THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW
September 12, 2013
Guest: Ben Rhodes
RACHEL MADDOW, HOST: And thanks to you at home for joining us this
When the Soviet Union fell apart, one of the most amazing things about
that world-changing event is that we had no idea it was coming. After
decades of spying on each other, big, ornate, expensive, fascinating
efforts at spying on each other, after decades of paranoia and propaganda
and almost going to war with each other, over and over again, after
obsessing about everything going on in each other`s countries and each
other`s politics, for decades, when the Berlin Wall finally fell, November
1989, the CIA had no idea.
Had no idea it was going to happen. The chief of the Soviet division
of the clandestine service in the CIA, the night the Berlin Wall fell, he
found out about it by watching CNN.
That`s how the Poppy Bush White House found out about it too --
watching TV. The White House called the CIA to find out what was going on
over there in Berlin, and the CIA said, yes, we`re watching the same thing
you are. We don`t know anything about it. We`re just watching it on CNN.
It was amazing. They had no idea it was going to happen. And within
two years of the Berlin Wall coming down in 1989, the Soviet Union ceased
to exist in 1991.
Instead of one big, mysterious country called the USSR, the world got
15 new countries: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia,
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Tajikistan,
Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, of course, Russia -- Russia is the
biggest. The second largest is Kazakhstan.
And if there is one thing that`s maybe even more amazing, looking back
at that time and the fact that the U.S. had no idea it was all coming, the
only thing that competes with our ignorance for being as unbelievable in
retrospect is the story of what happened to all the freaking nuclear
weapons over there once that country spun apart. Kazakhstan alone, if
Kazakhstan alone had just held on to the nuclear weapons that they had on
their territory once they became an independent country, they would have
instantly become the fourth largest nuclear armed state in the world.
But they decided when they became independent that they did not want
nuclear weapons. They had tons of them, but they voluntarily gave up all
of those nuclear weapons. They gave up being a nuclear weapons state, even
though it had been handed to them for free. And who knows what the world
would be like if they had not made that decision. But they made that
The U.N. kind of commemorates it every year. They have a kind of,
yay, Kazakhstan, thanks for giving up your nuclear weapons holiday, that I
think they only celebrate at the U.N., but, still.
Even though that new country, though, decided to give up all of their
Soviet nuclear weapons, that country did not have the option of giving up
all of their Soviet-era nuclear trash. Out in the eastern part of
Kazakhstan, there is a giant old Soviet nuclear test site, where the Soviet
Union set off nuclear explosions, did nuclear tests. They were doing
nuclear tests there as late as November 1989. They were still doing
nuclear tests there the month that the Berlin Wall came down.
It`s a site the size of New Jersey, roughly, about the size of
Belgium. And that`s where the Soviets set off their first nuclear test in
1949, first lightning. And then over the decades, they did more than 400
nuclear tests out there.
But when that place became not the Soviet Union anymore and it instead
became this new country called Kazakhstan, they shut down that place as a
testing site. They not only -- Kazakhstan not only gave up all the weapons
that were stationed in Kazakhstan, they also shut down that testing site.
And that was another amazing world-changing decision, but it was not the
end of the story.
See, one of the kinds of tests they did there was about how safe it is
to stockpile your nuclear weapons. Remember, the Soviet Union and the
United States had thousands of nuclear weapons. We actually still have
thousands of these nuclear weapons.
One of the things they tested at this site in Kazakhstan was, what if
there`s a fire? What if there`s some kind of accident? Some kind of
conventional explosion near where you`ve got a bunch of your nuclear
weapons stacked up? Could they blow up because of a fire? Because of some
conventional explosion? Could that sort of accident cause a nuclear
mushroom cloud in your own country by accident?
So, to test for that, they would try to see if they could burn or blow
up the nuclear parts of nuclear missiles. These tests were mostly done in
tunnels and in bore holes at this giant site. And when those tests were
done, they left behind piles of nuclear material. See, if you`re actually
setting off a nuclear explosion, if you have a bomb explosion test, that
blows everything up.
But these other kinds of tests actually left all the nuclear material
behind. So when the Soviet Union collapsed and the scientists left, what
they left behind there at this closed site in eastern Kazakhstan, this big
site the size of New Jersey, was a bunch of bore holes and tunnels that
were full of super pure plutonium and highly enriched uranium and other
stuff too, but just the plutonium enough was enough, apparently, to make
dozens of nuclear bombs and it was just sitting there in the ground, if
anybody wanted to come collect that stuff.
So, the Berlin Wall falls in 1989, the Soviet Union collapses in 1991,
that`s also the year that they closed down that big nuclear testing
facility. By 1995, the scientists who used to work there had started
telling their scientist friends in the United States, we kind of maybe left
a lot of plutonium sitting around out there. We`re not sure what happened
By 1997, one of those American scientists, who had just retired as
head of the lab at Los Alamo, decided he was going to go out to Kazakhstan
on his own to have a look to see what his Russian scientist friends were
worried about. Economically, by then, things were disastrous throughout
the whole former Soviet Union, including in Kazakhstan.
The official post-Soviet line was -- don`t worry, all these nuclear
sites are taken care of, they`re all under guard. We don`t need any help.
We`ve taken care of all of that stuff.
So, Dr. Siegfried Hecker (ph), this American scientist, this guy from
Los Alamos that you see on the right there, he goes out to Kazakhstan alone
and he goes to that test site. And when he`s there, he sends back to his
friends in the United States this picture.
This is how that site with all the plutonium laying around was being
guarded. You see the traffic barriers there that are just left up, all the
re convenient to drive up and down that road. On the left there, that
little house covered in graffiti, that it is supposed to be a guard post,
but it is abandoned. There`s nobody working there. That`s how well-
guarded that site was.
What was happening on that site, amid total economic collapse in the
region, is that people had started raiding that nuclear test site for scrap
metal. And it wasn`t just individual guys breaking in, in the night and
like stealing manhole covers, like happens in some places here at home,
even now. They were scavenging this site on an industrial scale. They
were using excavators and bulldozers, doing everything they could to
dismantle that place to find anything they could sell.
They dug these long trenches with heavy machinery because those
trenches contained copper cable for the phone lines between the testing
sites and the control rooms and they wanted that copper cable. They dug
around in those tunnels, they dug around in those bore holes filled with
super pure plutonium.
And who knows if they knew it was there. But imagine what it would
mean for the world, for enough plutonium to make dozens of nuclear weapons
to have been openly for sale on the scrap market of eastern Kazakhstan.
Know anybody who might want to buy enough plutonium to make dozens of
So, American scientists visiting that site in the late 1990s kind of
freaked out. And they came back to Washington to say, this has to be taken
One of the people who helped them get approval in Washington to take
action about this was the guy with the amazing hair who just got confirmed
to be our new energy secretary. He at the time was an undersecretary in
the Department of Energy under Bill Clinton and he and Bill Clinton and the
Energy Department and the Defense Department and in the Senate, Sam Nunn
and Dick Lugar, all of these somewhat low-profile but concerned Americans
looked at this situation, at what used to be the biggest nuclear testing
site in Russia and they said, we realize this is not in our country, but
we`ve got to do something here. We can help. We feel a responsibility to
help. We can help, so let`s get this stuff locked down.
And thus started an American-funded, joint American/Russian/Kazakhs
secret mission to lock down that site, to lock down all that plutonium, to
make it unscavengeable. Not to make everything all right by all of
Kazakhstan, or even by this whole big polluted terrifying Cold War leftover
site, but at least to secure the plutonium, to secure the stuff that was a
weapons of mass destruction nightmare.
They started that program in the mid-`90s and it worked. It is now
over. It was really secret while it was all happening, but now that it`s
over, the story is finally being told. We`ve linked it at "Maddow Blog" to
this big new report on exactly what happened there. It`s called Plutonium
Mountain. It makes for absolutely terrifying, but fascinating bedroom
reading if you want to read about it.
But in October 2012, this past October, the Russian scientists and the
Kazakh scientist and the American scientists all went out there and had a
picnic at the nuclear test site out in Kazakhstan, to commemorate the fact
that this project was finally done. And they put up this plaque. Look at
this little memorial, commemorating what they had done.
It says, "The world has become safer." See that on the left-hand side
there? It says that in Kazakh, in Russian and in English. We are done
here. It took 17 years, but they did it.
When you take a look back at the history of the Los Alamos lab and the
Manhattan Project and Robert Oppenheimer and all those guys, that`s a story
everybody knows, at least everybody who`s interested in that stuff knows
it. Just the drama of what it took to build the atomic bomb, to build all
this stuff. It is a relatively easy story to tell.
The drama of learning how to throw this stuff away once we have built
it is equally riveting, equally fascinating, but it is a story that is
somewhat harder to tell, in part because it`s a really sensitive subject.
Nobody wants to look like they need help, right? Nobody wants to look like
they can`t handle something on their own. No country wants to look like it
has built itself a problem that it cannot manage to fix without help.
But these problems do get fixed. We do clean this stuff up. We,
specifically, do clean this stuff up. Americans do.
In terms of nuclear cleanup and locking up loose nukes, we have done
it in the former Soviet Union. We have done it in Russia itself. We have
done it even in places like freaking Mexico City. We did a show from
Mexico City last year, showing the United States helping Mexico get its
highly enriched uranium taken out of that country, so that it wouldn`t end
up on the black market and turn into a nuclear bomb or a dirty bomb
somewhere down the road. We do this kind of work of locking down all this
dangerous stuff all over the world.
It is an international problem, but it is one that has our name on it,
and not because it`s our fault, not because we caused this problem, but
because we have taken the lead role in fixing it. American exceptionalism
-- yes, on this issue, we have shown exceptional world leadership. And it
has redounded do our own safety and to the safety of the world.
And it is not exactly the same thing with chemical weapons as compared
nuclear weapons, but it is close. It turns out we are particularly great
at destroying chemical weapons, in part because we`ve had so much practice.
We had so many chemical weapons the have destroyed that we`ve gotten good
President Richard Nixon is the one who stopped us making chemical
weapons back in 1969, but before he stopped is us making them, we developed
quite an arsenal -- tens of thousands of tons of VX and sarin and mustard
gas. We started finally destroying it all in the 1990s, in places like
Johnston Atoll and in Anniston, Alabama, and at the Aberdeen Proving Ground
in Maryland, at the Pine Bluff arsenal. We are still in the process of
destroying our chemical weapons in Pueblo, Colorado, and at a facility at
the Bluegrass Army Depot in Richmond, Kentucky.
The local press there noted this week that they are handing VX
munitions that are so dangerous that, quote, "a drop of VX the size of
George Washington`s eye on a quarter is enough to kill a healthy 180-pound
man within seconds. Between that and sarin, Bluegrass, Kentucky, alone,
you`ve got 433 tons of that terrifying stuff stored there in preparation
for it being destroyed. There`s another 90 tons of blistering mustard gas.
Our national arsenal of this stuff was huge. There was a ton of it,
but it is now mostly destroyed. It has taken a long time to destroy it,
but it is now mostly gone.
The only country that had as much as us, even more than us, was the
Soviet Union. But the process of getting rid of this stuff, whether it`s
over there or over here or anywhere else in the world, where the stocks
have been eliminated, it`s a known process. It is knowable and it is
known. We have experience with it.
It is being done. It is underway. And like with nuclear materials
and loose nukes and nuclear contamination, this is very touchy stuff.
And people don`t necessarily always want these stories told, but it is
doable. It`s technically feasible. Once it is politically possible, it is
technically possible. You just put one foot in front of the other. It`s a
process. You can get there.
And Syria started that process today, sending a letter to the United
Nations, asking to become the world`s latest signatory to the Chemical
Weapons Convention. And that starts a timetable, where once they sign.
They`ve got 30 days to declare to the United Nations, all of their stocks
of chemical weapons. Once they are declared, there`s another time frame in
which those weapons have to be inspected.
Trained chemical weapons inspectors, who have done this in all the
countries that have gotten rid of their chemical weapons, trained
inspectors will go to the declared sites and essentially do an audit. They
compare what they find at those sites to what has been declared. And then
this is the really interesting part -- other countries who are members of
this convention can then consult their own intelligence about what they
think Syria`s got, and they can pipe up if they think there are other sites
that ought to be inspected that Syria has left off its list.
Signing a convention, signing an international compact like this is
cunning essentially telling each other, we are all in this together. And
part of what you are agreeing to when you agree to sign on to that is that
the other countries who are signed on to this convention with you, they can
ask for challenge inspections, if they think you`ve got chemical weapons at
some site that you haven`t owned up to. They can say, I want a challenge
inspection at that site.
There`s never actually been a challenge inspection in the whole
history of enforcing this thing on chemical weapons, but there could be one
We`re on new ground here. Can the goal in Syria be reached?
And the Obama administration has been saying for the last three weeks,
since that alleged gas attack outside Damascus, that its main goal, its
immediate goal, is to stop any further use of chemical weapons in Syria.
Regardless of the long-term challenges here, is that short-term goal
of stopping Syria from using chemical weapons, is that short-term goal
already achieved -- based in part on what happened today?
Joining us now is Ben Rhodes. He`s a deputy national security adviser
for President Obama.
Mr. Rhodes, thank you very much for being here tonight. It`s nice to
have you here.
BEN RHODES, DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: Good to be with you,
MADDOW: So, a lot of the focus right now, a lot of the commentary on
what`s happening in this diplomatic push is how hard it`s going to be to
make sure that Syria does this, that they actually secure their whole
chemical arsenal. What`s your reaction to that worry and that criticism?
RHODES: Well, I think it is a concern. What we`ve seen in the last
three weeks is progress that could not have been anticipated before we
raised the profile of this issue on August 21st. Syria had not even
acknowledged that it had stockpiles of chemical weapons. Now, not only
have they done that, they`ve signaled their interest in joining the
Chemical Weapons Convention.
What we need to see, though, is that there is a verifiable process
that is established, so not only do we have their words and their
commitments, but there`s a sequence of actions that are set up, so that
these weapons can move under international control and be destroyed through
a technical process, that we`ll have to negotiate with Russia and the U.N.
and other countries, as you indicated in your opening remarks.
So, there`s a good prospect here that we can achieve our objective,
but it`s going to be a difficult process to implement. What I will say,
though, is with Syria invested in this process and with Russia, their
principal ally invested in it, we frankly think at the very least, it`s a
deterrent on the use of chemical weapons by Assad, which would have been
the objective of any military action that the president has been
contemplating over the last several weeks.
MADDOW: Can you tell us if there`s been any discussion or if there is
likely to be any discussion about the United States and Russia acting in
concert, in Syria, to secure those weapons in much the same way that
American and Russian scientists and American and Russian regulators have
worked to lock down other dangerous weapons and nuclear materials around
RHODES: Well, I wouldn`t want to speculate about the possibility of
Americans actually going into Syria for this. I don`t think that that`s
something that we`re looking at, at this point.
What is true, though, is that in Geneva, where Secretary Kerry is
meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov of Russia, we`ve brought a significant
technical team with experts from across the U.S. government to meet with
their Russian counterparts and to begin to discuss exactly the challenge
you identified, which is, how doe create an accounting of this chemical
weapons stockpile, how do we set up a process whereby those weapons can be
brought under control and destroyed.
So, there`s a lot of technical discussions that have to take place,
and that`s starting with us and Russia in Geneva, even as we also have a
track in the United Nations, where we`re working for a resolution that will
set up a verifiable process, that will allow us to track whether the Assad
regime is meeting its commitments.
So, those two tracks will take place in parallel, the technical
discussion about how you do this, and the political discussion about how
you get a resolution to the United Nations that hold Syria to account and
following through on their commitments.
MADDOW: Ben, we have seen from the White House, sort of explanation
about how this option came about, I think trying to dispel the notion that
it dropped out of the sky, that it was something the Russians cooked up on
their own, that it was a reaction to an offhand comment that John Kerry
really didn`t mean. And there`s been an explanation from the White House
that essentially this was a long time coming. This was something the
president himself have been advancing in contacts directly with Vladimir
Putin and there had been other discussions about this between ours and the
What can you tell us about the timing when this option first started
to seem real. And did it factor at all into the president asking Congress
to weigh in on the prospect of military strikes. Was he buying time to let
the diplomatic effort go ahead, even then?
RHODES: Well, first of all, I was with the president in Los Cabos at
the G-20 last year, where he met with President Putin. And that`s the
first time we engaged them in this discussion. So, this might be an area
where we can work together to secure chemical weapon stockpiles, given our
We did not get a lot of response from the Russians in terms of
interest in cooperating with us on the issue. They noted their concerns,
but it really didn`t seem to get traction. It`s been a regular part of our
dialogue with them.
But it wasn`t really until St. Petersburg at the recent G-20 meeting
after August 21st attack, where the Russians indicated the seriousness
about this. And President Putin spoke to President Obama at that summit.
They met on the margins for about 20 to 30 minutes, and he raised the
prospect of potentially pursuing this course of action, to get those
chemical weapons under international control.
Now, we`ve been skeptical in the past about whether or not Russia
would follow through on that type of commitment. I think what made us take
this more seriously is when they put out a statement from the foreign
minister, indicating that, number one, these had to be put under
international control. Number two, Syria would have to come into the
Chemical Weapons Convention. And number three, the weapons would
ultimately have to be destroyed.
And that was a credible proposal that the Russians made, and that`s
what provided the opening for us to pursue this. With respect to Congress,
the president took that decision to Congress, because he felt like it was
important for the nation to debate these issues.
At the same time, we also understood that that would create more space
for us to await the U.N. inspectors` report that is forthcoming probably
next week, about what they found happened in those Damascus suburbs on
August 21st, and also to continue to work this issue internationally, so we
could build broader support for an effort to hold the Syrian regime
But what we have now is essentially an opening to resolve this
diplomatically. And it`s old-fashioned coercive diplomacy, Rachel, where
you have a military threat that has prompted this kind of action, because,
frankly, the only thing that`s changed from one year ago to Los Cabos is
that you had the threat of military action from the United States. And
that seems to have changed the calculus of both President Putin and the
MADDOW: Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for President
Obama, Ben, thank you very much for being with us tonight. We have a heck
of time getting anybody from the White House to talk to us on TV. So, I`m
particularly happy you`re here. Thanks a lot.
RHODES: Happy to be here, Rachel. It`s good talking to you.
I am gobsmacked to report of the return of Jesse Helms to the American
political realm tonight and it`s not for a good reasons. That story is
MADDOW: There are a couple of dangerous and tragic situations ongoing
in the country tonight, two disasters to report to you.
The first is in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. To orient you to about
where Seaside Heights is, it`s on the Jersey shore want an hour and a half
south of New York City. You probably became aware of Seaside Heights last
year when pictures from the Jersey shore just riveted the whole country
when snowstorm sandy devastated that area. The town itself and
specifically the boardwalk and the attractions that had been a very popular
vacation spot for generations were hit very badly by Sandy.
Sandy hit wide, wide swaths of the eastern United States, but those
gut-wrenching images of the storm hitting Seaside Heights have become some
of the most iconic images of that storm.
So, this was the end of October last year. This is a live shot of
seaside heights right now. See the fire on the right side of your screen
there? The boardwalk, that same boardwalk that was devastated by Sandy and
has been rebuilt since is on fire. The whole famous beachside boardwalk
had been rebuilt this year in time for the summer`s tourist season, but
this afternoon, at about 2:15, an ice cream stand on the boardwalk caught
According to the Seaside Heights police chief, the flames jumped to
adjacent buildings within 15 minutes and spread to at least 19 other
structures. Firefighters had a difficult time containing it, owing in part
to a strong southeast wind that threatened to spread the fire even further.
Two hours after the blaze began, firefighters were ordered to pull back,
because of the intensity of the flames. Among their efforts has been an
effort to try to dig up the boardwalk and create a trench as a firebreak,
to try to keep the fire from spreading further north.
Earlier tonight, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said about 20
businesses have been affected, at least 400 firefighters have joined that
effort, several of whom have suffered smoke inhalation. But as of yet, we
have heard of no life-threatening injuries.
It is still burning right now. The cause of this giant fire on the
boardwalk in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, remains unknown.
Across the country in Boulder, Colorado, a natural disaster of a
totally different kind hit that town overnight last night when a drenching
and extended rainstorm caused dramatic and very dangerous flash flooding.
NBC News`s Miguel Almaguer reported it tonight from Boulder.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Flash flooding is imminent.
MIGUEL ALMAGUER, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A day of chaos
and confusion, as torrential rain pounds Boulder, washing away homes, cars,
and causing at least three deaths.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They may not let you go back up that far.
ALMAGUER: With thousands forced to evacuate, many were trapped by
washed out roads. It started overnight with little warning.
Gary Chambers and his wife were about to abandon their home when they
heard a thunderous noise.
GARY CHAMBERS: A cloud crashing sound. Just the boulders coming down
the hill. The deck getting tore off the house. I don`t know what all it
was, but it sounded very destructive.
ALMAGUER: Dive teams were called in to perform rescues.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You need another hand?
ALMAGUER: But it was neighbors depending on neighbors to reach dry
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Something we have never seen here before.
ALMAGUER: This is what Paul Talbot (ph) saw outside his front door.
PAUL TALBOT: We`re from New England. You know, we`ve been through
some of the worst blizzards, rainstorms.
ALMAGUER: He`s ridden out hurricanes before, but this was different.
TALBOT: I`ve never seen rain like this come down for so many days,
ALMAGUER: With part of the University of Colorado campus underwater,
hundreds of students were ordered to higher ground.
RYAN HUFF, BOULDER POLICE: We are pleading with students and people
on this campus to stay indoors.
ALMAGUER: Twelve dams have overflowed, sending a wall of water
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When the water came through, it came through as a
ALMAGUER: Seven point two inches of rain fell in less than 24 hours,
an all-time record.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is insane.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes.
ALMAGUER: Floods have devastated this region before. In 1976, the
big Thompson flood killed 145 and cost $40 million in damages.
From behind his camera, Paul Sterling watched the water rise and then
pour into his home. Like so many others, helpless against Mother Nature.
PAUL STERLING: It`s about to come in to my downstairs. I`m not even
going to go down there.
ALMAGUER: Tonight, the damage is still being tallied and the danger
isn`t over yet.
MADDOW: That`s NBC`s Miguel Almaguer reporting from Boulder,
I have to tell you that tonight`s weather forecast in Boulder is sadly
for more rain, as much as half an inch on top of the nearly 2 inches that
have already fallen tonight and rain is in the forecast there tomorrow as
well. So, this is not over in Boulder.
Ongoing worries in both Seaside, New Jersey, and in Boulder, Colorado,
tonight. We will keep you posted. We`ll be right back.
MADDOW: Once upon a time, not that long ago, the leader of the
Republican Party in the Senate, the top Senate Republican, got fired. He
lost his job for wishing that a segregationist had been elected president.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
FORMER SEN. TRENT LOTT (R), MISSISSIPPI: I want to say this about my
state. When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We`re
proud of him. And if the rest of the country would have followed our lead,
we wouldn`t have had all these problems over all these years, either.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: That was how Trent Lott lost his job, longing for how great
our country might have been if only a segregationist candidacy had been
successful at capturing the presidency.
Another Republican in the United States Senate today may have just had
his own Trent Lott moment. That story is next.
MADDOW: When John Kerry became secretary of state, his seat in the
U.S. Senate became vacant. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick appointed
a lawyer named Mo Cowan to essentially just be a placeholder for that seat
until there could be a Massachusetts election to fill it permanently. Mr.
Cowan agreed he himself would not run to hold on to that Senate seat and he
Eventually, there was a special election to fill the seat full-time
and Massachusetts voters chose Ed Markey to go to the Senate.
But when Mr. Mo Cowan was sworn into the Senate, to hold that seat for
just a few months, something historic happened. For at hot minute, for an
overlap of only about 20 weeks, while Mo Cowan was there, for the first
time in U.S. history, there were two black people in the United States
Senate. Congressman Tim Scott of South Carolina was also appointed to a
Senate seat to fill a vacancy. He got his seat at the very beginning of
And then when Mo Cowan got there in February, their overlap in the
Senate was historic. We had never before had two African-American
simultaneously serving in the United States Senate. And since Mo Cowan is
gone now, we are no longer in that situation.
Aside from that brief overlap of those two appointed senators, every
single one of the few African-Americans who have ever served in the United
States Senate, every single one of them has serve there had alone, even
back during reconstruction.
The only African-American woman who have ever served in the Senate is
Carol Moseley Braun, the senator from Illinois. She served in the 1990s.
Carol Moseley Braun remains the only black woman to have ever served in the
Senate. And she was the only black senator of either gender in the Senate
one August day back in 1993. So, 10 years ago, when she stepped on to the
senator`s only elevator in the U.S. Capitol.
She was on the senator`s elevator already when a senator from North
Carolina named Jesse Helms stepped on to join her on that elevator.
Senator Orrin Hatch was also on the elevator with the two of them. And
Jesse Helms stepped on to that elevator, he looked at Senator Carol Moseley
Braun, the only African-American in the Senate, he looked her in the face
and started to sing "Dixie." "Dixie," the Confederate anthem.
Senator Moseley Braun told the story publicly the next day and then
she confirmed it to "The Los Angeles Times," along with her press
secretary, who saw it happen. Senator Carol Moseley Braun said, quote, "He
saw me standing there and he started to sing. `I wish I was in the land of
cotton,` and he looked at Senator Hatch and he said, `I`m going to make her
cry, I`m going to sing `Dixie` until she cries.`" The only African-
American in the Senate at that time.
Jesse Helms got his start in politics in 1950 in North Carolina, when
his candidate, Willis Smith, was running against Frank Porter Graham, who
was the former president of UNC, the University of North Carolina. Jesse
Helms said that UNC stood for the "university of Negroes and communists."
In that campaign, the Helms side ran an ad that said, "White people,
wake up before it is too late. Do you want Negroes working beside you,
your wife, and your daughters in your mills and factories? Frank Graham
favors mixing of the races."
They also made up campaign literature in that campaign saying that
Frank Graham`s wife once danced with a black man.
Jesse Helms` candidate won that race, with tactics like those, and
that is how Jesse Helms got his first job in Washington, D.C. And once he
was there, once he himself was in the United States Senate, he led a one-
man, 16-day filibuster there against there being a holiday to honor Martin
Luther King, Jr.
He threatened another filibuster in the mid-`80s to protect the
apartheid regime in South Africa from U.S.-imposed sanctions.
When he ran for re-election in 1990, Jesse Helms ran an ad that is one
of the most famous American political ads of all time. It`s called the
"white hands" ad, and the narrator says, "You were the best qualified, but
they had to give it to a minority." Vote for Jesse Helms.
It was basically explicitly, vote for the white man to keep white jobs
for white people.
When Jesse Helms retired from the senate, David Broder at "The
Washington Post" wrote that he was, quote, the last prominent, unabashed
white racist politician in this country. When he finally died in 2008, his
"Los Angeles Times" obituary noted that unlike other symbols of
segregation, such as Alabama Governor George Wallace and South Carolina
Senator Strom Thurmond, who eventually recanted their opposition to racial
integration, Jesse Helms held firm, until his death.
That whole story of the Republican Party capturing the white vote in
the South by becoming the party of modern white racism, saying, vote
Republican, white people, we`ll protect you from the black people, that is
not a made-up story. And it was not a subtle thing.
And Jesse Helms whistling "Dixie" in Carol Moseley Braun`s face,
saying he wanted to make her cry as the only black person in the U.S.
Senate, Jesse Helms is the personification of that and always has been.
Never repented, never apologized. It was the whole point of his politics.
Now, watch this --
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: There`s another story I heard of Jesse
Helms when he first ran, that he opened the mail and out fell a check for
$5,000 from John Wayne. So he spent some time trying to track down, it`s
not easy to figure out, how do you call John Wayne, but he managed to
figure out how to do so and he placed the call and the Duke answered the
And apparently Jesse Helms said, you know, Mr. Wayne, this is Jesse
Helms, I just wanted to thank you for your tremendous support in this race.
Apparently, John Wayne said, who? And he said, well, Jesse Helms, I`m
running for senate in North Carolina. And apparently, Wayne said, oh, yes,
you`re that guy saying all those crazy things. We need a hundred more like
The willingness to say all those crazy things is a rare, rare
characteristic in this town. And you know what? It`s every bit as true
now as it was then, we need a money more like Jesse Helms in the U.S.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: Whistling "Dixie" in Carol Moseley Braun`s face in the
Senate elevator. We need a hundred more Jesse Helmses. That`s what Ted
Cruz thinks would be good for America. What happens next in this
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)
AD NARRATOR: You needed that job and you were the best qualified.
But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that
really fair? Harvey Gantt says it is. He supports Ted Kennedy`s racial
quota law that makes the color of your skin more important than your
You`ll vote on this issue next Tuesday. For racial quotas, Harvey
Gantt. Against racial quotas, Jesse Helms.
CRUZ: You know what, it`s every bit as true now as it was when, we
need a hundred more like Jesse Helms in the U.S. Senate.
(END VIDEO CLIPS)
MADDOW: What you saw there was the racist white hands ad from Jesse
Helms` 1990 Senate campaign against his African-American challenger, Harvey
Gantt. That was kind of par for the course Jesse Helms` politics. That`s
what he was.
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas says today that the Senate needs a hundred
more senators just like that.
Joining us now is Steve Kornacki. He`s the host of "UP WITH CHRIS
KORNACKI," which airs weekends at 8:00 a.m. Eastern. He`s also senior
writer at "Salon".
Steve, thanks for being here.
STEVE KORNACKI, MSNBC HOST: You`re welcome.
MADDOW: Trent Lott lost his job in the Republican leadership in the
Senate when he praised Strom Thurmond and said that he wished he had that -
- that Strom Thurmond had won the presidency when he ran as a
Is Jesse Helms kind of that same kettle of fish?
KORNACKI: Or Ted Cruz?
MADDOW: No, Jesse Helms?
KORNACKI: Well, exactly, they`re both sort of symbols of the
evolution of white conservatism or the modern Republican Party. And it was
Strom Thurmond was a Democrat for most of his life, left the party to run
as the Dixiecrat in 1948, then left the party for good when Barry Goldwater
was nominated by the Republicans in 1964. And I think it was 1970 that
Jesse Helms left the Democratic Party and joined the Republican Party.
And they symbolized that sort of various sort of racialized
transformation of politics in the South and the modern Republican Party in
the South. They`re both very similar in that way.
Where they`re different, I think, is that Strom Thurmond, and I`m
going to try to say this in a way that`s not giving him too much credit,
but Strom Thurmond did evolve a bit in the course of his career.
KORNACKI: And he didn`t lean on racially polarizing rhetoric for, you
know, toward the end of his career. He`s still a very conservative
Jesse Helms never backed away from it until the very end. He won his
last re-election campaign in 1996. And the other is, you know, he kept
winning, too. That`s the other sort of disturbing thing. 1996 wasn`t that
KORNACKI: And he retired in 2002. I have a feeling if he would have
run in 2002, he would have won that year.
So, North Carolina is changing a lot, but it was that night long ago
that a guy like Jesse Helms was very electable there.
MADDOW: That said, and I think that`s right that Strom Thurmond
actually ended up being less electrifying as a racial sort of lightning rod
than Jesse Helms was. But citing Strom Thurmond`s past and approving of it
and saying, I wish we`d had more of that, was enough to cost Trent Lott a
big chunk of his career. Is Ted Cruz safe in complimenting Jesse Helms?
KORNACKI: Well, he`s safe in a sense that what Trent Lott had, the
position he had, the title he had, in sort of the prestige he had in 2002
as the Senate Republican leader, he served at the pleasure of the
Republican in the Senate, at the pleasure of the Republican establishment.
So, the Republican establishment could take that away if he was a public
liability for them. And that`s what they did, the Bush White House at the
time basically led this coup in the Senate. And they got behind Bill Frist
from Tennessee, and they basically orchestrated a coup where Bill Frist
replaced Trent Lott as the Republican.
You know, what Ted Cruz is and how Ted Cruz defines himself
politically is he`s away from the establishment. You know, he`s the one
who stands out there and says, the establishment, they`re a bunch of
squishes, I`m the true conservative, I`m the purist. I`m the guy who
defines what conservatism really is.
So, the problem for the Republican establishment, at least from a PR
standpoint is what can they take away from Ted Cruz. If they go after Ted
Cruz on something like this, if they say this is terrible, this is
shameful. Then he points at them and says, see it`s these squishes being
KORNACKI: Within Republican world, it enhances his stature.
MADDOW: Would the Republican establishment now though even have the
same instinct of being embarrassed by these comments in the same way they
were embarrassed by Trent Lott? I mean, part of the reason the
establishment wanted to get rid of Trent Lott, there may have other stuff
under the surface, but once you`ve said you wish a segregationist have been
elected president, that`s bad for the Republican brand.
Ted Cruz, especially if he`s going to run for president, he`s out
there saying, you know, 100 more Jesse Helms, Jesse Helms was an over
racist throughout this career and unrepentant. We don`t even need to get
to what he said about AIDS and gay people and all the rest of it. I mean,
is there an extinct in the Republican Party establishment now, whether or
not they can do anything about it, that that might be embarrassing, that
that might be a bad position for somebody in a high profile position for
the party to hold?
KORNACKI: I think there are a couple of possibilities. And the Trent
Lott gets to one I think, which is, again, they say the PR liability of
Trent Lott in 2002.
KORNACKI: But I think the real attitude among Republicans who served,
the overwhelming attitude among them was, he`s getting a raw deal here.
We`ve got to do this. We`ve got to throw him overboard. He doesn`t really
And the giveaway for that is that four years later, after the 2006
midterms, Republicans have some openings in leadership again, and Trent
Lott ran for whip on the Republican side and he was elected. He beat Lamar
Alexander for the position and he retired. So, he retired as the whip.
So, is that the attitude? Are they embarrassed but they`re afraid to
say anything? Because Ted Cruz right now, you know, sort of the pulse of
the base of the party. So, are there Republicans who are embarrassed, but
they realize, if I speak up, I am going to pay a political price for that.
MADDOW: I -- he doesn`t -- they don`t need to punish him overtly at
all. I am waiting to hear if any Republicans are embarrassed by that or if
any Republicans want to step up and say, no, actually, there shouldn`t be
100 Jesse Helms here. That hasn`t happened yet. That has not been --
KORNACKI: Wait for the memoirs after they retire, you even read it,
MADDOW: Crazy making.
Steve Kornacki, host of MSNBC`s weekend morning show, "UP WITH STEVE
KORNACKI", you`re exactly the man I wanted to talk to about this because I
know you remember it all, hook, line, sinker. Thank you, Steve.
MADDOW: We`ll be right back.
MADDOW: When President Obama a week and a half ago asked Congress to
debate the prospect of a U.S. military strike in Syria, it scrambled
expectations for what was going to happen on the Syria issue, but it also
scrambled things for Congress.
I mean, everybody expected that by now we would be in another one of
those Groundhog Day, pointless fights about defaulting on our debt on
purpose, or, shutting down the government on purpose. And those things may
yet happen, but they haven`t happened yet. The prospect of voting on Syria
eventually got put on hold.
And you can now see Congress, particularly in the House trying to get
the groove back, trying to remember what it is they were supposed to be
working on before they lost focus.
Today, in addition to some new noise from House Republicans about
maybe getting back to that government shutdown idea, you also got the 41st
vote in the House on repealing Obamacare, 41 times they cast these votes
now. It`s never had practical effect and never will. But if it wasn`t fun
enough 40 times, maybe 41 will be the charm.
Congressman John Dingell take it from here.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. JOHN DINGELL (D), MICHIGAN: Here we go again. Time of the House
is being wasted. The business of the nation is being obfuscated. The
Republicans have more nonsense to put on the floor.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
While the House goes through this process of remembering what it is it
wants to waste time on, remembering what futile symbolic action it wants to
take instead of actually making policy, Congress does have kind of a
significant to do list of substantive stuff that for some reason they feel
no urgency about. It feels like ancient history now, almost impossible to
believe if it happened.
But at the beginning of the summer, the United States Senate actually
passed comprehensive immigration reform. That happened. This year on June
We all remember from civics class that bills are supposed to start in
the House and go to the Senate. But on immigration reform they did the
backward. John Boehner said he wanted the Senate to go first, saying the
House would go after the Senate did.
But the Senate`s long done now. And the House is just doing nothing,
pretending it never happened. The House has taken no action. Nobody knows
when or if they`re ever going to.
And because of that, today in Washington, this happened. Roughly 200
women, flooding the streets outside the intersection of Independence
Avenue, which runs between the Capitol and the offices of members of the
House, some of them wearing white armbands and red t-shirts that said women
for fair immigration reform. They marched and congregated in the middle of
the intersection where they sat down in a circle holding hand, cars around
them and police nearby ready to charge in.
The women were chanting yes we can, si, si, puede. This is a group of
women from We Belong Together. They blockaded this intersection outside
Congress to protest the House`s inaction on immigration reform. They sat
in the middle of the street, chanting, calling for action on immigration
And then the police started making arrests, a ton of them. More than
100 women were arrested in Washington today. The police handcuffed them
all and loaded them into vans as you can see. It was a big operation to
get all of these people arrested. It was a peaceful situation though.
The reason it was all women who were arrested because activists are
trying to highlight the fact it`s women and children who make up 3/4 the
immigrant in the United States. Until we fix this broken immigration
system that we have -- women and children are the one whose will continue
to suffer the most.
The idea of fixing the broken system is not an esoteric thing. It`s
not a big inchoate idea. A bill has passed the Senate. It even got 14
Republican senators to vote in favor of it. The Senate acted.
But in the Republican controlled House, so far, they`re just refusing
to bring it up.
See, there is no time, right? First of all, there`s lots of
vacations. They had vacation earlier this month. They just got back.
They`ve got another vacation scheduled later this month. And they`ve only
voted 41 times so far to repeal Obamacare.
So, really, there`s no time to get to other stuff like this.
We will see how long that stance is sustainable.
Now, it`s time for "THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL".
Thanks for being with us tonight. Have a good one.
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