Guest: Eugene Robinson
KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST, “COUNTDOWN”: Good evening. I’m Keith Olbermann.
And, if you don’t already sense these stakes tonight, if you don’t already know the possibilities, indeed, fasten your seat belts, and send somebody out for dinner. You need to watch this.
The Democrats who would break the Republican hold on the White House assemble here together, for the first time, eight—count them—eight would-bes. And, while two of them would officially deny that this is the case, the spotlight dance tonight will undoubtedly feature Senators Clinton and Obama.
Since their declarations, they have gently thrown courteous brickbats at one another. Tonight, in their first joint appearance, that could continue, or their showdown could turn fierce, perhaps even—and, yes, this is being said eight months before the first primary—perhaps even decisive.
If you think they have gotten too much pub, a forum like this, a virtual rugby scrum, is ripe for the emergence of a long shot, and all of it—all of it taking place in this context. Just today, the Senate approved the plan to the fund and then end the war in Iraq.
And, thus, half of these eight Democrats have literally raced here from Washington to try to, in a switch on the old cliche, put their mouths where their votes already are, all of which drama lies an hour ahead, an hour we, Chris, will be spending previewing all we could see.
CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, “HARDBALL”: Well, I think it’s great, the way you set this up, because the idea of Hillary Clinton as Bette Davis in “All About Eve” is too rich.
MATTHEWS: Who was the young starlet she was worried about in the role now of Barack Obama?
OLBERMANN: Oh, goodness.
MATTHEWS: Anyway, she’s worried about the comer, because she’s the established queen.
Is Hillary Clinton able tonight to ignore the fact that Barack Obama is passing her on the outside rail in the polling?
OLBERMANN: Apart from the idea suddenly of Barack Obama as Eve Harrington in this equation....
MATTHEWS: That’s right, Eve Harrington.
OLBERMANN: ... I mean, it can’t be ignored, and, yet, it’s what the dynamic, what the fascination, beyond the headlines, will probably be here tonight. We don’t know to what degree they’re willing to bloody each other, to what degree they have to pull back and retain that little thin line that says, we’re all running against a common enemy, and who is that?
MATTHEWS: Well, I think it’s tricky, when you have the first ever African-American candidate who can actually have, it seems to me, the crossover appeal to actually pull it out and win the nomination. I mean, Jackson ran a couple of hell of a campaigns that came in second to Mondale and to Dukakis.
But this guy is moving up into the top reaches right now. Can Hillary take a shot at Obama; can Obama take a shot at her; and nobody else can take a shot at either one of them? That would be interesting, the spotlight dance.
MATTHEWS: I love the imagery.
OLBERMANN: And it’s an immunity-in-the-spotlight dance.
MATTHEWS: Well, I think the other one—as I’m watching some people like Bill Richardson, people who have the resumes, but don’t have the swag yet. Can they translate their resumes? Here’s a guy. He’s ambassador to the U.N., energy secretary, governor, congressman, international negotiator, prisoner releaser, whose dealt with some of the bad guys in the world, and yet is way back in the pack.
Can he just can speak very, oh, powerfully, and have people just sort of notice him tonight and say, wait a minute, how come he’s not up front?
OLBERMANN: Well, there’s all those dynamics.
MATTHEWS: And he’s Hispanic, too. He’s got another aspect...
OLBERMANN: If you ranked three—certainly three of the four, three of the top five candidates here, I mean, these are watershed moments in American moments. Three of the five are from atraditional backgrounds for any presidential candidate or even successful challenger for the nomination.
It is—it’s all that.
OLBERMANN: And it’s all playing into, how do they talk to each other? What kind of unified front do they present? And, of course, that little subtext of Iraq, how do they deal with that, and in what context...
MATTHEWS: Let me not miss my chance to talk about something I love to talk about, which is gender.
MATTHEWS: All our presidents have been men. They have all been white men. We know the facts. What happens when one of these candidates pull a Rick Lazio, as we saw in New York against Hillary, where he served her papers, basically, on stage, and everybody who is a woman goes, well, wait a minute, what is this? You can’t be aggressive against a woman candidate on stage, or you’re in big trouble.
What happens then? We’re going to know.
OLBERMANN: I guess we will know.
MATTHEWS: I think we...
OLBERMANN: Or maybe they will have the presence of mind not to do it.
MATTHEWS: We have somebody who is going to—we got a couple people joining us right now.
We have got Mark Penn, one of the smartest people around, a senior Clinton adviser.
He’s more than that.
MARK PENN, SENIOR CLINTON CAMPAIGN ADVISER: How are you?
MATTHEWS: Brilliant guy.
And of course, Gene Robinson of “The Washington Post.”
Mark, will Hillary Clinton play offense or defense tonight?
PENN: Well, I think we’re going to have a very solid, substantive debate. We’re going to talk about the issues. I think it’s the first time everybody’s going be in one room and one set of podiums to do just that. And I think that is what you will see.
MATTHEWS: But it’s a debate. It’s a debate. It’s not an issues conference. How is she going to fend off criticism of her vote to authorize the war in Iraq? What will she say?
PENN: Well, I think she’s going to say, as she always has—she’s explained that she takes responsibility for the vote. And she’s explained that she’s got a very, very strong position to bring this war to the end. And that’s exactly what you’re going to hear. It’s exactly what she said over and over.
OLBERMANN: Mark, I suggested that both Senator Clinton and Senator Obama would probably deny this, but there is the spotlight dance between them.
Is there—first off...
MATTHEWS: Do you like that imagery?
OLBERMANN: You’re going to deny that?
PENN: Look, I think there are going to be a lot of people up there, and the spotlight is going to be on everybody.
You know, you never know in these debates. Some unexpected candidates who have been back in the polls can do very well. You know that is what happens in these things.
OLBERMANN: And if there aren’t a lot of people up there, we have got another major news story. So, we will give you that one, at least.
MATTHEWS: Is this lowballing we’re watching now? Does this go in the textbook under lowballing?
MATTHEWS: Keep talking about the other candidates and what a big night they’re going to have.
MATTHEWS: Didn’t you hear lowballing? I thought I heard it.
EUGENE ROBINSON, COLUMNIST, “THE WASHINGTON POST”: I thought I heard something different. I thought I heard Mark say she’s going to come out swinging.
Is that what I heard you say, that she’s going be aggressive?
PENN: She’s going to come out talking about the issues. It’s what she does.
ROBINSON: Is she going to talk about experience, for example, in a pointed way, toward a certain senator from Illinois maybe?
PENN: No. I think she’s going to talk about her own experience, her eight years in the White House, her six years in the Senate, her 35 years as an advocate for children and families. I think those are some of the things that she’s going to talk about in terms of experience.
MATTHEWS: Mark, where’s Bill Clinton tonight?
PENN: Well, you know, President Bush sent him to Russia.
MATTHEWS: Did he?
PENN: He did, yes.
OLBERMANN: For the Yeltsin funeral.
PENN: You know, those presidents, they use those ex-presidents.
MATTHEWS: I think it’s a good use, too. I mean, funerals are important in politics. They always have been.
PENN: I think he’s there with the...
MATTHEWS: And Yeltsin was a great man.
OLBERMANN: Mark, how do you prepare a candidate in an eight-person debate? An eight-person debate, if it were only half-an-hour, would consist of everybody introducing themselves and having about a minute to sum up.
OLBERMANN: How do you prepare them?
PENN: Well, you know, I think that, in these debates, look, you’re still going to have—everyone is going to have their turn to talk about the issues.
And the moderator is going to run the debate, I think, so that everybody gets an equal amount of time. So, we will see. This is your first debate. I think, look, it will set the tone for the rest of the debates. I think we could have a great season here of substantive debates about the issues, and raise up, I think, some of the dialogue that we’re seeing.
MATTHEWS: If Obama says, she voted for the war, will she say, there you go again?
PENN: No. I think you’re—you know, I don’t think that you’re—it’s going to be this kind of debate.
I think it’s going to be—I think you’re going to see people talking about Iraq. She’s going to talk about health care, energy. The basic needs that people have in this country are really going to come out. After all, it’s been six years in the wilderness. And I think people are really anxious to see the Democratic candidates.
MATTHEWS: What is she wearing tonight?
PENN: You will see that. I will not—I would...
MATTHEWS: She is the only woman out there. So, everybody else will be in charcoal or navy, and then—and everybody else will have a red tie. So, she gets to be the distinguishing characteristic.
PENN: I didn’t know you were so into fashion.
MATTHEWS: I am fascinated by the visual, yes, I am, like whether somebody has a riser or not. Those kinds of things, I’m always fascinated by.
OLBERMANN: Gene, we have never had to deal with this before. Chris raises a fascinating point. All of a sudden, we have not just, as we said, the symbolic elements, both for Senator Obama, Governor Richardson, Senator Clinton. We have these practicalities. What is she going to wear, as opposed to, what are they going to wear?
ROBINSON: Right. Right.
It’s going to be a different kind of debate. It’s going to look different from any other presidential debate we have seen, because there’s a woman there. There’s a Hispanic. There’s a black guy. And what a setting for it, too, a historically black college in the South, where African-American issues are going to the fore and have to be addressed, and they will debate it.
MATTHEWS: Did you guys have to cast lots for the seating—standing arrangement? Or who is deciding the standing arrangement?
PENN: I think that was lots.
MATTHEWS: It was lots?
PENN: I think that was lots.
MATTHEWS: Is Hillary standing next to Obama or not?
PENN: I think so.
PENN: I think so. I’m not sure, but I think so.
MATTHEWS: That’s the luck of the draw.
ROBINSON: Luck of the draw.
OLBERMANN: ... run this run the NBA lottery.
MATTHEWS: Do you remember Rick Lazio went after her in that first...
PENN: I do remember that one.
MATTHEWS: Do you think that’s a mistake, for a guy to go into the space of another candidate? Remember, Gore did that. When you go into the space of another candidate, it seems like people root for the guy who was invaded.
PENN: I think that’s a very big mistake. I don’t think that anyone will be making that mistake for a long time.
PENN: It was quite interesting after that. A lot of the journalists thought, yes, that was good. But a lot of the viewers said, no, oh, that was bad.
MATTHEWS: And Gore did the same thing. It was a mistake.
So, we’re not going to see any close encounters?
PENN: I think you’re going to see—look, you’re going to see a lot of people united against President Bush.
MATTHEWS: Oh, you think...
PENN: And a lot of viewers are going to be interested in seeing the candidates. And it’s not the first time a woman has been in the presidential debates or a black candidate either.
This is not—last time...
MATTHEWS: Are you trying to take the excitement off tonight? Are you trying to say this isn’t historic?
Let me tell you—I will say this, is Barack Obama, as we all know, looking at the numbers, has a real shot at winning this whole thing. Jesse was always back as a candidate coming out of the protest movement that had a shot, but not a great one. This guy’s got a shot.
Look at these numbers.
PENN: Well, yes, I have been looking today. We had a good day in the polls, maybe not in your polls, but we had five other polls.
MATTHEWS: We go with the NBC poll here. You know where you are right now?
PENN: Well, we had...
MATTHEWS: You’re sitting at an NBC table. We look at the NBC polls.
MATTHEWS: The “Wall Street Journal” poll has it within five.
PENN: We had the Pew poll that had it 10, unchanged. We had Quinnipiac poll that came out in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida, 20 points ahead in each of those.
PENN: And a California poll where she’s 2-1 ahead of Obama. And, in four of those polls, Obama went down. And the ABC/”Washington Post” poll last week showed Obama going down, I think it was four points, below 20, and her moving up.
So, your poll is the outlier of five polls today and the ABC/”Washington Post” poll last week.
OLBERMANN: But it’s not...
PENN: Nice story, but no...
MATTHEWS: That’s all we have, is our facts. You have your arguments.
OLBERMANN: It’s not Senator Clinton vs. Senator Obama either. It’s more than that.
MATTHEWS: I like the spotlight dance. That is the image for tonight.
Tom Shales, are you watching? The spotlight dance, that is the one.
OLBERMANN: You can’t get a good review by plugging...
MATTHEWS: That is the greatest line in the world.
I know. I just blew it for you, didn’t I? I just blew it.
OLBERMANN: Thank you. That’s it. We’re over.
OLBERMANN: I’m going home now.
MATTHEWS: Anyway, thank you, Gene Robinson.
Thank you, Mark Penn. It’s great to have you on, in for Mandy Grunwald.
Anyway, we’re live here in South Carolina State University.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
MATTHEWS: And, when we return, we will talk to Patrick J. Buchanan and Robert Shrum.
The Democratic debate now just 45 minutes away.
OLBERMANN: We rejoin you live from the campus of South Carolina State University, 44 minutes hence, the first-in-the-nation Democratic presidential candidates debate.
I’m Keith Olbermann, alongside Chris Matthews.
And joining us now, MSNBC’s Pat Buchanan and former Democratic strategist Bob Shrum.
Gentlemen, good evening to you back there.
MATTHEWS: Let me go to Bob first, who has worked with Democrats.
Bob, everybody’s here tonight. They’re all going to be nervous. I’m sure Brian will be nervous, too. Everybody is worried about the importance of tonight.
But who has got to actually, in basketball terminology, shoot the ball; they have got to do something tonight? Who is it?
BOB SHRUM, NBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think, in a way, they all do. I think Keith was right when he said fasten your seat belts.
I think this could be different than the normal first debate, where people are just trying to survive. Hillary Clinton is the establishment choice. But that’s a little dangerous in a year when people want change.
Barack Obama has to move beyond his biography to talk substance. John Edwards really has try to own the health care issue. And those second-tier candidates have to try to inch up. So, I think people are going to try to do something in this debate. You can’t do a lot, because there are eight candidates on that stage. But you can go in there with one or two strategic objectives.
OLBERMANN: Pat, let’s put you in the role of the adviser to Senator Obama. Is that the advice you give him, to sort of hit a couple of times hard, but nothing serious?
PAT BUCHANAN, NBC POLITICAL ANALYST: I would tell Barack Obama, look, you’re up-and-coming. Everybody’s got their eye on you. You’re rookie of the year. Everybody came to the stadium to see you. You have got to show your personality and—and some wit and some passion and energy, and a little substance. But don’t try to get into a fight with Hillary Clinton or anyone else, because everybody’s watching you. And, if you perform on your own very, very well, you can win this debate, no matter what the others do.
Bob, do you agree with that, that he can do a solo act there effectively, almost solipsistically ignore Hillary?
SHRUM: I don’t—yes, I don’t think he’s going to attack her. And I don’t think she’s going to attack him.
First of all, despite Mark Penn’s very able spin in the last segment, I think it’s pretty clear that the attack that came from the Clinton campaign on Obama did Obama nothing but good, and hurt Hillary.
So, I don’t think we’re going to see that tonight. They may be itching to get some stuff out there on the war, that he voted for some of these resolutions to fund the war. But I don’t think she’s going to do it in this debate.
I think he can afford to make his case. He’s a shooting star. People have to decide whether or not—and they’re going to look at him tonight—he actually belongs up there in the firmament.
BUCHANAN: Here’s the way, Chris and Keith, I think you go about it.
What kind of sharp attack unites everybody on that stage and everybody in that audience? You go after Bush, Cheney, the administration. You really go after them with wit and humor and sharpness. That’s the kind of attack you can make there that nobody is going disagree with and everybody’s going to applaud.
SHRUM: Although, I would add, I think...
SHRUM: I’m sorry. Go ahead, Keith.
OLBERMANN: I was going to ask, Pat, if that’s the thing that everybody is going to agree on, isn’t it going to seem a little repetitive?
To some degree, obviously, a Democratic debate is going to be a Democratic pep rally.
OLBERMANN: But don’t you have to do something, especially if you’re not Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, to stand out from a crowd of eight other people out there? I mean, it’s not quite a baseball team...
OLBERMANN: ... but it’s enough to play a good four-on-four basketball game.
Well, here’s what Barack should do. He differentiates himself from Hillary Rodham Clinton by talking about this misbegotten war from the beginning, and saying, you know, it should never been waged, and we’re one vote away from ending it.
And I think that differentiates him.
I see a very tough time for folks like Dodd and Biden, both to differentiate themselves, and to be very dramatic.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, as for her, I would say, look, she’s got to not make a mistake. She’s got to come off as presidential and serene. And, frankly, she cannot get into this, if you will, where the voice starts rising, because, at that point, she’s her least effective. She’s got to come off as presidential.
SHRUM: Yes. I—I actually think...
MATTHEWS: Can she ignore—Bob, can she ignore—Hillary Clinton, the senator from New York, can she ignore a shot taken at her by, say, one of the outer possibility candidates like Kucinich?
If Kucinich says, people like Hillary Clinton—or imply her—who voted to authorize this war are the problem, not the solution, people who want to keep a residual military force in Iraq are the problems, not the solution, can she ignore that?
SHRUM: I think what she would say is: Look, everyone on this stage wants to end the war. George Bush wants to continue the war. That’s the big difference.
Her problem isn’t a shot from Kucinich, which I think she can largely ignore. Her problem is that she needs to have a script that takes her a little off-script, that makes her look a little spontaneous, that gives some energy and life to her presentation.
She could say something offbeat, for example. Look, I don’t know this, but I will bet Brian Williams is going to ask about guns, after what happened at Virginia Tech. They’re all going to have to answer the question. Maybe they are all going to duck it.
But, if she’s not going to duck it, maybe she ought to bring it up first, because her position, if she said, I was in—that she was in favor of restoring the ban on assault weapons, would actually say something about her character to Democratic primary voters and would make her look less programmed.
MATTHEWS: But, you know, Bob, she’s never going to—Bob, Bob, you’re setting the bar very high politically. You know she’s never going to do that. She’s made it clear she’s not going to make the Second Amendment an issue in this campaign.
SHRUM: It’s not the Second...
MATTHEWS: Why do you set the bar so high for her?
SHRUM: I’m not setting the bar...
MATTHEWS: Nobody is going to do what you say.
SHRUM: I don’t think that’s a very high bar.
I mean, the assault weapons ban passed when her husband was president. It lapsed because of the Republican Congress. It is very easy, I think, for her to say, or for any of these people to say, we ought to ban assault weapons, which, contrary to what Pat’s about to say, can’t be used to hunt anyone but human beings.
BUCHANAN: All right.
Let me say what I think that—the people who can differentiate themselves. What’s the big issue today? It’s the vote in the House and the Senate. The candidate who stands up and says, if there is no withdrawal deadline, I will deny the president of the United States the funds to continue this war, that candidate is going to have a sound bite that’s going to be played, and replayed and replayed, because that’s the big issue that’s coming up.
I mean, talking about health care and all that is good, but that’s all the—that’s scripted stuff, and everybody knows it. And it’s not dramatic. That’s what I would go for, if I were one of the other candidates who is looking to break through.
MATTHEWS: One of other candidates, yes, I agree with you. One of the front-runners is not going to call for cutting funds—cut the funds right off right now, because it’s too scary, just like big guns are too scary.
Anyway, thank you, Pat Buchanan.
And thank you, Bob Shrum. We will see you all, both of you guys, after the debate to see who won.
OLBERMANN: And, up next, we will check in with MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough from what they unashamedly call the spin room.
OLBERMANN: You’re watching MSNBC’s live coverage of the first-in-the-nation debate...
OLBERMANN: ... live from South Carolina State University.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
OLBERMANN: From South Carolina State University and the first Democratic presidential debate, we rejoin you.
Alongside Chris Matthews, I’m Keith Olbermann.
In a little over half-an-hour from now, they talk. In the interim, we get to.
Our colleague Joe Scarborough joins us now from the spin room.
And, Joe, maybe you have a better vantage point than I do about it, but never mind spinning. I don’t see that room moving at all yet.
JOE SCARBOROUGH, HOST, “SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY”: Yes, the room’s not moving at all. In a couple hours, obviously, it will be.
And, Keith, it’s going to be humorous listening to all of these advisers and consultants and pollsters coming in, telling us how their candidate won this debate and how the other candidates lost the debate, when, as you and I both know, each candidate is going to get about 15 or 20 seconds to talk tonight.
There’s going to be so many people on stage, it’s going be very difficult to differentiate yourself from the other candidates. But they’re going to come in here in a couple hours and try to explain why they won. So, it should be very interesting.
OLBERMANN: Strategically, if you were trying to dope this one out, and you were not Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, as you are not, but, if you were in this debate and not one of those two, would you try, as—sort of angling off, ripping off of what Bob Shrum said, would you try to say, hey, let’s—let’s see if we can pin down one of the major candidates on something extraordinarily controversial, like gun control, in the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy?
Would you go—would that be the strategy walking in here?
SCARBOROUGH: I certainly would go to the base if I were a Democrat other than Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. I would talk about gun control. I would talk about global warming.
But I would keep going back to the war. I mean, that is obviously the trump card tonight. And I would go after both of the candidates. I would go after Hillary Clinton for the votes that she made on Iraq from the very beginning.
And then I would ask Barack Obama: Senator Obama, you keep calling yourself the alternative to Hillary Clinton, but can you name for us a single vote that you have cast since you have been in Washington, D.C., that differed from Hillary Clinton?
And he would sit there, and he would stumble around, and he wouldn’t be able to say anything, because, despite what he said when he was back in the state legislation in Springfield, he has an identical voting record to Hillary Clinton.
And that’s how I would use, basically, the establishment candidates vs. the anti-establishment candidates. And I would say, hey, you know what? I’m not afraid to break out of the pack. I am not afraid to be different. I will stand up to the NRA. I will stand up to George Bush and Dick Cheney on global warming. And I will stand up to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on the Iraq war. And I actually will make a difference.
I mean, they have got to do that to break out of the pack.
MATTHEWS: How do you think Mike Gravel is going to do in the spin room, Joe?
SCARBOROUGH: How is who—pardon me?
MATTHEWS: Mike Gravel.
SCARBOROUGH: Oh, I don’t know. It’s hard to say how anybody’s going to do in here.
I do know, obviously, everybody’s going to be coming in here, talking about how they won the—the debate. But it seems to me that the winner tonight, we can say before it even starts, will most likely be Barack Obama, because he’s not going to pushed too much. He’s going to be able to talk in general themes.
Let’s face it. He’s here making history, and he’s going to strike a—he’s going to strike a very positive tone. But it’s going to be a generational tone. Forget the fact that he’s an African-American. He’s going to talk about a new generation. He’s going to try to set himself apart from baby boomers.
He is going to say, hey—he won’t say it, but he certainly will send the signal out there that this guy is about the same age as Bill Clinton was in 1992, when he was the new face of the Democratic Party. He’s going to try to cast Hillary Clinton as the past. It’s going to be very fascinating. I think there’s going to be a generational tone struck here. And I think it’s going to end up succeeding for Barack Obama.
OLBERMANN: Joe Scarborough in the spin room. And by the way, Mike Gravel will get something out of this. He’s going to be the award for the person who traveled the farthest for the debate. So that at minimum is his award for the night.
MATTHEWS: I was at the Democratic Convention in 1972 when Mike Gravel held up the convention at midnight, putting his own name and nomination for vice president saying who says that a dually-elected senator cannot put his own name in nomination for vice president, which forced George McGovern to address the country with his acceptance speech at 2:30 in the morning. And here the guy is, all these years later, what 35 years later, he’s advanced now from endorsing himself for vice president over 35 years to endorsing himself for president. You have to wonder about the daintiness of MSNBC to include him on this list. You’ve got to wonder.
OLBERMANN: Well, or correctness. There’s a Harold Stassen curve going on there. But we have one interesting note here, I’d love to know what you think of this, from Mike Murray of NBC’s political unit. A few moments ago, Senator Barack Obama walked into Senator Hillary Clinton’s holding room to chat with her. All right, what was that about?
MATTHEWS: Well you know, they used to say it’s like Bill Russell always wanted to take Will Chamberlain out to dinner the night before a game to soften him up. Maybe that’s what we’re watching here. He’s softening up Hillary.
OLBERMANN: Did he bring her a present?
MATTHEWS: Well, he brought her his love. And you, Tom Shales we are watching again, the spotlight dance tonight, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Look at those young people dance. We’ll be right back. By the way, Tom Brokaw, he’s moderated debates during his career, some big ones, and he’s joining us when we come back. You’re watching MSNBC’s live coverage of the first in the country democratic debate. It’s a half hour away.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to South Carolina State University where the Democrats tonight are going to have the first in the country presidential debate for 2008. What an event we’re going to have in just a few minutes from now – Keith?
OLBERMANN: I’m Keith Olbermann. If this night needs selling, we might as well go right to the high end market. Imagine if you could have been there and known in advance that Ronald Reagan could take Jimmy Carter apart with a seemingly innocuous phrase like, “There you go again,” or if you had be warned about the watershed that was the Nixon/Kennedy debates. Or let’s shoot for the moon here, what would you have done if you were in Galesburg or Freeport or Quincy the late summer or the early fall of 1858 and you heard that Mr. Douglass and Mr. Lincoln were in town and planning on going give a little joint talk.
We may not get Lincoln/Douglass tonight, but as our next guest knows, there are no ceilings to these things. NBC’s Tom Brokaw, who has moderated so many of these, has been good enough to join us tonight. Tom, good evening.
TOM BROKAW, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Good evening, Keith. The big difference, of course, references that you made is that those were mano a mano debates, just two people on stage playing for the big game. Tonight, this is like a camp in the NFL or major league baseball. We’ve got all these very hot draft prospects on the stage tonight. We’ll see who can run the 40 in 4.2 seconds and go left, or go right, or go deep.
Because that’s really what this debate is all about tonight. There’s going to be a lot of people looking in, mostly from the political press and of course from the political pros in this country. America is just now beginning to tune into the idea that we’re going to have a presidential election. It’s not this year, it’s a year from now, so we’ve got a long way to go.
MATTHEWS: That’s right, you know Tom, one of the things to look for in a candidate as you mentioned earlier, is spontaneity, and I was recalling, I want you to comment on this clip we have from the moment in the Carter/Ford debate in ’76 when the electricity went out, the sound went off, and they just stood there.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JIMMY CARTER, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: One of the very serious things that has happened in our government in recent years and has continued up until now is a breakdown in our trust among the people.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The audio has been lost momentarily. We hope to get it back any minute. We don’t know what’s happened to it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BROKAW: You know, and it was a lost opportunity there for either candidate, Chris. Neither man walked across the stage, shook hands with the other and just kind of schmoozed for a while, appear to be a regular guy. They stood there in what someone later described like two guys waiting to have their pants pressed. They were standing in those podiums and it went on forever. It was not one of the great shining moments in presidential debate history.
OLBREMANN: But of course, it doesn’t have to be explosive, Tom, you don’t have to have something like the lights going off, or someone making one of these landmark statements, you can do as I referenced earlier, you can do what Ronald Reagan did to Jimmy Carter and take an ordinary phrase and simply my repetition, making into the theme for a campaign.
BROKAW: Yes and the other thing, I remember that debate so well, Chris, because the Carter people were licking their chops. They thought they were going to finally get this Hollywood actor on stage.
I kept saying, cautious. I’ve watched him from 1966 on in California, and you may remember that when the debate began, Ronald Reagan came sliding on stage and walked over to Jimmy Carter, that great killer studio smile of his, shook his hand, and looked like he was in command from then on.
Strikingly, the Carter campaign team thought at the end of the debate that they had won. And it demonstrated once again that these debates are not just about your position on nuclear power or consulting with your daughter Amy about the dangers of nuclear power. It really is tonal, it’s about whether the country is comfortable with you, and feel that you’re in command of who you are and that you’ve got your facts in order. Ronald Reagan went a long way toward doing that that night.
MATTHEWS: The most recent history we have Tom, is of course the last presidential debates between Kerry and Bush. They weren’t decisive, were they? Because people thought Kerry did pretty well in the first one. Maybe the second one was a tie. But there wasn’t a decisive debate last time, was there?
BROKAW: No, I don’t think so. My impression of that series of debates is that in that first debate in which John Kerry did do well, he simply caught up. He was trailing that point, and he made it a much more competitive race. The people around George W. Bush told him he had done very well, when the rest of the country didn’t share that judgment.
It wasn’t until I think 10 or 12 days later that the president was on the plane and asked Matthew Dowd who’s now deserted him, as his bolster, how he thought he had down. And Matty Dowd said to him, Mr. President, I think we have to improve.
And the president went up and down the aisle of the plane and says to Karen Hughes and others, Matty thinks that I didn’t win that first debate and of course that’s always a difficult moment for any staff member. Candidates are best served when they’re told the truth.
OLBERMANN: Tom Brokaw is staying with us. And we’ll be back for more from South Carolina State University as the clock ticks down. Just about 18 minutes to go to the first Democratic presidential candidates debate right here on MSNBC.
OLBERMANN: Welcome back to South Carolina State University and MSNBC’s coverage in the waiting moments before the start of the debate and at the Martin Luther King Jr. auditorium right now, the eight presidential candidates are on the stage. And as you see them, camera right, there is some hand shaking going on. Of course we already had heard that Senator Obama decided to do his hand shaking a little earlier than the rest and went to Senator Clinton’s space to say hello.
MATTHEWS: Very interesting. Tom Brokaw is with us now. Let’s take a look at one of the interesting debates, maybe the only one in the history of vice presidential debating that everyone fondly or unfondly remembers.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DAN QUAYLE, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT: I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency.
LLOYD BENTSEN, FORMER VICE PRSEIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: Tom, I think that shows the power of reaction shots. We were watching that – I don’t know if you can see the screen of poor Dan Quayle just taking that punch for all it was worth. Does that tell us that you can win or lose a debate based on one minute?
BROKAW: Well, I actually asked that question. It was the third time that we had asked the question of Dan Quayle, about what he would do if he had found himself as president. It was in a vice presidential debate in Omaha, and I had been since then that Jim Baker and other handlers of Dan Quayle had said to him, do not raise the question of JFK comparison. He had been doing it in private, apparently. And they said, don’t get into that. And then of course he did, and I remember afterward that Spencer came out to me and said, Brokaw, you had to ask him one more time, didn’t you?
Because he tried to answer that in two different rounds. The interesting thing is that obviously Lloyd Bentsen had a very good night, they lost the election. Then several months later, Chris, you’ll be interested in this—Mike Barnicle got a call from Dave Powers at the JFK Library in Boston , Dave said in that inevitable sound, Mikey, your friend Tom Brokaw asked that question to Dan Quayle and Bentsen said John Kennedy was a friend of mine. You know John Kennedy. We all thought that was pretty interesting, but we’ve gone back into the archives here, we don’t think that Lloyd Bentsen even knew John Kennedy. So that’s a little catch up as well on this.
OLBERMANN: Is there any chance in a situation like that that what we perceive and what history has perceived as the knock out punch and this horribly humiliating moment might have been someway redounded if not to the personal benefit of Dan Quayle, then at least to that tickets benefit, that there is some sense that if you get slapped down in this situation, that it may not be a bad thing in the long run?
BROKAW: I’m not sure getting slapped down is ever a good thing. But I do think that the country takes in a much wider screen than any of us do. That they don’t concentrate on those moments that might be humiliating memorable when they go to the polls as they did that year.
They make decisions on other issues. You remember that George Herbert Walker Bush was down I think 18 points in August right after the democratic Convention. And they made an astonishing comeback against Mike Dukakis and Lloyd Bentsen, for a variety of reasons, mostly mistakes on the Dukakis side.
OLBERMANN: We’ve shown the marquis ones, Tom, those three memorable clips of those three memorable events. But what else – what is front of mind for you in this jump-ball situation? What can happen, what has happened in this large scale, free for all, mixer debates like the one we’re having tonight?
BROKAW: Well, I remember very well doing a debate in our Washington D.C. studios in 1992, and Bob Kerry was there, and Doug Wilder of Virginia was there, Jerry Brown was there and this young governor from Arkansas was there. I have two vivid memories, one is that before the debate began, I went backstage to say hello to each of the candidates.
And Hillary was helping Bill Clinton pick out his tie. I think they decided to go with a blue tie as the other candidates all seemed to have red ones. And then at the end of the debate, you just had the impression that Bill Clinton, they’re all thoroughbreds, Bill Clinton had thoroughly moved out in front of the pack in terms of his grasp of foreign policy and economic matters and American politics and what was possible.
So that was a debate in which there was not any eureka moment or oh, my god. But at the end of the time, Bill Clinton had thoroughly shown that he was not just a governor from a rural state.
OLBERMANN: Tom, I feel out of my depth in interrupting you for breaking news. But there is breaking news and sad news from the world politics. Jack Valenti, the former Motion Picture Association of America president, special assistant key and vital I think is a fair description to President Lyndon Johnson, especially during that awful transition period after the assassination of President Kennedy – Jack Valenti has died at the age of 85. That coming from the Motion Picture Association of America. A sad note in the moments beforehand, Tom.
BROKAW: Waiting to hear that news. I’ve been in touch with his friends and family for the last 48 hours. He had a stroke. He was taken off the ventilator. He was one of the great colorful figures, often underestimated in Washington D.C. for the edacity of his advice and his astonishing command of language and his ability to write a speech.
I thought about him the other day, I was very fond of Jack. After he left the Johnson White House under very difficult circumstances for members of the Johnson team obviously, the president felt that he had been driven from the White House by his own party.
Jack Valenti stayed in Washington and became a very popular figure in both Republican and Democratic social circles. A diminutive man, but with an astonishing war record. I think he flew 35 combat missions as a B-24 pilot in World War II. And he had a public relations agency in Texas. And he was helping Lyndon Johnson of the time of the John F. Kennedy assassination. Got on the airplane and flew back and lived in the White House for a while.
MATTHEWS: Uh huh. I knew him, I just heard this first time. I didn’t know what that Tom knew about his condition. Everybody liked Jack Valenti.
OLBERMANN: And I think Tom’s assessment of him in history is spot on. An underrated figure to say the absolutely minimum and at a critical time, in not just a president’s history of a party’s history, but in a nation’s history. He was involved in the heeling of 1963, and 1964.
MATTHEWS: And something else, he’s old school. He represented the era of oratory, of being formal in the way you deal with people. He really was, Tom knows this a bit being in transition, you’ve been through this transition, but the ‘60s and all changed everything. People became informal. They didn’t know how to give a speech any more. Well Jack comes from that era, he came from that era where people really practiced public presentation and behavior. And there was a formality in the way you dealt with people in public. And it’s a grand old style. Wasn’t it, Tom, that has faded now?
BROKAW: Yes, you know, the thing I loved about Jack is that he had this astonishing vocabulary that he liked to roll out from time to time. But he would stand up in a room and seemingly in a spontaneous fashion, mention the name of everyone there and then give a pretty complex speech without notes. But that was a trick that he learned. And you have to have a fair amount of ambition to pull it off and he loved doing it. And he loved walking into a room where there was something going on and as I say, he had friends on both side of the aisle.
He became an enormously important figure for the Motion Picture Association in Washington dealing with issues of censorship and vulgarity in movies, and making sure that when movie stars came to town that it was the right kind of party for them because the lines between Hollywood of course and Washington D.C. are often faint if they’re there at all. Those two cultures loved each other, they loved to share the spotlight.
MATTHEWS: They do and it wasn’t a bad profession to have to bring glamorous movie stars like Kirk Douglas back to meet the Powells (ph) because they both wanted to meet each other so much.
BROKAW: I was just going to say one quick snapshot of Jack. I remember the day that Elizabeth Taylor came to Washington and ended up marrying John Warner, but on her first day in town, Jack had a lunch for her and there was no one more proud than this little Texan as he led Elizabeth Taylor to the room on his arm. It was pretty memorable.
OLBERMAN: Well, we’ll switch the topic back. And I’m sure there will be an appropriate commemoration of Jack Valenti’s memory tonight at the debate. But not to reduce his life to this kind of annex to what we’re talking about.
But this is something, is it not, that these outside events that can change what we’re expecting in a debate. Tom, I don’t expect that we’re going to a debate about the merits of Jack Valenti or what he did for LBJ, but there will be a touch of what happened in that time affecting this time and a totally unpredictable one too, don’t you think?
BROKAW: I do and what I think is that the loss of Jack gives an opportunity to talk about what he represented in politics and part of what he represented was civility, the ability of people who had differences within their own party or across party lines to talk to each other in a civil fashion and see if they couldn’t move the country forward.
He was a real patriot. He came out of World War II, he was a great devoted helper to Lyndon Johnson. But he had a lot of friend in the much more liberal wing in the Democratic Party as well.
And he was constantly thinking about how this country can advance itself and who should take part in that. He was going until just a few weeks ago when he had what turned out to be this fatal stroke.
And he was always exuberant and ebullient about the future of this country. So it is a loss and moreover, it’s also a reminder of what these Democrats I think tonight will probably have in mind is that the country is eager for a change in tone in American politics.
They really don’t want the sniping and the cheap shots, and the yelling and the finger pointing. They think that these are difficult times and they’re looking for leaders who can move them forward by speaking to them in a straightforward fashion.
OLBERMANN: Tom Brokaw and we’re going to take a very short break here in the waiting moments before the top of the hour and the first Democratic candidates debate, you are watching MSNBC.
OLBERMANN: We are back in the moments before the presidential debates. We are at Orangeburg, South Carolina and well, they’re going to do all the talking in a few minutes.
MATTHEWS: Yes, I think we will have several million people watching tonight on all the networks. We’re of course covering it here on MSNBC. Everybody is going to see bits of this on YouTube and everything else.
Let’s talk about how times have changed. Years ago, if you made a snafu like we saw the other – we’re watching by the way, the set right now where the candidates are going to be debating. Years ago, if you made a mistake like Dan Quayle walking into that ditch where he tried to make himself Jack Kennedy and paid for you, you could pay a heavy price for it.
But today within seconds of a mistake like that, it will be on YouTube, it will be on computer, people will be watching it, calling their friends, sending it around to friends, it will multiply, it will metastasize to the point that every political junkie in the country will know about the flub.
If there is a really good zinger tonight, someone going at someone else, there is going to be an explosion of information. So I would say by midnight tonight, anything big that happens tonight will be known by everybody who gives a damn about this election, which is probably right now five to 10 million people, right now.
OLBERMANN: When you think that the Lincoln/Douglass debate, not to invoke them again too gratuitously, when it took several days for that information to get into the newspapers of Illinois, nevermind, around the country before. It’s an extraordinary metamorphosis.
Chris and I are going to yield the stage now to the main attractions. We are staying put to watch a picture perfect South Carolina evening unfold, full of endless political possibility with just that slight chance that we could have a little fireworks demonstration later on in the evening. We will rejoin you 90 minutes from now from this very same stage, interviews with the candidates, analysis and full measurements of the pyrotechnics, if any. And now, the first in the nation, MSNBC’s live coverage of the Democrat.