March 23, 2005 | 6:45 p.m. ET

Bill Frist, M.D., politicizing the Schiavo case (David Shuster)

As part of our coverage in the Terri Schiavo case, I've been consulting and talking with several doctors. And while they disagree on who should decide Schiavo's fate, what tests should have been done, and the different steps the Florida courts might have taken, these physicians are united in their disgust over one key player in the Schiavo case— Senate majority leader Bill Frist .  As one doctor said, "Frist has embarrassed and brought shame upon the medical profession."

It was last Thursday when Frist went to the Senate floor and argued that Florida doctors had erred in saying Terry Schiavo is in a persistent vegetative state.  "I question it based on a review of the video footage which I spent an hour or so looking at last night in my office... she certainly seems to respond to visual stimuli."

Bill Frist is a heart surgeon not a neurologist. But even more disturbing to his medical colleagues is the fact that he has never examined Terri Schiavo nor looked at her lengthy medical records.  It appears that Frist also disregarded the voluminous report on Schiavo prepared by Dr. Jay Wolfson, Schiavo's special guardian in 2003. Wolfson spent 30 days with Schiavo. And in his report, he points out that Schiavo makes noises regardless of whether somebody is in her room or not. (The tape Frist reportedly reviewed was 4 years old and included only the snippets her parents wanted people to see.)   William J. Winslade, a bioethicist and law professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch says Senator Frist "has no business making a diagnosis from a video."

Unfortunately for his medical colleagues, Bill Frist is no longer in the business of medicine... he is in the business of politics.  And the deal he has made involves the 2008 Republican presidential primaries.  Frist wants the support of evangelical and social conservatives.  And he is counting on their support to overcome what other republicans are calling his "bland and uninspiring speaking style."

Ironically, the politicization of Terri Schiavo and the play for evangelical voters looks like it may now cause Bill Frist more harm than good. The latest polls show Americans overwhelming against Congress getting involved in the case.  And these were polls conducted BEFORE most Americans saw the fine print of the Congressional Schiavo bill.  Despite the sweeping floor statements about "protecting life," the legislation itself did not require the federal courts to start by reinserting Schiavo's feeding tube.  And while the bill does give the Schiavo family "jurisdiction and standing" to make an argument in federal court, take a look at Section 3 called "relief."  Section 3 states, "After a determination of the merits of a suit brought under this Act, the District Court shall issue such declaratory and injunctive relief as may be necessary..."  The key words are "after a determination..."  Congress did not say the federal court must accept the merits of the lawsuit.

Based on what Schiavo's parents have been saying this week, it appears the legislation's fine print was never shared with them by Bill Frist or anybody else for that matter.  Early Monday morning, after President Bush signed the Schiavo bill, Bob Schindler was positively beaming in front of the television cameras.  He said he walked into his daughter's hospice room and told her, "We had to wake the President up to save your life." 

Did Bill Frist and Tom Delay ever call the Schindler family and say, "not so fast?"  Apparently not.  In their latest court filing, the Schinder family still clings to the misleading notion offered by lawmakers last weekend that their bill required Schiavo's feeding tube to be immediately reinserted.  Quote, "If Congress meant to give the federal courts the power to let her die..." says the Schindler's filing, then passing the law "would be little more than a cruel hoax."  Read it again...  The Schindlers argue: "If Congress meant to give the federal courts the power..."   The fact is, that's exactly what Congress did.   And a "cruel hoax" on Terry Schiavo's family is exactly the right description.   As one of my doctor contacts observed, "This has always been about politics, not about helping Terri Schiavo or her parents." 

Comments, questions, questions for the blogcast:  DShuster@MSNBC.com

March 17, 2005 | 2:55 p.m. ET

Baseball hearings: Sluggers turn into political stars (David Shuster)

Even though the hearings are just getting underway... we've already learned one thing about major league baseball sluggers.  Forget about the steroid allegations... these guys have incredible political panache (or they've been paying top dollar for their PR advisors.) 

Consider today's opening statement by the Orioles' Rafael Palmeiro.  Three sentences in which he declares, "I have never used steroids, period."  Five sentences later, he talks about coming to the United States.  Palmeiro's use of politically loaded words is the congressional equivalent of a blast into the right field seats.   Palmeiro:  "My parents and I came to the United States after fleeing the communist tyranny that still reigns over my homeland of Cuba. We came seeking freedom, knowing that through hard work, discipline, and dedication, my family and I could build a bright future in America."

"Communist tyranny, freedom, hard work, dedication, family"? Brilliant... absolutely brilliant.  Who is going to challenge the steroid denial of this guy? And who says Rafael Palmeiro can't hit anymore?   

Now take a look at White Sox slugger Frank Thomas. When Thomas declares , as he does in his opening statement, "I have not used steroids, ever," it's totally believable.  Consider the statistics:  Thomas is now 37 years old and it's been a couple of years since he hit .300.  It's also been a while since he hit 40 or more home runs in a single season.   (A decade ago, Thomas was one of the most feared sluggers in the American league, hitting 40 or more home runs five times.)  However, what makes Thomas so interesting today is the way he is using his appearance to protect himself against a possible trade.  Over the last few seasons, the Chicago White Sox have traded away sluggers including Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Lee and have moved towards speed, agility, and clubhouse decorum.  Thomas has allegedly been "prickly" to more than a few White Sox players and coaches in recent years... and his slow-footed slugging style is exactly what the White Sox want to shed.  So, how does Thomas begin his congressional moment in the spotlight?  "My name is Frank Thomas and I am a baseball player for the Chicago White Sox— a team I am proud to have been part of since joining Major League Baseball in 1989." Translation:  "Hey, White Sox fans... I've been loyal to you for 16 years. Don't let the bastards in the front office trade me."  Again, it is brilliant, absolutely brilliant. Thomas knows that nobody covering this story really suspects him of ever having used steroids and that all of the sound byteson the news can be expected to feature Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco. So, why not take the momentary attention from C-Span live, cable news, and ESPN, to try and avoid a trade?  Terrific stuff.  In my book, the ability of Thomas to stay on message goes right up there with President Bill Clinton.  (During his Monica Lewinsky grand jury testimony, the president mentioned having to stay late on some occasions "when the Republican congress shut down the government...")

The best politicians make the most of every opportunity and use any "hot seat" to their own advantage.  Kudos to Rafael Palmeiro and Frank Thomas. Not only are they sluggers... but today, they are political stars.

Do you care if professional athletes use steroids? Click here to vote.

Comments, questions, questions for the blogcast: DShuster@msnbc.com

March 16, 2005 | 7:39 p.m. ET

Play ball: Congress takes on baseball while ignoring major national issues (David Shuster)

I believe it was George Will who once said that historians will look back at the United States some day and note three major contributions to the world: the Constitution, jazz music, and baseball. 

The spread of freedom was not on the list.  Nonetheless, it's frustrating to think that lawmakers are about to take up the issue of steroids in baseball when Congress has taken a pass on the WMD that were not in Iraq. Social Security reform? Yawn. Who needs to examine the cost of "privatization" when Mark McGwire may have slugged 70 home runs in a single season while on "the juice?"

Don't get me wrong. I'm going to enjoy the baseball hearings as much as anybody.  It's going to be a lot of fun to watch a few of these whiny multimillionaires squirm.  And heck, maybe a few of the sluggers will even provide a few highlight clips for a sport that Washington, D.C. has always thrived on... back-stabbing.

Nonetheless, it's not a comforting sight to watch Congress strut its concern for our national pastime while being recklessly ambivalent about the national debt.  Our country faces some incredible challenges right now:  The dollar is dropping to dangerous levels, gas prices are surging to record levels, investors like Warren Buffet are predicting a possible economic crash, Medicare and Social Security are headed to insolvency and need to be fixed, and oh yeah—remember Homeland Security? Are our ports safe?  Who is going to pay for it all?  Oh, and what about the war in Iraq?  How many American soldiers are going to die tomorrow because two years ago, the Pentagon failed to anticipate and prepare for the insurgency?   But let's instead look at what baseball players were or were not doing two years ago... or better yet, let's focus our attention on that '98 season when McGwire and Sosa chased and then passed the Maris home run record.

Yes, baseball needs to be cleaned up... but Congress needs a good soaking as well.

"Hardball with Chris Matthews" will take up the Congressional hearings Thursday night at 7 p.m. /11 p.m. eastern.

Comments, questions, questions for next week's blogcast:  DShuster@MSNBC.com

March 15, 2005 | 3:30 p.m. ET

Links today:

March 14, 2005 | 4:14 p.m. ET

What about a Social Security debate? (David Shuster)

Chris Matthews is in Northern California today for a live show tonight with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.  I've been on the conference calls today... and the College Tour at Stanford University tonight (7p.m. ET/4 p.m. PST) should be terrific! 

Those of us who have stayed back in Washington, D.C. are preparing for other shows later in the week.  And one of the stories I've been working on involves the debate over Social Security.  President Bush is in the midst of a 60-day "campaign style" swing across the country to try and build support for his privatization plan.  And in the course of pulling together some video clips and research, I was struck by a must read column from MSNBC contributor Craig Crawford

Craig Crawford describes attending a few of these events in "middle America" where President Bush has what the White House describes as a "conversation."  But as Craig points out, "it is more like a conversation with himself."

Craig writes (and the video confirms) that those people who speak up in disagreement with President Bush or veer from the "script" are forcibly removed from the event. In Louisville, Mike Bailey said he got tired of the narrow "conversation," and at one point shouted out, "How about private accounts outside Social Security?" The President talked over Bailey by quickly mentioning the Kentucky economy.  The crowd picked up the president's cue to drown out the unscripted question, and a standing ovation ensued as police led Mr. Bailey from the room.

The irony, of course, is that the proposal to "privatize accounts outside Social security" has been floated on Capitol Hill. Another irony is that President Bush has repeatedly told audiences and members of Congress, "All ideas should be on the table to make this system permanently solved."  The third irony is that President Bush is capable of handling tough questions. And he has often been at his best when forced to respond to sharp criticism or different points of view.  (I'm thinking of more than a few press conferences, including those on his recent trip to Europe.) 

I'm not certain whether these Social Security events were the president's idea or the idea of his advisors.  But it's hard to see how stifling any discussion or normal conversation is going to get the nation closer to solving the Social Security problem.  If the White House is confident in its plans, that confidence and logic will come shining through under tough questioning. And that give and take might actually change the minds of those who aren't sure. 

But as it stands, the straight jacket approach that President Bush is bringing to these events seems to offer little to those who have serious questions... except, of course, to remind everybody this is not a White House that welcomes serious debate. 

Comments, Questions, Questions for the blogcast:  DShuster@MSNBC.com

March 11, 2005 | 9:40 p.m. ET

Freedom Tower politics (David Shuster)

The blogs we've been posting on the Freedom Tower continue to generate a huge number of e-mails.  Every day, I've been receiving  articles and stories detailing a host of new engineering problems associated with the current plan for lower manhattan.  [ Blog: Freedom Tower Vs. Twin Towers ; Blog: Rebuild the Twin Towers ]

The latest issue concerns a plan by Governor Pataki to sink an eight lane street beneath the proposed Freedom Tower park.There are two problems: First, Verizon says it would need to relocate a massive amount of underground telecom gear in order to clear a path for the tunnel.  (Verizon says this move could delay the entire project for two years.)  Secondly, the proposed underground construction project would be akin to Boston's "big dig."  Only this time, the chaos and mess would be in Lower Manhattan.

I could go on and on.  It seems likely that this Freedom Tower project is going to keep a hole in the Manhattan skyline (and thrill Al-Qaeda) for at least a decade.  Many of you have said that construction on "newer, stronger, and taller twin towers" should have already begun.  To all of you who have been wondering, "Is it too late to scuttle the freedom tower and rebuild the twin towers?"  the answer is clearly "No." 

One of my contacts recently sent me a copy of the Environmental Impact Statement done a year ago in lower Manhattan.  The 30-chapter volume refers to the Freedom Tower  as the Proposed Action.  But in Chapter 23, the EIS examines a "restoration alternative."  This alternative is to "rebuild the Twin Towers."  In other words, the environmental impact study for rebuilding the twin towers has already been conducted... a crucial first step. It's also worth noting that the public architectural blueprints and models for a new Twin Towers (architect Ken Gardner at makenynyagain.com) are more detailed than the public blueprints and models for the Freedom Tower put forward by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation.

Putting all of that aside though, there is a factor that I'm convinced will soon come into play... presidential politics.  New York Governor George Pataki (who has always backed the LMDC and the Freedom Tower) has made no secret of his 2008 presidential ambitions.  And on the face of it, Pataki could be a formidable candidate.   But imagine what will happen if John McCain holds a news conference, discusses the ongoing problems with the Freedom Tower, speaks about the need for America to stand tall, not weak, and declares that nothing is acceptable other than stronger, taller, Twin Towers.  "Under this scenario," a political strategist told me, "Pataki would be dead, absolutely dead."  Now imagine if Hillary Rodham Clinton is the first to hold such a news conference.  As everybody in the U.S. Senate knows, Mrs. Clinton is preparing for a possible 2008 run by moving to the center, bolstering her standing on red state values issues, and looking for ways to demonstrate leadership and "toughness" on foreign policy issues.  On the issue of terrorism, what would be "tougher" than bashing George Pataki's Freedom Tower and demanding, in the name of true freedom from our enemies, that the Twin Towers be rebuilt.

So, where do the possible 2008 presidential contenders stand? 

John McCain, I've been told, "is not considering this issue right now."  But, I was drawn to the words "right now."

Hillary Rodham Clinton, according to her spokesman, "has not taken a stand on the Freedom project or on the twin towers.  The Senator believes lower Manhattan should be rebuilt."   Hmmm.  That is not an endorsement of the Freedom Tower. And given that Mrs. Clinton is one of the senators from New York, her withholding of any Freedom Tower endorsement, and her absence from all Freedom Tower events, is revealing.

Will presidential politics be the issue that ignites this debate? How nervous should George Pataki be right now?  Who would win this fight?

Comments/ Questions/ Questions for the next blog cast:  DShuster@MSNBC.com

By the way, for those of you who saw last week's blog cast and were angry with my display of the "Michigan victors" ring tone... you will be happy to know I was recently put in my place by my five year old nephew in California.  One day this week to kindergarten, he proudly wore the "M" baseball cap I gave him recently.  The teacher asked what the "M" stood for... and my nephew said, "The Oakland A's." 


March 11, 2005 | 2:54 p.m. ET

Next week is "Tough Guy" week on Hardball

On Monday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger stops by Hardball College Tour on location at Stanford University. ( Click here for more info .)

On Tuesday, Clint Eastwood joins 'Hardball' to talk about his Oscar-winning film "Million Dollar Baby," Hollywood, culture, and politics.

It's a can't miss week!

March 7, 2005 | 5:42 p.m. ET

More questions than answers in friendly fire incident (David Shuster)

Last Friday, when I first heard that the Italian journalist being freed by Iraqi insurgents had been shot by U.S. forces, I was shocked.  In January, I traveled that very same road that connects Baghdad with the International airport.  And while attacks on U.S. convoys and roadside bombs are common, friendly fire doesn't happy frequently. There are a series of checkpoints, and you can't get very close to any roadblock without having to navigate past a series of blast walls, security guards, and U.S. troops.

As information started to trickle out though, it didn't look so shocking after all. The incident happened at 9 p.m. at night. The road was under curfew (which means only military convoys and cars with "special permission" are allowed to travel on the road.)  And the Italians had decided to make the trip themselves without a U.S. military convoy or escort. Furthermore, the incident didn't happen at one of the regular checkpoints along the road.  It happened at a temporary road block set up by a military convoy.  The location of these "temporary roadblocks" on the airport road changes each night.  And on this particular night, the convoy involved members of the 3rd infantry division who had been in Iraq for only a few weeks.

When I was in Baghdad, everybody knew the basic ground rules for approaching U.S. forces.  First, you don't even think about driving within 100 meters of a military convoy.  (That's why there are often horrific traffic jams... the convoys don't always move very fast and all cars hang back to avoid any misunderstanding.) Second, when it comes to permanent or temporary military checkpoints, you are supposed to stay back the 100 meters and only approach after you've been waved towards the soldiers.

Now, imagine the situation last Friday evening: The Italians know from their top security agent in Baghdad that Giuliana Sgrena is about to be let go.  The Italian government has a plane ready and waiting at the Baghdad airport. Segrena is picked up by the security chief, who calls the Prime Minister's office in Rome to say that Segrena has been released. The Prime Minister starts making plans for a big arrival party that night in Rome.

Meanwhile back in Baghdad, the car carrying Sgrena (and the triumphant security chief)  gets through the first two checkpoints.  It's another mile or so before the final main checkpoint, half a mile short of the terminal. Remember, they were traveling on the most heavily ambushed road in the world... there are dozens of villages 50 meters to the side where insurgents can operate with impunity, and it is night time, so, you aren't exactly going for a slow Sunday drive.  They also weren't expecting any kind of U.S. military checkpoint or road block at the place— and they suddenly saw one. And at that point, some young American soldiers (who have been Iraq for only a few weeks) see a lone vehicle hurtling towards them at 50 mph.  The soldiers have been told repeatedly about all of the car bombs and attacks along the Baghdad road. They know how easy it is for insurgents to get to the road in between the checkpoints.  Maybe the soldiers have a few seconds to flash a light or fire a warning shot.  Maybe they don't. But neither the Italians nor the American soldiers were expecting to see the other at the point where they met.  It was a disaster waiting to happen.

Why were the Italians in such a rush to get to the Baghdad airport? Did the U.S. military get a warning from the Italians about the departure?  Was that information passed along to U.S. soldiers manning the temporary checkpoint?  At this moment, there seem to be more questions than answers.  But, we will talk about some of that tonight on Hardball 7 p.m. ET /11 p.m. PST.

Comments/Questions:  DShuster@msnbc.com

March 7, 2005 | 4:36 p.m. ET

Al Gore won't run for president in 2008 (Chris Matthews)

The 2008 Presidential campaign will not include Al Gore. I'm reporting tonight that the former Vice President and 2000 Democratic Presidential nominee will not run for President. I've been given this scoop from a perfect source who informed me that the purpose of this disclosure at this time is to end speculation about a campaign that will never occur.

So, now that Al Gore is out... what does this mean for the likely 2008 battle between Hillary and John Kerry? 

March 7, 2005 | 4:52 p.m. ET

Monday blog reads

—Jesamyn Go, Hardball web producer

March 2, 2005| 11:51 a.m. ET

Rising D.C. building symbolizes government waste (David Shuster)

If you visit our nation's Capitol building these days, you can't miss the gigantic construction pit on the building's east side.  Someday, this pit will be the Capitol Visitor Center. But already, the CVC has become yet another memorial to government waste, misplaced priorities, and the ridiculous self-importance of our members of Congress.

The Government Accounting Office is now reporting that the costs of the CVC will soon rise to $559 million.  This is more than twice the original price tag of $265 million.  And remember, Congress isn't building a fancy new sports stadium, library, or concert hall.  They are constructing an underground visitors center!

But it turns out this construction boondoggle, which has already destroyed crucial parts of the historic 130-year-old capitol landscaping, is not just for security. The Visitors Center will include a 600-person dining facility, a large exhibition gallery, two film theaters, and gift shops.  The last time I checked, the Capitol building already had a dining facility, lots of exhibits, and gift shops. 

In their self serving orgy, members of Congress also added $70 million to the visitors center budget for television/radio studios, reception rooms, and "hideaway offices" for members who need to escape from their regular offices.   I'm not sure what any of that has to do with security.  But I know it has a lot to do with narcissism.  The fact is, the Capitol building already has television/radio studios, reception rooms, and "hideaway offices."

How did all of this happen?  For decades, this proposed visitors center went nowhere. Some lawmakers hated the idea of forcing the American people to enter the Capitol building by walking underground through a subterranean type of security cave.  Other lawmakers argued the project wasn't necessary because the capitol police, with their magnetometers at the building doors, handled all of the tourists and security issues just fine.  In the late '90s, Congress refused to drop the idea and brought it to the attention of "private donors."  They apparently didn't like the Capitol Visitor Center very much either.  Because while the goal was $100 million, the private donors coughed up just $39 million.

Then came 9/11. And under the guise of protecting the legislative branch, Congress decided to fully fund the project with your money.  The rest, of course, is history. 

Unfortunately, it's a history that will forever be associated with cost overruns and wasteful spending.  Normally, these are the kinds of issues that merit a congressional hearing or two.  But, since Congress would have to criticize itself... you guessed it— the number of hearings into this debacle is a big fat zero.

Yes, your taxpayer dollars are at work to the tune of $559 million.  And there are still questions:  Will lobbyists have to enter through the Visitors Center or will they be whisked in the old fashioned way? And what does it mean when our lawmakers are "inaccessible"?

So remember, when you approach the Capitol building in the next few years, you may find yourself experiencing the unsettling feeling associated with walking through a crypt.  But the fact is, common sense on Capitol hill got buried a long time ago.

Questions/Comments:  DShuster@MSNBC.com

February 25, 2005 | 6:22 p.m. ET

Rebuild the Twin Towers (David Shuster)

Your opinion was clear, resolute, and overwhelming. This week, when we asked which World Trade Center replacement you prefer in NYC, 80 percent of you chose the “New Twin Towers” design pictured below and only 20 percent picked the “Freedom Tower” selected by Governor George Pataki’s Lower Manhattan Development Corporation.

Nearly 3,500 of you participated in our online poll. And while online polls are not “scientific,” the results, I believe, are important. Ground Zero is hallowed ground. And the fact is, an overwhelming percentage of you hate the current plans.

Ken Gardner
A new Twin Towers?
Some of you took issue with the Freedom Tower design itself— Brendan called it a “decapitated pyramid with a chicken coop on top.” James noted only 70 stories will be occupied and added, “even if you count the miserable birdcage... the building will soon be eclipsed as the world’s tallest.”  Others mentioned the “awful political cronyism.”

I received numerous requests to keep digging through the financial contributions from Ron Lauder (a friend of Daniel Libeskind) to Governor Pataki.  And a few of you spoke about the “lack of excitement” after a separate architectural firm took over Libeskind’s original design and made some dramatic changes.

Most of you, however, said the issue is that the Twin Towers were an American icon and must be rebuilt:

  • Steve wrote, “The greatest memorial to honor the thousands of lives lost is to rebuild the Twin Towers, stronger and mightier than ever.” 
  • Rick wrote, “Anything less is a memorial to fear.” 
  • Rich wrote, “My friend’s father was an FDNY Lieutenant (Lt. Vincent G. Halloran) who died when the buildings collapsed. He has told me that his father would want the towers rebuilt; that not rebuilding them is a defeat.”
  • Jen wrote, “I lost a dozen people in the Trade Center. Most were friends and former colleagues at Marsh & McLennan that took Tower 1’s direct hit. No one I know wants the Freedom Tower and everyone I know overwhelmingly wants the Towers back.”
  • Jack wrote, “A new Twin Towers is elegant in its simplicity. They knocked it down so let’s rebuild it, taller, stronger, better.”
  • Mike wrote, “This is important, this is our Iwo Jima flag.”
  • Jeff wrote, “We need to show the terrorists that although they might be able to knock us down once, we will only come back bigger and stronger.”

I could go on and on. I’ve received thousands of e-mails expressing the overwhelming desire that the WTC Twin Towers “rise again.” Many of you asked, “What can we do to make this happen?” 

I am a journalist, not an activist or organizer.  But I can report to you something that my friend Joe Trippi has been noticing and writing a lot about lately— Those of you on the Internet are gaining power and influence very quickly. You have the ability to organize, mobilize, inform, and take action in ways that have fundamentally changed American politics. The groups that want to rebuild the Twin Towers are out there ( makenynyagain.com) and the people who support the “Freedom Tower” are organized as well ( renewnyc.com). But, this is a mismatch. And everybody knows it (including, I’m told, a 2008 Presidential candidate).

The question is how much damage does Governor Pataki and the LMDC want to inflict upon themselves before they wake up to reality? Americans, and especially New Yorkers, want their beloved city back.

Questions/Comments:  DShuster@MSNBC.com

February 25, 2005 | 3:59 p.m. ET

Credit is due (Mike Moran)

In my blog Sword and Pen, and many, many others dedicated to the expansion and protection of free speech, press freedoms and the right to dissent, George W. Bush has often played the foil. But his decision to mix it up publicly with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the need for a free media and other democratic rights deserves to be loudly applauded.   

Cynics will see irony in this (when don't they?). Some will note that, even as Bush chides the Kremlin's chief for making it almost impossible to be an independent journalist in today's Russia, his own Justice Department is threatening to put American reporters in jail for refusing to divulge the source of a leak from within his own White House— a leak that blew the cover of a CIA “asset,” and possibly put at risk the lives of dozens of people she met with over the course of a long spying career.

Fair enough, point made. But what Bush did to Putin on Thursday in Slovakia belongs in another category. No one who watched the Russian president forced to defend his crackdowns on freedom and the rule of law could possibly miss the fact that Putin was floored and humiliated. (Take a look at the helpful transcript that The New York Times ran today). The European Union's leaders, who have their own reasonable gripes about Bush, nonetheless could take a lesson from him on handling Russia, which the EU still treats as though it is bravely moving forward with democratic reforms. As Freedom House noted in December, downgrading Russia from “partly free” to “Not Free” in its annual survey of the world, Putin's democratic credentials are in tatters.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, Bush had been exceedingly accommodating to Putin, in part because the U.S. needed Russia 's nod to put bases in former Soviet Central Asia, but also because Russia's own intelligence agencies have enormous experience in both the Middle East and Afghanistan. Why he chose this trip to get real is uncertain. But his new attitude is a welcomed one, and even if Putin doesn't view it that way, it's bound to be viewed as such by ordinary Russians, too.

Michael Moran, MSNBC.com’s senior correspondent, is a board member of the Overseas Press Club and writes its press freedom blog, Sword and Pen.  

Comments?  E-mail: bravenewworld@msnbc.com

February 24, 2005 | 4:22 p.m. ET

Gannon/Guckert (David Shuster)

Many of you have been following the intriguing story of man who claimed to be a reporter and who covered the white house using a fake name.  James Guckert, previously known as Jeff Gannon, sat down for an interview with NBC's Campbell Brown .  And for those of you who missed the "Today Show," we are going to repackage some of the clips tonight on Hardball (7pm & 11pm ET).

During the interview, Guckert said his White House access was not a conspiracy but rather the result of a simple request.  "I asked to come— they allowed me to come," said Guckert, "and apparently there isn't a very high threshold as far as somebody's personal life." 

That, of course, is an understatement.  If the White House had done the kind of FBI background check required of regular reporters, the press office would have discovered that Guckert is linked to several pornographic web sites.   uckert confirmed these links in his NBC interview.  But when asked about advertising himself on the web as a $200/hour gay male escort, Guckert said, "I can not go into those specifics." 

As far as using an alias, Guckert said his real name is "difficult to pronounce."  Huh?   I heard him say "Guckert" several times during Campbell's interview and it didn't sound particularly challenging to me.  

Guckert's handling of this story, to use a phrase of his, certainly seems to have been "divorced from reality."  When this scandal first broke, he gave an interview to a cable news anchor and said this was all about politics (as opposed to Guckert's briefing room softballs.)  Then, Guckert  gave another interview to Editor and Publisher magazine and said he would no longer talk to the media. Five days later, when reporters stopped calling him, Guckert complained to the very same magazine about the media silence. Guckert has also said he may to sue liberal interest groups that revealed his Web site activities. But Guckert hasn't denied what's been written about that stuff.

In any case, Guckert said that whenever he went to the White House, he would go to the gate and show his driver's license with his real name "James Guckert."  Presidential Press Secretary Scott McClellan has said he knew Guckert was changing to "Jeff Gannon"  once inside the White House (despite all of the clips of McClellan saying "go ahead, Jeff" instead of "go ahead, James.")  But McClellan has added that "He, like anyone else,showed that he was representing a news organization that published regularly."

The problem is, Talon News (a collection of Web sites run by Texas Republicans) wasn't formed and didn't start publishing until after Guckert had already started attending White House press briefings two years ago.  So, this story is not over yet.  Stay tuned.

Questions/Comments:  DShuster@MSNBC.com

February 24, 2005 | 12:16 p.m. ET

USANext chief executive, on approving the ad and the real stance of the AARP on the issues

Charlie Jarvis, chief executive of USA Next, a lobbying group that supports President Bush‘s Social Security plan and  U.S. Congressman Charles Rangel of New York had a heated discussion on 'Hardball' last night over the controversy on USANext’s Web ad attacking the AARP. Below is a partial transcript. Read the full transcript here .

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Is the White House is using scare tactics to get Americans to support the president‘s Social Security plan. 

REP. CHARLES RANGEL (D), NEW YORK:  No, These ads are scurrilous, and the American people are intelligent enough to know that there‘s no connection between what they‘re talking about the president trying to derail and dismantle the Social Security system.  It‘s ads like this and people that put them out that really give politicians a bad name. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, let me to go Charlie Jarvis. Do you believe, as the leader of the group that paid for that ad, do you believe that AARP, the American Association of Retired People, Retired Persons, is for gay marriage, is against the troops, as the Web site suggests? 

CHARLIE JARVIS, CHAIRMAN & CEO, USA NEXT:  Well, Chris, the AARP is the planet‘s largest left liberal lobbying organization. 

MATTHEWS:  Did you say that when they were backing the president on prescription drugs? 

JARVIS:  We dragged them kicking and screaming into that decision. 

MATTHEWS:  Why are they left-wing when so many people are members of them?  I didn‘t know they had a point of view politically. 

JARVIS:  They‘ve had a point of view for the last four decades, as a matter of fact, on almost every different issue you can imagine—they‘re the ones that created the tax on Social Security benefits.  And we found in our surveys that most of their members don‘t know what they‘ve stood for over the years. 

MATTHEWS:  What about the gay marriage issue?  How does that relate to retired people? 

JARVIS:  Well, because they‘re the planet‘s largest left liberal organization, which is literally worshipped, adored and glorified by politicians like Charlie Rangel, who, by the way, he stands up clearly for what he believes in.  He is a self-avowed liberal. 

AARP needs to say that straightforwardly, that they are, too.  Let their members know.]

***** 

MATTHEWS:  Charles Rangel, Mr. ranking member, what do you make of AARP?  Is it a left-wing group? 

RANGEL:  Actually, I can see why some people would hate it, because they do support entitlements.  They do support Medicare.  They do support Social Security.  And since they‘re out there ostensibly to protect the older people, I can see the connection.  But it is really a stretch if they‘re going to connect this up with homosexuality and hating the troops.  But having seen work that they‘ve done on Kerry, I guess there‘s just no bottom as to what they would do. 

But, you know, the president, if you lay down with dogs, you have got to pick up fleas. 

MATTHEWS:  Who are the dogs, Mr. Rangel? 

RANGEL:  Anybody...

JARVIS:  And who are the fleas?

RANGEL:  Well, listen, anybody that is concerned about Social Security wants to hear the facts.  If people start talking about same-sex marriages and being against the military and all of these things, anyone would know that they have no substance. 

And I think the president really does himself a disservice, because issues like Social Security and changing the tax system screams for a bipartisan‘s approach.  If they intend to beat up on people by calling them “liberals” and “left-wing” and supporting homosexuals, then what they‘re saying is that the president will never be able to get a live Democrat to work with him.  All they‘ve got now, they think, is Pat Moynihan, and he disagreed with them. 

*****

MATTHEWS:  We asked, by the way, AARP to come on this show.  We hope they will come on. 

Do you want this fight to be hot? 

JARVIS:  Yes.  We think that the most important thing you can do—and Charlie Rangel should know this on the House side—is, have an open, honest, dynamic, energetic debate.  We want AARP to tell where they stand on issues. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, why do you bring in gay marriage in and attacking the troops, if you‘re caring about the issues of seniors? 

JARVIS:  That was a tiny little ad on one Web site. 

MATTHEWS:  Who approved it?  Did you? 

JARVIS:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Why did you approve it?

JARVIS:  Because I wanted to test to see how long it would take for the liberal blogs in this country to go berserk over a single image. 

MATTHEWS:  To what effect?

JARVIS:  To the effect that, last night, by 5:00, the blogs were telling people to call TV stations and telling them to remove the ad that didn‘t exist on TV. 

MATTHEWS:  Who is O‘Neill Marketing? 

JARVIS:  O‘Neill Marketing is a list company, a list rental company.

MATTHEWS:  And where are they located? 

JARVIS:  They‘re located in Fairfax. 

MATTHEWS:  Where are you located?

JARVIS:  In the building where we are, yes.

MATTHEWS:  How close is their office to your office? 

JARVIS:  Three floors. 

MATTHEWS:  Three floors?

JARVIS:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  And what is your connection? 

JARVIS:  No connection at all.  When I first came in, 2001, USA, then known as United Seniors Association, did own...

MATTHEWS:  And what is O‘Neill known for, advertising firm? 

JARVIS:  Basically just direct mail list rentals.  That‘s it.  They‘re not an advertising firm. 

RANGEL:  I don‘t know what liberals ever have done to Charles.  But, you know, we got to take the heat out of this.  Social Security is a very important issue.  And to frighten people, to say that the system is going bankrupt is like saying the United States is going bankrupt. 

February 23, 2005 | 4:00 p.m. ET

Doug Wead: Relationships more important than history

In a note to MSNBC “Hardball” anchor Chris Matthews, Doug Wead, who exposed secret recordings with President Bush , says he wants to get the tapes "back to the president to whom they belong." The former aide says he “has come to realize that personal relationships are more important than history.” Click here to read more of what Doug Wead wrote Chris.

February 22, 2005 | 6:52 p.m. ET

Freedom Tower versus new Twin Towers (David Shuster)

This week, New York City is rolling out its bid for the 2012 Olympic games.  The bid includes proposed sporting venues, hotels, housing complexes, and office space in midtown Manhattan, New Jersey, and many of the city's boroughs.  But lower Manhattan, the part of the city most recognizable around the world (until terrorists brought down the Twin Towers on 9/11) is totally and completely ignored.  The proposed replacement known as the Freedom Tower is not mentioned or shown anywhere in the city's Olympic materials. 

Talk about a lack of pride. 88 nations lost citizens in the WTC attacks on 9/11.  Can you imagine an Olympic games 11 years after 9/11, where America's message to the world is, "Our most sacred piece of property is not even worth a mention or visit?" 

If New York's Olympic bid committee is ashamed of the proposed Freedom Tower, the committee is not alone.  One year ago, Donald Trump called the proposed tower "a 50 story building that looks like it's 120 stories."  "It's a skeleton," Trump said, "and that's the last thing we need in New York is a skeleton representing the World Trade Center." 

One of the workers from the WTC restaurant "Windows on the World" said that in memory of his colleagues and friends who were trapped and died on the 102nd floor...  there is "no way" he will ever run a "Windows on the World" that sits on any building's 68th floor. (The "occupied space" of the Freedom Tower will be at least 30 stories shorter than the WTC towers.) 

And just to remind you, Rudy Giuliani (who has been notably absent from every Freedom Tower event) has privately told friends he is "embarassed" by the design.  Mayor Michael Bloomberg is said to have privately described the freedom tower a "disappointment."  And members of the NYPD and the NYFD have openly declared the proposal to be an "embarassment."

So, why is the Freedom Tower moving forward?  In going back through the selection process pushed forward by New York Governor George Pataki, I've been struck by a number of irregularities.  All six of the final proposed WTC replacement designs were widely described by media articles two years ago as a "disappointment."  Polls suggested the least disappointing of the final six was a scaffolding type rendition of the Twin Towers by an architect named Rafael Vignoli.  But after secret meetings involving the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, Vignoli's design still came in as the "runner up" in the final selection.  How did the Freedom Tower beat Vignoli's design?  One of my reporting colleagues tells a chilling story about having set up an interview with Vignoli, who at first seemed eager to talk about his "view" of the selection process. The next day, just before the interview was supposed to take place, the architect's secretary called and said something along the lines of, "Mr. Vignoli is satisifed to have made it this far and has decided he will not be doing any interviews."  Click.  What changed? Mr. Vignoli and his associates are still not talking to reporters.

But never mind all of that for the moment... last week's blog generated an avalanche of e-mails.   A few of you suggested I was too hard on Libeskind's Freedom Tower design, given that he offers the latest architectural and artistic principles and that "every building" faces some engineering challenges.  Maybe so.  However, most of you said the real issue is that the Twin Towers should be rebuilt.  Anything less, you suggested, would be a victory for Al-Qaeda and a permanent shame.   

Peter Walukiewicz wrote that he lost friends in the WTC on 9/11 and that "rebuilding the Twin Towers is the ultimate tribute to our fallen heroes... I can't think of a more powerfrul affirmation of our strength and resolve." 

Tracy DiNardo, who lost a friend in the NYFD on 9/11, said "the towers should be built again as they were before with all necessary updates." 

And one Hardblogger reader suggested, "Imagine the pride that would sweep across this nation as a modern, stronger, and taller version of the Twin Towers started rising again in the sky over Manhattan..."   

The image of a new Twin Towers, slightly off-set from where the old ones stood, has already been embraced by several architects and designers.  My question is, what do you think?  Take a look at the photos for a "Twin Tower" design and compare it to the design planned for the "Freedom Tower."

"Twin Tower" design

Ken Gardner

Click here for the design planned for the "Freedom Tower."

Which building design would you prefer to see in NYC?  You can vote here on this blog page.  And I'll update you on the results... 

In the meantime, there is a lot we've been uncovering about the politics behind the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation— the group in charge of Ground Zero. I'll have more on that aspect of this story later in the week.  Stay tuned.

Questions/Comments:  DShuster@MSNBC.com

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