saying, Mr. President, simply explain to me the good reason that underlie actions, those were seen as confrontations.  And, after a while, those questions started to vanish. 

That‘s a progression across four years.  At the same time, the president increasingly turned to this notion of faith:  I am a divine messenger. 

MATTHEWS:  You make him sound like a divine-right king.  Is he?  Does he believe in divine right?  Does he believe that he is inspired by God to lead the people, as a king might have in the Middle Ages? 

SUSKIND:  That‘s the question.

MATTHEWS:  Does he believe that?

SUSKIND:  Well, that‘s a question a lot of people want to ask, because he seems to be signaling as such to the largely evangelical core of the base.  This is part of what Lincoln Chafee says in the story, the Republican senator. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me tell you something.  American Protestantism has never been happy with kings.  Generally speaking, they‘re not big monarchists. 

(LAUGHTER)

SUSKIND:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  Why would they believe that this president has some sort of divine information? 

SUSKIND:  Well, if you go out to the base—and I‘ve talked to lots of the evangelical base over the past few months. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.  Right. 

SUSKIND:  They‘ll say to me straight out, this man is a divine messenger.  He is placed here by God. 

MATTHEWS:  No!

SUSKIND:  Oh, absolutely.  Chris, you have got to get out of Washington and you‘ve got to get out there and you have got to talk to them.  And they‘ll say, without hesitation, this president has been placed here by God at a time of peril, period, paragraph. 

Out there, with this core of the base, the Christian evangelicals,

this is part of where they get their energy from, energy that frankly maybe

makes each of them worth three Kerry supporters.  No one is believing John

Kerry is a messenger of God.  But

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  No, he‘s very secular in his public life. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  In his public life.

SUSKIND:  I would say it is right to say he is traditional as to how politicians have handled faith as a private matter and not said, I am essentially anointed by God in term of this mission to rid the world of evil at whatever cost. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, historically, the Jewish community, liberal Catholics, liberal Protestants, have been very scared of this church and state getting together. 

If you‘re right, that this president is married to that sort of belief in some sort of a coming-together of religious faith and public policy and the role we play in the world, isn‘t there a countervailing force out there of people who are a little scared of this? 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Aren‘t they alert to it?

SUSKIND:  Well, there are a lot of people who are scared about it.  I think they‘re becoming alert to it in the past few months, in the final month of the campaign.  What‘s interesting, though, is that the president...

MATTHEWS:  Let me tell you why I think you might be wrong.  If the president is so married to religious faith as a guidance for public policy, why isn‘t he trying to outlaw abortion? 

He‘s very skillful about that.  He never says—he says he believes in the culture of life, which we all, I hope, do.  But he never says, I‘m going to change the Constitution to outlaw abortion.  He never comes out and says, I‘m going to pick a bunch of right-wing justices. 

He is very careful to say, I won‘t have a litmus test. 

SUSKIND:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  He‘s very shrewd for a guy who is so godly. 

SUSKIND:  Oh, no, he is a master politician.  And the fact is, this notion of the divine plan, it is often quite incoherent, this and not that. 

MATTHEWS:  But he not like some Peter the hermit.  He is aware of politics.

SUSKIND:  Absolutely.  And I think people have underestimated this president and his improvisational and interpretive skills.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I agree with all of that.  I think he is sharply ideological until he has figured out that that may not work.  I think he is a lot shrewder than a lot of people think. 

SUSKIND:  Yes, but...

MATTHEWS:  Hey, when he keeps winning, people better keep watching. 

Anyway, thank you very much, Ron Suskind.  You‘re a hell of a writer and you‘re becoming quite the blooming figure in our times, by the way. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  And when we come back, we‘ll have more on the presidential race from Tony Blankley of “The Washington Times.”

And later, comedian George Carlin, for a different pace, he is going to join us.  That will be hilarious.  It always is.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Coming up, the battle for the White House with Tony Blankley of “The Washington Times” and, later, George Carlin.

HARDBALL returns after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Tony Blankley is the editorial page editor of “The Washington Times.” 

Tony, these numbers have come in.  We mentioned them before on the show when we had President Carter on.  They‘re all about bunched.  Most of the polls are about within the margin of error and very closely within the margin of error.  Then you have got the Gallup poll branching.  You‘ve got the “Newsweek” poll branching out suggesting that the president may be getting a bit of a jump here.  What do you think?  Here we are two weeks out.

TONY BLANKLEY, EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR, “THE WASHINGTON TIMES”:  Yes.  I mean, yes, it‘s within the margin of error, but margin of errors are likelihoods that it is right. 

So I think when you see all these polls on the edge of the margin, your instinct tells you that Bush is probably up a little bit. 

MATTHEWS:  Because they‘re all in the same direction. 

BLANKLEY:  Because they‘re all in the same direction. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

BLANKLEY:  And, basically, you‘re just moving through a bell curve, through statistical units.  And I think it is likely, based on all the polls we‘ve all seen, that Bush is up two to five points.   

MATTHEWS:  Could something so slight in sound and in moment as John Kerry‘s mentioning of the—as—quote—“the lesbian daughter of the vice president.”  I think it may be the only time in history where the word lesbian has been used by a presidential candidate to date.  Just the way he said it, using that word, it is a sort of a stark word, a startling word in that kind of context.  A gay even daughter would have sounded a little daughter. 

(CROSSTALK)

BLANKLEY:  He himself kind of paused and then swallowed the word.  He felt a little uncomfortable using the word.  I think that came across.  Look, I mean, in a very...

MATTHEWS:  Most people do when talking about somebody else‘s child. 

BLANKLEY:  Well, yes, you ought to.  To me, it seemed like a possible Jerry Ford Poland moment. 

MATTHEWS:  Except Jerry thought he was telling the truth and it was OK.  This guy...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Do you think he did it—do you think he was encouraged to do it by his people? 

BLANKLEY:  Well, all I know is what everybody knows, that Edwards had used the same concept the week before he used it.  And then Mary Beth Cahill, his campaign manager after—immediately after the debate and before she got the talking points said that Mary Cheney was fair game.  That certainly sounded like it was part of a strategy.  I mean, you and I have both been...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Sounds rough. 

BLANKLEY:  Yes.  And it was unnecessary.  The point was, he could have chosen Barney Frank.  He could have chosen any number of self-admitted...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  The great irony is, it may have allowed the president, who is against gay marriage, like most people are, to appear as the most sympathetic. 

BLANKLEY:  The more tolerant of the two. 

MATTHEWS:  The more tolerant.

BLANKLEY:  Yes. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  And I do think there‘s a difference, because I think the president is tolerant.  I think John Kerry, were he not running for president, would be embracing gay marriage.  That‘s just a hunch, because I think that‘s the Massachusetts point of view. 

BLANKLEY:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about these issues.  I‘ve talked to somebody within the campaign pretty high up. 

BLANKLEY:  Which campaign?

MATTHEWS:  The Kerry campaign. 

BLANKLEY:  Oh, OK.

MATTHEWS:  Because that‘s the one that needs movement, right? 

BLANKLEY:  Yes.  They need some juice, right?

MATTHEWS:  They‘re talking about health care in the next couple weeks, the environment, Social Security, obviously already today, women‘s issues, obviously abortion rights, etcetera, and terrorism in Iraq.  Do you think that‘s a smart move, to sort of touch all the bases between now and Election Day? 

BLANKLEY:  Well, I‘ve been thinking about that. 

MATTHEWS:  Or stick to one thing.

BLANKLEY:  Because what they did in the weeks up until the debate was, they went at Bush at his strong point, Iraq and terror, because...

MATTHEWS:  And it worked. 

BLANKLEY:  Because, I assume, they felt they had to beat him on that or they weren‘t going to win. 

Now, they haven‘t beaten them.  They made a good run at it.  But all the internal polls still show that Bush has good advantages on terror. 

MATTHEWS:  The Gallup poll that‘s out this week says the president is ahead dramatically on terrorism and also on Iraq. 

(CROSSTALK)

BLANKLEY:  Even—looking at Gallup.  Even looking at the other ones, the internals are still good. 

So if the theory was a month ago, we have got to go after Bush on that and get even there and they haven‘t gotten even and they‘ve shifted, it suggests to me maybe this is a strategy of second choice.  And since they can‘t quite make the sale on Iraq and terror, they‘re now just trying to pick up bits and pieces on all the other issues. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.  It reminds me of the Old Testament story about Joshua going around blowing his trumpet seven times around the walls of the castle of the enemy, just like keep blowing the horn. 

(CROSSTALK)

BLANKLEY:  The walls did come down. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  They come down.  Will that work, then?  Or is it smart to just get a battering ram and go through one wall called Iraq and hit it as hard as you can for two weeks? 

BLANKLEY:  I‘ve been saying for two years I think this election, as the 2002 election, is about terror.  And the candidate and the party that is (UNINTELLIGIBLE) on that is the one that is going to win. 

MATTHEWS:  So, therefore, the Democrats should attack, have to attack on that front. 

BLANKLEY:  I thought Kerry was right to try to make that assault.  It is tough going at the strong point of the opponent.  But I thought he had to beat him there.  He hasn‘t yet.  Now he seems to be sort of half giving up that issue. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, my own analysis would be that maybe if you look at the headlines of the newspapers, and you know all successful politics, the message has to coincide with the news of the day or it doesn‘t resound, that he is smarter to stick on things that are naturally going in his favor, which the war is going not that well, with the casualties every day. 

That‘s interesting you agree with him.  And let me ask you about what you expect to have.  Do you expect events to take charge in the next two weeks, an event, for example, in Iraq, a major attempt by the enemy to hurt us, a major attempt by al Qaeda to hit us even here? 

BLANKLEY:  Well, a terrorist attack here, God knows what it would do. 

And the politics of it would be the least of our concern. 

But short of something that catastrophic, I think we‘re getting to the point now where one more bomb going off in Baghdad or one more statistic on something domestically is not likely to have a big event.  We‘ve all been talking about for the whole year that external events could shape the election. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

BLANKLEY:  But here we are two weeks out.  And we‘ve had all these tremendous events and we‘re about where most people might have thought we might have been.  So I think it would have to be a pretty big event at this point. 

MATTHEWS:  So it looks like it is moving where it‘s moving. 

BLANKLEY:  I think so.

MATTHEWS:  And who is going to win? 

BLANKLEY:  I think it‘s too soon to tell.  But I‘m beginning to have a hunch it might break for Bush. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, like it always does.  It‘s never close for reelection.

BLANKLEY:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Tony Blankley, “Washington Times” editorial page editor.

When we come back, comedian George Carlin, a slightly—change of pace—will be joining us.

And don‘t forget, you can keep up with the presidential race on Hardblogger, our election blog Web site.  Just go to HARDBALL.MSNBC.com.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

We‘re joined right now by comedian George Carlin, a favorite of mine, who is author of the new book—I‘m not sure if this is sacrilegious, but I‘ll say it slowly—“When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?”

Could you please explain that?  It looks like a scene there from the last supper, to start with.

GEORGE CARLIN, COMEDIAN:  It is.

MATTHEWS:  George Carlin, what do you mean by your title? 

CARLIN:  It doesn‘t mean anything in particular.  What I like about it is that it offends all three major religions around the world and in addition to the vegetarians. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, well, let me ask you about words. 

CARLIN:  By the way, it is—my cover art is by Leonardo da Vinci.  It is “The Last Supper” reproduction.  We airbrushed Jesus out and dropped me in.

MATTHEWS:  Right.  Well, you know the old joke about that.  Everybody on this side of the table for a picture.  Remember that one?

(LAUGHTER)

CARLIN:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about this campaign.  I want to give you some free-form here.  I watched all the debates.  I was there, six hours of debate, counting the vice presidency, all those words back and forth.  And, apparently, all those words back and forth put John Kerry back into the game, but it didn‘t win it for him. 

CARLIN:  Well, I watch all this as sport.  Chris, I know you love it. 

But I think you also have a stake in the country. 

And I sort of don‘t anymore.  I kind of have resigned from this whole thing.  So I look at it as blood sport and high theater, which it is.  In both cases, those are true terms.  And I‘ve always enjoyed—every four years, I looked forward to the jockeying, the strategies, the tactics, the various tricks and things they do.  It is just—it is fascinating to watch.  But I am just really a spectator at this point. 

MATTHEWS:  Aren‘t you amazed at how skillful—everybody—the intellectuals, the cognoscenti, make fun of the president. 

CARLIN:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Intellectually, they say he can‘t put a sentence together.  I think he is a political genius.  He has taken a position on a hot issue like abortion without ever saying he is going to outlaw it. 

CARLIN:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  He doesn‘t even says, I‘m pro-life.  He says, I‘m for the culture of life.  And a lot of people out there who are pro-life and want to outlaw abortion think he‘s with him.  But then he says, I‘m not going to have a litmus test for Supreme Court justices.  I‘m not going to pick a pro-lifer. 

He doesn‘t say it.  He also says he‘s not going to change the Constitution by amending it.  And yet the people who are on that side think he is one of them.  And the other guy, on the other hand, who says he is pro-gay and gay rights, he is the one that takes the shot at the lesbian daughter of the vice president and ends up looking like the bad guy.

CARLIN:  Well, the Republicans have been winning for quite a while based on these cultural issues, these wedge issues that—whether it is gays or guns or God.  I believe that‘s a kind of a shorthand that‘s been used about them.  And then they don‘t deliver on them. 

They promise these things to working-class people and they don‘t deliver.  Working-class people vote Republican not because it is in their economic interests, because, in their hearts, they know that the Republicans represent the boardroom and they don‘t represent people.  They don‘t care about people.  They‘re the ownership class.  But they win on these cultural things.  And then they don‘t come through for these people and these people don‘t punish them ever. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think it is just the mere fact they‘re voting pro-gun, pro-life, anti-gay marriage just makes people feel better? 

CARLIN:  Well, I don‘t know.

MATTHEWS:  If you say they get nothing out of it, why do they do it? 

CARLIN:  I don‘t know, except that I think there‘s a great deal of superstition in the land, to use it in a by broad sense.

I think they believe that these issues possibly are really important in their own—so, you know, Bush really believes he is on a mission from God.  It is very frightening to have a guy pushing weapons all around the Middle East, where that‘s where Armageddon is supposed to take place, the ultimate good and evil battle, and he believes in that stuff.  Reagan did, too.  And that is a little bit frightening if you‘re concerned about your survival.  That‘s another thing I‘m not really sure I‘m into anymore. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Well, you know, George, I‘ve seen these numbers, that more than 40 percent of the country, more than two in five people believe in the literal genesis. 

CARLIN:  Yes. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  And this is a very important thing about our country.  We have a lot of fundamentalists, people watching right now, who believe that, although it really doesn‘t mean much outside the solar system, the sun and Earth are related—that‘s what days are.  They believe that the Earth was created in seven days by God, each day according to the book, literally that way. 

And I think the president is—do you think he is really thinking in terms of uniting a greater Israel, so that there can be this second coming and this rapture?  Do you think he‘s actually on that track? 

CARLIN:  He talks about his instincts. 

He is not concerned so much with facts.  He talks about his instincts.  And he has said in a number of different ways—and I‘m sure, if I were to have researched this properly, I could find some real fine quotes—but that he believes he is on a mission, that God has given the United States a mission and put him in this position at this time. 

So you can draw some further inferences out of words like that and then see where he believes he might be heading. 

MATTHEWS:  But if he‘s reelected, which is at least a 50/50 proposition now...

CARLIN:  Yes.  Yes, it is.

MATTHEWS:  He would have to decide whether to keep our troops, 120-some-thousand troops, more than that, a lot of them Reservists now really would like to come home, but to be honest.

CARLIN:  Yes.  I know.

MATTHEWS:  Who wouldn‘t?  Facing beheadings and all that horror over there.  If he is really on a mission from God, you don‘t like call back a mission from God, do you?  If you‘re right, then we‘re going to stay in there a long time. 

CARLIN:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  And I‘m a little skeptical that he might not be more practical than you think and just say, you know, this is a bad move.  I‘m getting out of here at some point. 

CARLIN:  That would be an interesting switch.  And he‘s not really known for—he is known for sort of going back on his word and not living up to what he states as his truth. 

But the interesting thing that is going to happen now—and this is the kind of stuff you and I love—is the inside baseball in the Republican Party that will happen if he is reelected, which I think looks more in favor of him day by day, except for some wonderful unknown surge from downstate, perhaps. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Well, that‘s the old days. 

CARLIN:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Bob Woodward said this weekend that he thought he might be putting McCain in there as the secretary of defense.  What would that do to you?  What do you think of that one? 

CARLIN:  Well, I have read in various sources that McCain has said he wouldn‘t want that.  But, of course, when the president calls—they give that you stuff, when the president asks you, you don‘t say no. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

CARLIN:  I just think it is always—it‘s interesting. 

Basically, my feeling is this, Chris.  This is from my own standpoint of looking at this stuff from a kind far vantage point.  I really don‘t feel involved in this species, to be honest with you, or this culture. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Well, I am.

CARLIN:  By definition—I know.  By definition, I am.  But, in a sense, inside of me, I don‘t feel attached to it all.

And I look it a from a longer historical angle.  And I just think it is really interesting, because what happens is, the ownership class in this country does whatever they want.  They do what they want.  We have these two cute political parties. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.

Can I do something here, George?  Can I encourage people to read your book? 

CARLIN:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  “When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?” 

CARLIN:  Please.

MATTHEWS:  I‘m not part of this, what could be a bad way of saying something.  But “When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?” it‘s your title, not mine. 

Anyway, thank you, George Carlin.

CARLIN:  OK.

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

HARDBALL. 

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

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

END   

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