updated 2/25/2005 10:36:30 AM ET 2005-02-25T15:36:30

Guest: Al Sharpton, Susan Molinari, Wayne Slater, Dana Milbank, Richard Holbrooke, Richard Perle, David Ignatius

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Pope John Paul II was rushed back to the hospital for surgery.  A tracheotomy was performed late today and the Vatican confirms it was successful. 

Meanwhile, President Bush dukes it out with Russian President Vladimir Putin before the world press. 

Let‘s play HARDBALL. 

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews. 

President Bush met with Russian President Vladimir Putin today in Slovakia, the last stop of his world democracy tour.  But what did he get out of the meeting?  We‘ll have more on that in a minute.

But, first, the latest from the pope‘s health. 

NBC‘s Charles Sabine is in Vatican city. 

CHARLES SABINE, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Yes.  Good evening from Vatican City, Chris, where the significant, but short message did come from within the city behind me from the press spokesman, Navarro-Valls, that indeed Pope John Paul II did this evening undergo a tracheotomy operation at the Gemelli Hospital. 

Now, this is an operation which is extremely uncomfortable, but we understand not life-threatening, but very significant, because it involves the puncturing of a hole in Pope John Paul II‘s throat and the insertion of a tube to assist him in his breathing.  Now, this follows this morning the rushing to that hospital of Pope John Paul after he missed a significant meeting at the Vatican, complaining of the same symptoms that he was suffering from earlier this month, the flu-like symptoms that were giving him difficulties in breathing. 

We understand that those difficulties, of course, are accentuated by the fact that Pope John Paul suffers from Parkinson‘s disease, which makes that breathing difficulty—makes those difficulties possibly lead to pneumatic problems and the chances of him getting fluid on the lung. 

Now, we understand that this tracheotomy has been successful.  Doctors at the hospital have confirmed that it took about 30 minutes and was a success.  The pope is going to spend the night in that hospital.  And we‘ll hear more from the hospital and the Vatican about the pope‘s health tomorrow morning local time—Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Charles, isn‘t the Vatican notorious for not putting out information about the pontiff‘s health? 

SABINE:  Yes, they are extremely backward in doing that.  They are very reticent to say anything unless it is absolutely necessary. 

And indeed, throughout the day, they said that they would not be releasing any more information until tomorrow, even when there were rumors spreading throughout the city on the Italian media here that this operation was going to take place.  So, I think that perhaps what we‘ve seen here is one of two things. 

One is, this operation was not expected and the Vatican was taken a little bit by surprise and decided they would have to come clean about it and they were able of course to say that it was successful.  But also I think, quite possibly, it is a sign of the modern media here, that there were so many leaks from this hospital, which were racing around the world courtesy of the Italian media here in Rome. 

But I think that the Vatican thought that it just simply had to put the issue straight and talk to those one billion Catholics, who are, of course, so concerned about the holy father‘s health—Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much, NBC‘s Charles Sabine, who is at the Vatican. 

SABINE:  Thanks, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  President Bush and President Putin signed a deal today to accelerate security upgrades at Russia‘s poorly guarded nuclear facilities.  President Bush voiced his concern over an erosion of democracy in Russia.  And in a tense, tense joint news conference, Putin reaffirmed his commitment to democracy. 

NBC White House correspondent Norah O‘Donnell is with the president and has this report. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NORAH O‘DONNELL, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Good evening, Chris. 

From Bratislava today, a remarkable summit between President Bush and President Putin, who met at this medieval castle overlooking the Danube for nearly 2 ½ hours.  Many had expected this summit would be very tense, but, instead, it turned out to be very warm. 

Of course, we know President Bush for the past week, while he‘s been on this European tour, has publicly scolded Putin for his rollback on democratic reforms.  But, today, when they came before the cameras, it was very warm between the two of them.  They announced that they had reached a joint U.S.-Russia agreement to curb the threat of nuclear proliferation, concern about loose nukes in Russia and also shouldered-fired missiles.  They also said that they reached a common understanding on Iran and North Korea. 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  We agreed that Iran should not have a nuclear weapon.  And I appreciate Vladimir‘s understanding on that issue.  We had a very constructive dialogue about how to achieve that common goal.  We agreed that North Korea should not have a nuclear weapon. 

O‘DONNELL:  Still, a senior administration official said that this disagreement about what Iran intends to do with the nuclear fuel that it is buying from Russia—quote—“never came up in their meetings.”

That said, they did say that they talked about democracy and the values of democracy, President Bush concerned that there has been a curb on free press, a crackdown on dissent.  But President Bush saying today that the most important statement he heard from Putin was that he declared his absolute support for democracy and that Russia is not turning back. 

Putin echoed that today, saying very clearly, it would be impossible to return to totalitarianism.  They‘re continue to talk to these two leaders.  The U.S. says clearly it‘s going to watch what‘s going on in Russia.  And these two leaders will meet again on May 9 in Moscow, as Russia plans to celebrate the 60th anniversary of V-Day—Chris.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much, Norah O‘Donnell.    

David Ignatius is an associate editor and syndicated columnist with “The Washington Post” and Richard Perle is the chairman of the Defense Advisory Board.  He‘s currently a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. 

Richard, are we safer today because of that meeting? 

RICHARD PERLE, FORMER ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE:  Well, it sounds as if some progress was made on a very important issue, which is making sure that the very substantial quantity of nuclear weapons and nuclear material in Russia is appropriately safeguarded, because if that were to fall into the wrong hands, it could, of course, be catastrophic. 

MATTHEWS:  Because it is ready-made weaponry, right?  You don‘t have to develop a nuclear weapon if you can steal one or buy one. 

PERLE:  In some cases, it is ready-made weaponry.  In other cases, it is nuclear material that can be fashioned into a weapon or used in other ways, with very dangerous...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  How good are the Russians at keeping that closet closed? 

PERLE:  Well, we don‘t know. 

What we do know that is that standards that we require, the standards of record keeping, physical protection and the like are ahead of Russian standards.  So, we have been working with them now for many years, thanks to some very good legislation sponsored by Senators Nunn and Lugar some years ago, to try to contain, protect and manage the Russian stockpile. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to you, David Ignatius.  Congratulations on your tour.  I wish we could talk to you about Lebanon, great pieces on that.

Let‘s talk about this democracy issue.  We don‘t have a perfect democracy in this country.  It cost millions of dollars to run for office.  Rich people tend to run for office or people that get money from people who have money.  Are we—do you think the Russians buy the fact that we‘re in a superior position with regard to democracy and we can tell them how to become better democrats? 

DAVID IGNATIUS, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  Well, I think that Putin himself is hardly a democrat.  He comes out of a security service background.  That strongman approach seems to be working for him. 

And I think, Chris, our ideas of democracy don‘t always port easily the other societies.  And right now, democracy doesn‘t seem to be the first issue on most Russians‘ minds.  They are in a very nationalistic mood.  They like Putin‘s toughness.  We regret it.  And I think it‘s a real setback for Russia. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Do they feel, the Russian people, that they needed to have this tough guy at the top because they‘ve missed him since the days of Brezhnev? 

IGNATIUS:  Well, the country really became a mess in the Yeltsin years.  We have to remember that corruption was absolutely rampant, that people felt this great country that they had grown up in was falling apart. 

So, it was obvious that somebody was going to come in and tighten things up, consolidate power.  You can argue it could have been much worse.  We could have had a much scarier kind of person, a Zhirinovsky, anti-Semitic kind autocrat. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.  But it is a rightist government, rather than a leftist government.  Can we use those terms? 

IGNATIUS:  I would call it a stabilizing, in a sense conservative government.  They‘re trying to hold on to what they‘ve got. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

IGNATIUS:  It‘s basically a government of security service types who came up through the KGB and what Russians call the organs, a great term they use, the organs of state power.  And that‘s the way it‘s behaved. 

MATTHEWS:  Senators McCain and Lieberman want to put pressure on Russia to move in the direction of more freedom. 

They‘re saying we should even talk about getting them removed from the industrialized nations, the Group of Eight.  Do you think that‘s too tough, Richard? 

PERLE:  No, I don‘t think it‘s too tough. 

MATTHEWS:  Will it work? 

PERLE:  I do think there‘s been a deterioration in the openness of Russian society.  Putin has been consolidating power, changing some elective offices to appointed ones. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

PERLE:  Tremendous pressure on the press.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... local legislatures get to pick the executive, right? 

PERLE:  Well, he has been centralizing authority that was local. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.

PERLE:  He‘s taking power back to the center. 

And the erosion of the free press in Russia is a matter of real concern.  Virtually, the entire press now is dominated by the official state press.

MATTHEWS:  What are they trying to hide?  And why did those two journalists speak up today and criticize President Bush for they call people getting fired in the United States?  Who are they talking about? 

PERLE:  I don‘t know. 

But if they believe that the fact that some journalist was fired in the U.S. somehow equates with what has been going on in Russia, something is dreadfully wrong. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.  Who is pushing this misinformation that the United States has a president who can get people fired in the media?  I guess it‘s possible he could pressure on some friendly news organ, theoretically.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  But I‘ve never heard of it.

IGNATIUS:  He fired Dan Rather.  You know that very well, Chris. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  I‘ve never heard of this happening, to be honest with you. 

IGNATIUS:  It just was a loony moment.  The person was obviously put up to this question.  It was just silly.

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

Well, let me ask you about the democracy question, because it is a hot issue with you, I can imagine, Richard.  Is this like a return to Jackson-Vanick, where the United States is—some people in Congress, in this John McCain and Joseph Lieberman, a Republican and a Democrat, are saying it‘s time to take off the kid gloves with Russia.  If they want to benefit from Western economic ties and free trade, they have to play by our rules, which is democracy?

PERLE:  Well, they‘ve already done themselves real damage. 

The way in which a Russian businessman, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, has been taken into custody, jailed, and his company essentially taken from him and from his shareholders, including American shareholders, has had a chilling effect. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  What was the motive for the government to do that over there in Russia? 

PERLE:  I think they feared that he had political ambitions and might exert political influence. 

MATTHEWS:  Everybody wants to know this, you first, Richard.  Do you think the president was tough enough with Putin today? 

PERLE:  I think he was tough before he arrived, which was very important. 

MATTHEWS:  On the issue of nuclear arms and keeping control of them, keeping the door locked, and on the issue of more democratization in Russia, not less?

PERLE:  On the nuclear question, we‘re working together.

On democratization, he was tough before in what he said publicly and I suspect that he was quite tough in the private discussions. 

MATTHEWS:  Will the Russians stop dealing with the Syrians? 

PERLE:  Well, they‘ve now sold missiles to Syria.  They will never get paid for those.  I don‘t know.  It seems to me a deliberate provocation.  And I would be surprised if the president didn‘t have some very strong words for Putin on that issue.

MATTHEWS:  Is there any way we can squeeze the Syrians into be more accommodating with regard to democracy and getting out of Lebanon through the Russian door? 

PERLE:  No.  I don‘t think we‘ll get help from the Russians, but, oddly enough, we may now get some help from the European, who were horrified at the assassination of...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I‘m sorry. 

David, you came back from a whirlwind tour around the Middle East. 

How we doing? 

IGNATIUS:  Well, some things are surprisingly breaking our way, if we can say that.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  The Lebanese are standing up to the Syrians. 

IGNATIUS:  First, I was in Baghdad last week.  The mood there is really different after the election.  The Iraqis didn‘t know they could do it.  They did it.

MATTHEWS:  Hopeful.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  They realize that they‘re really taking real steps now. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  So elections matter?

IGNATIUS:  So, that did matter.  You still have a terrible insurgency.  They don‘t know how to stop it.  The new government could be very, very disorganized. 

After that, I went to Beirut.  And I have to tell you, Chris, that what‘s happening in Lebanon, the way Lebanese are literally risking their lives after the assassination of Rafik Hariri to stand up to the Syrians and say, get out.  We suspect that you‘re responsible for the killing of Hariri.  We want you out of our country.  Amazing.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  You said it is like Hungary in ‘56 or Prague in ‘68, something like that.

IGNATIUS:  Well, you know, it‘s Beirut spring and we‘ll have to watch where it goes.

MATTHEWS:  I remember the Prague spring.  I loved it.

Anyway, thank you, David Ignatius.  Thank you, Richard Perle.

Coming up, President Bush and Russian President Putin have agreed to work together to safeguard those loose nuclear materials.  But more than three years after September 11, have they moved quickly enough?  We‘ll ask that question again of U.N. Ambassador, former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke.  He‘s going to be here.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Coming up, can America and Russia together stop nuclear material from getting into the hands of terrorists?  Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Richard Holbrooke joins us when HARDBALL returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Richard Holbrooke served as ambassador to the U.N. during the Clinton administration. 

Mr. Ambassador, why is it important to President Bush what goes on in terms of Russian democracy? 

RICHARD HOLBROOKE, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UNITED NATIONS:  There are three reasons, Chris. 

First of all, he made a stirring endorsement of democracy and liberty and freedom in his inaugural address.  And his policy in the first four years was not consistent with that in regard to Russia.  Russia got pretty much of a blank check from the Bush administration.  So today‘s meeting in Bratislava was a dramatic change from four years of U.S.-Russia relations.

Secondly, what happens inside Russia matters to the rest of the world.  It is a big, vast and chaotic country.  And third, in my mind most importantly, Russia has been meddling in its former republics, part of the former republics that were in the Soviet Union, Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Lithuania, elsewhere.  They keep trying to reassert a special relationship.  And that‘s very destabilizing.  So I think this is a big deal. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think the United States is wise to oppose what to many countries is their own sort of national manifest destiny?  For example, telling Syria they have got no role to play in Lebanon?  Telling Iran they can‘t have nuclear weapons, even though Israel has them?  Telling the Russians they can‘t have a greater Russia, a greater role in that region?  Isn‘t this what all these countries are about historically?  And is it smart for to us challenge them where their heart is? 

HOLBROOKE:  Historically, you‘ve just named areas where wars were fought over those principles.  Wars could resume again if they‘re not intervened against by the leading nations of the world.

The U.S. is the world‘s leading nation, has every reason in our own national interest to use our diplomacy, our persuasion, even the threat of economic sanctions or their implementation and in places like Iran to prevent much these situations.  When they occur, as they did in Bosnia a decade ago, all hell breaks loose and we get sucked in after the fact to stop and clean up the mess. 

So, you‘ve just named three places where there were wars.  And it would be very bad to see them resume. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you support the move by Senators McCain and Lieberman to knock Russia out of the G-8, the industrialized nation group, if it doesn‘t smarten up with regard to its own democracy? 

HOLBROOKE:  Well, it is a more nuanced position on that.  But I support it and I was with John McCain and Joe Lieberman in Munich less than two weeks ago when they laid this policy out right in front of the Russian defense minister, Sergei Ivanov, in a public meeting.  It was very tense stuff.  Ivanov didn‘t like it. 

But I think McCain and Lieberman and, I might add, the two other senators there, Lindsey Graham and Hillary Clinton, both laid out the same position. 

MATTHEWS:  What‘s the risk there? 

HOLBROOKE:  The risk is that, if you go too far, you can give the appearance that we‘re turning to the Cold War.  And nobody wants that and I‘m not advocating it, nor predicting it.

The great bad old days of the Cold War are long gone.  The Soviet Union is gone.  And Putin today reaffirmed that there are 15 independent and democratic—well, not democratic, but 15 republics, 15 nations, where there once was one.  You don‘t want to make Russia think that the world is ganging up on them.  They‘ve got enough problems. 

On the other hand, you don‘t want to leave Putin with the idea that he has got a blank check to crack down on freedom of the press, to create an autocratic strongman leadership and to mettle in what the Russians still sometimes call their historic space.  Well, it was historically their space under the czars and under Stalin and his successors. 

But it should not remain so.  These are people who are fiercely proud from Georgia to Estonia.  And they are independent countries now.  But it is very, very delicate.  And, today, for the first time, the Bush administration started to move away from those early days in 2001, well before 9/11, by the way, when George Bush famously looked into Vladimir Putin‘s soul. 

(CROSSTALK)

HOLBROOKE:  And what he saw—I don‘t know what he saw, but the rest of the world didn‘t see it. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s come back and talk to Richard Holbrooke, the former ambassador to the U.N., about these potential war fronts, Iran and Syria. 

And, later, what was really behind Doug Wead‘s decision to stop doing interviews about his taped conversations with President Bush?  “Bush‘s Brain” author Wayne Slater and “The Washington Post”‘s Dana Milbank will be here to talk about it.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with the former Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke.

Now, Mr. Ambassador, are you worried about Russian nuclear weapons getting into the hands of the terrorists? 

HOLBROOKE:  Of course.  Everyone who cares about this issue—and that should be all Americans—has that concern, I think it was terrible that the administration cut back on Nunn-Lugar legislation to stop that.  And it has to be at the forefront of our concerns. 

MATTHEWS:  Would a Mideast terrorist, someone from that part of the world who wishes us ill, would it be easier for them to get ahold of a weapon from the former Soviet Union by paying for it or stealing it or whatever, some combination, than to try to build one? 

HOLBROOKE:  Yes, without question. 

And the really scary thing, Chris, is, it may have happened already.  Porter Goss more or less admitted that in his first CIA testimony two days ago before Congress. 

MATTHEWS:  Where are you with regard to Syria and Iran?  Our demand in Syria, leave Lebanon, our demand in Iran, not go nuclear, which is the one where you would push?  Well, tell me how you look at both fronts. 

HOLBROOKE:  They‘re both essential.  And they‘re things that we have to push very aggressively. 

Could I—Chris, can I go back very briefly to the Putin issue? 

MATTHEWS:  Sure.

HOLBROOKE:  The one thing, reading the Bush-Putin press conference today, it—we have really entered a new phase in U.S.-Russian relations.  That love affair is clearly over. 

But what concerned me was inadequate attention to one point.  The Russians promised in 1999 to take their troops out of Georgia.  Those troops are almost all still there.  Georgia is a small, struggling democracy and I don‘t see how it is ever going to get the stability that that whole region needs—and look where Georgia is, right next to the arena of the greatest crisis in the world—unless it gets—regains control of two breakaway territories where Russian troops are supporting the separatists. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, for joining us today. 

Jeff Gannon managed to get credentialed for the White House briefing room, even though his name isn‘t really Jeff Gannon.  We‘ll get his side of the story when HARDBALL returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

On Sunday, Doug Wead sent shockwaves through Washington and around the world by revealing his secretly taped conversations with President Bush back when President Bush was still Texas governor.  Three days ago, Wead defended the decision because he viewed Mr. Bush as an historic figure. 

On Tuesday, however, Wead called off an appearance here on HARDBALL, telling me in an e-mail that he now believes he owes President Bush his full confidentiality and will be returning the tapes to the president.  Many of today‘s newspapers around the world carried part of the e-mail Doug Wead sent me.

And we‘re joined right now by two journalists who cover President Bush, “Washington Post” reporter Dana Milbank.

And we begin with Wayne Slater, columnist for “The Dallas Morning News” and co-author of “Bush‘s Brain,” about one of the president‘s chief advisers, Karl Rove.

Do you know Doug Wead? 

WAYNE SLATER, COLUMNIST, “THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS”:  I do, yes.  I‘ve known him.

MATTHEWS:  What‘s his story? 

(CROSSTALK)

SLATER:  Well, he‘s—you know, he‘s a self-promoter lately. 

Certainly, he‘s been involved in offering some books. 

But let me tell you, he was important, very important in 1988 in introducing George W. Bush to a larger group of evangelical conservatives on behalf of the father.  It was Wead who was a liaison important for the father, trying to gin up those numbers in ‘88.  They did OK, not that well.  But, as a result, he was really a person who helped George W. Bush move into the community of political evangelicals, who supported him later for governor and subsequently for president. 

MATTHEWS:  Are they friends? 

SLATER:  They were friends.  They have been friends in the past, certainly, obviously.  You could tell by the tone of those tape recordings most recently. 

But I know when we were reviewing and putting together the stuff for “Bush‘s Brain,” I got a call from Karl Rove in 2002.  And he really dissuaded me or tried to dissuade me from talking to Wead.  He tried to undercut his credibility.  Clearly, something had gone wrong.  And it was either the relationship with Bush by 2002 or Karl Rove‘s concern that Wead was a loose cannon. 

MATTHEWS:  What‘s new here?  The World Press, by the way, I‘ve been Googling it today around the world on the Web sites.  I can‘t tell you the amount of press coverage in every country in the world about the president‘s possible use of drugs when he was a younger man.  It is a huge story still in the world today. 

Is there anything new about cocaine use, possible cocaine use or apparent use of marijuana by the president before he was president, of course, that‘s new in this book or in these tapes? 

SLATER:  Well, I don‘t think there‘s anything new in the—significantly new in this transcript of the tapes. 

The president does seem to admit that he did use marijuana.  I don‘t think any voter really thought that he probably didn‘t.  And I think most voters don‘t care right now.  I think you‘re right.  In Doug Wead‘s book, which I think this is what this is about—in Doug Wead‘s book, he really goes fairly far in suggesting that Bush used cocaine. 

I talked to Wead about three or four weeks ago, before all this blew up, and he reiterated that cocaine business. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

SLATER:  But Wead doesn‘t have any evidence that I‘ve seen that Bush ever used cocaine.  It is mostly speculation, as far as I can see. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  In fact, I have read it carefully, Wayne.  And what he says in the book is, he has apparently used cocaine, but ,in the very next sentence, seemed to contradict that in the book by saying if and where he used it.  He offers the opportunity for anybody to believe he may not have ever used it. 

So, you‘re right.  It is very murky and the tapes don‘t clear it up much, although the tapes do suggest that the president did try marijuana.  I think that‘s a fair estimate that most people would share. 

Let me go to Dana Milbank. 

This story is bounding around the world right now.  The country and the world—rather, the world seems more interested in Bush‘s possible drug use than the country. 

DANA MILBANK, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, “THE WASHINGTON POST”: 

That‘s true.  And your name is bounding all over the world now as well, attached to this story. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, because Doug Wead—boy, isn‘t that an interesting name to be reporting on marijuana? 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  It‘s like that Larry Speakes or Bill Headline.  It is one of those names we connect with a role in history. 

MILBANK:  It is one of those delightful ironies. 

But it is true.  It is bouncing all over the place.  It is also, as Wayne was saying, nothing particularly new or surprising.  The interesting pattern to me was the way Wead recanted and he backed down from this.  You saw it earlier with John DiIulio from the White House and some others.  These guys come out and make a criticism or something damaging and then it‘s like they‘ve had their knees cut off and they come out and beg for forgiveness. 

It is like when John Cleese was dangled from the window in “A Fish Called Wanda” and suddenly they‘re all apologies about the whole thing. 

MATTHEWS:  But, you know, major political figures—I hope I don‘t cause a lot of trouble with this—are known to have posses who surround them, not always official, who shoot down books that can hurt their careers. 

I mean, if you write a book about the Kennedys, be prepared to be confronted by people who are loyal to the Kennedys and will check every word to make sure that the book is at least truthful, if not positive towards the Kennedys.  The same with this president.  Who are the people that shoot down books?  Is Karl Rove one of them, who keeps an eye on the book sales?

MILBANK:  I mean, I don‘t think you have to go into sort of the conspiracy realm.  We all give Karl credit for things that he is or is not involved in. 

But there were guys like James Dobson and others who, with just a slight little hint from the White House, would be very happy to sort of step on Mr. Wead here. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

MILBANK:  To prevent the Wead story from growing, if you will. 

But there are plenty of people, particularly in the evangelical community, where this guy wants to make a living.  And he knows that he can‘t alienate these folks.  So, it is very easy to squelch this. 

MATTHEWS:  We can be a little tough here than maybe—than we should be, Wayne.  Let me ask you this. 

It seems to me, having been around this city for a third of a century now, that what happened here isn‘t conspiratorial.  It is quite simple.  You put out tapes about an old buddy who happens to be president right now.  Some friend of the president—and he has got lots of them—call you up and say, the president is very hurt by the fact that you put these tapes out, because he thought he had a confidential relationship with you. 

And it wouldn‘t take much for a person of reasonable emotional stability to go, oh, my God. I‘ve hurt the president of the United States personally.  I feel terrible about it.  I don‘t care about the advance on this book.  I‘m just going to go down and take it.  I am not going to push this book any further. 

SLATER:  Well, I think you‘re right. 

That‘s exactly I think what happened here.  Wead has this enormous bad judgment.  And he thought, I think, in releasing these tapes that the storyline would be something other than it was.  He thought it might be something that I suspect would help the book, something that really wouldn‘t hurt the president, who he considers a friend. 

And what happened was, the storyline was Doug Wead, bad guy, the betray... 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  How about another storyline here?  The publisher wants to push a book.  He sees a pretty good book about growing up to be president.  It is part of a larger anthology of people who grew up to be president, how they were reared, but they need some buzz to get the book to fly off the shelf. 

SLATER:  That‘s exactly...

MATTHEWS:  So they come up with this baby.

SLATER:  Chris, you‘ve got it.  That‘s exactly I think what happened here.  And I know Wead well enough to know that he was really hurt.  I think you got a sense of that in the note that he gave you. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I believe it.

SLATER:  Yes, this guy didn‘t realize it was going to blow up. 

MATTHEWS:  I believe it.  He‘s a human being.  And he probably was goosed into this by his publisher.  He probably did it against his own sort of instinct.  And once having done so, he says, damn it, I betrayed an old friend who is president now to sell books. 

SLATER:  That‘s what‘s happened. 

And it is really interesting to me if you look at that tape, because Wead really does have, I think, some things very accurate.  This whole business of George Bush cultivating the social conservatives as far back in 1988, ‘89, which was important in his race, Wead knows Bush.  He understands this guy, considers him a friend.  And now he is really in hot water.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask Dana.  And we only have 30 seconds here.

Dana, why is the White House so apparently intent on playing this story down?  A lot of the NBC people have gotten to the key people, like the first lady and senior people.  I think, the other night, David Gregory got to some senior people at the White House.  Why are they so careful now to try to play this baby down? 

MILBANK:  Well, they know that, when they go out and really take something on and challenge it, it only fans the flames a bit more.  So, they‘re low-key for that reason. 

But there‘s another thing going on here as well.  And the drug use aside, which, as Wayne said, people generally suspected anyway, Bush comes across as personable and likable in these tapes and some of the guy that a lot of us got to know during the 2000 campaign.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.   

(CROSSTALK)

MILBANK:  ... really different from the public persona now. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Wayne Slater and Dana Milbank. 

When we come back, Jeff Gannon, the—quote—“reporter” who was allowed inside the White House, speaks out.  We‘ll hear his side of the story. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Coming up, that reporter who made it into the White House briefings speaks out to NBC News.  We‘ll get reaction from the Reverend Al Sharpton and former U.S. Congresswoman Susan Molinari when HARDBALL returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK) 

MATTHEWS:  Washington continues to buzz over a man who got into the White House press briefings under a false name.  And now that man has given an interview to NBC News.

HARDBALL correspondent David Shuster reports. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  He was known around the White House as Jeff Gannon. 

JAMES GUCKERT, FORMER TALON NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  We know that the president is a man of faith. 

SHUSTER:  And for two years, he teed up White House talking points and trashed Democrats. 

GUCKERT:  How are you going to work at people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality? 

SHUSTER:  In his first broadcast network television interview, Jeff Gannon, whose real name is James Guckert, told NBC‘s Campbell Brown his White House access was not a conspiracy, but rather the result of a simple request. 

GUCKERT:  I asked to come.  They allowed me to come.  And, apparently, there isn‘t a very high threshold as far as somebody‘s personal life to gain access. 

SHUSTER:  That, of course, is an understatement.  If the White House had done the FBI background check required of regularly credentialed reporters, the Press Office would have discovered that Guckert is linked to several Internet sites, including HotMilitaryStud.com and WorkingBoys.net.  Here is Guckert he described his activities to NBC. 

GUCKERT:  I registered a number of domain names that some have suggested are...

CAMPBELL BROWN, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Pornographic Web sites. 

GUCKERT:  Well, yes. 

BROWN:  Did you advertise yourself as a gay male escort for hire on a Web site? 

GUCKERT:  I cannot go into those specifics. 

SHUSTER:  That‘s because, as Guckert told “Newsweek” magazine, he wants to sue liberal interest groups and bloggers for what he calls political assassination.  That‘s not grounds for a lawsuit. 

Furthermore, Guckert has not denied what has been said about him.  But what he says has been inconsistent.  Two weeks ago, he told “Editor & Publisher” he would no longer talk to the media.  Five days later, he complained to the same magazine that nobody was trying to contact him.  As for covering the White House under a fake name...

GUCKERT:  My name is James Guckert. 

BROWN:  James Guckert?

GUCKERT:  Yes. 

BROWN:  It‘s not so hard to pronounce. 

GUCKERT:  Well, when you read it, it is always pronounced some other way. 

BROWN:  Presidential Press Secretary Scott McClellan had said he did know Gannon was not using his real name, but—quote—“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, was not formed until after Guckert had already started attending White House press briefings two years ago. 

(on camera):  All of this is raising questions that now some members of Congress want answers to.  Democrats are demanding an investigation into White House access.  Republicans say that‘s unnecessary. 

I‘m David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, David Shuster.

For the record, HARDBALL asked Jeff Gannon to appear on tonight‘s show, but he did not respond to our invitation. 

Al Sharpton is the president of the National Action Network and former Democratic candidate for president.  And Susan Molinari is a former Republican member of Congress from Staten Island, New York. 

I have to ask the Reverend Sharpton, suppose you were president of the United States and you found out there was this phantom character that showed up in your press room every day.  Would you keep calling on him, the way the president does, if you did not know who the guy was or what? 

AL SHARPTON (D), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  No, certainly not only would I not be calling on him.  I would want someone to explain to me how he could have gotten in under an alias name from a news organization that wasn‘t even in business when he started coming in. 

I mean, if anything, it makes the whole White House press conference, press corps look like they pass no scrutiny.  But it really smacks of someone planting someone there that can give certain questions and therefore set the tone of a press conference in a very partisan way.  And this stinks to the highest heavens. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think this is press manipulation, Susan? 

SUSAN MOLINARI, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST:  If it is, it is really bad press manipulation. 

(LAUGHTER)

MOLINARI:  Let‘s face it.  There are some legitimate questions out there.  How did he get in?  Now, obviously, the question has come out that he has had a daily pass to press briefings, which is different than the overall kind of lifetime pass that others have to go through, that require the background check.  But there‘s some questions as to how he was allowed to survive. 

But, I mean, if you were going to plant somebody, would you have them ask questions that were so pointedly, obviously partisan? 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Like, what is it like having to do with these clown liberals?

(CROSSTALK)

MOLINARI:  Really.

MATTHEWS:  He keeps asking these ringer questions to set the tone.  The trouble is, a lot of these press conferences are on C-SPAN.  They‘re on television.  You create P.R. just by asking the dumb, the stupid questions. 

MOLINARI:  But not that obvious.  I mean, let‘s face it.  This is a smart P.R. operation in the White House, is it not?  To have someone who is so implicitly not subtle is hysterical. 

SHARPTON:  But he got away with it.

MOLINARI:  And the fact that other reporters did not even look and do background checks on him from the start kind of amazes me. 

MATTHEWS:  Reverend Sharpton.

SHARPTON:  But they got away with it for two years, Susan.  So, I don‘t know how silly it is. 

(CROSSTALK)

SHARPTON:  I think they got away with it a long time.  It was very obvious.  But, obviously, they got away with it a long time and it set a bad tone for those that wanted to ask questions.

(CROSSTALK)

MOLINARI:  What do you mean they got away with it?  Obviously, just because somebody like seems like he‘s giving platitudes to the president doesn‘t mean you have to kick him out because he‘s too obvious.

MATTHEWS:  Let me lower this conversation to an even lower level. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  What do you make about these Doug Wead tapes?  Do you think the president, if gets control of them again, Doug Wead, do you think he‘s going to destroy him?  Or should he?  What should he do with tapes that show these confidential conversations regarding possible drug use, etcetera, etcetera.

MOLINARI:  Whatever he wants to.  This is a private, personal conversation he had as an individual to somebody he trusted. 

If you had a conversation, if Reverend Sharpton had a conversation, if I did, and we believed it was personal, it‘s your ability to do—there‘s nobody that would question...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Reverend Sharpton, what do you think about aides‘ responsibility to principals with regard to loyalty vs. truth?  Should an aide or a confidential friend keep the confidence in general? 

SHARPTON:  I think if the understanding is confidential, I would have to say it should remain confidential.  That was the basis of the conversation. 

I must say that it is interesting to me that a lot of people on the other side of the political spectrum that loved hearing tapes when Clinton was in have a different posture now.  But I‘ll be consistent.  I think confidential conversations ought to be respected as confidential conversations, whether they be with this gentleman or whether they be in a way when a Democratic president is in. 

MATTHEWS:  We‘ll be right back with the Reverend Al Sharpton and Susan Molinari.

You‘re watching HARDBALL. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with Susan Molinari and the Reverend Al Sharpton. 

Reverend Sharpton, how is this going down, that the Bush administration is selling Social Security reform to African-Americans on the grounds that they don‘t live past 65 and it is a better deal for them to go with these accounts, these personal accounts? 

SHARPTON:  Well, I mean, I think that it is not going as well as they would expect. 

I think, at one level, where they‘re trying to appeal to us based on the inequity in terms of our lifespan, the problem is, there is no guarantee there.  You at best are still offering us something that will not give us what we all have grown to want and desire in this whole postwar generation.  And that is that we want a guaranteed existence in our senior years.  And they‘ve not been able to answer how that happens under his new plan. 

MATTHEWS:  We have got a poll here I looked at, an NBC poll last week came out that nobody has paid much attention to.  It says that, by 2-1, the American people are more insistent on the guaranteed part of Social Security, the insurance part, we‘re going to get the money, than they are on this option of going to a personal account. 

MOLINARI:  Well, sure.  I actually think the Reverend is right, that that is what people are concerned about right now.  I think that the Republicans have failed to answer that question as articulately as they can. 

It‘s the plan that has taken place.  But I think that it is something they will overcome.  But it has definitely put members of Congress at a disadvantage as they go home and try and sell the personal savings account, while they are failing to give people the kind of comfort and confidence that they should have, because the Bush plan does guarantee that. 

It doesn‘t change anything for people in terms of that guarantee from today.  If anything, it strengthens it for the younger people. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

You know, Reverend Sharpton, I know you don‘t go into gambling casinos, but if you go into Atlantic City or Vegas, you will notice the people with little money bet on the $5 tables.  They don‘t go to the $25 tables.  Isn‘t it to be expected that people that don‘t have a lot of income to fall back on, a lot of wealth, will be a bit wary of moving toward this investment in the stock market? 

SHARPTON:  Yes, I think that‘s probably true, which is why it is even more frightening, because that also means that there will be more of them that may not benefit. 

And if you do around gambling casinos—and you‘re right, I don‘t—you see more people leave more busted than you see leave with a lot of money.  I think that we have got to be very careful that we not in any way, shape or form put people in a nonguaranteed position in their senior years.  And to bargain that you‘re going to die quicker as a senior at 65 than 75 is no way to answer that. 

MOLINARI:  But here‘s the deal, though.  Nobody forces you to go into a casino and nobody is going to force you to take up a personal savings account and change the way you currently participate with Social Security. 

MATTHEWS:  But if the people who do take up the personal accounts suffer big losses, who is going to take those losses? 

(CROSSTALK)

MOLINARI:  Well, there are some changes that they make in the last few years, so that there is guaranteed income.  So, a lot of your personal choices is taken away towards the end, so that there is that guarantee.  But I think it is important to say to people who are watching, nobody will make you opt for this if you don‘t want to. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.

SHARPTON:  But you can be enticed, Susan, just like you‘re enticed into casinos.  And ministers like me try to warn you from being enticed. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about ministers...

MOLINARI:  As long as there‘s ministers like you, we‘re in good shape, Reverend. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about African-American ministers.  Let me ask you this about the Republican Party gambit in trying to win a bigger percentage of the black vote, if you will.  It seems they‘re out there tonight.  Ken Mehlman is out there tonight in Trenton, New Jersey, talking to an African-American business group, a Chamber of Commerce. 

Can they go in that economic direction as successfully as they seemed to go in Ohio in terms of exploiting black opposition to gay marriage? 

SHARPTON:  I think that this is nothing new, to talk about black business. 

You have got to remember that affirmative action and black capitalism started under Nixon.  And there‘s no measurable sway of black votes that went Republican under that.  I think they‘re going to have to deal with the critical issues of inequities in health care, inequities in education, inequities in the criminal justice system in order to really start moving en masse blacks. 

To talk to black businessmen, they‘ve been doing that since Richard Nixon.  It has not moved a lot of blacks into the Republican column.  And, even last year, despite predictions they would go up nationally to 18 percent, they did not.  They did in Ohio on one issue.  But they did not do it nationally.  And it will not happen if they continue just talking business to a small group of minority businessmen. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.

Susan, why are the Republicans better at reaching out to Hispanic-Americans and Latinos than they are to the African-Americans? 

MOLINARI:  Well, I think...

MATTHEWS:  That‘s a pretty loaded question, I guess.

(CROSSTALK)

MOLINARI:  It is a pretty loaded—it is.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  It is a fact. 

MOLINARI:  It is a fact that the Hispanic-Americans have responded more positively to the Republican message. 

And I think maybe Ken Mehlman recognizes this.  The Republican Party for far too long sort of gave up on the African-American vote and didn‘t go back into their faces and say, look, let both political parties compete for your vote. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Susan Molinari and the Reverend Al Sharpton.

Speaking of HARDBALL, hardball is being played this weekend at the Oscars.  And, tomorrow, I‘ll be joined by film critic Roger Ebert. 

Right now, the latest on the pope‘s health on “COUNTDOWN WITH KEITH

OLBERMANN.”

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