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'The Rachel Maddow Show'for Tuesday, December 30

Read the transcript to the Tuesday show

Guests: Richard Engel, Chuck Todd, Roland Burris, Ana Marie Cox, Kent Jones

RACHEL MADDOW, HOST:  Tonight, we have the surprise new appointee to Barack Obama‘s Senate seat as our first guest.  Live.

But first, let‘s get right to Chicago—where, today, the governor of the great state of Illinois laid to rest the idea that there can‘t possibly be any big political news between Christmas and New Year‘s when both the president and the president-elect are on occasion.

Today, embattled and presumably, soon-to-be indicted Governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois, convened a chaotic press conference to announce that he is appointing someone to fill the United States Senate seat of the president-elect, Barack Obama.  It was just three weeks ago today that Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald arrested Blagojevich and released a criminal complaint alleging that Blagojevich had put that Senate seat up for sale.  That he was shopping for just the right bribe to trade for that coveted appointment.

Well, today three weeks later, despite assurances from the governor‘s attorney, that the governor would not appoint someone to that seat, despite warnings from the United States Senate that they would not seat anyone the governor named to that seat, the governor reached into his apparently bottomless hat, and pulled out, yet, another rabbit.  He has decided to appoint someone anyway or at least, he is trying to, calling a surprise-filled press conference for 2:00 p.m. Chicago time today, to announce his big news.

The surprises came fast and furious.  The first one?  That the governor actually had the brass to make a pick in the first place.  The second surprise?  That his pick, former Illinois attorney general, Roland Burris accepted.  The third surprise?  That Mr. Burris not only accepted but stood alongside Mr. Blagojevich, publicly, to discuss the appointment.

And surprise number—I‘m losing count—came when the press conference stopped in its tracks halfway through, and an unannounced guest took the stage.  Aspiring screenwriters take note.  If you wrote this plot point into a movie script, this studio would laugh you out of the room for melodrama.  Here‘s how it all started.


GOV. ROD BLAGOJEVICH, (D) ILLINOIS:  Thank you very much.  Merry Christmas.  Happy Holidays.  Happy New Year.  Feliz navidad y prospero ano nuevo.

The people of Illinois are entitled to have two United States senators represent them in Washington, D.C.  As governor, I am required to make this appointment.  If I don‘t make this appointment, then the people of Illinois will be deprived of their appropriate voice and vote in the United States Senate.

Therefore, I am here to announce my intention to appoint an individual who has unquestioned integrity, extensive experience, and is a wise distinguished senior statesman of Illinois.  This man actually once was an opponent of mine for governor.  So, I‘m here today to announce that I am appointing Roland Burris as the next United States senator from Illinois.

And, now I‘d like to ask everyone to do one last thing, please, don‘t allow the allegations against me to taint this good and honest man.


MADDOW:  Mr. Burris then read a formal statement that he was accepting the appointment and he began to take questions, which all seemed very normal until the cameras went back for that wide shot, and then you remember again he was taking questions while stand alongside the governor, who was captured on tape saying about this appointment, quote, “I‘ve got this thing and it‘s bleeping golden.  I‘m not giving it up for bleeping nothing.”

This was not a normal press conference.  This is not a normal political situation, as evidenced by the initial line of questioning.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER:  Your law firm, your lobbying firm, you, yourself personally, have contributed well over, I believe, it‘s $14,000 to Governor Blagojevich.



BURRIS:  Wow.  That‘s a lot of money to us.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER:  Did that play a role in your appointment and should we suspect that it might?

BURRIS:  How much did you say, 14,000?


BURRIS:  Well, I got to check my records because I didn‘t think it was that much.  We didn‘t have that much money to give to the governor.


MADDOW:  After the initial shock that Governor Blagojevich in the midst of the scandal had appointed a political contributor to this job, the press conference took a turn right past surprising, unto the avenue of the surreal.


BURRIS:  Councilman Rush, we have Congressman Bobby Rush. 

Congressman, are you OK?  How you doing, Congressman?

BLAGOJEVICH:  What‘s up, Bobby.

BURRIS:  Congressman Rush is coming forward.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER:  Governor, because of the criminal charges against you they are not going to seat anybody you appoint.  Why are you still making the appointment?  Governor?  Governor, can you hear me?

BURRIS:  Bobby, come on up here.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER:  Governor, your lawyer said two weeks ago you weren‘t; going to make an appointment?


BLAGOJEVICH:  Bobby, you want to say something?

RUSH:  Good afternoon.  And let me first of all, thank God for this decision by Governor Blagojevich.  I applaud the governor for his decision and I would ask you, to not hang or lynch the appointee as you try to castigate the appointor.


MADDOW:  Separate the appointee from the appointor.  In a million years, could that be possible with this appointor?


BLAGOJEVICH:  Feel free to castigate the appointor, but don‘t lynch the appointor.  I am not guilty of nay criminal wrongdoing.


MADDOW:  Joining us now is the man of the hour, former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris, Governor Blagojevich‘s choice to fill Barack Obama‘s Senate seat. 

Mr. Burris, it‘s such a pleasure to have you on the show tonight. 

Thank you so much for joining us. 

BURRIS:  Rachel, it‘s my pleasure.  I‘ve watched you almost every evening, and now I‘m on your show.  I‘m honored.

MADDOW:  Well, thank you.  You are at the center of the political world tonight, and we feel very lucky to have you. 

I have to ask you first about the president-elect releasing a statement tonight in which he expressed great respect for you, but he called the governor‘s decision to appoint anyone to this seat, quote, “extremely disappointing.”  He says Senate Democrats should not accept you in the Senate. 

I have to ask you if you‘ve reached out to President-elect Obama‘s team and what your reaction is to his statement. 

BURRIS:  Well, we certainly tried to reach out to him today, but I don‘t think my people were successful in reaching any of his people. 

But, Rachel, the question is, did the governor have the authority to make the appointment?  And if people would just stop for a moment and read the 17th Amendment of the United States Constitution, you will find that the governor of a state has a right to fill a vacancy of—if there‘s a vacancy in the United States Senate from that particular state.  That‘s all that‘s taken place here. 

All of the rest of this is the side drama of the governor‘s problems.  It has nothing to do with the qualifications of the individual or the dedication or the service of the individual, because I am in no way condoning anything that the governor has done. 

But what I perceive the governor is doing is saying it‘s his duty and it‘s really his responsibility, to have two senators representing the great state of Illinois, especially in these difficult times. 

And so, that was my judgment and decision after I counseled with a few of my supporters and friends, that, yes, should he appoint me, that I should accept it and hope and pray that the powers to be would recognize that there is a distinction between Blagojevich‘s problems and him carrying out his constitutional and legal duties as governor, which he is still doing. 

MADDOW:  I don‘t think there‘s a question that he has the legal authority to do this.  But the question is whether it is irresponsible to do this?  Whether by doing this while he‘s under this ethical cloud and essentially awaiting indictment, he‘s crippling the ability of the next United States senator from Illinois to get your job done, to get that job done because of the association with the governor? 

BURRIS:  In terms of what—in terms of—how is he crippling that?  What he‘s doing is making sure that his duty is done so then the senator can make sure that the duty is done for the 13 million people of our great state.  That‘s all that‘s taking place here.  And the rest of this ends up being a whole lot to do about his problems and not about the problems that are facing the nation and the need for Illinois to have a full complement of two senators.  That‘s what‘s taking place. 

MADDOW:  Mr. Burris, in the three weeks since this scandal has emerged, you called Governor Blagojevich‘s alleged actions pretty appalling.  You called them just reprehensible.  I believe you supported the effort to have the governor removed from office by the state supreme court.  But then today you said that you had no comment on the governor‘s circumstance.  Why the change? 

BURRIS:  Well, the change came—at the time the attorney general—and I‘m a former attorney general—and I said also, if I were attorney general at the time, I would certainly have sought the remedy that she sought, because we needed to have a clarification as to whether or not this was going to be a tool to clear up the situation. 

And the supreme court summarily did not even hear it.  It dismissed it, you know, forthwith. 

So based on that, there are other elements at work.  So there is no crime at this point that—or conviction at this point, of the governor.  The governor—and as a former attorney general, Rachel, under our laws, you are innocent, what, until you‘re proven guilty.  And there has been no guilt here proven by any court of law against the governor.  He still has the powers.  And therefore, Illinois still has to have representation. 

So I‘m hoping that the citizens across our state and all your national audience listening, will recognize that there is a distinct difference.  I see it, because my commitment is to the people of the state of Illinois.  That‘s what I see the governor is seeking to do, regardless to his problems. 

I mean, you can have a—even a criminal ex-offender who would follow the law.  And because he was a former ex-offender or something, he could certainly do something that‘s legal and not be punished for it because, you know, he had done something, you know, allegedly, or you know, already done something he‘s been convicted for. 

So the situation here is a process whereby we‘re concerned—and I‘m concerned, because I‘ve represented the people there for 20 years—my whole commitment is for public service.  And you know, I ran against Paul Simon for United States Senate in 1984, and I lost the primary, and went on to help him take out the Republican incumbent, Senator Charles Percy, and we sent that great senator to Washington.  That‘s what I‘m hoping to do as well, be a great senator, like a Paul Simon, on behalf of the people of Illinois. 

I have nothing to do with the problems of the governor.  That‘s the law.  That‘s in the courts.  That will run its course.



MADDOW:  And your reputation as a public servant in Illinois is completely unsullied by scandal, by—no one is casting aspersions whatsoever on your record as a public servant.  But that is, I think, why people are surprised that you would accept this appointment. 

Because now I have to ask you the question that you were asked at the press conference today about your political contributions to this governor.  None of them look like there‘s anything wrong with them, but this governor is accused of looking to trade this appointment for political contributions.  And, so, you‘re now put in the position of needing to assure the people of Illinois that your appointment today had nothing to do with your contributions to him.  It says nothing about your reputation.  It‘s all about him. 

BURRIS:  Rachel, rest assured that those few thousand dollars that I gave the governor had no—absolutely, positively, nothing to do with him appointing me.  As a matter of fact, you know, I ran against the governor.  He beat me in ‘02 for governor.  So I mean, I don‘t have any—in terms of my supporting the governor, because he‘s a Democrat, I‘m a Democrat, and I have a few dollars and I try to help out in situations where candidates need money.  And, so, I made my little small contributions over a four- or five-year period of time. 

I‘m no big-time donor to the governor.  Please don‘t make any type of ties before my support of the governor and all the other Democratic candidates I support as I‘m trying to, in any way, get influence for an appointment of some kind. 

MADDOW:  And were it any other governor who had appointed you to this seat under any other circumstances, those political contributions would not be raising eyebrows.  But because of what Governor Blagojevich is accused of, you‘ll be answering questions like this for the duration of your appointment if the Senate does accept you. 

And I guess I feel that, you know...

BURRIS:  I would be more than...

MADDOW:  Go ahead, sir.

BURRIS:  I‘d be more than happy to—I would be more than happy to answer those questions about my contributions.  I mean, check my contributions out for the individuals that went to the Congress.  Check out the little, you know, couple of thousand dollars I sent down to Mississippi for the young black man running for the United States Senate in Mississippi, Erik Fleming.  I mean, my thing is to do it—with the little, small resources I have, to be as helpful as I can to get qualified people into government so that they can serve the people.  That is my only choice, and that is my commitment. 

I spent 20 years in Illinois government.  That is my life, doing public service and being a person who could impact the quality of life of the people of my state.  And in this case, the people of America. 

MADDOW:  Mr. Burris, if Senate Democrats do block your appointment, and they say that they intend to, how far are you willing to take your fight?  Would you potentially take it all the way to the Supreme Court if need be? 

BURRIS:  Well, Rachel, I have been legally appointed by the governor of our state.  It is my hope and prayer that my Democratic colleagues will recognize that what they are doing is not in any way, form, shape or fashion, legal.  To deny me the seat based on some allegations by the appointee—by the appointor—really does not lend itself to disqualify me as an unqualified person to be appointed. 

I think my credentials are impeccable.  I think that, you know, my integrity is intact.  And my certainly attempt to represent the people would cause them to rethink their positions and say, what we have here is an opportunity to get this problem off the table.  We have two senators now in our state to help President-elect Obama get his agenda going and to move Illinois and America forward. 

That‘s all my interest is.  I have no other interest—yes, sorry, go ahead. 

MADDOW:  Just to be clear, you do intend to fight this with all means available to you if they do—they are saying quite directly that they will block you. 

BURRIS:  Well, certainly they‘ve said that.  And we understand that.  And we‘ll look at the process.  And certainly, my intention is to be a United States senator from the great state of Illinois.  The appointment is legal.  I mean, no one has said his appointment is illegal.  They just said his appointment is tainted.  What does tainted have to do with legal?  And I don‘t think it‘s even tainted, because his appointment, Rachel, is legal. 

MADDOW:  Former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris, and current United States Senate appointee.  Thank you so much for you time tonight.  I‘m sure there are a lot of demands on your time, and good luck to you, sir.

BURRIS:  Thank you, Rachel.  Happy new year to you and all your listeners.

MADDOW:  Thank you very much.  You too.  

So, you have just met Roland Burris.  The question is: Will we be calling him Senator Burris any time soon?  NBC News political director, Chuck Todd, joins us next.

And, the Israeli government is taking time away from its massive military bombardment of Gaza to spend some time twittering about it.  I‘m not kidding.  NBC News chief foreign correspondent, Richard Engel, joins us in a moment.


MADDOW:  It was December 9th when Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald stunned the country by announcing his criminal complaint against Governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois, accusing the governor, with lots of colorful detail, of trying to sell an appointment to Barack Obama‘s U.S. Senate seat for the governor‘s own personal gain.  That press conference was December 9th.

By December 10th, the very next day, all 50 Democratic U.S. senators signed on to a letter that said they thought Governor Blagojevich should resign and that he definitely should not appoint anyone to that Senate seat in the meantime.  They said, quote, “Should you decide to ignore the request of the Senate Democratic Caucus and make an appointment, we would be forced to exercise our constitutional authority under Article One, Section Five, to determine whether such a person should be seated.”

So, in other words, don‘t bother appointing someone, Governor F-word, we won‘t let you.  That was the day after the Blagojevich scandal first broke.  A week later, Blagojevich‘s lawyer, Ed Genson, said at his own press conference that Blagojevich would not appoint anyone to Obama‘s seat.


ED GENSON, GOV. BLAGOJEVICH‘S LAWYER:  Well, Harry Reid said that they‘re not going to accept anybody.  Why would he do that?


MADDOW:  Why would he do that?  So the issue is settled, right?  Blagojevich, even if he will not resign, even if he says he‘s going to fight, fight, fight, he‘s not going to appoint someone to fill Barack Obama‘s seat, right?  Wrong.  Governor F-word today defied all expectations and announced that a previous guest, former attorney general, Roland Burris, is the new senator from Illinois because Blagojevich said so.

Can the U.S. Senate stop this appointment?  Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid says they can.  He issued this statement today, quote, “Under these circumstances, anyone appointed by Governor Blagojevich cannot be an effective representative of the people of Illinois and, as we have said, will not be seated by the Democratic caucus.”

Will not be seated, will not, will not.  Can they do that?  Sure, there are political considerations to weigh here, but, I mean, legally, procedurally, can they do that?  Can they stop this?

For the politics part of this, it is important to note that President-elect Obama is taking a very a clear side on the issue.  He issued a statement today that, again, called for Blagojevich‘s resignation and he said, quote, “Roland Burris is a good man and a fine public servant, but the Senate Democrats made it clear weeks ago that they cannot accept an appointment made by a governor who is accused of selling this very Senate seat.  I agree with their decision.  While Governor Blagojevich is entitled to his day in court, the people of Illinois are entitled to a functioning government and major decisions free of taint and controversy.”

It turns out that that whole “free of controversy” thing is no longer an available option.  Sorry.  But, what does happen now?  And will Roland Burris be a senator or will he not?

Joining us now is my friend, Chuck Todd, NBC‘s political director and the newly-named chief White House correspondent for NBC.

Chuck, this is my first chance to say congratulations on that, first of all.  Congratulations.

CHUCK TODD, NBC NEWS POLITICAL DIRECTOR:  Well, thank you.  Thank you. 

I‘m just glad to be here and not have a bobblehead representing me.


MADDOW:  I don‘t know if you‘re able to see our interview with Mr.

Burris there.

TODD:  Yes.

MADDOW:  He says that this is a legal appointment, which doesn‘t seem to be anything that is contested.  I think this legal question is whether Harry Reid is right when he says senators have the power under Article One of the Constitution to decide not to seat him.  How do you see that legal question?

TODD:  Well, I‘ve consulted with everybody that would—is a lot smarter than I am about the law, including our own Pete Williams, talked to people we talked to people like Laurence Tribe of Harvard, the very famed legal scholar, some other folks who are in sort of understand political law.  And I mean by “political law” are disputes like this when it comes to elections and seating and office holders and things like that.

And no one‘s quite clear.  The one seem to be unanimous agreement here, is that the Senate can delay the seating of Burris.  And by delay, when you look at the one case where we saw one of the houses of Congress, and this was the U.S. Congress at that time, refused to seat a member of Congress back in the mid-60s.  It took 2 ½ years to three years for that dispute to be settled in court and the courts ruled: No, the House couldn‘t refuse to seat this guy.  He had to be put in the seat—but 2 ½ years.

Politically, all Harry Reid wants to do is kick this can down the street a little bit.  Think about, let‘s say this even get expedited in three months, you brought up the December 9th criminal complaint that Patrick Fitzgerald made public and issued, which, of course, led to the arrest of Governor Blagojevich.  Well, he is now—the 30-day expiration date on that criminal complaint to move it to an indictment comes up next week.  So, Blagojevich probably becomes an indicted governor next week.

Suddenly, it‘s now an indicted governor that has appointed Roland Burris.  Political pressure put to him a little bit more.  Throw in the fact that impeachment proceedings have begun in Illinois, and maybe by mid-February or March, Blagojevich is not even governor of Illinois anymore.  And so then the question will be: Is the appointment, if the U.S. Senate still hadn‘t seated him and Burris may have a lawsuit but it‘s sitting in the court system, at that point, can the new governor say, “You know what, this appointment, I‘m going to rescind the appointment”?

My point is, we know the fact is this.  Harry Reid has the ability to delay this, and at this point, that‘s what he wants to do.

MADDOW:  Article One, Section Five, is also really clear that senators could expel someone from the Senate?  They have that delaying option.  They could also expel him under a two-thirds vote if he did get seated.  If they did that, am I right in thinking that Blagojevich could just appoint him again?  They could start the cycle over and over again?

TODD:  Well, what‘s funny is that you‘ve tapped into something here that a whole bunch of Illinois Democrats are just on one—who know Blagojevich very well—have told me today, Blagojevich picked the one person that would drive sorts of Obama and his team crazy.

MADDOW:  Right.

TODD:  And make life, basically, a living hell for the parts of the Illinois political establishment here that are trying to get Blagojevich out of office.  And that is by appointing Roland Burris, because Roland Burris doesn‘t have—you know, he‘s not somebody they can somehow say he‘s just part of this Blagojevich gang, you know, he‘s above reproach.

But he is somebody that has been, to be kind—as one person described him to me—a lovable loser in Illinois Democratic politics.  Nobody believes this guy is going to be able—he‘s been rejected by Democratic primary voters three times now in his attempts to run for governor.  So, there is a lot of unease about the idea of him being the holder of this Senate seat because they don‘t think he can win, not only a primary, but win a general.

MADDOW:  Chuck Todd, NBC political director and chief White House correspondent—thanks again for coming on the show.

TODD:  All right, Rachel.

MADDOW:  This is so much more fascinating than we ever thought it was going to be.

TODD:  People just need—that press conference today, I just would hit “play” over and over and over again.

MADDOW:  Political jazz.

TODD:  Unbelievable stuff.  Yes.

MADDOW:  Happy New Year, Chuck, thanks a lot.

TODD:  Happy New Year to you.

MADDOW:  Our last lame duck watch of 2008 is ahead.  The Republican Party has devolved in their lame duck state, to a point where they are calling each other “communists.”  I kid you not, comrade.


MADDOW:  A little later on, word tonight that Israel may be considering a cease-fire to halt its bombing campaign in Gaza as the Israeli consulate here in the U.S. turns to Twitter to get out its side of the story.  I‘m not kidding.  NBC chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel will join us very shortly.

But first, it‘s time for a few underreported holy mackerel stories in today‘s news beginning with a follow-up to a story we covered last night.  Now, a week ago, Bush gave a presidential pardon, a get-out-of-jail free card to a mortgage crook, a real estate scammer named Isaac Toussie.  The next day, Bush took the pardon back. 

Now, there are a lot of outstanding questions about this case - Toussie‘s dad‘s sudden recent interest in making giant Republican Party donations, for one.  The fact that the Justice Department did not look at his application and it just went straight to the White House.  The question of how worrying it is that the White House is in such a state that the president actually accidentally pardoned someone without meaning to. 

There‘s lots of outstanding questions here.  But there is one question about this case that is settled.  It‘s the question of whether a president actually can take back a pardon, whether a president has ever done this before.  Turns out the answer is yes.  In fact, after the civil war it was all the rage for presidents to do this. 

Andrew Johnson for example, commuted a guy‘s death sentence, then un-commuted it, then commuted it again, so the guy lived, very nervously.  Ulysses Grant - he was Mr. Indecisive Pardoner big time.  He unpardoned two guys that President Johnson had pardoned and then he pardoned them again.  He pardoned, un-pardoned again, pardoned again, a counterfeiter and an embezzler in 1872 and 1874.  Rutherford B. Hayes - he was the last Harvard Law grad to be president before Obama - he cancelled the pardon that he gave to a woman named Molly Harris.  Then he changed his mind and pardoned her again the same day.  Mr. Fickle.

Now, there are probably others as well.  Don‘t even get me started on Chester Arthur and that counterfeiter from 1881.  The point is that I am thankful to the folks at “,” for keeping the historical record straight on this subject.  And I‘m grateful, overall, to live in a time when if you‘re curious about the limits of a president‘s pardon power, odds are pretty good that if you just type the words “” into your search engine you‘ll find an expert blog on the subject.  Bravo!

And finally, the Library of Congress has chosen 25 films to archive as part of a national film registry for their, quote, “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant on American life.”  Hooray.  This year‘s honorees include “The Terminator” from 1984, 1957‘s “A Face in the Crowd” - have you ever seen that?  It is so good.  Also on the list, “Deliverance,” a movie that forever changed the way people feel about dueling banjos and pretty mobs.  Also, “The Killers” - Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner. 

Also, one surprising choice this year, just given the contemporary nature of its subject matter, they picked a biopic about Dick Cheney.


MADDOW:  I‘m sorry.  Tape mix up there.  That‘s actually footage from the “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.”  But you know, some people say that “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” and Dick Cheney are both claymation masterpieces.  


MADDOW:  The United States, European Union, Russia and the U.N. all got together today to call for a cease-fire in Gaza as the Israeli military heads into a fifth day of attacks there, and from which about a dozen rockets were launched today into Israel. 

President Bush talked to the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas today about a cease-fire.  But Abbas is a member of Fatah over in the west bank.  He‘s not part of Hamas and Gaza, so it‘s not totally clear what Abbas could really do about the situation in Gaza. 

Lame duck Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called up Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is something of a lame duck himself, as Israel prepares for elections in February.  All this means that there is high-level political conversation going on about this war.  But to what end?  Are we getting close to the end of this?  The White House says they don‘t have, quote, “any indication for that.”


GORDON JOHNDROE, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY:   We have got to get a commitment from Hamas that they would respect any cease-fire and make it lasting and durable.  And so until we can get that assurance of the United States, but until Israel can get that assurance from Hamas, then you were not going to have a cease-fire that is worth the paper it‘s written on.  


MADDOW:  That doesn‘t sound very promising.  But honestly, the Israeli-Palestinian situation really does sound really promising.  And that may be partly because it is very, very hard to talk about.  It‘s one of the world‘s most sensitive political subjects, one of the all-time great third rails here in American politics.  It‘s also one of the most complicated stories on earth.  In its modern form, it goes back to 1948 in the formation of Israel.  And more generally, it‘s centuries and centuries and centuries older than that. 

Authors and scholars spend lifetimes studying the Israeli-Arab conflict.  Newspapers struggle to contextualize their Middle East conflict stories, even when they get the prime front page real estate.  Cable news shows have a significantly harder time than that - trust me - which makes the other, far-less important development in this story today all the more gob-smacking. 

The Israeli government, the Israeli consulate in New York attempted today to explain its side of the conflict - to explain the conflict and argue its side on Twitter, the micro-blogging Web site.  And the resultant headline sure is less scary - I‘ll give them that.  Instead of “Chaos in the Middle East,” you get, “Hey, there, Israel consulate is using Twitter,” which means the Israeli government is trying to explain a conflict that people write books about, a conflict that newspaper writers struggle to explain in 2,000 words in 140 characters at a time.  That‘s how long you can make an individual message on Twitter. 

The whole point of Twitter is that it‘s interactive.  No soliloquies, right?  Well, today, the Israeli consulate on Twitter took questions about the Geneva Convention and a possible cease-fire, and whether they believe Hamas is democratically-elected government.  And they twitted their responses, things like, “Isr only targets mil installations.  Unfortunate damage to civ targets occurs.  Hamas purposely puts civ at risk.”

Joining us now to speak in complete sentences about what‘s going on in the Middle East and beyond, is NBC News‘ chief foreign correspondent, Richard Engel.  Richard, thank you so much for coming back and being on the show.  

RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT:  It‘s a real pleasure.  And I will do my best to try to speak in English.  

MADDOW:  I‘ve thrown down the gauntlet now.  There must be punctuation.  Since we last spoke 24 hours ago, has anything changed materially or politically about the situation in Gaza? 

ENGEL:  There‘s more talk of a cease-fire and a proposal has been floated by the French to have a 48-hour trial period in which the Israelis would stop the offensive and see if Hamas would abide by a cease-fire and not fire any rockets into Israel. 

There are mixed signals that this will be accepted.  And even late tonight, there are some Israeli officials being quoted in Israeli newspapers as saying that that is unacceptable to the Israelis.  Also, Israel is planning to call up about another 2,500 reserve troops.  So we‘re continuing to see a buildup in the area with tanks and troops all along the border with Gaza and also gun-ships off the Gaza coast.  

MADDOW:  We have seen a response from the U.S. Government.  We saw the State Department spokesman there talking about this issue.  But from President Bush, who‘s on vacation, from President-elect Obama, who is not only not president, but is also on vacation, the comments have been very, very, very subdued.  Do you expect a more overt public response from the Bush administration? 

ENGEL:  I wouldn‘t expect the Bush administration is going to call on Israel to stop and to try and dislodge Hamas and to disarm Hamas.  Most people - the U.S. Government‘s position has been that Hamas is an illegitimate - even though elected, that is a terrorist organization that is launching missile attacks unprovoked into Israel.  That is its position.  So if Israel acts to try and take its missiles away, I don‘t think you‘re going to see a major change in U.S. policy.  

MADDOW:  Richard, let me ask you about another headline today that we are not seeing much political reaction to, yet.  But to me, it seems like a ginormous deal.  And it is that Pakistan has closed the Khyber Pass. 

ENGEL:  The Khyber Pass -

MADDOW:  And the Khyber Pass is where 75 or 80 percent of all the food and fuel and supplies ...

ENGEL:  That‘s 75 percent - yes.

MADDOW:  ... for troops in Afghanistan, that‘s how it gets there.  Afghanistan is landlocked.  Doesn‘t that have huge implications for the war in Afghanistan? 

ENGEL:  It does but it‘s a temporary closure.  So this supply route - it‘s only for basic supplies, food, fuel, some vehicles.  The weapons and ammunition don‘t go through this (UNINTELLIGIBLE). 

MADDOW:  Yes, but fuel and food would be critical.

ENGEL:  These are critical supplies. 


ENGEL:  They are critical supplies.  Seventy-five percent. They are the lifeline to the war in Afghanistan.  They are sent in to Karachi, moved up through - you took away my map toy today.  

MADDOW:  Oh, we can pull one up and you can pretend like you‘re looking at it.  There we go.

ENGEL:  They moved up through Pakistan and then cross over the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan. 

MADDOW:  Right.

ENGEL:  That supply line has been attacked repeatedly, particularly over the last several months by militants, Taliban who backed militants inside Pakistan.  What Pakistan did this time is actually being welcomed by the U.S. Government.  It said Pakistan will launch an offensive against the militants in the Khyber Pass area in order to clear away some of these bandits who have been stealing some of the supplies and insurgents who are attacking them to try and disrupt the war effort, and that this is only a temporary halt.  Afterwards, it would hopefully create a clearer passage. 

There are problems with this.  And the U.S. and NATO are looking at alternate routes through other central Asian countries. 

MADDOW:  Yes, if they end up deciding to go through Turkmenistan or Tajikistan or one of these other places instead of this very troublesome part of Pakistan ...

ENGEL:  It‘s expensive. 

MADDOW:  Yes, it‘s expensive but have we just widened the war essentially by making ourselves targets there by becoming a magnet for jihadists there? 

ENGEL:  Possibly.  Possibly.  But these are now - I don‘t think - these are mostly supply convoys.  There are about 300 trucks that pass through the Khyber Pass every day.  And this is roughly 30 miles long.  It goes back and forth.  So if you stretched it out it would be about 30 miles. 

And it is a key route, but in other conflicts the Soviet used - the Soviet Republics to get into Afghanistan.  So I don‘t know if it necessarily widened the war but it certainly does expand the footprint.  

MADDOW:  Richard Engel, NBC News chief foreign correspondent, thanks very much for your perspective, sir.  

ENGEL:  It‘s my pleasure. 

MADDOW:  Thank you

ENGEL:  And I know you like history.


ENGEL:  You should also remember that Khyber Pass was the main supply

route that the British used in their failed wars in Afghanistan and it has

a lot of historical resonance - 

MADDOW:  Yes.  A lot historical resonance - none of it good, honestly.

ENGEL:  It‘s a very interesting read.

MADDOW:  Thanks, Richard. 

The Republican Party internal struggle for power is starting to resemble nothing so much as a bag of angry squirrels.  They are now calling each other “communists.” “Lame Squirrel Watch,” next. 



MADDOW:  Tomorrow night, we have a special New Year‘s Eve show in store for you.  It‘s the first annual RACHEL MADDOW SHOW Awards for Excellence in categories to be determined, at 11:00 eastern.  We say goodbye to 2008 with singing, scandals, jokes.  Champagne will be (UNINTELLIGIBLE).   


MADDOW:  Our president may be a lame duck elected official coming to the end of his time in office, but he is still the head of his party.  When Republicans look up, they see George W. Bush sitting in Crawford with the higher number of teeth than approval rating points, biding his time, hoping his legacy tour convinced somebody. 

And how bad is that for the Republican Party?  Well, it‘s time for the RACHEL MADDOW SHOW “Lame Duck Watch,” because somebody‘s got to do it.

So for another 20 days, President Bush is the leader of the Republican Party.  Quick, pop quiz.  Who is the chairman of the Republican Party right now?  He is?  This guy?  Doesn‘t really help much, does it?  Mike Duncan, you thought he was the pitching coach of the St. Louis Cardinals?  That‘s Dave Duncan.  This?  Mike Duncan.  Yes, emphatically, not a famous person. 

The chairman of the Republican National Committee is a position that has never really mattered very much politically.  But the fight to replace Mike Duncan as chair of the RNC, a guy who has not been all that effective in a position that‘s not all that important is expected to be fierce. 

This Monday, potential RNC chairman candidates will debate at the National Press Club.  They will be asked questions.  They will defend their conservative bona fides.  A public event to fill the RNC chairmanship.  That‘s an unusual sign. 

A couple days later, for the time in party history, members of the Republican National Committee will meet without the aid of their Washington-based political leaders.  The Republican Party will literally try to figure out how to run against its own president, to try and move past the Bush-McCain-Palin era. 

One way the RNC is trying to move on is by calling Bush and congressional Republicans “commies.”  They‘re calling them communists.  Party officials say they will try next month to pass a resolution accusing President Bush and congressional Republican leaders of embracing socialism. 

The resolution says this, quote, “Whereas the bank bailout bill effectively nationalized the nation‘s banking system, giving United States non-voting warrants from participating from financial institutions and moving and moving our free market-based economy another dangerous step closer toward socialism.”

This reminds me of the RACHEL MADDOW SHOW communism rule, which was created October 20th, 15 days before the election.  It says basically that the worse it looks for any one political party in any political contest, the more likely it is that that party will call the other a “socialist,” “commie,” “pinko,” “Bolshevik,” “five-year planner.”  

Remember there was that whole thing where Obama was going to win the election so the Republicans called him a socialist for wanting to cut middle class taxes?  Remember that? 

Well, 91 House Republicans and 34 Senate Republicans backed the $700 billion financial bailout package.  And according to the Republican Party that means they‘re communists.  President Bush‘s policies laid waste to a lot of things and as it turns out, his own party may have been one of them, at least in the short term. 

Joining us now is Ana Marie Cox, a contributor to the “Daily Beast” Web site.  Ana Marie, happy new year.  Thanks for joining us. 


MADDOW:  Is it wise for the RNC to call President Bush and other Republican Party leaders “commies.”  I mean, they‘re calling Mitch McConnell a socialist here. 

COX:  Well, we should be very clear.  That is a resolution that, as I know, only four people have named support for.  So it‘s not that the entire RNC is calling Bush a “commie,” although some of them might think it.  It is one fashion of the RNC. 

And also, as far as I know - or, actually, I do know, one of the backers of that resolution also backed a resolution four years ago to decry Bush‘s policy on immigration.  So this is a very hard core - a few people in the RNC.  And that actually might be the part of the RNC that gets shed pretty soon, coming up, depending on what happens in RNC chairmanship elections. 

MADDOW:  Are there any other dynamics at work in the contest for RNC chairmanship that tell you something about what the Republican Party is going to be like post McCain-Palin? 

COX:  Well, I think if you look at what the various people who are running have said about what they‘re going to do, they actually all sound remarkably similar except for Mike Duncan, who is running again.  And I think I speak for a lot of Washington when I say I don‘t know why.  He did not have a particularly distinguished tenure this time around. 

But if you look at the statements that the people that are

running have given so far, they all say a lot of the same thing about

excitement, about new technology.  Basically, they‘re all trying to be

Barack Obama in, you know, red face, if you will.  I would include -

MADDOW:  Are they - go ahead. 

COX:  I was going to say - and included are Ken Blackwell and that who, I believe, ran for Senate in Ohio.  And he‘s very big on person-to-person interaction.  In fact, he friended me on Facebook today.  So I was excited about that. 

MADDOW:  He did? 

COX:  Yes, he did.

MADDOW:  Did you accept his friend request? 

COX:  I‘m having trouble dealing with that right now.  Let‘s discuss it after the show. 

MADDOW:  Don‘t click “ignore.”  People know when we click “ignore.” 

COX:  I know.  I usually just actually ignore.  That‘s my little trick. 

MADDOW:  Well, there‘s the big strategic question, too, of whether or not the Republican Party - and they face this in the election, too.  McCain and Palin face this in a very complicated unfocused way. 

But there‘s the big strategic question about whether they make George W. Bush the bad guy, whether they run against Bush.  And it seems like with the bailout issue, they may be starting to. 

COX:  Well, again - the people that are decrying the bailout in RNC are small.  So far as we know, it‘s a small faction of the RNC.  I don‘t know exactly how that‘s panning out with the other people that are running.  I do, however, think as a bigger picture issue, yes, they are running against George Bush. 

And I think as far - I‘m going to say to his credit - I‘m actually going to use that phrase, “to his credit,” Bush doesn‘t seem to mind this.  I think he seems to recognize the reality that the party demand that they shed a lot of their own identities and they recruit themselves, in basically almost any new way they can. 

It is interesting to look, like I said, at the people that are running right now.  And all of them want to do some radical things.  Radical, not necessarily in terms of like, you know, legalize gay marriage.  But they want to try and shake the party up a little bit.  The only person who doesn‘t want to shake it up is Mike Duncan.  I think his chances - I don‘t know.  I think people are - I think they want to be shaken up. 

MADDOW:  I think he wants to be famous.  He‘s still working at it.

COX:  I think we‘re making him famous right now. 

MADDOW:  That‘s right.

COX:  We‘ve said “Mike Duncan” more in this segment than probably he‘s heard like in like the entire election.  Mike Duncan - way to go, Mike Duncan. 

MADDOW:  Mike Duncan.  Mike Duncan - way to go.  Honorary Mike Duncan-Cox contributor to “The Daily Beast” Web site.  We will see you in our special New Year‘s Eve show, Ana Marie.  Thanks for joining us.

COX:  All right.  See you then.

MADDOW:  Coming up on “COUNTDOWN” tonight, Keith Olbermann looks back at his favorite people of 2008. 

Next on this show, I get just enough pop culture from my friend, Kent Jones.  Someone stole from Bernie Madoff.  Alert the authorities?


MADDOW:  Now, it‘s time for “Just Enough” with my friend, Kent Jones. 

Hi, Kent.  What have you got? 

KENT JONES, POP CULTURIST:  Good evening, Rachel.  Now, it‘s wrong to enjoy the misfortune of others but let‘s suspend that rule for a tiny moment for Bernie Madoff. 

MADDOW:  Yes, man.

JONES:  Fraud‘s $50 billion Ponzi poster boy suffered a blow this weekend as police are investigating the disappearance of a $10,000 sculpture from Madoff‘s multimillion dollar mansion in Palm Beach, Florida. 

MADDOW:  No way.

JONES:  The five-foot copper tchotchke portrays two young lifeguards sitting on a raised stand and overlooks the Madoff‘s in-ground swimming pool.  So apparently, you can‘t buy taste or swindle thousands of others into buying it for you. 

Next, on the opposite end of the honesty spectrum, not to mention pretty brave and loyal, big ups to Long Island teenager Shawn Goldsmith, who has earned all 121 merit badges offered by the Boy Scouts of America.  Congratulations. 


JONES:  It took Goldsmith five years to earn his first 62 badges and the last badge he earned was for bugling.  You know, in this economy, you never know what job skills you might need, “So I see here you‘re a bugler.  Very nice.  When can you start?” 

Finally, how do you get rid of all the bad mojo that‘s accumulated this year?  In New York, the Times Square Alliance sponsored something called Good Riddance Day in which people were invited to write down their bad memories from 2008 on a piece of paper and then shove that paper into an industrial-strength shredder. 


JONES:  Goodbye, bad times, hello mulch.  Very cathartic.  You know, I like this idea.  Let me write something down here from this year that I never want to see again.  OK.  Can you read that?  OK?

MADDOW:  Good riddance to the word “maverick.” 

JONES:  You‘ve got to try that.  That was great. 

MADDOW:  Thank you, Kent.  And thank you for watching tonight.  We will see you here for our special New Year‘s Eve show at 11:00 Eastern tomorrow night.  We‘re calling it the first annual RACHEL MADDOW SHOW Awards for Excellence in areas TBD.  “COUNTDOWN” with Keith Olbermann starts right now.  Good night. 



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