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Can Bush win back the support of the country?

What can the President accomplish in his term with the ongoing war in Iraq and growing bipartisan criticism?  Vanity Fair's Christopher Hitchens and the Rev. Al Sharpton debate whether Bush can win back the country.
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The president spent a lot of time this past week defending the Iraq war and his decisions in it.  In an effort to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis the president may have lost the hearts and minds of American across the country.

Many have questioned how Bush will continue to deal with the criticism throughout the end of his term and how history will remember him.

Christopher Hitchens, contributing editor and writer for “Vanity Fair” magazine and the Reverend Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network and a former Democratic presidential candidate joined Hardball on Friday to discuss what’s left for Bush as his terms reaches its final stages.

To read an excerpt from their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, ‘HARDBALL’:  Are you running again? 


MATTHEWS:  Oh yes.  Come on.  You're back in there.Let me go right now to this question.  Can he win back support for the war, Christopher?  I know you support the war.  Can he win it back?  He had it.  He's losing it in the polls. 

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, VANITY FAIR COLUMNIST:  There are two images or impressions you can give in this circumstance.  One is that you change your mind according to the last person you spoke to.  You change your mind according to opinion polls and to bad news bulletins.  And the other is that nothing would un-convince you that you were right in the first place and that you were doing something just and necessary. 

Over time I'm sure it is much better tactically as far as strategically and morally to give the second impression, to say no, I am not going to be. 

MATTHEWS:  But is it real?  Can the president say I am what I am, I was right from the beginning?  Is that true?  Does he believe that? 

HITCHENS:  Let me try an example.  I won't take a second.  When Clinton ran first for president, he said what was going on in Bosnia, neglected by then President Bush, it reminded him of the German attempt to the final solution.  You make a statement like that, you can't very easily take it back. 

When he became president, he didn't find it convenient to live up to the promise to the Bosnians, and he said, hey, I just read this great book by Robert Capford that says they are hopeless you can't do anything.  They just want to cut each other's throats.  It is a lost cause.  He didn't do anything until he was finally forced to do something too late.

Bush doesn't give me the impression of a man who talks to—or rather is swayed by, I mean to say, the last person he spoke to or the last article he read.  And I think over time that's the right impression to give is that I'm not goingsay, we've met the enemy.

MATTHEWS:  But what about he's swayed by the first book he has read? 

HITCHENS:  Well, it would depend on which one that was. 

MATTHEWS:  Some neo-conservative diatribe that talked him into the war. 

HITCHENS:  I wish he had read my own book on Iraq, but I can swear to you that he's not.  He doesn't read for pleasure anyway, which I like to think the experience of encountering my book is. 

But he says we've met the enemy and it is not us.  We did not bring this war on ourselves.  We have nothing to apologize for to these people.  We're looking straight down the gun barrel into the face of Mr. Zarqawi and Saddam's goons and Saddam.  One of us is going to lose and it will not be our side.  I think that is exactly the right policy to take.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  That is an argument for the administration that we are facing in effect a coalition of people which include the Baathist remnants of the last regime over there, the Sunnis who don't like the Shias taking over and these Zarqawi elements, this five, 10 percent of the fighters on the other side, whatever they are they are there and they are trouble.  Is that fair to look at them, the enemy? 

SHARPTON:  I think that he's going to have his party crash and burn because the facts are not as simple as that.  The facts are he told the American public he was going to war because of weapons of mass destruction. 

He told the American public, he was going to go and get bin Laden.  There are many things that you can go through this thing of he's being heroic and courageous with his beliefs, but you have to then hold him accountable for what he promised the American public.  And his party has got to bear the brunt of that. 

So he can be obstinate and call it courageous or he can come and say, you know what?  I did mislead the public.  Maybe I was misled by my intelligence, and I've taken care of them.  I fired this one.  I've severed ties with that.  He's never said that. 

He's never came back to the American public and explained how things that he claimed to be facts were in fact not true.  That's his problem.  His problem is not whether he believes the last person he talked to.  His problem is what they stated to be a fact was not a fact. 

MATTHEWS:  Christopher? 

HITCHENS:  Well, I've hate in a way to agree with this, but I've said it to you many times.  I can't understand why Mr.  Tenet was allowed to resign and wasn't fired, for example.  I can't understand how Secretary Powell was allowed to retire and wasn't fired. 

MATTHEWS:  Because of the claims they made about WMD.

HITCHENS:  Well, no, and not only that but for leaving us under open skies on September 11, as did the FBI.  All of these people are still working there.  I have been banging on about this for ages.  That is all true.  That would have happened to any president though after 9-11.  It was independent in a way of the confrontation with Iraq. 

The president, I think, has given too much away on the WMD.  I mean there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, we just didn't find them. 

MATTHEWS:  How do you know?

HITCHENS:  Well, look the Iraqi regime claimed to them, and they gave their list to the U.N.  And we said well where are they?  They never showed where they were.  We can say this though, the Iraqis are disarmed now.  We can certify they are disarmed. 

MATTHEWS:  Wait a minute.  If we don't know where the weapons where when we went in, how do you know where they are now? 

HITCHENS:  I don't know where they are now. 

MATTHEWS:  You said they're gone now. 

HITCHENS:  No, my assumption is that the Iraqis may have been correct in having said that they destroyed them, but to destroy them was illegal.  Iraq was not allowed to destroy the weapons.  They had to turn them into the U.N. government, have them bagged and tagged. 

MATTHEWS:  This is all speculation.

SHARPTON:  There is no evidence.

HITCHENS:  It was speculation, but it is not true to say that there was no WMD threat from Iraq.  That's now become a conventional view that's entirely false.  It was a regime with a proven record of using and concealing them. 

If you did not agree with President Bush, you had to say you were taking Saddam Hussein's word for it.  And I don't remember the reverend saying that. 

SHARPTON:  No, I don't say that I take his word for.  You saying you take his word  you are saying because they said they had weapons to the U.N. therefore they had it.  I am saying that before you lose 2,300 American soldier's lives, you should know what you are talking about.  And obviously we didn't.

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me ask you this.  Let's move onto the future. 

HITCHENS:  The evidence of the weapons was compelled from them by the United Nations.  They gave it under duress.  And there was no reason to doubt it.  They had used them and possessed them in the past.

MATTHEWS:  Let's talk about the future, what we got here.  We are about halfway through this game.  OK, let's say it is a nine-inning game.  We are fourth inning right now, right, in this war.

HITCHENS:  I don't know about games.

MATTHEWS:  Well, fifth innings.

HITCHENS:  Don't do games.

MATTHEWS:  I'll do the games.  All right, fifth inning.  Halftime. 

HITCHENS:  There's a stretch in the seventh inning.

MATTHEWS:  If, during the first four or five innings, your batter gets up to bat and he strikes out on the WMD, he strikes out on the fact that it was going to be a cake walk, strikes out on the fact that we were going to be greeted as liberators.

HITCHENS:  No, no—we were greeted as liberators.  I saw it myself. 

MATTHEWS:  Pictures. 

HITCHENS:  No.  I was there I saw it myself.  American soldiers and British soldiers were greeted by hundreds of thousands of people with real joy.  I saw it myself.  I can't believe people say it didn't happen. 

MATTHEWS:  The image is that of France in 1944, where we were greeted as liberators and treated as liberators. 

HITCHENS:  The French unfortunately would be fighting on the other side. 

MATTHEWS:  Why should we believe the people who have been wrong, have struck out in each one of these cases?  Put them at bat and ask for a homerun? 

SHARPTON:  We should.  And I think that that's the problem and I think for the Cheney statements today and others to try and act as though they can shift this to the competence of the Democrats, when they were in charge not only of the White House but of the Congress, is what's going to come and burn them in the midterm election. 

There's never been in recent times such a consolidation of power in this town. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you a tough one:  Who would be better to run this war in Iraq right now, Commander-in-Chief Bush, or Commander-in-Chief Pelosi?  Who would be a better a commander-in-chief?  You have a Democratic leader who has been chosen by the Democratic party in the House of Representatives to be their leader.  Would you put that person up there as commander-in-chief?

SHARPTON:  She was chosen to be a congressional leader, she was not chosen to be a military leader.  You would have to ask about someone who was running for president that we said—Commander-in-Chief Kerry would have been better than Commander-in-Chief Bush.  Pelosi was never nominated to be commander-in-chief. 

HITCHENS:  Senator Kerry did say—it's the only reason I'm sorry he didn't win, is that his claim, elect me and I'll show you my program for complete military and political victory in Iraq.  I would have loved to have seen what that was going to be.  I would have been prepared to back him on it, too.

MATTHEWS:  You think it was an empty promise? 

HITCHENS:  I'm not so sure.  It's like Clinton's promise on Bosnia, comparing it to the final solution.  A remark like that once made cannot be taken back.  It's to serious to be withdrawn. 

MATTHEWS:  Are you confident we should stay in Iraq permanently? 

SHARPTON:  You should have voted for him.

HITCHENS:  Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore urged the Senate to pass the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998.  They said they would settle with Saddam Hussein because co-existence with him was impossible. 

The Democrats didn't do it, and now the Republicans have got to do it for them. 

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about this Cheney thing.  Cheney is an interesting guy.  Many people think he's the most powerful vice-president in history.  But then he goes out today with a mission which he announced himself—I've never heard a vice-president do this—he said I'm going out to defend the president of the United States against the charge of incompetence.  I just find that so ironic and so almost disloyal to Bush because it makes it look like, yes, they make a charges against him and I have to defend him. 


SHARPTON:  I think if anything, it hurts Bush even more.  Here is the president at his lowest numbers, and now it looks as though the vice-president, who is supposed to be at best, a shadow of the presidency, now I'm going to go and I'm going to lead the charge in all of MY controversy.  By the way, you couldn't have had a more controversial vice-president.  So I'm going to lead the charge to help you understand that my friend is competent—and who's talking?  The guy who you've got all these questions about. 

MATTHEWS:  I'm going to vouch for him. 

SHARPTON:  I'm going to vouch for him.  Me, with my ethics concerns, all the way to my hunting.  Believe me, there couldn't be a worse defender for Bush.

MATTHEWS:  Does the president need a character witness?  I mean, the vice-president coming out—his numbers are believably, incredibly, 10 points lower than the president's.  He's down in the 20s. 

HITCHENS:  I'm in enough trouble as it is, I might as well add to that.  I have always thought Dick Cheney is quite funny, and often intentionally so. 

MATTHEWS:  So this is a riot.

HITCHENS:  You remember when he was interrupted by applause during the last campaign, and he glared at the audience and said, “Do you want to hear the end of this speech or not?”  Everyone thought, God, what a shark-like figure, what a brute!  I think he was trying to be funny.

I think he was trying to be funny today, when he mentioned “American Idol.” 

But I like my humor dry, to be quite honest.  And he's not dumb either.  Unfortunately today he was defending the indefensible position that the administration takes on wiretapping.  That's what he set out to do. 

I'm a plaintiff in the lawsuit earlier that says they can't do that, they're breaking the law and trampling the Constitution.  But while we're having this life and death argument, we might as well have a few laughs, I suppose. 

SHARPTON:  And I think that that is something that will help the Democrats because it's nothing to laugh about, the wiretapping issue, as well as other issues.  And you couldn't have had—if we had a meeting at Democratic headquarters to choose who we could get to defend Bush, Dick Cheney would have won.  So I think that they gave us one.  He would be by far the one I would want to help Bush at this point. 

MATTHEWS:  Who is funnier, you or Dick Cheney?

SHARPTON:  I'm really funny.  There's a difference in being funny and being the fun, and Mr. Cheney is the fun at this point. 

Watch each night at 5 and 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC.