Guests: Richard Wolffe, Neil Livingstone, Terry Holt, Tony Coelho, Ted Koppel
CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Tonight, is Osama bin Laden trying to drive a wedge between America and its allies? An alleged audiotape of bin Laden offers a truce to European countries that don‘t attack Muslims.
Plus, “NIGHTLINE‘s” Ted Koppel‘s coming here on his time in Iraq and the death of the first reporter killed in combat there, “Atlantic Monthly‘s” Michael Kelly.
Let‘s play HARDBALL.
Good evening. I‘m Chris Matthews.
The most wanted terrorist in the world is offering an olive branch to European countries, what he‘s called the western infidels, in exchange for their withdrawal from military operations against Muslims.
In an audiotape aired Wednesday on Arab TV, bin Laden said, quote, “I offer a truce to them, Europe, with a commitment to stop operations against any state which vows to stop attacking Muslims or interfere in their affairs, including participating in the American conspiracy against the wider Muslim world. Whoever rejects this truce and wants war, we are war‘s sons and whoever wants this truce, here we bring it.”
Today Britain, Germany and Spain all rejected the offer. The CIA says that Osama bin Laden is likely the voice on the audiotape and that the tape was probably recorded within the last several weeks.
So why is bin Laden trying to broker a peace deal with part of the western world?
Richard Wolffe is a diplomatic correspondent for “Newsweek” magazine, and Neil Livingstone is a top terrorist expert and the CEO of Global Options.
Let me to go Richard. What‘s he up to?
RICHARD WOLFFE, “NEWSWEEK”: Well, bin Laden is a politician as well as a terrorist. And you‘re right. He‘s trying to drive a wedge there. But it‘s a wedge that already exists between Europe and America.
He‘s trying to peel these guys off, not so much for truce but to get them to take off on some of these other fronts in the war on terror, like Iraq and the domestic terror groups that they have in those countries.
MATTHEWS: I remember back in the 1960‘s, the—Hastings Bond (ph), who was part of the rebel movement in Malawi (ph) in Africa. It was a little game plan. We will kill a white person a day until you leave.
MATTHEWS: That‘s the tactic. Has it been used elsewhere? This tactic of we will kill you until you make a chance in your policy, your national policy?
WOLFFE: I don‘t think we‘ve ever seen anything quite this subtle, but then we‘ve never seen a...
WOLFFE: Yes. You know, he‘s trying to pick off people in a very astute political way. He‘s trying to interfere or at least al Qaeda...
MATTHEWS: He understands democracy. He may hate it, but he understands it.
MATTHEWS: If you‘re a government that has an unpopular position—
You‘re a hawk in a dovish country, like Spain, for example—You can use the populace, the electorate to change the policy.
WOLFFE: Look at the timing in Spain. A very finely tuned piece of politics there. And it worked. It worked, you know, not so much because bin Laden directed it, but because he set a lead there. Domestic terrorists took it up, and they exploited it really perfectly.
MATTHEWS: Neil, your thoughts on this tactic, first of all. Is it a new one? I mentioned back in the ‘60s it was used against colonialism. Now it‘s being used against any kind of alliance that offends him.
NEIL LIVINGSTONE, GLOBALOPTIONS INC.: It‘s new only in that al Qaeda really hasn‘t had much of a political agenda or appeal to the political leadership and to the public in Europe and other parts of the world.
This is, first of all, an appeal to the street. There are a lot of Europeans who were terribly traumatized by the bombings in Spain. And they voted against the government. They threw out the Spanish government after that. And we have a much more appeasement-oriented government today in Spain.
They want to replicate that in other parts of Europe. They think that they succeeded once. Why can‘t they succeed again?
MATTHEWS: Why didn‘t they make that offer to us? Why just the Europeans, do you think?
MATTHEWS: Why didn‘t they offer to us, we‘ll stop killing you, end all al Qaeda operations against America if you get out—you get your armies out of the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia and Iraq. I think those are the only two countries we‘re in.
LIVINGSTONE: Well, first of all, we‘re the great Satan. And we are the principal adversary against them. They see us as also shoring up Israel. Without the United States, they don‘t believe Israel would exist. And that may well be a very true.
But more than that, I think that Bush the other night made it very clear what the United States policy is as long as his administration is in power. He, in effect, rejected any type of—of conciliation or peace or change of U.S. policy with al Qaeda in his speech. And he repeated that probably 10 times.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you, Richard, what‘s more dangerous in the world right now? That embraced by the president of—of Sharon, the prime minister of Israel the other day in the streets of Arabia or this new tactic by Saddam—by bin Laden?
WOLFFE: Ariel Sharon.
MATTHEWS: They both hurt, don‘t they?
WOLFFE: They do hurt. Look, the president is trying to work on so many fronts in the region. He has so many issues of principle out there: reform of Arab countries, Iraq, of course, al Qaeda. And now the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Sharon, his embrace of Sharon complicates all the other three. Really hard to go out and...
MATTHEWS: I hear the biggest issue on the streets of Iraq is not us being there. It‘s Sharon‘s grab of more land on the West Bank, as they see it a grab.
WOLFFE: I don‘t know if it‘s that big. I mean, the biggest issue there is occupation. They want to control their own fate. And there are all those tensions there. That‘s the No. 1 issue.
But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is exploited by all of these countries in the region to shore them up domestically. And it inflames those insurgents, those wannabe terrorists.
So, you know, the problem here is that President Bush is now going to play it very hard to broker the peace process. That‘s the embrace of Sharon.
MATTHEWS: Is it—I noticed this tough conversation with a lot of people here. But let‘s be honest about it.
What the president did yesterday with Sharon, acknowledging Israel‘s right to take some of that territory that they won in ‘67. Does that make it harder still for a moderate, reasonable business guy who‘s trying to keep his shop open in Baghdad embracing the occupation forces?
LIVINGSTONE: Well, look. I think that the Israeli-Palestinian struggle has been a sideshow for many, many years. It really is not central to whether the Arab—the rest of the Arab states are going to have democracy, whether they‘re going to move ahead on dealing with the many, many issues that are before them.
But they have leadership forever. It seems the turning point when they fail at home, they say, look. We have to take part in this Arab-Israeli struggle. The Palestinians are getting the short end of the stick.
And it‘s been a diversion. And that plays well to the street. And I think a lot of Arabs in the streets, they believe that, that this is somehow central to their core being and their prosperity in the future. It‘s nonsense. It really is.
MATTHEWS: But how do you make that case to an Arab? How does our president do that? How does Colin Powell do that? How do the troops to that?
LIVINGSTONE: We haven‘t done a very good job of dealing with that. But we do have a new—a television network that is oriented toward trying to take the U.S. position to the Arab street.
We need more effective advocates over there. We need to get some of those governments in the Arab world to carry a bit of water for us. And they‘re not doing a very good job.
MATTHEWS: And a stunning acknowledgment the other day by George Tenet, head of the CIA. All the other words were interesting. I learned a lot, as we all did, from the hearings.
When he said we failed to penetrate the 9/11 plotters, in other words, an utter failure to get inside bin Laden‘s organization, Al Qaeda. What does that tell you? Because it looks like we can‘t find this guy. He‘s issuing these speeches. He‘s talking to the Arab world, to the whole world at large. We can‘t find him. Is that because we don‘t have any human intel coming out of his organization?
LIVINGSTONE: I don‘t think we have anything effective at all. And look at Madrid going back to Spain. We see all these reports about chatter, terror warnings coming out. There was no spike that people picked up before Madrid.
We have not—we are still failing to infiltrate al Qaeda and its many, many spin-offs.
MATTHEWS: So he‘s got a gun at the head of Europe now. Especially those countries that have 50 or 100 soldiers in that coalition of ours.
Isn‘t it awful tempting for a prime minister facing a no confidence vote, facing defeat in the next election, to say what would a difference of 50 soldiers in or out? I mean, I might as well yank my soldiers out, you know?
Isn‘t it awful tempting what he‘s offering them? I promise you safe harbor from any international assault on your country from me if you simply bring home those 50 soldiers you‘ve got over there now. They‘re not helping anyway.
WOLFFE: Yes, there‘s that. But there‘s also, remember, these people have domestic problems with their own Muslim communities. And they‘ve never managed to get them in line in term of assimilating, giving them job opportunities. That‘s France‘s main concern. It‘s not so much what people in the Middle East...
MATTHEWS: About 11 percent of the population is Muslim.
WOLFFE: Right, and unemployment right is sky high.
MATTHEWS: They‘re Arabs.
WOLFFE: Sky high. So if they can‘t deal with those communities there, they have this radical group in there that‘s stirring things up. That‘s where they become concerned. It‘s a domestic problem. You know, it‘s not so much about Iraq. It‘s what do we do back home?
MATTHEWS: Was there a connection between al Qaeda and Iraq before we went in? I mean a significant connection?
WOLFFE: I don‘t think you‘ll find anyone credible who would argue that.
MATTHEWS: So basically, we were the ones who were the matchmakers. Inadvertently, when we went into Iraq, we encouraged a coalition against us, which included the outside agitators, as we used to call them, and the true terrorists.
WOLFFE: When I went over to my own country in Britain to talk to groups, Jihad groups out there. Their recruitment poster, literally the poster for recruitment is no longer the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It‘s not 9/11 and the Twin Towers. It‘s Iraq. It is literally the recruitment poster for these Jihadis out there.
So, you know, if there wasn‘t a connection before, we‘ve surely created it now.
MATTHEWS: Neil, you‘re the expert. Was bin Laden—bin Laden was smart. He understood the American character. And I want to be somewhat melodramatic here. He understood that pilots, red-blooded American guys, if they saw the flight attendants being hurt in the back of the plane, they‘d open the cockpit and go back and help them.
So he knew how to get control of an airplane, using our sort of culture as Jujitsu. He knew how to use our impulses.
Did he know that we would go into Arabia? We‘d go into Afghanistan, we‘d go into Iraq in a way that would spark more anti-Americanism when he attacked us on 9/11?
LIVINGSTONE: I don‘t think so. The one thing we know from debriefing, many of these prisoners, including some of the senior leadership of al Qaeda like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, is that they had no Plan B. They had no Plan C. This was a one—stand-alone operation.
And they weren‘t prepared for the success that they had. They didn‘t think they‘d knock down the towers. They may have hoped that they would.
And so the reaction that they got, they knew there would be a reaction. But remember we didn‘t respond after the Cole. We didn‘t respond after the East Africa bombings. So I think they thought they might get away with it.
MATTHEWS: Bob Kerrey keeps making that point on the commission. Do you hear him say that over and over again?
MATTHEWS: Bad question, but you‘re both able to answer this. Which countries are most likely to buckle to bin Laden‘s demand? To get out of Arabia or take more killings? Any countries weak on the edge here?
WOLFFE: You know, Poland has already questioned—it‘s got big domestic opposition to being there in Iraq. I don‘t think it‘s bin Laden.
MATTHEWS: That‘s the new Europe too.
WOLFFE: That‘s the new Europe. But you know, they‘re also being pulled by old Europe. They want to be part of the E.U., which they are...
MATTHEWS: Well, let‘s keep watching this, because that looked to me like a tempting offer. You‘re held harmless. You‘ve got nothing to worry about. You‘re in our safe zone, as long as you pull 50 or 100 troops out of that country.
MATTHEWS: He‘s a smart SOB, isn‘t he?
MATTHEWS: Thank you very much, Richard Wolffe. Thank you very much, Neil Livingstone.
Coming up, President Bush‘s aid blitz—or ad blitz, rather, is it helping him in the polls, all this TV advertising, which we keep having on our show? Or is the Bush campaign spending too much too soon?
And later, the great Ted Koppel is going to be here to tell us what he saw on the front lines in Iraq and where he thinks the war is headed.
You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.
MATTHEWS: Coming up, President Bush‘s ad blitz. He‘s all over the airwaves, but at what cost? The HARDBALL ad watch team takes a look at the Bush burn rate when HARDBALL returns.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. In a week where news from Iraq and security at home have overshadowed the race for the White House, and it should, President Bush is scaling back his multimillion-dollar ad buy on television to just 18 competitive states.
HARDBALL election correspondent David Shuster joins us with the latest. David, what‘s the latest on the ad war?
DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Chris, since March the Bush campaign has been advertising at about $9 million per week. They are now cutting that back in half.
Part of it is due to the fact that the Bush message simply cannot get out past the bad news in Iraq or past some of the revelations at the 9/11 hearings.
But the other part of it is that the Bush campaign simply cannot sustain its current burn rate. And the predicament for the Bush campaign is clear when you look at the poll numbers, which show Bush and Kerry roughly even. That is a very dramatic status quo, given where the Bush campaign started financially and where things stand for them today.
As you know, the president raised a record $180 million. Half of that was budgeted for operations of the campaign. Half for pre-convention advertising. But of the advertising budget, $90 million, the early blitz has cost him at least—at least $40 million.
The Kerry campaign, by comparison, has spent roughly $10 million. The Kerry campaign a little bit misleading with that number in the sense that Democratic independent groups have been adding into that.
But the imbalance, nonetheless, between Bush and Kerry doesn‘t seem to have had the impact that the Bush campaign had been hoping for. The one issue where Kerry seems to be a little vulnerable is on tax. The Bush campaign has raised the issue of taxes, and Kerry does seem, according to voters, as somebody who is definitely going to raise taxes.
But in the 18 battleground states where Bush attack ads have been running, Kerry‘s favorability ratings, at least according to the latest Annenberg survey, remain steady.
Furthermore, a majority of battleground voters continue to say that the president is taking the country in the wrong direction.
Democrats say that this proves that Bush‘s strategy of an early knockout has failed. Republicans say, well, they‘re satisfied with the Bush advertising so far, that it‘s done the job.
But in any case, Chris, at the time that the Bush campaign is scaling back, John Kerry is about to double his advertising buy. That means they will roughly—both campaigns will roughly be running the same number of ads, the same clip. And that is the sort of parity that Democrats have been dreaming of—Chris.
MATTHEWS: David, just on one thing, I may disagree with you. But my perception is watching the Republican ads of the last couple months is they were aimed mainly at soft Republicans, people who have voted Republican in the past but have some questions about the present, about the way the war is going, obviously about the economy.
And they were meant to sort of remind people what Bush was up against when he came into office. Obviously, 9/11, a weak economy, et cetera, et cetera. And I thought they were successful. Haven‘t a lot of leaning Republicans gone back to the Republican Party in the last couple months?
SHUSTER: Well, Chris, they‘re successful in the sense that when you look at where the president‘s favorability, his job approval rating was six weeks ago, versus where it stands now, it‘s about the same. And that‘s probably a significant development, given that all the bad news in the last six weeks, you might expect that number to drop.
But with the president‘s job approval rating remaining about the same, then you look at, well, what about the attack ads? How did that do against John Kerry? And John Kerry‘s numbers have remained about the same.
So at least according to Democrats, “Hey, we‘ve got a draw on our hands right now.”
Republicans say, “Well, we‘ve softened Kerry up on some key issues.”
MATTHEWS: OK. Thank you very much, David Shuster, HARDBALL‘s political correspondent.
Terry Holt is the national spokesman for the Bush-Cheney campaign, and former Congressman Toney Coelho is the Democratic strategist of our time.
Thank you, Tony. Let me ask you this, Terry. Was I right about your ad campaign the first couple months? It was aimed at bringing home the Republican?
TERRY HOLT, NATIONAL SPOKESMAN, BUSH-CHENEY CAMPAIGN: Well, I think it was aimed at...
MATTHEWS: Can you say yes or no?
HOLT: I can say yes or no.
MATTHEWS: Good. We‘ll start there. Good.
HOLT: Well, I mean, we wanted to talk to soft Republicans, soft Democrats, people we think that are going to support the president at the end of the day.
But we wanted to frame the issues of this debate: national security, the economy. We‘ve done that. And I think if you look at this race...
MATTHEWS: Well, they were already the issues of the campaign. I wouldn‘t take too much credit for that. When isn‘t the economy an issue? And when isn‘t national security an issue?
HOLT: But the report wasn‘t really accurate. We‘re going to be advertising in 18 states and maintain that. We‘re also going to be on national cable, shows like this one.
MATTHEWS: Every time I look up to the TV screen, Tony, during a commercial break in this show, or the last few days I‘ve been on the air all day, I see the ads, on this network, MSNBC, attacking Kerry as a taxer. Does that work?
TONY COELHO, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, it‘s worked in that there are some people who have responded to that. But it hasn‘t work in that they‘ve spent $50 million at a time that Kerry was the most vulnerable, when only 20 percent of the American people knew who he was. Eighty percent were looking to identify him.
They failed. They did not get the knockout they wanted. They wanted a Dukakis event. They wanted to be able to...
MATTHEWS: Yes, but Mike Dukakis was 17 points ahead of...
COELHO: But they were able...
MATTHEWS: Of George Bush Sr. in July of that year. He held on.
COELHO: But they were able to go in and—and knock him in regard to certain issues. In regards to this campaign, they‘ve spent $40 million. They have not succeeded.
And what you have now is that Kerry‘s fundraising has increased dramatically. So that what you have is three months ago, we were concerned as Democrats. We could not compete financially with Bush and his money machine.
HOLT: But you had all those 527s.
COELHO: And I didn‘t interrupt you.
And so then what happened is that now we can compete financially with the White House. They did not knock out Kerry. And the issue now, in my view, has always been the same. It is Bush versus Bush. And we should have let that fight continue.
MATTHEWS: You know, historically, if you look back at the presidents who have won re-election and those who were forced out on the White House. I count on that list Truman, who was forced out because of Korea. He had, like, a 20 percent approval rating.
Lyndon Johnson had to quit after—when he was about to lose the Wisconsin primary to Gene McCarthy.
Jimmy Carter, my old boss, was hurt badly by the humiliation of the Iranian hostage crisis.
The presidents who lose are guys who get hurt by events. And people beat them because they were the other guy on the ticket, on the ballot. Do you really think that you can make the Democrat the issue when normally the president is the issue?
HOLT: Well, fundamentally...
MATTHEWS: Do you accept my premise? That the president is the key?
HOLT: The president is the key. This is an election about his leadership and the extent to which he‘s been able to prove the economy and win the war on terror. And that he understands the priorities of the country.
John Kerry, well, for lots of reasons, is still very soft—his image is very soft among most voters. I would dispute some of the findings here. In these states, state after state people are identifying Kerry...
MATTHEWS: Why is he seven points ahead of the president?
HOLT: They are identifying him as a waffler.
MATTHEWS: Why is he ahead—I‘m as stunned as anybody by those numbers. I thought Bush was doing OK lately. He‘s seven points behind John Kerry, and Kerry has basically been on vacation the last month.
HOLT: This election is going to be close.
MATTHEWS: Why is he seven points down?
HOLT: This has been a very close election...
MATTHEWS: Can you answer the question: why the president, who‘s leading the country—as you said, the economy‘s getting better. As you say, he‘s doing well in the war. Why is he seven points behind a guy that most people don‘t know?
HOLT: Well, I would dispute that he‘s seven points behind.
MATTHEWS: “Newsweek‘s” wrong?
HOLT: Three or four—“Newsweek” has been typically way out as an outlier to most of the of other surveys that we‘ve seen in the national—in the national environment.
MATTHEWS: Last word before break.
COELHO: They like “Newsweek” when the polls showed him ahead. Now they don‘t like it because—let me tell you what the issue is. The public is now questioning George Bush, whether or not they can trust him. It‘s Bush versus Bush. Trust is the issue. They‘re losing on trust.
MATTHEWS: OK. Thank you, Terry Holt, please stay with us.
Tony Coelho, stay with us.
When we return, we‘re going to talk about this.
And later tonight on the show, big guest tonight, Ted Koppel from “NIGHTLINE” on the situation in Iraq. He‘s been there lately. And the politis of the 9/11 commission. We‘re going to talk about that topic in just a minute, too.
You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.
MATTHEWS: We‘re back with Terry Holt on the Republican side and Tony Coelho on the Democratic side. Terry, it‘s kind of odd to ask this. I know, because people put tons of money, both parties, into ads.
Why would an American citizen who‘s lived under this president, lived under the previous president, be affected by a TV ad when they have the newspapers, television, they watch the president every day, they hear the headlines? Why would they want some TV ad to tell them how it is?
HOLT: I think it‘s a great question. Sixty-seven percent of the people in this country rely on their local news for the information that they get to make their political decisions.
MATTHEWS: Well, why has he spent $40 million to push an ad?
HOLT: We‘re on the local news, as a matter of fact.
MATTHEWS: Why the ads? Do people really pay attention to ads?
HOLT: Well, it‘s like buying a car. You only watch the car ads when you‘re looking to buy a car. And that‘s why it was so important for us on March 2 to call Kerry, open the general election campaign and get out there and be aggressive and frame the debate the way that we thought it needed to be framed. And I think we‘ve had success.
MATTHEWS: So you think it has worked.
HOLT: Absolutely. To a certain extent. But the general conversation, the conversations you have at this table, the conversations that happen in the coffee shop at home. That‘s why grassroots is such a big deal in our campaign. It‘s all of that.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about events. Every day you pick up—And people that vote tend to read the paper a couple days a week. And they watch the news, local news, as you point out, more often.
They pick up the paper to see this many people killed. They see this. I‘m not bragging. This is horrible. This has nothing to do with politics, but it does affect the way people are thinking. These are lives lost in the last couple weeks.
They see that and then they see an ad. It seems to me that would have more drama, more effect on them, it seem. Doesn‘t it? Don‘t people think about, and when they lose their job or they paid more for food or gas, the gas lately. That seems to be more impressive.
COELHO: Ads are a drip, drip. This is dramatic. But a commercial is a drip. It‘s not dramatic. It doesn‘t slap you across the face as a picture of people who have died.
MATTHEWS: Who is it aimed at?
COELHO: It‘s aimed at people that—are reinforcing certain people, but it‘s really aimed at soft on both sides.
MATTHEWS: The middle 20.
COELHO: But an ad is a drip, drip. That‘s all it‘s there for, that middle 20. And it is—they are effective. People do get swayed by it, because they don‘t even know what it‘s doing to them. But it‘s drip, drip, drip, drip.
MATTHEWS: Thank you very much, Tony Coelho. It‘s great to have you, Tony, as always.
Up next, “NIGHTLINE‘s” Ted Koppel is coming. He‘s been covering the war with Iraq. He‘s been over there. He wants to come and talk about a book he‘s written the introduction to, about Mike Kelly, his colleague for all those five weeks embedded in Iraq.
You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.
MATTHEWS: This half-hour on HARDBALL, veteran journalist Ted Koppel on what he‘s seen on the front lines of the war in Iraq and his late wartime colleague Mike Kelly.
But, first, the latest headlines right now.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.
The world lost a distinctive and courageous voice when journalist Michael Kelly was the first reporter killed in Iraq on April 3, 2003. Michael‘s incredible body of work ranged from covering the political wars here in Washington to the front lines in Iraq.
ABC newsman Ted Koppel served with Michael as an embed with the 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq. And he wrote the introduction to a new book, a collection of Michael‘s writings, “Things Worth Fighting For: The Collected Writings of Michael Kelly.” This book is dedicated to his Michael‘s sons, Tom and rMDNM_Jack.
Ted Koppel, thanks for coming on.
Can you give us a picture of what it was like to be with Michael Kelly over there in Iraq?
TED KOPPEL, ABC NEWS: Well, Michael was a delight. He was a pugnacious guy, as the title of his works suggests.
I mean, you didn‘t want to get into an argument with Michael about something. But, at the same time, he was also one of the most fun-loving people I‘ve ever met. I had read a lot of his work before I met him out in Kuwait before we crossed the border into Iraq together. But I didn‘t realize just what a tremendous journalist he was until after I got back and started reading. I actually reread. He did a wonderful book called “Martyrs Day” about the first Gulf War. If folks haven‘t read it, they should.
But this one is a collection of much of what he has done in newspapers and magazines. He was an extraordinary writer.
MATTHEWS: You know, Ted, he wrote about the slaughter that was going on in the final days of the first Gulf War in a way that was so impressive. I think it had a lot to do with ending that war.
What turned Michael from a more dovish position as a journalist to a more hawkish position regarding that region?
KOPPEL: Well, I‘m not sure that he was ever really dovish about the region.
Michael was a very tough guy who had a very clear sense of what needed to be done. He and I had a number of conversations with senior military people while we were heading up to Baghdad. And the great concern at the time was not what was going to happen with the military phase, but what was going to happen after the military phase was over. And that, of course, proved to be the great problem that‘s metastasizing now.
MATTHEWS: Was he aware, in your conversations, of the imminent, in fact, incipient nationalism which would show its face in these recent weeks?
KOPPEL: Well, I think if anyone—when you talk about nationalism in Iraq, Chris, you‘re talking about at least three different kinds of nationalism.
You‘re talking about the Kurds and the Turkmen up there. You‘re talking about the Arab Sunnis and the Shiites. And it is precisely because you have this country that was carved out of a number of other regions where the tribes were in effect forced together that you have got this great danger of civil war today.
MATTHEWS: Yes, that‘s right.
Let me ask you about, I love these character studies, because we only seem to engage them when we‘ve lost someone.
MATTHEWS: I remember the first time I came across Mike Kelly. He wrote that delightful article about—almost indecent, it was so well written, about Ted Kennedy and Chris Dodd in the old days, before either of them were married again. And that sort of marked him as a tough sort of judger of character.
And then later on, he got interested in other topics. How did you put it all together, that sort of fascination with lifestyle in a kind of almost cheeky fashion to his more serious writing later?
KOPPEL: Well, that‘s a good word for him. Cheeky and pugnacious I think are the two, but also a man who cared very much about injustice. If there was anything that could get Michael outraged, it was injustice.
And I think that‘s a theme that you‘ll find running throughout this book, Chris.
MATTHEWS: What about his personal concerns about his own life in the field?
KOPPEL: I must tell you, I never got a sense that—look, the day that he died, he and I had gone to do a final interview with General Buff Blount, who‘s the commander of the 3rd Infantry Division.
And so I had driven him over in one of our vehicles. And then as I was heading out, Michael was going in an Army Humvee that was driven by a young sergeant. As I left, I realized that had Michael had left his helmet on the seat of my car. And so I went driving back and dropped it off with him and sort of cursed him out just before—it was the last time I saw him. And later that day, he died.
MATTHEWS: Was there any trepidation?
MATTHEWS: Any intimation?
KOPPEL: No, in fact, quite the contrary. Michael was concerned that because we had been with the headquarters company of the division, that we weren‘t close enough to the front. And so he and I had both decided that we were going to head out to the one of the battalions that was quite literally the point of the spear leading the way up to—it was that night that we got to Baghdad International Airport.
And it was on the way to the airport that Michael was killed. But not only was there no sense of trepidation. He was pushing hard to get closer to the front.
MATTHEWS: What do you make of the embedding institution after having been through it yourself for those five weeks?
KOPPEL: Listen, I‘ve got no complaints with it. I remember one of the first days after we had crossed the border into Iraq, about 3:00 in the morning, Michael coming out of the command tent and just chuckling. And I said, you know, what the hell happened?
And he said, I was in there and the lieutenant colonel, who was a woman, the intelligence officer was about to give an intelligence briefing. And there was this big moment of silence. She was not going to go ahead because I was there. This is Michael Kelly talking. And General Blount told her, no, go ahead. It‘s all right. And he said, I can‘t believe it. They‘re letting us in on everything. And indeed they did.
We were there for the intelligence briefings. We were there for the commander‘s briefings. Anywhere we needed to go, they got us there.
MATTHEWS: What might be good public relations and good press relations for a military operation, is that good for the reader and for the viewer as well?
KOPPEL: I think it is, because, after all, Chris, that‘s not the only thing you‘re getting. If that were the only version of what‘s going on in the war—remember, now, if you‘re—if you‘re a viewer of ABC or a reader of “The New York Times” of “The Washington Post,” what you‘re getting is the sum of what half a dozen different reporters in different locations are giving you.
Some of us might have been embedded. The rest of us weren‘t. The whole picture is coming across from the sum of those views.
MATTHEWS: Is it tougher to be tough on the military if you‘re fighting with them, if you‘re riding with them in danger?
KOPPEL: Yes, I mean, I‘m sure it is. As hard as you may try, you can‘t help but like these guys. They‘re an amazing bunch of people.
And I think both Michael and I got very close to a number of the soldiers and officers that we were with. I think that‘s natural. But they understood that if we saw something that wasn‘t right, we were going to report on it. And they understood that before we ever joined them.
MATTHEWS: Tell me about the military guys you fight with over there, the one you fight alongside of and cover, like—almost like Ernie Pyle. You‘re trying to see the war from the perspective of the enlisted men mostly, enlisted women. Do they have—did they get a lot of training into the rationale for the war?
And it‘s been my experience, Chris—and I‘ve been covering wars since 1966 when I went to Vietnam the first time. And I‘ve covered about 10 or 11 of them over the years. What you get is platitudes. It‘s rare that—let‘s face it. I don‘t know how many Americans civilians could have before the war said anything much more than, well, we‘re going there because he‘s got weapons of mass destruction or because Saddam Hussein is supporting terrorism and constitutes some sort of a threat to the United States.
People tend, and the same is true of the soldiers, to sort of regurgitate, to give you back what they‘ve been hearing from their civilian leaders. And it‘s very rare that at least the grunts have spent a whole lot of time thinking about it. They‘re not paid to think about it. And, by and large, they‘re not over there fighting for that. They‘re fighting for each other to protect one another.
MATTHEWS: Well, was there an aspect of their motive, their morale, that connected that fighting in Iraq to what happened to us on 9/11?
KOPPEL: Oh, I think there‘s a certain aspect of that.
You would see it in some of the names and the slogans and nicknames that would be painted on the bells of tanks, around the sides on—or on the hoods of Humvees. There would be references back to 9/11. I think that‘s inevitable. You‘re right about that. But, by and large, what are people fighting over there or what are they fighting for? They‘re fighting to protect one another‘s backs.
MATTHEWS: That‘s what I‘ve heard. Thank you very much.
We‘ll be back with more with Ted Koppel to talk more briefly when we come back about the comparisons that has been made, maybe politically and in a partisan fashion, but let‘s talk about the comparisons between both wars, big American wars he‘s covered, the one in Iraq we‘re still fighting and the Vietnam legacy.
You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.
MATTHEWS: Coming up, much more with Ted Koppel. He‘s covered Iraq and Vietnam. I‘ll ask him how they‘re similar and how they‘re different—when HARDBALL returns.
MATTHEWS: We‘re back with Ted Koppel. He, of course, has written the introduction to a wonderful new book by Michael Kelly. It is obviously being published posthumously, “Things Worth Fighting For.”
Mike Kelly, to remind everybody, was a brilliant, gifted young writer and author and journalist who died covering the war in Iraq alongside Ted Koppel.
Ted, let me ask you about this, because you‘re one of the few people that really has a rich ability to answer this question. Vietnam and Iraq, comparison.
KOPPEL: Well, the one thing you have always got to remember when we‘re fighting a foreign war, when we‘re fighting on somebody else‘s turf, is, eventually, we‘re going to leave and ultimately, they‘re still going to be there. That never changes. That didn‘t change in Vietnam. It is not going to change over here.
And when I hear some of that, some of our political leaders talking about the fact that whoever is causing so much trouble for our soldiers and Marines over there right now constitutes a minority, it always constitutes a minority. But remember what Mao said about the function of guerrillas and how they survive. Guerrillas survive by being able to swim among the people the way fish swim in water.
If the people at large are not supporting these folks who are firing on American troops, they won‘t be able to survive. And if in fact they are able to survive, then that means that they have a lot of support from the people. Which way that is going to tip, I think we‘re going to see in the next few months. But the way it‘s been going the last couple weeks has not been good.
MATTHEWS: You know, the old argument about Vietnam that maybe was the convincing argument a lot of us missed watching it from afar, was that, unless we defeated the V.C., unless we actually defeated the North Vietnamese, defeated them, they would eventually win because they were going to survive us. Is that still the situation in Iraq?
KOPPEL: Well, that was one of Henry Kissinger‘s famous lines. If they don‘t lose, they win. If we don‘t win, we lose. And I suppose, ultimately, that is going to be true in Iraq, too.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about—about the—the war choice. The choice to go to Iraq was an odd one in the sense that the president now says there was at least no evidence to date of WMD. He actually says rather overtly now and explicitly no connection directly to 9/11.
Do you think this war is going to emerge as an issue of choice in the campaign, whether it was the right or the wrong one?
KOPPEL: I‘m not sure, Chris, whether it is going to be a question of whether the war was the right choice. I think the timing is going to be the issue. Did we have to go to war when we went to war? Could we have afforded to wait for another six months or another year? In other words, was the threat, the danger from Saddam Hussein as imminent as the administration was suggesting 15 or 18 months ago?
And I think quite clearly, from what we‘ve learned now, the answer is no. They may have been a threat, but it wasn‘t as imminent as we were led to believe. Did they believe it at the time? I‘m perfectly prepared to accept that they did. It was everybody‘s intelligence. When I say everybody‘s, French intelligence, German intelligence, Russian intelligence, British intelligence. They were all saying the same thing. They were all talking about the weapons of mass destruction not as a hypothesis, but as something they knew existed.
They were wrong.
MATTHEWS: I want to ask you I think the big question. As a journalist who has actually covered in the theater out front many times, does a journalist have to have a certain kind of pro-nationalistic prejudice? In other words, is it appropriate for a journalist to say, if you‘re covering a war, you know, the whole premise behind this war is wrong because it is based on the idea of a Western power, us, imposing its cultural and political and geopolitical will on another country that is at least potentially hostile to us from the very beginning?
Can you do that? Can you take an adversarial position on the basis premise of a war and still cover it honestly?
KOPPEL: It depends on where you are, Chris.
For example, when I was with the troops and they were driving from Kuwait up north to Baghdad, was there any doubt in my mind as to which side I was on? Absolutely not. That‘s one of those times—that‘s like saying there are no atheists in the foxholes.
KOPPEL: You‘re not—was it a question of, am I supporting the Americans or am I supporting the Iraqis? Hell no. I was supporting the Americans, no question about that.
Is it patriotic for American journalists to raise serious questions about the legitimacy of what is being done? Hey, if we don‘t do that, I‘m not sure what our purpose in life is. It isn‘t just to take what we are told by military or civilian leaders and pass it on. You might just as well hand the microphone to them and say, here, you do it. You don‘t need anyone going through the material.
KOPPEL: So, yes, of course it‘s legitimate.
MATTHEWS: Well, square that with the president‘s comments at his press conference the other night where he said those who compare this to Vietnam, for example, are basically helping the enemy and hurting our morale?
KOPPEL: Well, sometimes do you hurt morale by raising difficult questions. But if journalists don‘t raise difficult questions, I have to say, as I said a moment ago, who should?
That‘s—raising a difficult question is not in and of itself unpatriotic. If the question is an unfair question, an unreasonable question based on something that is not true, that‘s different. But if what you‘re doing is pointing to reality and saying, wait a second. You told us A six months ago.
KOPPEL: It turns out not to be true, so what is the basis for the war now? I‘m sorry. I don‘t see that as unpatriotic. Quite the contrary.
MATTHEWS: Do you accept this sort of legacy of Walter Cronkite—he‘s not gone yet, obviously—but the legacy that, when he turned against war in Vietnam, when he saw coming back from covering it that it wasn‘t winnable and it wasn‘t being won, that he turned the country‘s opinion and basically turned the country itself again that commitment?
KOPPEL: Well, I mean, the famous story is that Lyndon Johnson saw Walter Cronkite‘s commentary on the “CBS Evening News” and said, it‘s lost now because Cronkite is against us.
What you have to remember is that that was—what are we talking about now, 34, 35 years ago?
KOPPEL: Yes. It was at a time 36 years ago.
KOPPEL: It was at a time before you and your cable network existed, before CNN existed, before “Nightline” existed. Basically, in those days, you had the three evening newscasts on ABC, NBC, and CBS. And Walter Cronkite was head and shoulders the biggest of them all.
He had a standing in this country that none of us in this day and age comes close to achieving, in some large measure because Walter is a great guy, but in large measure also because back then there were three. Now there are 30 or 40 or 50.
MATTHEWS: Well, Ted, you‘re the closest.
I‘ll be right back with Ted Koppel.
You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.
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MATTHEWS: We‘re back with Ted Koppel.
It‘s great having you on. Once again, I want to cite this great new book I‘m going to buy, Michael Kelly, “Things Worth Fighting For,” the Collected Writings of a great writer, with the introduction by Ted Koppel, who is with us right now.
Ted, one of the complaints in sort of the unintended messages that have come about because of this war getting very messy and very ugly is that the—this whole question of terrorism, whether the country focused too much on the Monica Lewinsky-Bill Clinton matter, to the distraction of the president and the distraction of the media, when we should have all been thinking more about the coming fight with terrorist forces such as bin Laden. Do you think that‘s a fair knock?
KOPPEL: Yes, I think it‘s a fair knock. But it‘s a knock you can make on America and the Americans and the American media and the American political system most of the time.
I don‘t know why it is, but for some strange reason, we‘re rarely capable of focusing on more than one crisis at the time. When it was Bosnia, it was Bosnia. When it was Vietnam, it‘s Vietnam. When it was Somalia, it was Somalia. We always seems to be able to focus on one at a time, maybe as a domestic crisis. We can always find time for an O.J. Simpson trial.
But when it comes to the real crises, the ones that we need to be focusing on, for some strange reason, we never seem to be able to handle more than one at a time. So, yes, inevitably, later on, we realize that while we were focusing on crisis A, crisis B was evolving and developing and it comes and hits us over the head.
MATTHEWS: Is the White House press corps tougher on its subject, the president, when he‘s weak politically?
KOPPEL: Sure, because usually he‘s weak politically because he has done something ineffectively. And when the president for one reason or another is ineffective, Democrat or Republican, whether it was Bill Clinton with the Monica Lewinsky case or whatever the public‘s perception may be on President Bush right now, when he is perceived—when there‘s blood in the water, the press gets tough.
MATTHEWS: Is that because it‘s just sort of institutionally easier to take a shot at the—a tougher question, for example, line of questioning. I thought the other night was about middle-level assault. How did you think the press was on the president the other night during his East Room press conference?
KOPPEL: Look, fair to middling. I agree with you. I don‘t think they were especially tough. I really didn‘t. In fact, I think the president simply avoided a lot of questions. And nobody really came back at him hard and said, wait a second, Mr. President, you haven‘t answered us yet.
MATTHEWS: Well, twice he was asked why he had to appear before the 9/11 Commission in the company of the vice president.
MATTHEWS: And he didn‘t even begin to answer the questions.
KOPPEL: Well, he just sidestepped it. If the press lets him do that, I don‘t blame him for trying. I blame us for not holding him to it.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about this summer. And please take a couple minutes to answer this. We‘ve got conventions coming up this summer. And, as you know, they‘ve become less and less decision-making bodies, or convention, even by the name convention. Do you think the networks would be right to pull the plug on a lot of the coverage this summer?
KOPPEL: Look, I think inevitably—first of all, location is important. And since you‘ve got one of conventions in New York and the other one in Philadelphia, it‘s inevitable that the networks will be there.
KOPPEL: It‘s simpler . It‘s easier. It‘s less expensive for them.
Are we covering conventions the way that we did 12 years ago? Heck no. I took a lot of heat when eight years ago my executive producer and I decided to pull out of San Diego because there was nothing going on. And we said there‘s nothing going on. It‘s a waste of time and money to be here. But, frankly, that‘s the way the conventions have become.
MATTHEWS: Well, suppose John Kerry picks his V.P. a month or two earlier? Will that kill any news value to these occasions?
KOPPEL: Well, to a certain extent. If he manages to keep that a secret, then that will clearly be the big news story of the Democratic Convention.
But whether he does or not, I am perfectly prepared to concede that each of the political parties is entitled to its day in the sun. But three, four, five, eight hours of live coverage, the way we used to do it in the old days, not when all the—not when all the decisions have already been made.
MATTHEWS: I loved the 1968 convention. And I‘m sure you did, too.
Anyway, Ted Koppel, it‘s great having you. You wrote the beautiful introduction to Michael Kelly‘s book. I hope everybody buys it. I‘m going to buy it.
Anyway, to date, 15 journalists, including NBC‘s own David Bloom, have been killed or remain missing in Iraq. And the Pentagon released the names of 64 Americans who died in Iraq just last week, making it the deadliest for U.S. service members since the start of the war, a tragic reminder of the cost of war.
Join us again tomorrow night at 7:00 Eastern for more HARDBALL.
Right now, it‘s time for the “COUNTDOWN” with Keith.
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