THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL
April 10, 2013
LAWRENCE O`DONNELL, HOST: What did you have for dinner tonight? The
president had a green salad, steak, sauteed vegetables and 12 Republicans.
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We`ve got to get
smarter about our priorities as a nation.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president`s budget is public.
ALEX WAGNER, MSNBC ANCHOR: Unveiling his long awaited fiscal
OBAMA: A fiscally responsible blueprint.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president`s budget blueprint.
OBAMA: We can grow our economy and shrink our deficits.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This represents compromise.
OBAMA: Common sense and compromise.
CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR: He offered a big compromise to the
REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: He does deserve some
REP. ERIC CANTOR (R-VA), MINORITY LEADER: There are some things in
the budget we can find some agreement on.
CHRIS JANSING, MSNBC ANCHOR: Can there be a deal?
BOEHNER: No, no, no, no. That`s not what I said.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The sequester is the new normal.
BOEHNER: The sequester is going to stay in place.
REP. PAUL RYAN (R), WISCONSIN: This is probably a status quo budget.
CHUCK TODD, MSNBC ANCHOR: This morning, Congressman Paul Ryan
RYAN: When does he balance the budget? Does he propose to ever-
balance the budget?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, look at me, look how great I am. I balanced
RYAN: We put up a budget that balances.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It`s really disingenuous.
JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: They claim to balance but
they won`t tell you how.
RYAN: Republicans have already done things that have not been
ROBERT GIBBS, FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Paul Ryan is last
RYAN: This is probably a status quo budget.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Paul Ryan doesn`t have the last word.
RYAN: When does he balance the budget?
GIBBS: Paul Ryan, fairly insignificant in this entire debate.
RYAN: We`ve said here`s how you fundamentally restructure Medicaid,
Medicare. We put lots of things in there. The base, I mea, look, we
represent seniors as well. Fiscal cliff wasn`t popular I would add.
GIBBS: Insignificant to this debate.
OBAMA: The American people deserve better than what we have been
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The budget likely to be a big topic of
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Republicans having dinner at the White House.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He`s holding this dinner date.
MARTIN BASHIR, MSNBC ANCHOR: Dining tonight with a dozen Republican
JANSING: Can there be a deal?
OBAMA: I already met Republicans more than halfway.
WAGNER: In other words, bargain or bust.
OBAMA: That`s the bottom line.
O`DONNELL: There`s the right time cue. Barack Obama is a fairly
modern man with a very old fashioned idea. Now what if I invite them to
dinner? That`s his idea. What if we sit down socially in a very relaxed
way, talk business, the business of governing the United States of America?
That sort of thing used to actually work wonders in Washington. I`m
going to tell you the absolutely fascinating story later in this program,
it`s fascinating to me anyway, about how the most important social program
in America became the law of the land, thanks to a chance conversation at a
Washington tea party back when they had tea parties. A tea party in a
Supreme Court justice`s home.
There used to be a social circuit in Washington, regular dinner
parties. If you go back far enough, afternoon Tea Parties, and, of course,
card games, that sort of thing, where Democrats and Republicans routinely
ran into each other, became more friendly, and earned each other`s trust,
and found common ground, room to compromise, got things done.
President Obama on his own is trying to recreate that world one dinner
at a time. Tonight, he served dinner at the White House for 12 Republican
senators who never get to talk to him in private, who never get a feel of
what the president is really like, until tonight, in a room in the White
House called the Old Family Dining Room.
Around the table were Republican Senators Lamar Alexander of
Tennessee, John Boozman of Arkansas, Susan Collins of Maine, Mike Crapo of
Indiana, Mike Enzi of Wyoming, Deb Fischer of Nebraska, Orrin Hatch of
Utah, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Pat Roberts of Kansas, John Thune of South
Dakota, Roger Wicker of Mississippi, and last and not at all least, Marco
Rubio of Florida.
It is fair to assume the president made some of the points at dinner
that he made in the Rose Garden this morning announcing his new budget.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: Now, on the topic of deficits, despite all the noise in
Washington, here is a clear and unassailable fact: our deficits are already
falling. Over the past two years, I`ve signed legislation that will reduce
the deficits by more than $2.5 trillion, more than two-thirds of it through
spending cuts and the rest through asking the wealthiest Americans to be in
paying their fair share. That doesn`t mean we don`t have more work to do,
but here is how we finish the job.
My budget will reduce our deficits by nearly another $2 trillion so
that all told, we will have surpassed the goal of $4 trillion in deficit
reduction that independent economists believe we need to stabilize our
finances. But it does so in a balanced and responsible way, a way that
most Americans prefer.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O`DONNELL: We don`t yet know exactly what the Republican senators
said about the president`s budget at dinner tonight, but the Republican
leader of the House of Representatives immediately attacked the president`s
budget today using the most absurd and childish comparison that you can.
You`ve heard this a thousand times. He compared a family`s budget to the
federal government`s budget.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BOEHNER: The president`s budget never comes to balance. Every family
has to balance its budget, Washington should as well.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O`DONNELL: That is, of course, not true, unless you don`t count the
family`s mortgage as part of their budget. Financially prudent families
usually carry very significant debt, which they can afford in the long
term. That debt comes in the form of mortgages, car payments, and loans
for education and other needs.
But in Republican world, every American family is limiting its
spending to only what it takes in in current income, nothing more. If that
were the case, home ownership would be virtually nonexistent in this
country and we would be driving some very, very old cars.
If the president was going to make any progress with Republicans at
the dinner table tonight, they were going to have to leave all the John
Boehner baby talk about family budgeting out of that dining room.
Joining me now, Ezra Klein, MSNBC policy analyst, and Kasie Hunt, NBC
News political reporter who covered tonight`s dinner at the White House.
What do we know, Kasie?
KASIE HUNT, NBC NEWS: Well, the statements are starting to trickle in
from the Republicans who were at dinner at the White House. It ended just
about 40 minutes ago. Our first statement came from Senator Johnny Isakson
of Georgia who was the organizer of the dinner.
And he says that "our dinner with President Obama tonight was very
productive. We discussed the debt, deficits and fiscal challenges facing
our country, sitting down to talk about how to get our arms around debt is
a good step forward to what I hope will be an on-going discussion and path
forward to solving our nation`s problems. And I commend the president for
reaching out to us."
That`s a pretty positive statement that tracks with what Republicans
were saying after the last dinner with President Obama, where they were
We`re also hearing from Senator Orrin Hatch, who says similarly --
takes a similarly positive tone. He says that they had a wide-ranging and
open discussion on a range of subjects from tax reforms to entitlements.
O`DONNELL: Kasie, any indication that they got into things other than
budget issues? I know the agenda was budget issues, but with gun
legislation coming up in the Senate, any hints that they talked about that?
HUNT: I haven`t gotten wind of that from my sources on Capitol Hill
yet. I will say at the last dinner, they were pretty careful to avoid
that. At that one they touched on immigration which has a much deeper
bipartisan consensus and is less divisive emotionally, if you will. So, I
would say I would be surprised to hear they got into that at any great
O`DONNELL: Ezra Klein, if you can imagine them getting off their
talking points in the dining room and I can, when they close the door and
it`s really that kind of meeting, it`s definitely possible, where do you
think they would find the biggest area to find some sort of common ground?
EZRA KLEIN, MSNBC ANALYST: There`s actually a fair amount of common
ground. The problem is whether or not the common ground extends to
politics. So, a couple of not even a year ago, Mitch McConnell, the Senate
minority leader, went to "The Wall Street Journal" and he said that in
order to consider more revenues, he would need three things. He would need
to see means-testing in Medicare, which means higher income folks pay more
or get less from it. He would need the retirement age to go up, and he
would need to see a chained CPI, the slowing of the cost of living increase
and Social Security.
The president`s budget now has two of those three, in addition it
replaces sequester, it protects defense spending compared to the sequester.
There`s a lot in there for Republicans to like. The degree of the actual
policy difference, if you go back to Republicans as we were saying six
months ago, year ago, two years ago, it`s not that wide. The honest
problem is that as the president moves on this stuff, so, too, do the
Now, the idea from Boehner and McConnell is nothing that includes any
revenues at all is in the remote realm of acceptable. And so, the broad
question is whether or not the sort of underlying political incentives that
make it very, very difficult for Republicans to come to agreement with the
president, at least at this point, will abate at all, even if they`ll abate
in that room. Twelve senators is a lot of folks who could be leaking what
was going on in a meeting like that.
O`DONNELL: Kasie Hunt, the president is taking a lot of heat from
some Democrats about putting chained CPI on the table as a possibility
within a larger agreement that would include revenues.
Is there any word from the White House that they may start to
contemplate having dinners with Democratic members of Congress to keep them
from going too far on that issue and keep the discussion going?
HUNT: There are some Democrats who have expressed an interest in
having -- hearing more from the White House on that. But you have to
remember, I mean, Obama is thinking about his legacy at this point and
these issues are always difficult no matter what side of the aisle you`re
on. We saw the top House campaigner come out and say this chained CPI idea
isn`t something he could support and he was attacked by the club for
growth, the right wing anti-tax organization for coming out and saying
So, you`re seeing a lot of cross currents cutting on this issue. You
also remember that Mitt Romney aggressively went after President Obama for
supposedly cutting $716 billion out of Medicare to pay for parts of the
health care overhaul.
O`DONNELL: Ezra, I made the point many times on this program that
there is no agreement until everything is agreed to, and Gene Sperling was
trying to make that point today about CPI issues. Let`s listen to that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GENE SPERLING, NATL. ECONOMIC COUNCIL DIRECTOR: The offer that is
there for Speaker Boehner is not an a la cart menu, you can`t decide to
pick out only the concessions the president has made and not include the
concessions that are -- from the Republican side that need to be part of a
bipartisan deal that could pass both houses.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O`DONNELL: Ezra, that`s what makes this all so difficult. The idea
that people are starting to doubt whether the president is really risking
anything with this chained CPI proposal because if they can`t agree to
everything, nothing is going to happen, therefore, none of it is real.
KLEIN: I think the White House is looking and I think they`re hitting
bedrock here. So, over the last couple months, maybe a year, there has
been two sort of main arguments from the Republican side on why a deal
hasn`t been cut and that it is the White House`s fault.
And one is, the president doesn`t reach out to the Hill. He doesn`t
talk to Republicans. He doesn`t know them. He doesn`t know what they
want. He`s not doing the work of a legislative leader, if you indeed you
believe that as a role of the executive.
And two is that he simply won`t actually cut entitlements, that you
get leaks out of back door meetings, but when it comes down to it, you
pulls it back, he increases the taxes you need. They knocked both excuses
off the table. So, now, they either get a deal or if they don`t, the fact
it is Republican intransigent is in their view much clearer.
O`DONNELL: Kasie Hunt and Ezra Klein, thank you both for joining me.
KLEIN: Thank you.
HUNT: Thank you.
O`DONNELL: Coming up, Michelle Obama in her own moving words on gun
And a United States senator emotionally struggling to find the words
to express what it has meant to him to have the families from Sandy Hook
Elementary School in Washington this week pushing for gun safety.
And in the "Rewrite" tonight, who was the most important cabinet
member in history? I will suggest someone many of you may never have heard
of, but she did more to change the way we live in this country than any
other cabinet member.
And later, Anthony Weiner now seems to think if Mark Sanford can do
it, he can do it. Anthony Weiner is back.
O`DONNELL: Last week, former Arkansas Congressman Asa Hutchinson
released his report paid for by the NRA and who paid him an undisclosed sum
-- an answer I tried to get out of him on this show. His report about
school safety according to the NRA. And it was a completely nonpolitical
report, nothing political about it. He then tried to defend that report on
this program. You can judge how successful he did that.
And then, today, he announced his candidacy for governor of Arkansas,
the author of that completely nonpolitical report that the NRA put out last
Coming up next, how the families from Sandy Hook have helped achieve a
compromise on gun safety in the United States Senate.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REPORTER: What impact did these families specifically, their presence
this week, have on your breakthrough?
SEN. JOE MANCHIN (D), WEST VIRGINIA: I`m a parent. I`m a
It`s this, I`ll share. I can`t imagine. I can do something. I can
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O`DONNELL: That was West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin
trying to answer the question of what the presence of the families from
Newtown, Connecticut, in Washington this week has meant to his efforts to
craft a compromise with Republicans on gun safety legislation.
Today, Manchin and Republican Senator Pat Toomey announced a bill that
would expand the background system to cover all commercial gun sales,
included those conducted at gun shows and online.
Today, President Obama released this statement. This is not my bill
and there are aspects of the agreement that I might prefer to be stronger,
but the agreement does represent welcome and significant bipartisan
The first procedural vote on gun control legislation is scheduled for
tomorrow at 11:00 a.m. on the Senate floor. A group of Republican senators
continues to threaten to oppose the motion to proceed on any gun
legislation. They intend to mount a filibuster that according to their
public rationale is based entirely on a lie.
Here is how Senator Ted Cruz tells that lie.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: For any legislation that is potentially
infringing the Bill of Rights, taking away our constitutional protections,
I think it should be a 60-vote threshold.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
O`DONNELL: It is well-established in law and Supreme Court precedent
that there is nothing being contemplated in the United States senate that
infringes on the constitutional right to bear arms. That right has never
been interpreted by the court to be a right to bear any and all firearms
that exist in the world. You do not have a right to bear a machine gun in
And Ted Cruz has not yet introduced a bill in the Senate to give you
the right to bear a machine gun because he knows that Congress is well
within its constitutional prerogatives when it chose to ban the sale and
manufacture of machine guns and certain other kinds of firearms. If Ted
Cruz and Rand Paul and the other constitutional scholars and Senate
servants of the NRA could point to one Supreme Court case indicating there
is anything unconstitutional about the legislation coming to the Senate,
they would do that.
And instead, they simply choose to lie about the Second Amendment and
cravenly do the bidding of the NRA, doing the bid of merchants of death
that reap profits of the industry that guarantees America`s mass murderers
are the best equipped mass murderers in the world.
Krystal Ball, watching Joe Manchin there today, people were wondering,
what is -- what is this? The families coming, is it a stunt? Is it just
something they`re doing for the media?
I think we saw the kind of import they have.
KRYSTAL BALL, MSNBC`S "THE CYCLE": That`s absolutely right. I mean,
could you have more powerful spokespeople. And these are not politicians,
these are not activists, these are people whose lives have been changed and
who think that they can take that and use it to make a change in the
country for the better. I don`t know how you cannot be impacted by that.
And when you look at the full array of forces that are pushing for
change on this issue, you have not only the Newtown families, you have
Gabrielle Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly, you have Joe Biden who
himself has experienced loss and speaks to that personally, and then you
have the president himself, not just paying lip service but really getting
into the debate, giving it everything he has, and now, the first lady as
well. It`s really quite an array of powerful forces there.
O`DONNELL: Richard Wolffe, Joe Manchin from West Virginia, he is as
conservative a Democrat as we now have in the Senate. He`s from a state
where talking anything about gun legislation is very politically dangerous,
but there he is going out there, trying to find a compromise.
RICHARD WOLFFE, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, let`s remember, this is
a guy in the last election took a shotgun to a cap-and-trade piece of
legislation and fired the shotgun as part of his ad.
O`DONNELL: The kind of thing that works well in West Virginia.
BALL: He got elected, right?
WOLFFE: You know, let`s make a contrast here between Joe Manchin is
and Pat Toomey, while both of them deserve some considerable credit for
coming to this compromise. In Pat Toomey`s case in Pennsylvania, there is
94 percent support for the position that he is now taking. West Virginia,
not the same kind of politics.
And so, I think the emotion is genuine. There are a lot of smart
people in Washington who said the emotion is going to fade. The power of
Sandy Hook will go, no one will care. They still care. That`s something
to be relatively proud of, even though it could and should have been a lot
stronger than this.
O`DONNELL: The president had more in his statement today. He said,
"The Senate must overcome obstruction by defeating a threat and filibuster
and allowing a vote on this and other common sensory forms to protect our
kids and our communities. Any bill still has to clear the House. So, I`m
going to keep asking the American people to stand up, raise their voices,
because these measures deserve a vote."
There`s the president, Krystal, saying if you think I`ve been working
hard on this, so far, I`m going to continue to push it even after the
BALL: And the families, the Newtown families as well, have said we`re
not going anywhere. We`re in this for the long term. So, on the one hand,
John Boehner who has been very cagey on what he is going to do in the
House, you might think you could slow walk this issue, it would sort of go
away, the public would move on.
I think we have seen at this point the public is not going to move on.
This is still an issue that people care about, still enjoys over 90 percent
approval, still has powerful forces behind it. And such an emotional
desire in the country to see some sort of a change.
O`DONNELL: Richard, John Boehner is never afraid to say the
president`s ideas are dead in the House of Representatives. He will not
say that about this legislation. He is saying we`ll take a look at
whatever the Senate passes.
WOLFFE: Yes, and that is important. It`s also important to look what
the NRA itself said about this compromise today. And their position was --
well, the president doesn`t like it, so it is kind of OK, even though we
think it has no effect.
You know, if they need the foil of the president to say, well, he`s
unhappy so it`s OK, so be it. But they all need to look like they`re doing
something, maybe not the NRA but, certainly, John Boehner.
O`DONNELL: Krystal Ball and Richard Wolffe, thank you both for
joining me tonight.
BALL: Thanks, Lawrence.
O`DONNELL: Coming up, the first lady makes gun safety personal with
an extraordinary speech about a young girl who lost her life because of gun
violence in the old neighborhood where Michelle Obama grew up.
And in the "Rewrite" tonight, a woman I love. A woman I never met but
I love. And I`m going to tell you her story. You`re going to hear her
story in her own words, a truly extraordinary story. You`re going to learn
Stay with us.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MICHELLE OBAMA, FIRST LADY: Right now, my husband is fighting as hard
as he can, and engaging as many people as he can to pass common sense
reforms to protect our children from gun violence.
And these reforms deserve a vote in Congress.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O`DONNELL: In the spotlight tonight, in a rare political move for
this first lady, Michelle Obama took her place in the gun safety debate
that is consuming Washington. She made her case in very personal and
emotional terms, telling the story of a teenage girl Hadiya Pendleton who
grew up in the same Chicago neighborhood as the first lady.
Now, I had a little more to say about this, but I think what I should
do is just get out of the way and let the first lady have her say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MICHELLE OBAMA: We all know her story. She was 15 years old, an
honor student at King College Rep. And she came from a good family, two
devoted parents, plenty of cousins, solid godparents, grandparents, an
adoring little brother.
The Pendletons are hardworking people. They`re church-going folks.
And Hadiya`s mother did everything she could for her daughter. She
enrolled her in every activity you could imagine, cheerleading, majorette,
the phrase dance ministry, anything to keep her off the streets and keep
And as I visited with the Pendleton family at Hadiya`s funeral, I
couldn`t get over how familiar they felt to me because what I realized was
Hadiya`s family was just like my family. Hadiya Pendleton was me and I was
her. But I got to grow up and go to Princeton and Harvard law school and
have a career and a family and the most blessed life I could ever imagine.
And Hadiya, oh, we know that story.
Just a week after she performed at my husband`s inauguration, she went
to a park with some friends and got shot in the back because some kid
thought she was in a gang. Hadiya`s family did everything right, but she
still didn`t have a chance.
See, at the end of the day, this is the point I want to make, that
resources matter. They matter. That what it takes to build strong,
successful young people isn`t genetics or pedigree or good luck, it is
opportunity. And I know from my own experience I started out with exactly
the same aptitude, exactly the same intellectual, emotional capabilities as
so many of my peers. And the only thing that separated me from them was
that I had a few more advantages than some of them did.
I had adults who pushed me. I had activities that engaged me, schools
that prepared me to succeed. I had a community that supported me and a
neighborhood where I felt safe. And in the end, that was the difference
between growing up and becoming a lawyer, a mother, and first lady of the
United States, and being shot dead at the age of 15.
Are we truly meeting our obligations to our children? It`s a question
we should also be asking in Chicago and in every corner of this country.
And it was the question weighing on my heart when I met with Hadiya
Pendleton`s classmates on the day of her funeral.
Dozens of them later spoke at the service, each referring to her as my
best friend. And let me tell you, it is hard to know what to say to a
roomful of teenagers who are about to bury their best friend.
But I started by telling them that Hadiya was clearly on her way to
doing something truly worthy with her life. I told them that there`s a
reason that we`re here on this earth. That each of us has a mission in
this world. And I urged them to use their lives to give meaning to
Hadiya`s life. I urged them to dream as big as she did and work as hard as
she did and live a life that honors every last bit of her God given
So today, I want to say the exact same thing to all of you. I want to
urge you to come together and do something worthy of Hadiya Pendleton`s
memory and worthy of our children`s future. Join me and Hadiya`s
classmates and young people across this city, who, by the way, even in the
face of so much hardship and such long odds are still fighting so hard to
We need to show them not just with words but with action that they are
not alone in this struggle. We need to show them that we believe in them
and we need to give them everything they need to believe in themselves. I
would not be here if it weren`t for that kind of belief. And I know that
together we can do this.
So, let me tell you this, I look forward to the work that you do. I
look forward to you hitting this goal and surpassing it. I look forward to
this city being the model of what communities can do to wrap their arms
around our youth and make them the best they can be, to embrace all of our
neighborhoods and every last one of our children.
Thank you so much. Good luck and God bless.
LAWRENCE O`DONNELL, MSNBC ANCHOR, THE LAST WORD: ` Tonight`s "rewrite"
is a labor of love, love of a woman I never met, a woman who changed our
world. She was born on this very day, in 1880. And tonight`s "rewrite"
will be a love letter to her on her birthday, and that`s next.
O`DONNELL: President Obama has shocked some Democrats and some in the
political media by saying in the spirit of compromise with budget cutting
Republicans, he would be willing to within the context of a larger deal,
which includes tax increases, he would be willing to consider a reduction
in the rate of increase of Social Security retirement benefits. He would
be willing to rewrite the formula for cost of living increases for Social
That surely came up at the dinner with senators, Republican senators
at the White House, and that has earned him the label of first Democratic
president trying to cut Social Security, which is not true.
President Clinton proposed cutting Social Security benefits for some
retirees by taxing those benefits as regular income and Democrats in the
house and Senate voted for that Social Security benefit cut, including some
members of Congress who are today outraged by President Obama`s Social
Now, to be fair to most Democrats, it is perfectly reasonable to have
been in favor of the Clinton proposal and against the Obama proposal
because they`re two very different things. But, some well meaning
defenders of Social Security these days talk about it as if Social Security
law is set in stone, as if it is now and always should be unchangeable.
With regard to benefits anyway, many of them are perfectly willing to
increase Social Security taxes.
If you haven`t spent years studying or working on Social Security, it
is hard to know who to listen to about this stuff. Neither the house nor
the Senate has a recognized expert on the subject any more like the
departed democratic senator Patrick Moynihan and congressman Claude Pepper,
all of the people I desperately want to talk to about this are no longer
with us. And the one I would love to talk to the most is the woman who
created Social Security.
I know you`re thinking hey, wait a minute, president Franklin
Roosevelt proposed Social Security and he was definitely not a woman. But
it wasn`t really his idea. Roosevelt`s brilliant idea, and I do mean
brilliant, it was also then very brave, was to give us our first woman in a
president`s cabinet. There were many jobs people could not imagine a woman
doing in those days, and secretary of labor was definitely one of them.
How could a woman hold her own with union bosses, not to mention other
members of the cabinet.
President Roosevelt chose a woman from Boston named Frances Perkins as
his secretary of labor, the highest ranking woman in American government
and he did it simply because he thought she was the best possible choice
for the job, which she proved more thoroughly than perhaps any cabinet
member in history. No member of the cabinet has ever changed life in
America more than Frances Perkins did. Thirty years after she was offered
her cabinet post in a speech at the Social Security headquarters in
Washington, she told the story of her appointment this way.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
FRANCIS PERKINS, FORMER LABOR SECRETARY: Before I was appointed, I
made a conversation with Roosevelt in which I said perhaps he wouldn`t want
me to be secretary of labor, because if I were, I should want to do this
and this and this. Among the things I wanted to do was to find a way of
getting unemployment insurance, old age insurance and health insurance.
And I remember he looked somewhat startled. He said well, if you think it
can be done, and I said I don`t know. He said well, constitutional
problems. Yes, very severe constitutional problems, I said. But what have
we been elected for except to solve constitutional problems. Lots of other
problems have been solved by the people of the United States and there`s no
reason this one shouldn`t be solved.
Well, he said do you think you can do it. I don`t know, I said. But
I said I wanted to try and I want to know if I have, if I would have your
authorization, I won`t ask you to promise anything. He looked at me and
nodded wisely, all right, he said, I will authorize you to try and if you
succeed, that`s fine. Well, I said that`s all I wanted. I don`t want you
to put any blocks in my way.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O`DONNELL: And there you have the voice of history. There you have a
man and woman in the moment of conception of the most important and most
successful social program in American history. The man gets all the credit
in popular history, but the woman did all the work. Social security was
her idea. It would never have become law without her.
If you want to argue as some of you might that Medicare is now more
important a program than Social Security, you should know that Medicare is
but a subset of Social Security law. Its legislative path was technically
as merely an amendment to pre-existing Social Security act.
And Medicare`s constitutionality was established only on the back of
Social Security`s constitutionality, which ultimately became Frances
Perkins` biggest challenge in writing that law. She and her team of
lawyers and legislative experts couldn`t come up with a constitutional
justification for a national government administered pension program.
In that same speech that you just heard, which was, by the way, given
when she was 82 years old, she told the story, the amazing story, of how
she personal secured the constitutionality of Social Security, this for me
is the stuff of absolutely delicious Washington oral history. It takes
place at a social ritual that has now disappeared from our land, not just
Washington, a tea party, a real tea party. A tea party that happens to be
in the home of then, Supreme Court justice Harlin Stone.
Now, you will hear Frances Perkins` misspeak and refer to him as
attorney general, when she clearly means Supreme Court justice.
Now listen to how this non-lawyer, Frances Perkins solved the puzzle
of the constitutionality of Social Security. Listen! Listen to how
history is made.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PERKINS: We were having a great Rangel about it, one day went out to
tea, not because I wanted to, but in Washington you don`t go to parties
just because you want to go. You know, you go because you have to go. And
I had to call upon Mrs. Stone, the wife of the attorney general, and she
was at home on Wednesday afternoons, and I saw her about 5:45, which is
nearly the end of the day. I went to her house and presented myself, you
know, a lot of people there, went up to the ding room to get a cup of tea
and there I met Mr. Justice Stone who had just come home from the court and
was getting his cup of tea. And we greeted each other, sat down to have
another chat. He said how are you getting on? I said all right.
Then I said well, you know, I am having big trouble, Mr. Justice,
because we don`t know in this draft of the economic security act I am
working on, we`re not quite sure, you know, what will be a wise method of
establishing this law. And it`s very difficult constitutional problem, you
know, and we`re guided by this, that and the other case. And he looked
around, spend - listening at me, put his hand up, and said the taxing
power, my dear, the taxing. You can do anything.
PERKINS: I didn`t question him any further. I knew it wasn`t proper
for him to tell me, shouldn`t say it, and I went back to my committee and
never told them how I got my great information. As far as they know, I
went in the wilderness and had a vision.
Perkins: Anyway, I came back and said I was firmly for the taxing
power. Weren`t going to get any of the curious constitutional
relationships, the taxing power of the United States, you can do anything
under it, said I. And so we proved it did not. Because some of you don`t
remember the anxiety with which some of us watched the first case go before
the Supreme Court, but it came down absolutely all right, the opinion
written in elaborate, fine social language by Mr. Justice`s bread guys, not
by justice Stone, but he voted on the matter and we were safe.
This is the reason, of course, we go so strongly on the taxing power
and that the whole system of taxation is the basis of the Social Security
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O`DONNELL: And it became the basis of Medicare and it became the
basis of President Obama`s affordable care act. The constitutionality of
Social Security and Medicare and the affordable care act are all based on
Frances Perkins` novel use of the power to tax 78 years ago.
Tomorrow night, I will try to divine what she may have to say about
our current Social Security debate. We will listen to what she had to say
about changing Social Security in her own words.
I just wanted to introduce this remarkable woman to you tonight, and
let the country hear her voice once again because today is her birthday.
Frances Cora Lee Perkins was born to an affluent family in Bekin Hill (ph)
in Boston on this day in 1880. Her family eventually lost its wealth and
she became a social worker and community organizer of sorts in New York
where she lived on very little money and eventually commanded the attention
of New York politicians, including the governor of New York, then Franklin
Delano Roosevelt who was moved by her advocacy for poor people and
Frances Perkins was a self-made woman. She didn`t advance her career
by marriage. She didn`t flinch at challenges that everyone else considered
impossible. Frances Perkins changed the world the old fashioned way, with
hard work, persistence, and passion.
Tonight, this country owes a happy birthday nod to a uniquely American
hero, Frances Perkins.
O`DONNELL: He knew this was going to happen, once a politician,
always a politician. Anthony Weiner is back. We are going to talk about
O`DONNELL: It may be no one is rooting for Republican congressional
candidate Mark Sanford to beat Democrat Elizabeth Colbert-Busch more than
Democrat Anthony Weiner who may be watching that race thinking ahead.
If Sanford can do it, what about me? A "The New York Times" report
revealed that former congressman Anthony Weiner is thinking about running
for the job he always wanted, mayor of New York city. He told "the Times,"
I don`t have this burning overriding desire to go out and run for office.
Oh, sure he doesn`t. It is not the single and medicating force in my life,
of course not, as it was for some time. But, I do recognized to some
degree it is now or maybe never for me in terms of running for something.
I am trying to gauge not only what`s right and feels comfortable right this
second, I thought that`s the way he used to think, but I am also thinking
how will I feel in a year or two years or five years. Is this the time
that I should be doing this and then there`s the other side of the coin
which is am I still the same person who I thought would make a good mayor?
And Ari Melber, people are wondering are you the same person with that
twitter account that had like a lot of weird stuff flying around on it.
ARI MELBER, CORRESPONDENT, NATION MAGAZINE: Yes. I think Anthony
Weiner`s problem has been to some degree as you would say --
O`DONNELL: You were keeping a straight face longer than I was.
MELBER: For a second. But a I think the problem was not so much the
O`DONNELL: I`m just going to be over here laughing, you talk.
MELBER: Not so much the sex but the weird factor, and it wasn`t a sex
scandal so much as a sex chat scandal. People around the country don`t
love twitter that much, it is confusing, drunk uncle on "Saturday Night
Live" has talks repeatedly about how confusing twitter and the other
technologies are. You add to that a type cheating or infidelity or
something bumping up to it depending how you define it, there was weirdness
there for him. I disagree with the claim it is now or never, he is young,
and he has plenty of time ahead for him.
O`DONNELL: That`s the thing you chuckled at. Now or never, like why
is he thinking that?
MELBER: That`s the most silly part. I do understand to some element
how much they have been through, and a lot of people can look at that see
them as human beings. And there`s no doubt that this new a "New York
Times" magazine article goes into some depth and it is painful. If you get
through reading it, you could start out voyeuristic and end up actually
feeling for them.
O`DONNELL: Yes. And she has been, you know, great and supportive for
him, and loving through this thing, and they had a baby in the middle of it
as it happens. And I would think that New York city is an electorate
that`s prepared to keep an eye on the issues and overlook a lot of this
kind of thing.
MELBER: I think it is possible. I definitely think there`s a place
you`re going to get a hearing, it is in the New York media tabloid market.
I mean, some of this is a question of how long do you cover the sex crap
and in a long New York race, he could definitely get past it.
The other interesting part that jumped out to was Wilma (ph), his wife
saying, I didn`t want him to resign. And that`s the other part of all of
this. It`s always more about power than the scandal or sex.
Senator Vitter, the esteemed Republican, had remains in the Senate and
people no longer bring up the fact that he was entangled with accusations
relating to prostitutes.
O`DONNELL: Benji Brank (ph) is at home right now is dying for Anthony
Weiner to run. He is the guy from Howard Stern`s show who would go to the
press conferences and get himself on national television by saying crazy
MELBER: Benji asked good questions.
O`DONNELL: He will continue to ask those.
The closer, Ari Melber, gets the last word.
Thank you Ari.
Chris Hays is up next.
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THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL