Guests: Jay Carney, Rachel Maddow, Joe Watkins; Todd Purdum, Michael Graham
DAVID GREGORY, HOST: Tonight, a headline-grabbing new book about the case for war in Iraq. Was it an intelligence failure or, as journalist Ron Suskind claims, an out-and-out deception? How does this affect the debate over how to get out of Iraq?
The RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE rolls on.
Welcome to THE RACE. I‘m David Gregory. Happy to have you here, your stop for the fast-paced, the bottom line and every point of view in the room.
Tonight, the latest on the state of the race, including new poll numbers out tonight from Associated Press/Ipsos. Their latest head-to-head match-up has Obama leading 47 percent to McCain‘s 41 percent.
Later, the new book “The Way of the World” by Ron Suskind, his new claims about what the president knew about Saddam‘s weapons program or lack of it before he ordered the invasion of Iraq. Is the question of why we went to war in Iraq a central part of the debate about how to get out?
Also ahead, Bill Clinton. As team Obama tries to end the drama with Senator Clinton, is it the former president who‘s standing in the way? If you listen to what he‘s saying about Obama these days, you might think so.
Also tonight, “Face-Off.” Why isn‘t Barack Obama farther ahead? Is getting to know him part of the problem for the voters? A “Face-Off” tonight.
The bedrock of our program, a panel that always comes to play.
And with us tonight, Joe Watkins is back, a Republican strategist and former White House aide to President George H. W. Bush. He‘s also an MSNBC political analyst. Todd Purdum is the national editor for “Vanity Fair.” He‘ll have some special insights on Bill Clinton tonight. Rachel Maddow is the host of “The Rachel Maddow Show” on Air America, and also an MSNBC political analyst, as you know. And Jay Carney is Washington bureau chief for “TIME” magazine.
We begin as we do every night, with everyone‘s take on the most important political story of the day. It is “The Headline.”
Jay, you‘re going to get us started tonight. You‘re looking at McCain‘s latest ad. You think he‘s kind of on the ball here, on to something?
JAY CARNEY, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, “TIME”: Well, he‘s changing tactics, David. My ad (sic) today is, “McCain Remembers Who He Was.”
His new ad is called “Broken,” and what it breaks is a streak of nonstop attacks from the McCain campaign on Barack Obama. The new ad, instead, recalls McCain‘s record as a so-called maverick in Washington. Have a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
NARRATOR: Washington‘s broken. John McCain knows it. We‘re worse off than we were four years ago.
Only McCain has taken on big tobacco, drug companies, fought corruption in both parties. He‘ll reform Wall Street, battle big oil, make America prosper again. He‘s the original maverick, one who is ready to lead—McCain.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CARNEY: Now, I think, David, the attacks will not stop on Obama. They succeeded, I think, in reinvigorating the McCain campaign and exciting Republicans and making them believe that perhaps they won‘t lose this race in the fall after all. But the McCain campaign will spend, I think, a certain and great deal of money on reminding voters of what it was they thought they liked about McCain before this campaign.
GREGORY: Right. It is striking, though. It says that you are worse off than four years ago, not eight years ago. The four years ago, when he did campaign for Bush‘s re-election.
CARNEY: Right. Well, it is interesting. And it‘s a hard situation, because as we know, President Bush will speak at the Republican convention.
CARNEY: President Bush‘s legacy hangs over the Republican Party and this Republican nominee, and is, you know, a distraction and a problem for John McCain in his race for the White House.
GREGORY: All right.
Joe Watkins, energy policy, that‘s been the big debate. Your headline on the back and forth today?
JOE WATKINS, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: My headline is, “John McCain Finds the Right Answer in All of the Above.”
And absolutely does. John McCain came out and said, you know what?
It‘s not just one thing, it‘s more than just inflating your tires. Inflating your tires certainly is one way to reduce oil consumption, but we have got to work harder to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and foreign energy. And it‘s not just found in drilling offshore. Drilling offshore is certainly one of the ways that we can to begin to decrease our dependence on foreign oil, but we have got to look at all of the different energy options in order to get America moving again.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And solving our national energy crisis requires, as I‘ve mentioned, an all-of-the-above approach. And that will require aggressive development of alternative energies like wind, solar, tide and biofuels. It also requires expanding traditional sources of energy such as offshore drilling.
Senator Obama has said that expanding our nuclear power plants “doesn‘t make sense for America.” He also says no to nuclear storage and no to reprocessing. I could not disagree more.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WATKINS: Yes, you‘ve got to understand, Barack Obama—and I‘ll say this in Barack Obama‘s defense—Barack Obama is still against offshore drilling. He is not a fan or proponent of offshore drilling. He‘s still very much opposed to it. All you have to do is witness some of the speeches he‘s made recently still saying how much he is against it.
And interestingly, John McCain really is the man for independence. If you want to consider somebody who‘s not just a knee-jerk or easily put-in-the-box kind of Republican, consider John McCain.
Here‘s a guy who bucked the party and voted against the 2005 energy bill. Why? Because he felt that it included too many perks for the big oil companies, too many tax breaks for the big oil companies. And here it is, Barack Obama, who‘s beating him up with it, is the one who voted for it.
GREGORY: All right.
Rachel, you‘ve got a headline of your own dealing with the energy debate today. What is it?
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: That‘s right. My headline tonight is “Nuclear Misfire in Michigan.”
I like Joe‘s optimism about the reception that McCain wants to get on energy, but the McCain campaign‘s patented message scrambling technique is unfortunately back at work during this nuclear reactor photo-op today. Remember that movie “China Syndrome” about a catastrophic nuclear reactor meltdown? The phrase “China Syndrome” was coined when the Enrico Fermi nuclear site that John McCain went to for his photo-op today partially melted down in 1966.
That nuclear accident also inspired a nonfiction thriller called “We Almost Lost Detroit.” Not exactly what you want to make Americans think of when they think of your energy plan.
It wasn‘t too long ago that McCain was planning on running as the eco-Republican green candidate who was explicitly not a proponent of nukes. Now he‘s running as the drill everywhere, build nuclear reactors everywhere candidate, and the whole “We Almost Lost Detroit” reminder, too, was probably a bad political move by McCain.
GREGORY: But you‘ve got a situation, Rachel, where both candidates now want to be on the record with almost everything. They want to be as comprehensive as possible when it comes to an energy plan because they‘re looking at the polls like everybody else.
MADDOW: Sure. And they know that every single time any American goes to the gas station, they‘re thinking about what can be done at a federal level to bring gas prices down. McCain has come a long way in terms of the things that he‘s for and against on energy policy. I just think that his stagecraft needs a little bit of work before he tours the “China Syndrome” plant.
GREGORY: You know, I‘ve got my kids actually drilling in the back yard. I mean, we‘re going to do everything we can to fill our tank.
MADDOW: I‘m giving away oil for Christmas this year.
GREGORY: Todd Purdum, your headline deals with some of the Clinton drama that keeps going. What is it tonight?
DON PURDUM, NATIONAL EDITOR, “VANITY FAIR”: My headline is, “Hillary is Ready and Willing, But Bill is Not Yet Able.”
Senator Clinton is back on the trail for Barack Obama at the end of this week, apparently, in Nevada, Florida. They‘ve met with major donors together. He‘s helping try to retire her debt. They are working pretty well together, it seems.
But President Clinton is not quite there yet. His recent interviews on his Africa trip make him seem like he‘s still a little bit clenched up. He actually had his hands crossed across his chest like he‘s really not ready to endorse Senator Obama with a full-hearted embrace.
GREGORY: And in fact, the news that came out of this is that he wasn‘t quite ready to say that Obama is ready to be president.
PURDUM: Yes, he relied on the Constitution, which means he‘s 35 years old and a natural born citizen. And it‘s like my father used to say: “You sweat less than any fat person I ever danced with.” It‘s kind of what he came up with.
GREGORY: All right. A lot more on that ahead. We‘re going to dedicate a whole segment to Clinton‘s recent interview and some of his thoughts about Obama and racism and more. That‘s later on in the program.
Coming up next, an explosive new book says President Bush knew Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction before he launched the invasion.
Later on, your turn to play with the panel. Call us, 212-790-2299, or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We‘re back right after this break.
GREGORY: In place of the “War Room” tonight, we‘re going to take a special look at a new book making headlines today. It is called “Way of the World” from journalist Ron Suskind. It‘s already controversial, and it pulls no punches, claiming that the president new before he ordered the invasion of Iraq that Saddam, in fact, had no weapons of mass destruction?
Suskind reports this: that Iraq‘s intelligence chief, Tahir Jahil Habbush, delivered that message to British intelligence early in 2003. Suskind also reports that in order to bolster the connection between al Qaeda and Iraq, the White House ordered the CIA to write a fake letter from that same Iraqi intelligence chief, Habbush, claiming that 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta trained in Iraq prior to September 11th.
I sat down with Ron Suskind earlier today. We‘ll show you portions of that interview.
But back with us, our panel tonight: Joe, Todd, Rachel and Jay.
But first, let me set this up with Suskind‘s charges again that President Bush chose to ignore intelligence there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Watch this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RON SUSKIND, JOURNALIST: The Iraqi intelligence chief engaged with us early. He clearly—he clearly is offering the kind of evidence, the kind of testimony as to the mind of Saddam Hussein, as to the fact that there‘s no WMD.
That actually affirmed many suspicions that were roiling through the government at that point. The president, the vice president, others in the White House, chose at day‘s end to ignore that offering from the intelligence community and say we‘re going forward anyway.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GREGORY: Rachel Maddow, let‘s be clear what he‘s saying here. That before the war, that U.S. intelligence, by way of British intelligence, was told by the Iraqi intelligence chief that Iraq had no WMD, and they went forward anyway.
Is this new gasoline on a fire that just won‘t go down about whether the president misled the country about why we went to war?
MADDOW: Yes, it is. And it may be a new fire altogether, because what has become the sort of common political explanation for what went wrong in leading us to the Iraq war is that the intelligence was wrong, that everybody had the same wrong information, and everybody made the same understandable decision based on the same bad information.
We‘ve seen a number of things crop up recently, and this is certainly the most direct and I think the most damning that said, you know, it wasn‘t wrong information, it was a deliberate lie. It was that they had correct information, they had information that contradicted what they told us that they chose to keep from us. It‘s what Scott McClellan said, it‘s now what Ron Suskind said. And obviously, it raises—for me, it raises the question of whether or not there should be prosecutions, whether or not things should be investigated as actual lies, rather than mistakes.
GREGORY: Let me bring you into some of my reporting today out of the White House. They called this “gutter journalism” on the part of Ron Suskind.
Specifically related to this source, the Iraqi intelligence chief, then-CIA Director George Tenet issued a statement, and it says this: “One supposed news item from the book apparently asserts that British intelligence had a high-placed Iraqi source who convincingly told them before the start of the war that Iraq had no WMD and that the British relayed this to the United States. As Mr. Suskind tells it, the White House directed (and CIA allegedly went along with) burying that information so that the war could go ahead as planned.”
“This is a complete fabrication. In fact, the source in question failed to persuade British interlocutors that he had anything new to offer by way of intelligence, concessions, or negotiations with regard to the Iraqi crisis and the British—on their own—elected to break off contact with him. There were many Iraqi officials who said both publicly and privately that Iraq had no WMD, but our foreign intelligence colleagues and we asserted that these individuals were parroting the Ba‘ath Party line and trying to delay any coalition attack. The particular source that Suskind cites offered no evidence to back his assertion and acted in an evasive and unconvincing manner.”
And yet, Jay, he turned out to be correct.
CARNEY: He did. And here is the essence of the problem, that whenever the administration received intelligence, which is just information, that contradicted what they wanted to be true, which was that Iraq was continuing with its weapons of mass destruction programs and that it was a threat to the region and to the United States, they buried it or discounted it or assumed it was false.
Now, there was a lot of intelligence, as we know, bad intelligence, old intelligence that suggested they were doing this. But anything new that cropped up that contradicted it, they buried.
And one thing that—it‘s impossible obviously to verify independently these assertions and what Ron Suskind has, but when the White House calls him a “gutter journalist,” he‘s written a number of books. And none of the assertions he‘s made in those books, none of the quotations he‘s had from Paul O‘Neill or Andy Card, the former chief of staff, have ever been refuted. They call him names, but they‘ve never actually proven that anything he has reported in these books is wrong.
GREGORY: And why is it that Bush would ignore this intelligence, these warnings? That‘s a question that I posed to Suskind. This is what he said about that...
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SUSKIND: The president wants to go to war from the very first National Security Council meeting of his presidency. It was always a matter of, how do we make the case? It wasn‘t about, you know, matters of evidence so much.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GREGORY: Again, a charge that‘s been repeatedly denied by the president. Even Condi Rice last weekend saying this notion that somehow we wanted to go to war was simply not true.
The other element that I reported on this and I want to get some comment from is the idea that there was a concocted letter to bolster the relationship between al Qaeda and Iraq before 9/11, and that a letter was concocted to make the case that was ordered by the White House, drafted by the CIA. A statement that came in late today from Robert Richer, who is a source in Suskind‘s book, he is now retired but was head of Near East intelligence—that includes all of the Middle East—says this: “I never received direction from George Tenet or anyone else in my chain of command to fabricate a document from Habbush”—that is the Iraqi intelligence chief—“as outlined in Mr. Suskind‘s book. Further, today (August 5th) I talked with John Maguire, who has given me permission to state the following on his behalf...”
“‘I never received any instruction from then Chief of Near East Rob Richer or any other officer in my chain of command instructing me to fabricate such a letter. Further, I have no knowledge to the origins of the letter and as to how it got circulated in Iraq.‘”
That‘s from Robert Richer.
There is a lot here, Joe, to try to get our head around. Is this a clear-cut case that again will only accelerate this debate, or is this a muddle?
WATKINS: Well, I think you make a great point, David. I think this is a case to perhaps accelerate the debate because it‘s dropped off the radar screen as the top issue in 2008. At one point a couple of years ago, it was thought that the war in Iraq would be the defining issue for the 2008 campaign, and it‘s proving that the economy is instead, as the interest in the war in Iraq wanes, at least among Americans who are more interested in their pocketbooks.
Mr. Suskind is a very talented writer, he‘s a very smart guy. And he knows what many of us know, which is that beauty is always in the eye of the beholder. People will choose to hear what they want to hear and discount what they wish to discount.
GREGORY: Well, but that may be the case, but Todd Purdum, this is also a case where historians are going to wrestle with this piece of time, with this period of time, about how we got into the war. Is this question of how we got in, as Rachel suggests, going to become newly relevant to how we get out, which is a central debate in the campaign?
PURDUM: I do think it will be in some degree, because Senator Obama‘s point is that he had the judgment at the time when some people were rushing to war to say, I‘m against a dumb war, and this is a dumb, discretionary war.
You know, Dick Cheney felt he could not forget that in 1991, during the first Persian Gulf War, the United States had underestimated what Saddam Hussein actually had. And I think that haunted him. So I think there is still a big difference between telling an out-and-out lie and selectively cherry-picking the evidence that supports your case.
I think it‘s now beyond almost any doubt that the administration did selectively report the evidence, and apparently suppressed evidence to the contrary. You know, Ron and I were copy boys at “The New York Times” 25 years ago, and, you know, he‘s definitely a solid reporter. There‘s no doubt about that.
GREGORY: Rachel, final point on this, then. Obviously, there will be debate about whether the president lied or whether he didn‘t, and partisans on both sides will have that debate. But analytically, what history is beginning to show us is that there was doubt, there was certainly doubt in the intelligence community about Saddam‘s intentions, his capabilities and his actual possessions in the way of a weapons program.
And yet, intelligence officials that I have spoken to over the past couple of days insist that there was a preponderance of evidence indicating that, indeed, he did have a weapons program. The Clinton administration believed that was the case. It was their policy to pursue regime change, though they didn‘t do it. They decided not to do it. There were other intelligence agencies around the world who also believed he had these weapons programs.
MADDOW: Certainly. And part of the issue here is that some of that intelligence was ginned up on purpose in order to make that case, in order to make the evidence more preponderant on one side.
But we also know that it wasn‘t an overwhelming case, that there may have been a lot of evidence that said the weapons of mass destruction program was X. But there was a lot of it that said it was not X. And the not-X stuff got written out of the story, which means that I believe that we were lied to.
If you‘re telling me without a doubt he‘s got weapons of mass destruction, and you‘ve got a lot of well-documented doubts that you‘re not communicating to me, and I have no other way to get them than through you, you are lying to me. And if you‘re doing that in order to bring the country to war, I think that‘s something we don‘t let go of as the American people.
GREGORY: All right. To be continued, certainly as this book gets more attraction and more attention.
Coming up next, is America getting bluer? Two states that went for Bush in 2004 now registered more Democrats than Republicans.
And John McCain heads to a biker rally and gets a roar of approval.
GREGORY: Back tonight with what‘s on THE RACE‘S radar today.
First up, today‘s “New York Times” looks at the big jump in the number of registered Democrats across the country. Democratic registration increased in 26 of the 29 states that register voters by party.
New Jersey reported the largest jump in Democratic registrations, more than 10 percent, followed by Oregon, Iowa, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Nevada. Iowa and Nevada, two states that went for President Bush in 2004, actually flipped so that registered Democrats now outnumber Republicans.
And, by the way, McCain got a roar of approval yesterday at the Sturgis biker rally in South Dakota, described as a kind of Woodstock for bikers. And he took the opportunity to take a shot at his rivals‘ recent trip abroad.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: As you may know, not long ago, a couple hundred thousand Berliners made a lot of noise for my opponent. I‘ll take the roar of 50,000 Harleys any day. Any day, my friends!
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GREGORY: And coming next, a “Face-Off” here tonight. Why isn‘t Obama farther ahead in the polls?
Rachel Maddow and a special guest will take it on and take each other on when RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE comes right back.
GREGORY: We are back on THE RACE for the back half of the program. And up front here, a face-off over this critical question: why after so much press attention paid to his recent trip overseas, after all the problems facing the Republican party in the polls, why, oh why, isn‘t Obama farther ahead? Republican critics are trying to answer that question. We have seen the McCain ad suggesting that Obama is a lightweight on the order of Paris or Britney, famous for being famous.
But there are additional layers that strike at the core of Obama‘s candidacy. Who is he? Do average voters feel any connection to him? David Brooks in his column writes it this way today, quote, “there is a sense that because of his unique background and temperament, Obama lives apart. He put one foot in the institutions he rose threw on his journey, but never fully engaged. As a result, voters have trouble placing him in his context, understanding the roots and values in which is ineluctably embedded.”
Alex Castellanos, former media adviser for Mitt Romney, offered this view today, quote, “at each place and stage, as Barack Obama chronicles the chapters of his life, he tells us how he has reinvented himself, becoming the role he inhabits, though not falsely or unauthentically like Bill Clinton. He actually seems to transform himself, becoming what must be next. He has been called distant, aloof, and somewhat unapproachable, perhaps because we cannot approach what he does not have, a solid core.”
And this from our guest tonight for the face off, conservative talk show host Michael Graham, quote, “thanks to the strange trajectory of my life from the tobacco fields of South Carolina to a radio studio in Boston, I‘ve met all people from all kinds of strange and colorful backgrounds, and I can honestly say I don‘t know anyone like Barack Obama.”
So the question for the face-off tonight, why isn‘t Obama doing better? Going one on one tonight, on the left, Rachel Maddow, and on the right, the aforementioned Michael Graham, radio talk show host on WTKK in Boston. He‘s also a columnist for the “Boston Harold.” Michael, I‘m going to start with you. Welcome to the program. Make the case, why isn‘t he doing better?
MICHAEL GRAHAM, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: You know, the folks at the Obama campaign will say it‘s all about race, evil racist Republicans, evil racist white people, which is absolute nonsense. Colin Powell or Condi Rice could get these votes no problem. That‘s nonsense. The McCain people want to tell you it‘s their brilliant campaign. They are just hitting this guy on oil. It‘s all about oil and people‘s frustration with gas prices. Maybe.
But I used to run campaigns. The candidate that you like, that you could get, was the candidate who tended to win. The classic example is Ronald Reagan. People didn‘t even understand supply side economics. They got Reagan. I don‘t know anyone who gets Obama. An example my callers gave to me, he was in Boston, where I am, yesterday for his birthday, and I was wondering what to get him for a birthday president while he‘s here.
Now usually for someone of Obama‘s stature, you would get him gold, frankincense and myrrh, of course. A number of my callers kept saying, get him nothing, because I read in “People Magazine” that he and his wife don‘t give their kids birthday or Christmas presents. They celebrate the events but don‘t give—my callers kept saying and my emailers kept saying, what is it with this guy? What is this guy‘s world view? Who is he? They just don‘t get him.
GREGORY: Rachel, your initial thought?
MADDOW: I feel like conservatives and Republicans and certainly supporters of Senator McCain would really like to goad Barack Obama into talking more about himself, into talking more about his biography, even while they mock him for having written two books of memoirs, right. Talk more about yourself. Talk more about yourself. But, you know, there‘s a sense, I think, that there are bigger things that are weird in the country. I think it‘s weird that that 150 billion dollar surplus became the 600 billion dollar deficit. I think it‘s weird that we didn‘t catch bin Laden and instead we invaded a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, and five and a half years later, we‘re still there.
I think there‘s a lot weird in the country, and whether or not Barack Obama is not fat enough or his family can be mocked in some way, I think any personal weirdness that you want to try use to get Obama to talk more about themselves is not the kind of stuff that the country is thinking about right now. I don‘t think Barack Obama is weird enough to justify us feeling better about the country staying on the same path it‘s been on under George W. Bush.
GRAHAM: David and Rachel, isn‘t it fascinating that with the polls as lousy as they, a great Democratic year, Republicans don‘t deserve to win.
They nominated a guy who has all the charm of your high school shop teacher. Yet, Obama isn‘t winning. That‘s my point. Rachel, you can talk spin all your stuff about politics, and that‘s fine all you to, but for some reason, the greatest politician who‘s walked the Earth since JFK is polling bow low the standard of Democrats overall. The party is actually polling better than the transcendent Barack Obama.
Why? Is it the policy, straight up? I wish it were. But McCain is basically Democrat light. So I just don‘t buy that. If the Republicans are wrong on policy, everybody hates Bush, the country is in lousy shape, why isn‘t Obama winning by 20 points? Notice, as much as Barack Obama talks about himself constantly, you just answered the question without talking about him at all. You‘re talking about Halliburton, Bush lied, people die.
MADDOW: Right, I think that the reason that John McCain is winning this campaign—even though Barack Obama in the national head to heads right now is up by six, I would agree with you that McCain is pretty much winning right now.
GRAHAM: It‘s a tie.
MADDOW: It‘s roughly a tie, but he‘s certainly doing better than he ought to be doing. I think the reason is because the entire campaign has been about Barack Obama. As long as you want to talk about how weird he is and what he looks like and what he eats and how he treats his family, I think as long as the Obama campaign isn‘t able to turn the campaign around to make it about John McCain and George Bush, then you‘re right, then McCain is going to win it.
GREGORY: Let me get in here. I think the whole issue of whether he‘s weird is a little—it‘s amusing to put in a column. There‘s a larger point here. I want to bring in the rest of the panel to get in on this. Todd Purdum, it‘s not so much weirdness. It‘s this issue of connection. Is he aloof? Is he a little bit disconnected? He will himself say I‘m an exotic political figure. I‘m an exotic figure, given my background. Does all of that make it difficult to connect with him in the way that other politicians, be it Clinton, be it George W. Bush, have connected to voters.
PURDHAM: He‘s exotic in some ways. In other ways, he‘s corny as Kansas in August. He grew up with his grandparents in Hawaii. As he points out, they gave him Jell-O mold with grape halves in it, something that he recognized when he toured Illinois campaigning for the Senate. So, I don‘t think he‘s so exotic.
I think this is kind of an over-worked issue. I think it‘s a close race. John McCain is doing well because he‘s a nationally known figure and he‘s been pretty popular for a long time with the broad electorate, whether he‘s been welcome in his own party or not. I think that it feels like it‘s been going on so long. It‘s hard to think of it this way, but it‘s still before Labor Day. It‘s before the conventions. Barack Obama is up in some polls. John McCain is up in other polls. The generic Democrat always done better than the specific person, because everyone thinks the general—it‘s easier to be for something in general than it is for someone in specific.
GREGORY: Yet, Jay, you know that conservatives are beginning to make an argument here about Obama, that he‘s famous for being famous, that he‘s a light weight, that he‘s presumptuous, that he‘s self-absorbed, and that there‘s something mysterious about him. All this talk about whether it‘s weirdness or that you can‘t quite nail down what his core is all about, is to say there‘s question mark above this guy‘s head. Until you get that answered, you have to vote for the guy you know and trust. That‘s McCain.
CARNEY: Right, there‘s not a Republican consultant, even the ones advising John McCain, who would dispute the fact that John McCain cannot win this election without taking Barack Obama down. They have to sow doubts about Barack Obama. The obstacles to the election of a Republican president this year are just too many and too high not to do it the old fashioned way, which is to take your opponent down and to create a lot of concern and doubts about him.
That‘s made easier by the fact that Barack Obama was basically an unknown politician a few years ago. The public is still waiting to be informed about who he is. The more the Obama campaign allows the Republicans and the McCain campaign to define Obama for voters, the more trouble Obama will be in.
MADDOW: There‘s a story to tell about John McCain though that makes him just as unknowable. The guy with nine houses, the guy with 520 dollar shoes, the guy dumped his first wife and married the beer heiress.
CARNEY: He has a very clear and well known biography. I just don‘t think there‘s a similarity there.
MADDOW: I think that‘s true. He‘s been on the scene for a longer time. But how many people know that he has nine homes? How many people know that he wears 520 dollar shoes? We don‘t focus on this stuff about John McCain because people report it with the same intensity and fervor that they report every personal detail about Barack Obama and what he eats for breakfast.
GREGORY: I have to get in here. We have to take a break. Michael Graham, thanks for being here for the face off. I hope you do it again. I want to get in on your radio show too. I‘ll have to call in.
All right, up next, talk about primary colors. When it comes to the fight between Obama and his wife, Bill Clinton is still seeing red. More from the former president‘s latest interview. We‘ll dissect that coming up next.
GREGORY: Back now on THE RACE, another chapter in the Clinton/Obama drama; Bill Clinton responds to accusations that he‘s a racist and if Obama is ready to lead on day one.
But first, we bring you this campaign alert. Is Hillary Clinton moving up on Obama‘s short list? In an interview with Reuters this afternoon, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Hillary Clinton the big name who would make a great vice president, while acknowledging that she doesn‘t have the faintest idea who could be chosen for the slot. Pelosi hinted that Clinton‘s Tuesday‘s convention speech should perhaps not be the nail in the coffin for her VP hopes; quote, “I think convention schedules can be changed.”
Still with us now, Joe, Todd, Rachel and Jay. Bill Clinton, once called America‘s first black president, responds to accusations that he‘s a racist and if he has any regrets looking back on his wife‘s campaign. Watch this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you personally have any regrets about what you did campaigning for your wife?
BILL CLINTON, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Yes, but not that I want to say. It would be counter-productive to talk about it. There are things that I wish I had urged her to do, things I wish I hadn‘t said, things I wish I hadn‘t said. But I am not a racist. I never made a racist comment and I didn‘t attack him personally.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GREGORY: Todd Purdum, what do you see in Bill Clinton‘s eyes there and in his personal manner and also in his message. He is talking in particular—he goes on to talk about Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, saying he did a number on me, making me out to be a racist, which I don‘t think there‘s anybody in the Democratic party who would accuse Bill Clinton of that. But there were certainly a lot of people who were unhappy with what he said in South Carolina and later.
PURDHAM: He clearly was angry. He answered a question that Kate hadn‘t posed. She didn‘t suggest he was a racist. She didn‘t suggest he was even racially insensitive. He had the air of a person who, if he had kept talking a little bit, would have gotten mad. It‘s like Aunt Em in the “Wizard of Oz,” where she says, for 23 years, I‘ve been dying to tell you what I thought of you. You just get the sense that if Bill Clinton kept talking, he would have really said something he came to regret.
GREGORY: He wants to have a debate, Joe, about his conduct in the primary. He really wants to have that debate. He doesn‘t want to do it now. But he certainly wants to take on the press and he wants to take on the Obama campaign. This is not a guy who sounds like he‘s ready to fall in line and campaign for the new Democratic standard bearer.
WATKINS: Poor Bill Clinton. I mean, Bill Clinton was the greatest politician of the 1990s. What he‘s suffering from now, I think, in my humble opinion, is MJ syndrome. That‘s not Michael Jackson syndrome. That‘s Michael Jordan syndrome. Michael Jordan was the greatest basketball player in the ‘80s and ‘90s. He retired and his legacy was intact, until he came back and tried to reclaim that position, and found out that Lebron James was in the game and Kobe Bryant was in the game.
This is the same thing with Bill Clinton. He‘s trying to regain his spot. It‘s awfully tough for. He had a very, very bumpy primary and he was not much help at all to his wife.
GREGORY: Next, Bill Clinton on his press coverage, charges that he ultimately hurt his wife‘s campaign. Watch this interview.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CLINTON: I don‘t like this kind of modern reporting that says, so and so anonymous says this. You know they all say this.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Jim Clyburn, not anonymous; “New York Times” came out—
CLINTON: Not my supporter.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A friend of yours, long time friend.
CLINTON: Used to be. He was not a Hillary supporter, never, not ever, not for a day.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He said you lost a lot of African-American support?
CLINTON: No. The people who were—
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He you said you severely damaged your standing with African-Americans.
CLINTON: That may be. By the time he got through working on it, that was probably true. But that‘s not the same thing. You said I hurt her.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Her supporters are saying—
CLINTON: No, you said my supporters and then you cited Jim Clyburn.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I take your point, but there are supporters of yours who are saying—
CLINTON: Here‘s what you can do, since I don‘t want to talk about it:
go get yourself a map. Look where I went and look what the vote was. So, I got bad press. Why? Because I told the truth, that there was a different standard applied to the finest candidate I ever supported.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GREGORY: Wow. Rachel?
MADDOW: I want Bill Clinton to be on the Olympic fencing team, if we have one. He doesn‘t need a sword. He can just get in there and make people fall down.
GREGORY: He wanted to parse that to death. The truth of the matter is, that was the basis of the accusation, that he hurt his wife‘s chances by undermining her support ultimately in the African-American community because of things that he said.
MADDOW: What he‘s saying is, the press attention to me is divorced from the political reaction to me. He‘s saying the political reaction to me is positive, that whole get a map thing, but the press reaction to me is negative. The press is unfair. The press is the problem. People still love me. I think that can be a compelling argument to a certain point when the press coverage starts to become self-fulfilling, when you start hearing, over and over again, what a bad thing somebody is for somebody‘s campaign, it starts to becomes true ultimately.
The press, to a certain extent, creates its own reality. That‘s where some of the anger and frustration comes in. He doesn‘t think he deserves it.
GREGORY: First, again to get to Todd, you know a little something about being on the wrong side of Bill Clinton. Again, you read into that comment. There was a lot that was said there and it was also the way he said it that says—speaks volumes about his preparedness now to get on board and campaign for Obama.
PURDHAM: I think the thing he has a hard time confronting is that some of Hillary Clinton‘s own closest aids and supporters and some of his own former aides do feel that it was a very close call, maybe, but he was probably a negative for her in the end, and that he meddled and did things, and they couldn‘t control him. Yes, he won a lot of those places where he went in rural areas. It still wasn‘t enough to help her win a state like North Carolina, for example. He won some of the counties where he went. He didn‘t win the state for her overall.
So it‘s complicated and I wish him well in working through this, but it does seem like there‘s a lot that maybe has to still be worked through.
GREGORY: Jay, you‘re on deck here. Finally, Bill Clinton responds to the question, is Obama ready to lead. Watch.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CLINTON: You can argue that no one is ready to be president. I mean, I certainly learned a lot about the job in the first year. He has shown a keen strategic sense, and his ability to run an effective campaign. He clearly can inspire and motivate people and energize them, which is a very important part of being president. He‘s smart as a whip, so there‘s nothing he can‘t learn.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GREGORY: Wow. Jay, I just—the more I watch this interview, the more interesting I think it is for him. It‘s so interesting that here he is, in a position where he made arguments in ‘92 that Obama is making, about that it‘s judgment more than experience. It‘s kind of a mirror image of himself in some ways. Yet, he can‘t quite bring himself to fully support Obama. Is that how you read it?
CARNEY: I do. I think he seems in the interview to be still bitter, obviously, about his wife‘s loss and resentful that he might have to throw his support, and not really throwing his support behind Obama. I don‘t think—if he had just started off with absolutely and then said what he said, I think that was accurate and very interesting.
GREGORY: Let‘s be forward looking. How does this get resolved? We know where we are today, based on that interview. Where does he get by convention or post-convention, do you think, or does it take longer?
CARNEY: I don‘t know. There‘s not a lot of time left. I think we‘ll see Bill Clinton out there. That‘s still the plan, talking to the Obama campaign and Clinton supporters. They also still talk about how bitter he remains. So he might not be all that useful for Obama.
GREGORY: Very interesting to see the results of this primary fight, nasty as it was, and the drama that continues. Coming next, a campaign alert, Obama responds to McCain‘s new maverick ad. We‘ll show you that when we return on THE RACE.
GREGORY: We‘re back. Final moments here, playing with the panel. But a campaign alert; team Obama responding just moments ago to McCain‘s new campaign ad. Back with us, Joe, Todd, Rachel and Jay. All these ads, they like to come through us first. So we‘ll show you this one to you after we showed you the Maverick ad. Watch Obama‘s response.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He‘s the original maverick.
MCCAIN: The president and I agree on most issues. There was recently a study that showed that I voted with the president over 90 percent of the time.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: John McCain supports Bush‘s talk cuts for millionaires, but nothing for a hundred million households. He‘s for billions in new oil company giveaways, while gas prices sore, and for tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas.
The original maverick? Or just more of the same?
OBAMA: I‘m Barack Obama and I approve this message.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GREGORY: You know, Jay, what is finally smart here—just as I think McCain is right to go back to the biography that you pointed out is well-known, this is what Obama needs to be doing. If this is a referendum on him, in McCain‘s eyes, he wants it to be a referendum on George Bush and McCain‘s closeness, his proximity to Bush. In some ways, this much ballyhooed trip overseas lost him time to keep hammering that message.
CARNEY: I think you‘re right. I think Rachel mentioned this earlier.
This is the albatross around John McCain‘s neck. It‘s George W. Bush. That will sink him in the end. If McCain loses it, it will be because of Bush, largely. I think we haven‘t seen Obama attack that aggressively through his ads. This is very pointed and, my guess is, will probably be effective.
GREGORY: Rachel, what do you think of the ad?
MADDOW: I think that 47-year-old Barack Obama wants to win this election a lot more than 46-year-old Barack Obama did. His birthday was yesterday and so far we‘ve seen two ads. They are the first two that we have seen from him that absolutely, I mean, brutal, frankly, hitting John McCain, hitting McCain directly, not hitting personally, but hitting him directly on policies and ties to George W. Bush. I do think that‘s what he needs to do if he wants to win.
GREGORY: But Joe, I mean, these campaigns are about poetry and prose, as it‘s been said. Part of the poetry of Obama is what we saw on stage during this trip overseas. But it was more than that. It was also a chance to shore up some of his weaknesses. Can‘t he do some of these messages at the same time.
WATKINS: I think it‘s hard for him to do that. At the same time, David, I would say this, that it‘s awfully hard for Barack Obama to attack John McCain, when people still don‘t really know who Barack Obama is. This is what the David Brooks article and other articles were talking about, is that Barack Obama, on the one hand, is a great speaker, but people aren‘t sure who he is. On the one hand, he can look into the camera and say with tremendous conviction that he‘s against—he‘s for public financing. And then with the same conviction look into the camera and say he‘s against public financing. The same is true on issues like guns and taxes, even on energy, where he says he‘s against giveaways for the oil companies, but voted for them in 2005.
GREGORY: I want to get to a couple e-mails here tonight. First up, yesterday on THE RACE, we talked about whether Obama could pick a female VP other than Hillary Clinton. We got a lot of email about that, like this one from Jim in Arizona; “I, like many voters, am having a tough time with this election. McCain shouldn‘t be an option, but if Obama leaves Hillary out, I‘m twice as unlikely to vote for him. If he picks another woman, I will hold my nose and vote Republican.”
Moving on to GOP VP stakes, one viewer isn‘t sold on the McCain/Romney ticket: “how is it that everyone thinks Romney is the best thing since sliced bread for the VP? McCain said that Romney is the guy who fired you. Remember that on the campaign trail. How are they going to take that one back?”
Todd, how do you digest both of those?
PURDHAM: I think it‘s true. I think it‘s really tricky for Obama to pick another woman beside Senator Clinton and I think it‘s pretty tricky for him to pick her. I don‘t think he will. I think there‘s no love lost between Mitt Romney and John McCain. Vice presidents and presidents haven‘t always gotten along. I don‘t think that one is going to work.
GREGORY: Rachel, you‘ve made the point that why is it that Hillary Clinton has to be the litmus test for feminism in this race? Yet, rank and file Democrats, many of whom—we know many she got, nearly 18 million voters, are still trying to get over the fact, if they supported her, that she‘s out. And in the process of coming to Obama, doesn‘t that hurt him if she‘s not on the ticket and he goes for another woman?
MADDOW: Yes, we‘re not arguing that Mike Huckabee ought to be the VP choice because he beat McCain in Iowa and West Virginia and all those others states. I just don‘t think that Hillary Clinton is the only woman that should be considered. I think that‘s unfair to women.
GREGORY: We‘re going to leave it there. Thanks very much to a great panel tonight. That‘s RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE. Back here tomorrow night. Stay where you are, “HARDBALL” is up next. Have a good night.
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