updated 9/16/2005 8:22:31 AM ET 2005-09-16T12:22:31

Guests: Bobby Jindal, E.J. Dionne, Bennie Thompson, Evan Thomas

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Tonight, big stakes for President Bush.  If his numbers keep dropping as they are dropping, how he can lead on the war or the economy?  And he‘s the only president we have got. 

Let‘s play HARDBALL. 

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews. 

President Bush will address the country tonight at 9:00 Eastern from the French Quarter in New Orleans.  His aides say he‘ll show compassion by talking about helping the victims of Hurricane Katrina and by decrying the years of racial injustice that preceded it.  But is the real audience tonight those who voted for him since last November, but have lost confidence in him, because of Iraq, high gas prices and the troubling response to Katrina?

A new NBC/”Wall Street Journal” poll shows the president‘s lowest job approval ever.  He has even lower approval for the handling of Iraq.  And less than a third of the country now believe that our country, the USA, is headed in the right direction.  According to the same NBC/”Wall Street Journal” poll, gas prices, no surprise here, now rate the biggest economic issue facing Americans. 

The challenge for the president tonight in his speech from New Orleans, the percentage of Americans who rate him as a very good leader now is for the first time down to its pre-9/11 levels.  In other words, the bounce he got out of 9/14, that wonderful speech at the rubble, where he embraced the firefighter, is lost now. 

To continue prosecuting an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq and to meet whatever economic challenges lie ahead, including possibly higher gas prices, he needs to get those numbers up on job approval. 

We begin with “Newsweek”‘s Evan Thomas and MSNBC‘s chief Washington correspondent, Norah O‘Donnell. 

Evan, you talked in your article this week.  And I have to say, it‘s an anecdote that everybody now knows about.  When the president was on vacation, right through the beginnings of the horror of Katrina, including the breaking of the levees in New Orleans, he wasn‘t watching television.  He wasn‘t really visually aware of what everybody else was watching.  And one of his top aides had to give him a DVD to update him on the way to New Orleans. 

EVAN THOMAS, ASSISTANT MANAGING EDITOR, “NEWSWEEK”:  And that was on Thursday.  I mean, that was late in the week. 

He—look, he says he doesn‘t read the newspapers.  He claims not to

he doesn‘t want to listen to what the chattering classes are saying.  He doesn‘t want to listen to what you‘re doing here.  And that has always been a matter of pride to him, of strength, that:  I don‘t listen to the noise.  I know what I want.  I know my gut, and I follow it.

But, in this case, he had—he just didn‘t know what was going on. 

MATTHEWS:  Norah, what is the White House reaction to that news story?  Are they saying anything about the president‘s inattentiveness to the situation as it developed down in the South? 

NORAH O‘DONNELL, NBC CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT:  Well, I think they recognize that they mishandled this.  And whether it‘s top officials at the Republican National Committee or those in the White House, acknowledge that they mishandled the response to Katrina, as well as politically handling the response.

And so, the first step is doing something that the president rarely does, which is admitting responsibility, taking accountability.  That‘s what we saw the president do in the East Room and what he‘s going to do again tonight.  And then, only then, after he takes some responsibility, takes some of the blame, if you will, after resisting assigning blame to anyone, can talk about moving forward with the massive reconstruction of New Orleans. 

It‘s not—White House officials say they are not going to name a specific number tonight that he will talk about, but it will be big, and the president is going to pledge to move forward on that tonight. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s look at the president‘s political challenge.  And I think that‘s one of the reasons why he‘s addressing the country, if not the reason.  President Bush‘s job approval now is at 40 percent. 

In January, when he came into office the second time for the second term, it was around 50 percent.  Obviously, they voted for him.  How does he get back that 10 percent, because that‘s what he‘s after? 

O‘DONNELL:  Well, this is going to be difficult for him. 

And what‘s noteworthy, Chris, if you look inside those numbers, that that‘s not just fallout among Democrats or swing voters.  There‘s actually been a significant drop among Republicans, the president‘s base.  And when the president starts to lose members of his own base, the Republican Party, that‘s where there‘s real political problems. 

A senior official who is very close to this White House, however, told me, though, they believe the slide has stopped.  They believe that it‘s not going to get any lower than 40 percent, that, at this point, they are sort of on the upward trend.  But I think Americans have got to regain confidence not only in this president, but that he can fix it, that he can make it right, and that, if there‘s another disaster, another attack on the United States, that we are prepared.

And the president just the other day in the East Room couldn‘t answer yes when asked the question, is America prepared for another attack?  And that‘s scary. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, that‘s also showing up in an NBC/”Wall Street Journal” poll.  It shows that 51 percent of the people don‘t have real faith in the war on terrorism anymore, which has always been Bush‘s strong suit. 

THOMAS:  Well, he‘s got—competence is ultimately the issue.

And Bush did a pretty good job of convincing us after 9/11 that he was a competent guy, that he was a leader.  And that—faith in that has eroded.  And this was a bad bump, because it—they look like they didn‘t know what they were doing.  And that‘s—that‘s a terrible thing for a leader.

MATTHEWS:  OK, that gets to an issue which we talk about a lot on this show. 

Norah, let‘s take a look at this number.  It‘s an NBC/”Wall Street Journal” poll number.  A whopping 58 percent of Americans disapprove of the way the president has handled the war in Iraq.  The horror in Iraq does keep seeping through in the headlines.  It hasn‘t been completely blacked out by the problems in Katrina land down to the south.  We‘re hearing about a war which has turned bad.  It‘s not just the insurgency. 

The real bloodiness of the past couple days has come from the outside people, the al Qaeda people there.  The president seems to be in trouble on his handling of terrorism and Iraq. 

O‘DONNELL:  Well, you know, Katrina is almost like what Iraq was during the campaign.  And I say that.  Remember, whenever things were going badly in Iraq, it would pull all of the president‘s numbers down. 

Now Katrina, in many ways, is pulling all the president‘s numbers down on every other subject, including Iraq.  Yes, it has been increasingly deadly in Iraq, with 160 killed just last night or this morning.  That being said, I think also Americans are looking at the large financial contribution that needs to be made to repair New Orleans and Mississippi and Alabama, and then looking at how much we‘re spending in Iraq.

And I think that‘s been where people are making a choice about where our dollars should go, and there‘s that setup, that contrast. 

MATTHEWS:  I think you‘re so right, according to the poll.  Norah, you‘re right on the nail there, because it isn‘t his response particularly to Katrina that‘s bothering people.  That‘s about even, 48-48, according to the NBC/”Wall Street Journal” poll; 48 disapprove; 48 approve. 

I think a lot of that, however, is—I want to ask you—a lot of that is just Republican-Democrat slit and white-black split. 

THOMAS:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  The people that sympathize with those people down there tend to be Democrats.  Those who may not may be Republicans.  The president may try to change that tonight.  But the first look at this says, you know, a lot of people aren‘t really upset about that. 

THOMAS:  I think people resent the idea that the president was somehow racist.  I mean, the charge, which was made certainly on the left and by a lot of people, that somehow he overlooked the poor blacks of New Orleans, that—people—a lot of voters resent that charge and think that is just not true.  I think it‘s probably—it‘s not true.  But that—that I think accounts for some of those numbers. 

MATTHEWS:  But, you know, if you look at the numbers between white and black America, was race a factor in the lack of urgency in the response?  Seventy percent of black Americans polled in our—in “Wall Street Journal”/NBC poll say it did a role.

THOMAS:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  And only, what, 30 percent of whites agree with that.  So, whoever is right, whoever is wrong, there‘s a difference, a total difference in perception here. 

THOMAS:  Yes. 

Well, of course, it‘s one of those racially divisive issues.  Personally, I don‘t think that Bush was slow to respond for racial reasons, but I can understand why people would feel that way, because they were slow to respond.  And you can always try to find...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Do you think the country was less upset?  Suppose we did digitalized the faces of all the people who were in that crowd of the Convention Center, out in the street begging for help, and all those people turned out to be white people by some digital manipulation. 

Do you think the country would have had a different reaction to those people‘s plight than the fact that they were all black?  Do you think the country would have had the same reaction if they were all white people? 

THOMAS:  I think so, yes.  I do. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, I don‘t. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  That‘s just my view.  That‘s just my view.  I won‘t ask you, Norah.  You‘re a journalist, or a straight reporter.

I think the reaction would have been completely different if all those people were white down there.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I think there would have been a lot more sympathy from white people. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  A lot more sympathy.

O‘DONNELL:  That may be true.

But, nevertheless, the president has a perception problem on his hands.  And, tonight, he has to deal with that and he will deal with that.  And disasters can define a presidency.  September 11 defined this president‘s first term.  In many ways, his standing as the wartime commander in chief may have helped him get reelected to the second term.

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

O‘DONNELL:  Now the Katrina disaster and Iraq could define his second term.  And so, tonight, he‘s got to reach a turning point.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Of course, the question is—the question is, a turning point or a tipping point may have already been passed, Norah.  Do you think the president has as good a chance now of grabbing control of events almost three weeks after than he did three days after with 9/11? 

O‘DONNELL:  Well, he has no choice at this point, because the confidence, as we talked about earlier, in the American people about how government can respond to a disaster has to be reformed and reshaped. 

And that‘s the burden of this president and his administration.  And so, he has other choice but to plot a way forward and to restore a sense of competence that our government can be a social safety net, that our government can respond quickly in a sense of a disaster like this, because there are still concerns about weapons of mass destruction or suicide or homicide bombers or some sort of terrorist attack in the United States.

And that‘s really the onus perhaps in the long term. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.  And we only have one president. 

Anyway, thank you, Norah O‘Donnell.  Thank you, Evan Thomas. 

You can watch the president‘s speech tonight—I hope do you—at 9:00 Eastern here, live from New Orleans.  And I will be right back here after the president for more analysis. 

Coming up, much more on the racial divide exposed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, plus, the latest as New Orleans starts to recover.  

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Coming up, millions along the Gulf Coast had their lives turned upside down by Hurricane Katrina.  What are the political stakes for the president tonight?

HARDBALL returns after this. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

President Bush is set to speak to the country tonight from New Orleans at 9:00 Eastern. 

HARDBALL correspondent David Shuster is in New Orleans and joins us now with the latest. 

David, big night for the president. 

DAVID SHUSTER, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Chris, it is a big night.

And here in New Orleans and across Louisiana and Mississippi, progress in the recovery is being made.  But it is very slow.  And for the people here, it‘s unlike any challenge most of them have ever faced. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SHUSTER (voice-over):  Today, most of New Orleans remains a ghost town.  Large parts of the city are uninhabitable, and the only signs of life are from military soldiers on patrol, police officers, firefighters and recovery teams. 

Across the region, more than 1,000 people are still missing, and the retrieval of the dead has been agonizing and slow. 

DR. LOUIS CATALDIE, LOUISIANA STATE CORONER:  You don‘t just go out and—quote—“pick up a body.”  And I hate hearing that. 

SHUSTER:  For the storm survivors, the number of people who remain displaced from their homes totals more than one million.  In Mississippi, entire neighborhoods like Biloxi‘s Point, are piles of rubble.  It‘s the same story in Louisiana‘s St. Bernard Parish.

In New Orleans‘ Gentilly neighborhood, these homes were under feet of water and are now rotted and being claimed by mold. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  It‘s a living organism.  It is going to keep on growing if you don‘t take care of it. 

SHUSTER:  For those who do have livable homes, 400,000 people still do not have electricity. 

But, despite it all, there are signs of recovery and hope.  Power is being restored to tens of thousands of people every day.  In New Orleans, engineers have 40 pumps working; 90 percent of the city is now dry.  Early environmental tests show the residue is not permanently toxic.  The shipping port and airport have been reopened.  Five area hospitals are back in operation.  And thanks to utility systems being restored to a few blocks downtown:

RAY NAGIN (D), MAYOR OF NEW ORLEANS:  We will open up the French Quarter for residential and commercial activity. 

SHUSTER:  He hopes to have all of that completed by early next week. 

But while the physical cleanup is clearly under way, the emotional rebound may take far longer.  The Crescent City still seems haunted by these images from two weeks ago today, fellow Americans on their fourth day without food or water begging their government to step in and do something. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Look how hot he is.  He‘s not waking up very easy. 

SHUSTER:  Later that day, NBC returned to the Convention Center and found that her baby had died. 

For the tens of thousands who lived through the horrors that week or the tens of millions who saw it on television, the emotional scars run deep.  And they remain deep today. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SHUSTER:  This week, it‘s not just President Bush who has taken responsibility for the government‘s failures.  The governor of Louisiana and the mayor of New Orleans have echoed those remarks with their own essentially apologies. 

In the meantime, Chris, the people that we talk to here in Louisiana, they say they are not so interested right now in what the politicians are saying, but, rather, what the politicians are doing to try to help this region recover—Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  David, how does the president make up for the lapse in the first week?  Can he do it? 

SHUSTER:  Chris, I think there‘s got to be some statement specifically for those people who are not necessarily in New Orleans or in Louisiana or Mississippi.  But there are so many people who call this area home who may be watching tonight or listening on radio from Houston or from other parts around Texas or across the Midwest or the mid-South. 

I think those are the people who not only want to hear what the president has to say, but they are dying for information, literally, to try to find out what has happened to their homes, when are they going to be allowed back into their neighborhood, what is the government going to do to try to help them restore power, electricity, and essentially get their lives back to normal?

And I think, for the president, the challenge may be not just addressing the entire American people as a whole, but also trying to reach out to those people who still want to consider cities like New Orleans to be their home. 

MATTHEWS:  That‘s true, David.

You know, 25 percent of the American people have either friends or family members living in that area.  It‘s quite a large chunk of us. 

Anyway, thank you, David Shuster, in New Orleans. 

SHUSTER:  Thanks, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  When we come back, what will President—President Bush say tonight when he addresses this whole country?  And will it make a difference for him politically and make a difference down there?

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Watching the heart-wrenching images of Hurricane Katrina victims, especially those who sought refuge in the New Orleans Convention Center, it was hard not to notice nearly everyone was African-American.  On this program, we have talked about the vulnerabilities that Katrina exposed in our disaster relief system.  Did it also expose a racial divide in this country? 

Well, an NBC/”Wall Street Journal” poll we just got yesterday asked if the Bush administration would have moved with greater urgency if the affected areas had been mostly white suburban communities, rather than inner-city, mostly African-American communities.  The results show a stark racial divide in thinking and observation:  70 percent of blacks—that‘s seven out of 10 African-Americans—think race was a factor in the lack of urgency.  Nearly an equal number of whites say race was not a factor. 

I‘m now visiting with Congressman Bennie Thompson.  He‘s a Democrat of Mississippi whose district was devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

Congressman Thompson, does that number surprise you, that whites saw it differently, they didn‘t see racial prejudice in the slow reaction, and that black Americans did? 

REP. BENNIE THOMPSON (D), MISSISSIPPI:  Well, no, it doesn‘t.  Chris, to be honest with you, I‘m not surprised at all. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, why do you think whites see it differently?  Let‘s try to pin it on somebody here?  Are the whites in denial? 

THOMPSON:  Well, I think it‘s partially not wanting to believe that our government would do anyone like that.  And so, I think they are giving this administration the benefit of the doubt. 

Some people in America see it more as a class system, rather than race.  But there‘s no question...

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me ask you, Congressman, if it was a lot of Southern white people, poor people, even, people of the same class, if you will, as the people there, but they were white, instead of African-American on television, do you think the administration would have moved faster? 

THOMPSON:  I don‘t.  I think, clearly, this system failed. 

We didn‘t have the leadership at the top.  The president didn‘t provide the people to run the organizations necessary to get the job done, and we just had the meltdown here with Hurricane Katrina. 

MATTHEWS:  What about the fact that two-thirds of government, the local government in New Orleans, the mayor, Mayor Nagin, the governor, Governor Blanco, they are all Democrats?  Two-thirds of government in this case are Democrat-run.  How come they don‘t get some of the blame? 

THOMPSON:  Well, they do.  But, clearly, in this time, given our standard for disaster preparedness in this country, the federal government is the ultimate responsibility of an agency to get things done.  We have a national disaster plan. 

We had an incident of national significance declared.  That was a federal responsibility to move all the assets into the Louisiana area to make sure that we get the job done.  And this government failed. 

MATTHEWS:  Would you have been upset if the government had been very aggressive, the federal government, and had come into New Orleans and said, get out of the way, Mr. Mayor; we‘re getting all the people out of here; you don‘t seem to understand the urgency of the situation; or going to the governor and say, we‘re federalizing the Guard; we are coming in here?

Wouldn‘t that have offended you in the other direction? 

THOMPSON:  If the protocol was followed from this incident of national significance, consistent with the national plan, this is the job of the federal government, to go in when state and local governments can‘t get the job done.

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

THOMPSON:  So, if our government did that, did it in a timely manner and saved lives, then it was a job well done. 

MATTHEWS:  But I understand that the FEMA people in Washington, not to defend them—they haven‘t defended themselves very well—they kept calling the governor of Louisiana, not your state, but the governor of Louisiana, and said, what do you want?  What do you want?  What do you want? 

And she says, I will get back to you.  She never got back to them. 

That is what they say.  There was never a specific request. 

THOMPSON:  Well, Chris, but that‘s—but, Chris, that‘s not the standard. 

We have a national plan that says you have certain things you can do.  We monitored this hurricane.  We knew what was required.  We should have prepositioned our assets to make sure that we could go in immediately following this hurricane.  We didn‘t do that.  So, we can‘t blame everything on the state of Louisiana and its local officials.  There‘s a federal responsibility in this also. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about the way governments work together.  Now we have learned that politics isn‘t like student council.  It‘s not who is popular.  It‘s who can get the job done.

Do you think we need somebody, a boss down there in that part of the country, to make sure that nobody can claim red-tape problems, that somebody says—you talked about protocol, but doesn‘t there have to be somebody to say, we have got to get this job done?  Do you need a leader, like a Colin Powell?

THOMPSON:  Well...

MATTHEWS:  Or I don‘t know who else could do it, somebody else with national prestige to come in there and say, I am going to be the guy that cuts the red tape? 

THOMPSON:  Well, we need someone at the Department of Homeland Security that can get the job done. 

We failed.  We had the standard already there.  We didn‘t have the leadership. 

(CROSSTALK)  

THOMPSON:  And it showed during this hurricane. 

What we have to have, Chris, is people in organizations who can get the job done.  And the president failed to put people in that organization who can get the job done. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to—hold—hold with us, Congressman.  Thank you for being on, but stay with us for a second, if you can, sir.

Congressman Bobby Jindal is a Republican of Louisiana.  He joins us now by phone.

Bobby, thanks for joining us. 

Do you think the people that have been transported to Texas should come home? 

REP. BOBBY JINDAL ®, LOUISIANA:  Absolutely. 

I think, if we are going to bring them home, we have got to create jobs, so they have opportunities to come home to.  We want every single person to come back to the greater New Orleans area to help us rebuild a better region. 

MATTHEWS:  There isn‘t some Republican strategy to move 100,000 people or Democrats out of the start, so that you have got a—they have got a—your party has a better chance of winning that state?

JINDAL:  You know, our biggest challenge—I ran for governor two years ago.  The big—my top priority was to make sure that we not only kept people in Louisiana, but we attracted people back.

Louisiana is one of the only Southern states that‘s lost more people moving out than moving in for the last five, 10 or 15 years.  I have been arguing publicly for years that we cannot improve our quality of life unless we have the opportunity for all of our people, black, white, Republican, Democrat, whatever, to stay at home to pursue their dreams. 

So, I‘m passionate about wanting to create opportunities for everybody to come back.  But it‘s important, as we rebuild the streets, the buildings, the infrastructure, we have got to build jobs.  What I‘m worried about is the people in Texas and other states that were generous enough to allow them to come in, if they find good jobs, if their kid is going to good schools, I think—I think every one of those people wants to come home. 

But if we don‘t give them an opportunity, it is going to be hard to convince them to come home. 

MATTHEWS:  Governor Blanco, who defeated you, I believe, for governor of—is accused never really making a clear request to the federal government for help, that she was not returning phone calls.  She never—she said, give me all the help you can, but never said what she needed.  Is that going to be an issue if you run against her again? 

JINDAL:  Well, I‘m not even thinking about elections or polls.

I think all the finger-pointing, the blame can happen later.  You know, the state says the feds didn‘t respond quickly enough.  The feds said the state didn‘t ask early enough.  I think it‘s ridiculous.  Who cares? 

At this point, the important thing is that we don‘t replicate that red tape and bureaucracy moving forward.  I strongly believe—I said early on, after the hurricane, somebody clearly needs to be in charge.  And I believe that about the redevelopment effort as well.  We need somebody who is accountable, who is going to be responsible.

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

JINDAL:  Ideally somebody in a background in a private sector with logistical experience. 

Clearly, the local people have to make the final decisions.  We are the ones that are going to live with the city, live with the state for years to come.  But we cannot repeat this confusion about the states and feds pointing fingers at each other.  We can‘t repeat this kind of division of responsibility going forward. 

I also think quite—that when the military got involved, when thousands of boots were put on the ground, the situation improved dramatically because of a unified chain of command. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Congressman, I saw that firsthand.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I saw that firsthand, Congressman.

When the—when the National Guard and the uniformed 82nd came in there, the looting stopped.  The people felt calm.  The police had backup.  They had support in rescuing people from houses.  But it is a shame, isn‘t it, Congressman, that you have to rely on the military for what is really a civilian responsibility, isn‘t it? 

JINDAL:  Well, you know, there are things, there are aspects of the military that hopefully we can copy in civilian organizations. 

Unfortunately, the state and federal bureaucracies didn‘t have the unified chain of command.  They didn‘t have the kind of attitude that says get the job done.

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

JINDAL:  Worry about permission later. 

Those—you‘re right.  Those are traits that are common in the military.  Hopefully, they‘re not unique to the military. 

MATTHEWS:  I hope so.

JINDAL:  Well-run organizations, private and public, display those characteristics. 

And you are absolutely right, because the response next time—and, God forbid, there likely will be another manmade or natural tragedy, devastation, visited upon our country—we have got to be better prepared.  And whatever—whether it‘s state and local or whether it‘s federal agencies...

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

JINDAL:  ... whatever the name, I don‘t—you know, it doesn‘t really matter at some point whether it‘s FEMA or the name is different.  We have got to have a better, more robust, more coordinated response.  What happened this time is intolerable.  We cannot repeat this kind of response ever again. 

MATTHEWS:  Congressman, thank you very much, U.S. Congressman Bobby Jindal, who is from Louisiana.

And, Congressman Bennie Thompson, thank you, sir, Mr. Thompson, for holding on there from Mississippi. 

Up next, an update on the president‘s challenge tonight from NBC‘s chief White House correspondent, David Gregory, plus presidential historian and native New Orleanian Douglas Brinkley. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

President Bush will address the country tonight at 9:00 Eastern.  We will be covering it. 

Let‘s to go now to NBC chief White House correspondent David Gregory, who has been traveling with the president down in New Orleans. 

David, thank you. 

Big casino tonight, right? 

DAVID GREGORY, NBC WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  Oh, it‘s huge.  It‘s so important for this president.  And it‘s rare, obviously, for an address like this directly to the country. 

You think about the choreography of something like this really hasn‘t been done, except to announce war, the first-year anniversary of 9/11.  It‘s that kind of moment.  I spoke to a senior White House adviser today.  And I say, why do it at this level?  Why do an address like this?  And he said, because it‘s the worst natural disaster, one of them, to hit the United States. 

It‘s more than that.  And they are more cautiously admitting it now out of the White House.  And that is that the president really missed it the first couple of weeks.  He missed the opportunity to have that bullhorn moment that people talk about in terms of the early days of 9/11, to connect with the compassion and the sense of victimhood of those left homeless by Katrina. 

Now it‘s his job to say, we are where we are, to account for what went wrong, to the extent that he can at this point, and to essentially announce that he‘s going to lead the way in fixing it.  I mean, I think, at this point, he‘s the one who can only tell the country, I‘m going to fix it and that is going to be the charge of my administration. 

The enormous federal commitment in dollars, we are already seeing that, the price tag perhaps exceeding $200 billion.  And now it‘s a vision, Chris—and I think this is interesting, from one official I spoke to—that the president wants to talk about this not just in terms of a—an engineering problem, a levee problem, a safety issue, but to rebuild New Orleans and the rest of the hurricane zone to recognize that this is an area that knows abject poverty and that America can no longer look away, that this has to be a more prosperous New Orleans when it comes back.  And the president wants to be out in front of that.

MATTHEWS:  You know, David, you have done it and I have done it.  We have looked through all this new data from the “Wall Street Journal”/NBC poll.  And it‘s bigger than just Katrina.

Katrina, the president is doing OK, 48/48.  I mean, it‘s mezza mezza.  People aren‘t jumping on him for being too slow on New Orleans—on New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf problem and that disaster.  He seems to be losing, though, on issues of the country is going in the wrong direction, overall job approval...

GREGORY:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  ... is he a good leader or not.

How does he get to that tonight? 

GREGORY:  Well, I think it‘s difficult.

And I don‘t know if he gets to it tonight.  I don‘t know that the White House expects that he gets to it tonight.  But they begin the process of turning that corner and beginning to show that he is in charge and that they‘ll be leading the effort to fix the problem now. 

I think what you‘re talking about is, where his approval rating was so high in previous periods, going back to the high point of 88 percent in, I think, November of 2001, where he was leading the country through 9/11.  Now, a war of his own choosing in Iraq is not going well, if you look at the polling of how most Americans feel about it.  We‘re paying record prices to fill up our cars around the country.

And then you look at a natural disaster like this and—and how the rest of the world looks at us, how many people‘s lives were destroyed.  You know, I spent some time today in St. Bernard Parish.  And I know you have been through this area, too, and seen this yourself, Chris.  And it‘s—it‘s devastating.  It‘s frozen in time.  It is as if it vaporized, in some sense.

And we found one man who returned to his meat and sandwich store today for the first time, and hoping that the president would—would pledge enough money, so that he could rebuild, so he could begin to, you know, to sell his food to people who have always supported him over the years by coming to his shop, and people whose entire neighborhood has been simply been wiped out. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

GREGORY:  So, the president is up against all of that tonight. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, you grew up in Los Angeles, David.  You know, when you walk around those Universal Studios or a place like that, where they have the phony cities, doesn‘t it remind you of that?  You walk around and there‘s nobody around.  It‘s just storefronts. 

GREGORY:  It is.  It‘s unbelievable. 

Tim Russert and I spent some time going through some of these areas.  And he made the point, it‘s like a science fiction movie.  It is—you just—you can‘t imagine it.  It‘s so difficult to describe, because it looks like it‘s just been frozen in time.  Katrina hit, devastated the area.  And then it‘s deserted.  There‘s nobody around, I mean, a city like New Orleans, where people have such a connection to and such passion about. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

GREGORY:  We drove down Bourbon Street today.  Who drives down Bourbon Street?  It‘s normally clogged with people. 

And the stench of the city, and just a desertion—the only people you find are people who are brazen enough to come back and assess what‘s left, which is not much, and hope to—to rebuild. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

Those pictures we are showing right now really give you a sense of the city.  It‘s a—in many ways, has many dilapidated areas that were never in good shape, but now it‘s like the final thrust of bad news thrown at these people.

Anyway, a great report.  We will talk to you later tonight. 

We will have live coverage, of course, everybody watching right now, of the president‘s speech at 9:00 Eastern tonight.  It‘s going to be a big one, about 20 minutes long, we think. 

Anyway, thank you, David Gregory, who is down in New Orleans.

Douglas Brinkley is a presidential historian and longtime resident of New Orleans. 

Doug, thanks.

There you are.  Doug, how do you feel? 

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, NBC ANALYST:  Hey, Chris.  How you doing?

MATTHEWS:  How are you feeling these days?

BRINKLEY:  I‘m hanging in there with everything. 

Well, today was the first day I started noticing streets being cleaned of underbrush and fallen streets.  And, slowly, people are starting to come back in some of the neighborhoods.  But other ones, it just sickens you, as you know, just to even look at them.  Like you were saying, they will—they will never be the same again, any house that was made of wood. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, it‘s a tricky question.  But you‘re the right guy to ask.

You know, the really good presidents we have had—and some have been fabulous, of course—they have had this connection with the American people, that they felt the way we feel.  They had the same motive we have, the same passion, whether it‘s—we have had Roosevelt.  We have had Kennedy.  We have had president, and certainly after 9/11.  Can he reconnect tonight? 

BRINKLEY:  He can, but it is going to be kind of a Hail Mary pass.

It‘s awful late.  But he‘s got the backdrop. 

He‘s at the Cabildo, which is the historic site in Jackson Square where the Louisiana Purchase was signed, meaning we doubled America here in New Orleans in 1803.  He‘s got Andrew Jackson, the symbol of the statue there of the Great Battle of New Orleans, when New Orleans seemed to be taken over by the British, but Jackson rallied the people. 

I think they‘re going to use some of that historical language.  They‘re on the banks of the Mississippi River.  But he needs what, I guess, a Ronald Reagan moment.  You think of Reagan‘s Challenger disaster speech or Bill Clinton, even, at Oklahoma City.  But those happened so quickly after the event that the emotion was there. 

I think, tonight, he‘s going to have to manufacture a mist machine or get the emotion.  And I think he‘ll probably call some people some heroes, genuine heroes of the last weeks, and try to give them a spotlight for a moment or two.  So, it‘s, I think, a very, very key speech for his presidency.  But if he did it a week ago in the right way, I think he would have been in better shape than doing it now. 

His first visit to the region was a disaster, when he made the Brownie remark and talked about his drinking days and showed a kind of callous insensitivity.  Tonight, he is going to have to show a lot of compassion and a lot of heart. 

MATTHEWS:  Only one in 20 Americans think it‘s more important, what we‘re doing in Iraq now, than what we have to do on the Gulf?  Do you think the president is one of those one in 20?  Do you think his heart is really still set on this campaign to democratize the Middle East; that‘s where he‘s really centered?

BRINKLEY:  Well, I mean, the neocons have never been particularly great about the poor in America.  And this crisis is about the downtrodden in many ways, when you look at the people who are refugees or evacuees.

And whether it‘s the Astrodome or in Baton Rouge, or whatever, it‘s from the underclass.  It‘s that something Bush isn‘t known for.  Foreign policy, he came out of 9/11 all guns blazing kind of with the new approach, the Bush doctrine.  Well, we need now a Bush doctrine for homeland security. 

And New Orleans, as you know—and we have heard ad nauseam last week was a disaster waiting to happen, the same way the border with California, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona is a disaster waiting to happen.  But we‘re short of National Guard.  We are short on funds.  And we seem to still not have a federal government that‘s organized to take care of crises here at home, at least ones of this magnitude. 

So, he‘s got a lot of work ahead of him.  The bad news for President Bush is, no matter how good this speech is, in the coming weeks, when people investigate what went wrong, the finger is constantly going to be pointed at FEMA, along with state of Louisiana and local officials.

But I don‘t see where he finds a silver lining out of all this, unless New Orleans gets rebuilt in a glorious new way.  And that is going to take not a year or years.  It‘s going to take a decade.  And it won‘t be happening on his presidential watch. 

MATTHEWS:  That‘s true.  Timing is everything.

Thank you very much, Douglas Brinkley, a great historian.

BRINKLEY:  Thanks, Chris.   

MATTHEWS:  And a reminder.  At 9:00 Eastern tonight, we will have live coverage of the president‘s address from New Orleans.  It‘s going to be an interesting spot.  It‘s where we were two nights ago, right there in the Quarter. 

We will be back with Pat Buchanan and “Washington Post” columnist E.J.

Dionne to talk about this.

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Coming up, what are the political stakes for President Bush tonight as he addresses the country on the rebuilding of New Orleans? 

HARDBALL returns after this. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

E.J. Dionne is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute.  He‘s also a “Washington Post” columnist.  We all read him.  And Patrick J. Buchanan is an MSNBC political analyst.  Need I go on with his resume? 

You were a presidential speechwriter.  Tonight, the president‘s challenge and his speechwriter‘s challenge? 

PAT BUCHANAN, NBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Well, get right up front and say it.  We were all—we were slow off the mark.  The federal government didn‘t do the job.  The state government didn‘t do the job.  The local government.  I take responsibility and the blame rests right...

MATTHEWS:  Stick with that line, then? 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  That he made—he took the other day, that, it‘s my fault?

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  Well, here‘s the thing.  Not only that.

Look, the blame belongs here with the commander in chief.  Get that done.  Get that behind you.  Here‘s what we‘re going to do.  Get on top of this.  Get out in front of it.  And I honestly believe, Chris, the president can turn this around, because coming out of New Orleans henceforth, there is going to be by and large good news.  Things are happening.  Things are being built.  Lights are coming on.  Schools are opening, hospitals opening.

So, I think just get out in front, get on top of it, and show yourself as someone doing things.  And don‘t put on any fake emotion. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about the numbers.  We have been reviewing them all night here.  All the “Wall Street Journal”/NBC poll numbers show the president has taken a downturn across the board, not just with Katrina.  In fact, Katrina, he‘s about even, believe it or not, about 48/48.

But in terms of the war in Iraq, the war on terrorism, if you want to call it that, the economy, everything dropped to the lowest it‘s ever been.  Can he bring that back by doing what Pat says and grabbing the reins here? 

E.J. DIONNE, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  I don‘t think he can bring himself back to where he was three, four, five months ago.  I think the Bush era is over in that sense.

I think it began on the day with the bullhorn when he said, they will hear from us.  And it ended, if you want to date it, on September 2, when he went down there and there was no bullhorn moment. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Who is going to take the bullhorn away from him, a Democrat? 

DIONNE:  I‘m sorry?  Who is going to—I‘m sorry?

MATTHEWS:  Take the bullhorn away from him?  Who is going to take it away from him?

DIONNE:  Well, right now, the bullhorn is sort of floating around in the water. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  But doesn‘t somebody have to beat this guy?

DIONNE:  No.  I think there are two kinds of people who can take the bullhorn away from it.

One is some Democrat—and I do not for the life of me know who.

MATTHEWS:  I haven‘t spotted any in the last 10 weeks.

(LAUGHTER)

DIONNE:  And, also, I think the question is whether Republicans begin to say, hey, this thing is over.  We have got to prepare for the next round.  And I think, whether it‘s McCain or Hagel or any number of Republicans.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Have you noticed, by the way, think the Democrats have held back again?

BUCHANAN:  I have been in a White House.

MATTHEWS:  Sure, Pelosi does her job leading the Democrats in the House, taking a few shots.  But Hillary is basically not in this fight.  John Kerry is not back.  Ted Kennedy is not back.  He‘s busy with the hearings on the courts.  No Democrat is out front and saying, I could have done this better. 

(CROSSTALK)

DIONNE:  Well, no, but Hillary was out front saying, you can‘t have a partisan investigation. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

(CROSSTALK)

DIONNE:  So, in other words, so that I don‘t think there‘s a point at which...

MATTHEWS:  Do you think the country really gives a damn about who is going to run the commission on investigating this thing? 

(CROSSTALK)

DIONNE:  Well, I think the country gives a damn about getting the thing straight.  But here‘s the point. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, getting it straight.

DIONNE:  Here‘s the point.

I think tonight—I‘m sorry, Pat.  I think it‘s—this speech is a challenge that even Pat Buchanan, the great speechwriter, would have trouble with. 

BUCHANAN:  It is ridiculous...

(CROSSTALK)

DIONNE:  Because he has got a lot to answer for. 

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  It‘s ridiculous to say the Bush era is over. 

He‘s president of the United States.  He has the most powerful office on Earth.  He is going to spend $61 billion.  He can go to summits.  He can bring in troops, bring them out.  He can change the nature of the Supreme Court.  He can speak to the country.  And he‘s up against an opposition where you have got Jackson, Sharpton, Pelosi and Reid, not an impressive front four. 

MATTHEWS:  Where did you get that...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... from?

BUCHANAN:  That‘s not an impressive front four. 

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  Who is going to take...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Let me go into a particular question. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  A particular question.

DIONNE:  Why did you lead with Jesse and Sharpton?

MATTHEWS:  Everybody‘s going to be watching tonight.  Will the president name a person in charge down there, a job boss? 

BUCHANAN:  I would not do that.  I would not do that. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... won‘t do it or—he won‘t do it?

BUCHANAN:  I don‘t think he ought to do it and I don‘t think he will do it.  

MATTHEWS:  E.J., will he—should he or will he, or both? 

DIONNE:  I think he should, and he won‘t. 

But I think that—I think that the problem for the president is that old shampoo commercial, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.  He made a good first impression on September 14.  This time, this went on for two weeks.  He has got a real problem. 

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  Reagan had an Iran-Contra.  And I was in the White House.  And it was a horrible six months.  I have never seen him down, so off his game.

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  And he came back and ended with 70 percent and some of the greatest arms control treaties in history. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  When will we know who won tonight, polling tomorrow? 

BUCHANAN:  Polling tomorrow and HARDBALL tomorrow night will tell us. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  OK, we‘ll be right back. 

Good advertisement.  Thank you, E.J. Dionne and Pat Buchanan.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  We will be back. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with “Washington Post” columnist E.J. Dionne and MSNBC‘s political analyst the great Pat Buchanan. 

The latest poll numbers coming out is fascinating.  It shows that, if you asked the American people what they care most about, spending money, spending a lot of effort, 60 percent say rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf.  Only 5 percent say democratize Iraq. 

Now, maybe that‘s a bad question, E.J., but it grabs me, that 60 to 5. 

DIONNE:  Why is the president in so much in trouble over Katrina? 

It‘s because of everything that‘s happened in the last several months. 

The war in Iraq isn‘t going right.  And there‘s been a decline in support for that.  The economy is going badly.  Gas prices are high.  Right in the middle of Katrina, we had word that the number of poor people in the country, from the Census Bureau, we had word that the number of poor people had gone up, 4.1 million. 

There‘s a lot of unrest in the country.  And I think the failure at Katrina kind of galvanized that. 

MATTHEWS:  You think? 

(CROSSTALK)

DIONNE:  Yes, I do. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think that? 

BUCHANAN:  I think...

MATTHEWS:  Is Katrina one of those watershed moments where people say...

BUCHANAN:  I don‘t believe it. 

I think Katrina is—look, the president did a bad job.  He was diffident.  He was out of—out of step.  And it was badly handled.  But I think this gets behind him. 

Chris, that war in Iraq is critical, and not just for political and poll reasons.  If that goes bad in Iraq and that goes into a civil war, the Iranians will support the Shia.  The Turks will go after the Kurds.  The Sunnis will get help from Jordanians. 

MATTHEWS:  And why are you saying that today?  Because of what happened the last two days, right?

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  No.  You all...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Because al Qaeda seems to want to start that war. 

BUCHANAN:  Well, sure.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Al Qaeda wants to start—the guys who come in from outside say, here‘s their chance, get a war going...

BUCHANAN:  They want to ignite a war.  They want to ignite a Shia-Sunni war.  If that happens, Chris, you‘ll have oil at $150 a barrel. 

MATTHEWS:  What does it take for that war to escalate?  What does it take for it go from an insurgency and terrorism we face now to... 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... a real war?

BUCHANAN:  If the United States pulls out of there, you‘ll get that. 

That‘s why I don‘t think Bush can pull out.

MATTHEWS:  Because then the Shia will start shooting at the Sunnis. 

BUCHANAN:  Exactly.  But if you—I think that‘s why the Americans have got to stay.  But that is the horrible problem for the president. 

He is pinioned to that rock.  He can‘t pull out right now, even if he wants to and even if the American people want him to.  That is the dilemma and the real serious problem.

MATTHEWS:  Because we will have a Shia crescent of the oil-producing part of Iraq joining with, in coalition with the Iranians as a festering hate bomb against the United States.

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  Iran—Iran will have a satellite in Shia Iraq.  They could upset Kuwait.  You‘ll have—the Sunnis will have an internal civil war and the Turks will go after the Kurds if they declare independence. 

DIONNE:  I think the scary thing is, didn‘t we fight this war to make Iraq safe from Iran?

You have got the whole southern part of Iraq...

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

DIONNE:  ... which, as Pat said, could become a satellite.

And look at this constitution.  This is a no-win vote.  If the vote goes down because the Sunnis reject it—they need two-thirds in three provinces, there‘s a problem.  But what if, as Joe Biden sort of argued the other day, what if a majority of the Sunnis vote no, but they don‘t quite hit the two-thirds?  So, then you have got a constitution imposed on the Sunnis. 

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

DIONNE:  It‘s going to be a problem.

MATTHEWS:  The bottom line...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  The president of the United States said that he can do is like the old Jerry Ford joke, I guess, turned around.  He says, I can do two things at the same time. 

Can he?  Can he lead this rebuilding effort we are looking at now?

BUCHANAN:  I think—again—again, Chris, my feeling is, Katrina is gradually moving behind us.  It‘s going to get positive. 

But Iraq—you mentioned, yesterday, you had 165 dead—is going to come back to the front page.  And I see a solution to Katrina, with $60 billion going in.

MATTHEWS:  Sure.

BUCHANAN:  All the scalawags and carpetbags.

MATTHEWS:  Money talks.

(LAUGHTER)

BUCHANAN:  But I don‘t see the solution to Iraq. 

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  And if the economy starts going bad, then the president has got a very serious problem. 

MATTHEWS:  So in a weird way—excuse me, Pat—in a weird way, E.J., the president benefits politically by putting the focus on rebuilding America, as opposed to more focus on Iraq, ironically.  It‘s a horrible way to say it.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  But let me show you something he said tonight.

(CROSSTALK)

DIONNE:  He‘s still got the problem that he has got all this money going into Iraq and this war that isn‘t going well.

MATTHEWS:  Well, here‘s what he said tonight, which I think is great. 

It‘s going to be in his speech.  The White House leaked this to us:

“Taxpayers can expect this work to be done honestly and wisely.” 

That‘s the rebuilding of the Gulf area.  So, we‘re going to have a team of inspectors general.  That, as a—a guy who grew up in a big city, the one thing you‘re afraid of is the local councilmen, the ward leaders, everybody will have their hand out. 

(CROSSTALK)

DIONNE:  Not to mention the lobbyists, people like Joe Allbaugh, who used to head FEMA, who‘s now lobbying for contracts on that.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I‘m sure you were going to say Halliburton, too, right?

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  But there is corruption in New Orleans.  We all know it.  But there‘s going to be a lot of carpetbaggers and scalawags.  We are going to have Mardi Gras every night in New Orleans, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Spoken like a true Southerner, Pat.  Thank you. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  And thank you, E.J. Dionne.

MATTHEWS:  And a reminder.  Tonight, at 9:00 Eastern, we will have live coverage of the president‘s address from New Orleans. 

And I will be back tomorrow night at 5:00 Eastern for more HARDBALL with special guest Cokie Roberts from New Orleans. 

Right now, it‘s time for “THE ABRAMS REPORT” with Dan. 

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

END   

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