Guest: John Harwood, George Weigel, Seth Feltheimer
KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST (voice-over): Which of these three stories will you be talking about to tomorrow?
The pope celebrates mass in his hospital bed. There, he will remain for several days. The Vatican insists his breathing crisis is over. Now this is about the flu. We‘ll go to Rome, get a medical explanation for why he seemed to stop breathing yesterday, and visit with one of his confidantes and biographers.
The countdown to the State of the Union. The president speaks 61 minutes hence, a viewer‘s guide to the speech from Craig Crawford and John Harwood and Chris Matthews on rhetoric, foreign and domestic, to say nothing of that question, can‘t we all just get along? Is bipartisan bye-bye?
All that and more now on COUNTDOWN.
OLBERMANN: Good evening.
We‘ll begin our COUNTDOWN of the State of the Union presently. And I‘ll be joined by Chris Matthews at the bottom of this hour.
But now our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, the health of Pope John Paul II. It is, according to the Vatican stabilized and evidently much improved. It will, however, require that the leader of the world‘s one billion Catholics remain at the hospital for several days at least, the same hospital at which his gunshot wounds were treated during an assassination attempt 24 years ago this May, Gemelli Policlinico in Rome.
The Vatican‘s health official, Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, explained that the immediate cause of the decision to take John Paul there, his breathing crisis, has eased. We‘ll talk about that, laryngeal tracheitis, with a prominent physician in just a moment.
Still a concern, a case of flu that apparently first afflicted the vicar of Christ on Sunday, even as he spiritedly batted away doves that were supposed to fly out his window, not back in. The flu worsened and then combined with his Parkinson‘s disease to trigger that breathing problem. But a spokesman remained optimistic, even trying to lighten the mood in the midst of the worst papal health scare since the assassination attempt by joking that the pope went to Gemelli Hospital by ambulance because—quote—“The subway doesn‘t go that far.”
Coming up, a medical explanation, issues facing John Paul, and, if you will, the overall state of the pope as assessed by one of his biographers and confidantes.
First, to our correspondent in Vatican City, Preston Mendenhall.
Preston, good evening.
PRESTON MENDENHALL, NBC CORRESPONDENT: Keith, good evening.
After rushing the pope to the hospital late last night, the Vatican is now offering a more upbeat assessment of the pope‘s medical condition. In a statement today, the Vatican said the pope would be in the hospital for a few more days. The Vatican also saying that the pope was still having difficulty breathing and he was running a slight fever.
But the pope did say mass at his bedside in a special suite in the hospital in Rome here. He was surrounded by several of his close aides. Now, the Vatican says there is—quote—“no reason for alarm” and the pontiff‘s heart is still functioning normally. Italy‘s health minister visited the hospital today, later emerging to say doctors were—quote—
“optimistic” about the pontiff‘s chance for a full recovery.
Now, the pope is 84 years old and he does suffer from Parkinson‘s disease. And independent medical experts say that disease could complicate his recovery from this bout of flu and a tightening of his throat. Now, for much of the last decade, questions about the pope‘s health have surrounded his papacy, but he has kept up a very hectic schedule, visiting more than 100 foreign countries and meeting with hundreds of foreign leaders.
Now, that same busy schedule is kept here at the Vatican behind me, but it remains suspended while the pope is still in the hospital. And that gives rise to speculation that one of the most remarkable papacies in history might now be fading—Keith, back to you.
OLBERMANN: Preston Mendenhall at Vatican City, great thanks.
And while the pope celebrated mass this morning in that hospital, at the same time, from his native Poland, to Africa, to the Philippines, to the United States, Catholics and others assembled to pray for him, prayers offered by this country‘s 67 million Catholics, special masses being set in Chicago, New York, Raleigh, Boston, that latter city the first American town the holy father visited after his election in 1978.
Many of the faithful expressing their admiration for not merely the office, but the man, one visitor to New York‘s Saint Patrick‘s Cathedral putting his hopes simply—quote—“He is as tough as nails.”
So, he is in stable condition. The issue is now the flu. There‘s no cause for alarm. And he did not undergo a tracheotomy. Why, then, was he hospitalized?
Dr. Seth Feltheimer is a general internist at Columbia University Medical Center at New York Presbyterian Hospital.
Dr. Feltheimer, good evening. Thanks for your time.
SETH FELTHEIMER, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY MEDICAL CENTER: Good evening.
OLBERMANN: From all we‘ve heard from Rome, from the decision to take him to the hospital, from the suddenness of that decision, from the insertion of a breathing tube, must it have looked to those around him like he was losing his ability to breathe?
FELTHEIMER: Well, certainly, what the pope experienced is not unusual. And we see it every day. And there have probably been tens of thousands of cases in the United States this flu season.
Typically, in the elderly, you can get side effects. You can get complications, such as sinusitis, tracheitis, bronchitis. The increased mucus production in the trachea can cause a narrowing and shortness of breath. So, it was a precaution, but it‘s a precaution that we all take here in the United States as well.
OLBERMANN: The course of treatment when he got to Gemelli Hospital last night was likely to be what? And what will they be doing for him now?
FELTHEIMER: Well, first of all, since he had a fever, it would probably be I.V. fluids, probably an prophylactic antibiotic in case there‘s a bacterial superinfection, and perhaps some local treatment with what we call nebulizers to try and open up the air passages.
But, as I said, it is very common. And, in fact, the tracheitis is due to the inflammation and to the swelling and mucus in the trachea and the bronchioles. And this is usually what causes the shortness of breath.
OLBERMANN: Can it recur? Is that why he remains hospitalized? Or is it literally just the fact that they‘re worried about an 84-year-old man with a bad case of the flu?
FELTHEIMER: It is probably just being 84 with a bad case of the flu. And, again, secretions are hard to mobilize in someone who is elderly and who has had Parkinson‘s disease, so that this is probably more of a precaution to make sure that the inflammation and the secretions don‘t come back.
OLBERMANN: Doctor, lastly, we know this was a man with, as you say, Parkinson‘s, a man who is now three months shy of his 85th birthday, a man living in the middle of a flu epidemic. Could what happened to him have been caused by any of those individual problems or did it require the confluence of all three issues being in play?
FELTHEIMER: Well, certainly, a large number of people without Parkinson‘s disease get the flu and complications. It certainly didn‘t make things any easier and probably was—it was better for him to have gone to a hospital with the Parkinson‘s and what we call comorbid conditions. That might have complicated things and made things worse. So, they made the right decision.
OLBERMANN: Sr. Seth Feltheimer, preventive medicine specialist at Columbia University Medical Center at New York Presbyterian Hospital, great thanks for your insight, sir.
FELTHEIMER: Thank you.
OLBERMANN: The irony in the pope‘s hospitalization, of course, is that those last public images of him from Sunday, correcting the misdirected doves, seemed to show a man who looked more like the John Paul of 1994 than the John Paul of 2004.
Joining me now is George Weigel, Roman Catholic theologian, author of “Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II.”
Thank you for your time tonight.
GEORGE WEIGEL, AUTHOR, “WITNESS TO HOPE”: Good evening.
OLBERMANN: Was that impression from Sunday correct? Had the pope felt as revitalized as he had looked?
WEIGEL: I think he has in fact been feeling pretty chipper for the last couple of months. I saw him over dinner in mid-December 10 days before Christmas. And, to tell you the truth, he looked much better than I expected him to look. His aides tell me that he‘s been keeping a full schedule, takes a little bit longer to get out what he wants to say under the circumstances that Dr. Feltheimer was describing.
But, no, all in all, I thought he was in pretty bouncy form in mid-December. And watching him swat those doves away confirmed my sense that he is not only doing reasonably well, but he has kept his sense of humor in the midst of all this.
OLBERMANN: Can you tell us—this is a man who has been, earlier in his life at least, described as God‘s athlete. Have those ravages of age, of mortality, of the Parkinson‘s disease, of the just general slowing down that you referred to, have they affected him emotionally or psychologically? Is he frustrated by them?
WEIGEL: I think it has affected him spiritually, in the sense that it is very difficult for someone who has been physically vigorous for more than 70 years to suddenly find himself in the circumstance where his body just doesn‘t do what he wants it to do when he wants it to do it.
But this is a man whose spiritual life has been centered since the early 1940s on the suffering of Christ. And he identifies his suffering with the suffering of Christ, offers that suffering for the church and the world and I think gets through it in spiritual terms.
OLBERMANN: I mentioned this last night. Anybody who was aware of the world in 1978, the year the two popes died, remembers the secrecy, the intrigue, the subtle nuances and the wording of the health bulletins from the Vatican.
OLBERMANN: But these last two days, there have been quick, clear statements. The Italian government‘s health minister went to Gemelli Hospital and essentially validated the Vatican‘s bulletins. There was even that subway joke from the spokesman, Mr. Navarro-Valls. This openness about John Paul‘s health, is that his idea?
WEIGEL: I think he has wanted his situation to be transparent to the world from the beginning.
There was some fussing about this at the time of the assassination attempt. But I think he made it clear afterwards that he believes in transparency. And if you go back to the early 1990s, when he had the hip break, then the cancer surgery, then the appendicitis, they‘ve been quite forthcoming about what is going on. And I think they did that yesterday as well.
The other thing that I think we have to say, Keith, is that this is a pope who has not hidden his condition from the world. He has continued on his activity, his mission, as he understands it. And he is not embarrassed by the fact that it takes him longer to say things, or sometimes he slurs his words, or sometimes he‘s got to wipe his mouth.
He‘s giving a great witness to a world which often thinks, too often thinks, of old people as disposable that there are no disposable human beings.
OLBERMANN: And he can still knock doves with the best of them.
WEIGEL: That‘s right, spoken like an old baseball reporter.
This is a delicate subject here, but in your—when you have been in his presence, does he discuss the succession, his successor, not necessarily a name, but what that individual would face, what his selection should be based on? Is it a topic for him?
I‘ve certainly never discussed it with him. I think the pope is too much a believer in the presence of God in the church. He is too much a respecter of the prerogatives of those who will elect his successor to spend very much time at all fretting about what is going to happen after he has died and gone home to the lord.
It‘s just not part of his character, I think, his spiritual character, if you will, to be calculating the succession in those terms or indeed in any terms at all.
OLBERMANN: George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington and author of “Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II,” our great thanks for joining us tonight, sir.
WEIGEL: Nice to be here.
OLBERMANN: Now separating church and state. The president‘s State of the Union looms. He will declare three great responsibilities this country has to its children and grandchildren. Chris Matthews and first John Harwood and Craig Crawford will join me to preview the address.
And wait a minute, Mr. President. Punxsutawney Phil is working this side of the street.
This is the COUNTDOWN to the State of the Union on MSNBC.
OLBERMANN: Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow. That‘s supposed to mean something, but what does it mean when he sees the shadow on the same day as the big speech?
Our COUNTDOWN to the State of the Union of begins next.
OLBERMANN: It wasn‘t Punxsutawney Phil‘s idea to schedule the State of the Union on Groundhog‘s Day. The big rat work works every February 2. The presidents get to pick and choose when they emerge.
Our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN, State of the Union expectations and predictions, for the first time since 1973, both events occurring on the same day. Mr. Phil saw his shadow, they say, meaning six more weeks of winter. As David Brinkley once told his audience on NBC‘s “Huntley-Brinkley Report,” some people in the crowd were heard to say, kill the groundhog.
It has been noted that five days after the last day the groundhog and a president tried to share, the Senate voted to establish the Watergate Committee. Guess what? The groundhog saw his shadow that year, too. Nonetheless, President Bush today committed to practice at home his fifth annual speech to Congress. The twin focuses are obvious.
Internationally, he‘ll pick up where he left off in the inaugural address. Domestically, he will stress Social Security reform, but, apparently, with some clarifications, maybe even some pullbacks, or, to hear his communications director put it, perhaps the start of a cha-cha. He‘ll step back if Congress steps forward and then vice-versa. Two, three, dip.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DAN BARTLETT, WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: What he will do tonight is, he will lay out a way forward. And he will say, these are difficult choices that are often mired in politics. He‘s willing to step forward in a way that a U.S. president hasn‘t done on this issue in quite some time and put some of these difficult issues on the table and say, I‘m willing to accept it. I‘m willing to deal with it. Let‘s work together.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: The president will speak for at least 40 minutes, plus applause.
It‘s always good to cheat and try to look ahead and decide what to look for. It always helps when the White House is good enough to release advance excerpts of the speech three hours and 16 minutes before it is to be delivered.
To look ahead, we turn to “Wall Street Journal” national political editor John Harwood.
John, good evening.
JOHN HARWOOD, POLITICAL EDITOR, “THE WALL STREET JOURNAL”: Hi, Keith.
OLBERMANN: And, of course, “Congressional Quarterly” White House columnist and MSNBC analyst Craig Crawford.
CRAIG CRAWFORD, NBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Good evening, Keith.
OLBERMANN: All right, you start, Craig. What‘s on the top of your watch list tonight?
CRAWFORD: Actually, what I‘m looking for, listening for is what I don‘t expect to hear, is something about Iran, because we still see this story in the news and we‘re still waiting to see where this administration is going to go if the European effort falls through in negotiating with Iran. And the Iranian officials today were saber rattling again. So I‘m listening for that, although I don‘t expect to hear it.
OLBERMANN: All right, John, if it is not Iran, what would be at the top of your watch list for tonight?
HARWOOD: Well, what I‘m going to be watching, Keith, is how the president does tonight with Congress and how he does in coming days in the polls among the American people on this issue of Social Security.
He‘s got some new momentum now since the Iraqi elections. That ought to help him to some degree across the board. But this is a hard sell. And what we expect to hear from the president tonight are some of the positive and appealing aspects of his plan, protecting those 55 and over, no benefit changes for them, private accounts for younger workers.
But we don‘t expect that he is going to spell out exactly how much this is going to cost and how he‘s going to pay for it. But the president has got a fairly narrow window of time to try to build up some momentum for this plan so he can overcome Democratic opposition, Republican nervousness, and move it forward.
John, all the released excerpts so far that pertain to Social Security are very nonspecific. I don‘t want to say vague, but they do not, as you suggest, have any details in them.
HARWOOD: I think vague is a good word, Keith.
CRAWFORD: It‘s more like a black hole.
OLBERMANN: Then what, John, does he say when he tries to sell this? Is it heart and flowers? Or how do you reassure people that this is a viable, not only a viable solution, but that it is actually a true problem?
HARWOOD: Well, we know that the American people, from our “Wall Street Journal”/NBC poll, don‘t share the notion that this is an immediate crisis or even a crisis in the next few years. So, he is pushing that rock uphill.
But when you segment voters by age, among younger voters, it is a more popular idea to create some sort of individual investment vehicle, because there‘s a lot of skepticism among younger people that Social Security benefits will be there for them. So, the idea is, you try to placate the older workers, 55 and over. That‘s about a quarter of the nation and a larger share of the electorate. That‘s where a lot of the risk for Republican candidates comes.
While appealing to younger voters and try to do it that way, but, still, at the end of the day, you have got to get to the cost and you have got to make the financial markets confident you are not going to borrow too much. And you have got to convince people you have got a realistic plan for raising the money.
OLBERMANN: So, just like television news, the president has to go for the younger demographic tonight. And he is not getting it.
HARWOOD: There you go.
OLBERMANN: Craig, Craig, what are we looking for in terms of this being a cross between a campaign speech and a concert tour schedule? I mean, this trip that he‘s taking tomorrow and Friday, he‘s going to go to North Dakota and Montana and Nebraska and Arkansas and Florida. And I feel like Howard Dean.
But those are—those are five states with seven Democratic senators among them. It sounds like it‘s this in-person sales pitch. How—will he set that up tonight, Craig?
CRAWFORD: He‘s going to set up a sense of urgency on this Social Security thing.
And, you know, John is right. Messing with Social Security, Keith, is the equivalent of yelling fire in a crowded theater. But even if there is no fire, all eyes will be on the president. And I think that‘s one purpose this whole debate serves. It beats the lame duck disease. It keeps him in the game at the front of the stage on such a controversial issue, even if nothing ever really happens with Social Security.
And creating that sense of urgency may be tough, because he‘s talking about getting the nation upset and excited about something that is going to happen 30, 40 years from now, the actuarials say Social Security would be insolvent. Well, the entire federal government is insolvent right now at the tune of a half-trillion dollars a year in deficit. And there‘s no sense of urgency about that.
OLBERMANN: Time for...
HARWOOD: Keith, one bit of historical context here. You mentioned, Keith, that this is the first time since 1973 that Groundhog Day and the State of the Union has come on the same date, OK? President Nixon in that year had a significantly higher approval rating than George Bush does right now. And so has every other reelected president in the modern era.
So he doesn‘t start—even though he has a very ambitious agenda, he has somewhat less of a popularity behind him that one might think.
OLBERMANN: Let me ask, finally, Craig, a surprise is not a surprise if we know about it in advance. But you already mentioned the prospect of Iran. Should we be surprised by anything that is not going to be mentioned tonight? Is there something that people are going to wake up tomorrow morning and go, he left that out?
CRAWFORD: I think—I actually think by leaving out any specific or even vague discussion of Iran and what we intend to do about that. And that is a critical issue. I mean, that is a country potentially developing nuclear weapons, according to this administration. Right now, they‘re letting the Europeans lead the way in negotiating with them. That doesn‘t seem to be working.
That I think is at the top of the priority list. And if he doesn‘t mention something about it, that will make me wonder why they did not, if they were afraid to get into it for some reason.
OLBERMANN: “Congressional Quarterly”‘s White House columnist Craig Crawford, many thanks, sir, as always.
“The Wall Street Journal”‘s national political editor, John Harwood, as ever, John, great thanks to you, too.
Enjoy the speech, gentlemen.
CRAWFORD: All right.
OLBERMANN: Representatives and senators gathering in the House chamber in the Capitol looking for their seat assignments.
Your best seat right here in front of COUNTDOWN and your television.
Chris Matthews joins me, as our preview coverage continues on MSNBC.
OLBERMANN: The COUNTDOWN to President Bush‘s State of the Union address is speeding up, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Very soon, the president will begin the short trip from there to Capitol Hill.
Chris Matthews joins me for the final COUNTDOWN to the address, covering all angles of the speech, foreign, domestic, political.
First, though, a special look back through the pages of history at the strength of our union.
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We gather tonight. Our nation is at war. Our economy is in recession. And the civilized world faces unprecedented dangers. Yet, the state of our union has never been stronger.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The state of our union is strong.
RONALD REAGAN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The state of our union is stronger than a year ago.
GEORGE H.W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The State of the union will remain sound and strong.
G.W. BUSH: And our union is strong.
CLINTON: I feel so strongly about this.
REAGAN: Today America is strong.
G.H.W. BUSH: Union strong and great.
CLINTON: The state of our union is strong.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
GERALD FORD, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And I must say to you that the state of the union is not good.
CLINTON: ... is the strongest...
REAGAN: ... is strong.
G.W. BUSH: ... never been stronger.
G.H.W. BUSH: ... and strong.
CLINTON: ... state of our union is strong.
OLBERMANN: Twenty-nine minutes until the president‘s State of the Union address begins. The pomp and importance would seem to be self-evident except for one very odd statistic.
Gallup poll approval ratings for the president‘s day of the speech over the last six decades have averaged 58 percent. Gallup poll approval ratings for the president‘s day after the speech over the last six decades have averaged 58 percent. Our third story on the COUNTDOWN, he‘ll give the speech anyway. Chris Matthews joins me in a moment.
First, the physical part of the events. The president about to be on the move. Our correspondent David Shuster is live at the Capitol.
David, good evening.
DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: Keith, good evening.
We‘re here in Statuary Hall. And this is part of the passageway that some of the congressional leaders will walk when they go from essentially the other side of the Capitol, the Senate side, from the rotunda, through Statuary Hall, and to the House itself.
What you‘re looking at is sort of how Statuary Hall has been transformed. This is almost like a red carpet-type of lineup, where the photographers will take pictures of the VIPs as they walk through.
A good example, Keith, Elaine Chao some people didn‘t recognize. She‘s the secretary of Labor. She got a few flashbulbs. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, he got incessant flashbulbs.
The other thing that has been happening here, which is sort of a funny aside, is because of the camera crews and the way that they are set up, is one of the tasks, for example, of our own interns to guide some women to the women‘s restroom to make sure they are not live on television when they go to the restroom. So it‘s a different sort of night here in Statuary Hall—Keith.
OLBERMANN: The kind of details you can get from no one else but David Shuster live at the Capitol. Great. Thanks.
SHUSTER: You‘re welcome.
OLBERMANN: Mr. Bush is scheduled to speak at 9:01:30. There‘s going to be a lot in the address. Let‘s try to forecast it and forecast the reaction to it. And who better to turn to for that than the host of “HARDBALL,” Chris Matthews.
CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, “HARDBALL”: Good evening, Keith.
OLBERMANN: Let‘s split this up into domestic and international, and start with international. The quotes that the White House has released in advance there are about 14 of them. Three of them refer to Iraq and one just jumped right out at me.
“The new political situation in Iraq opens a new phase of our work in that country. We will increasingly focus our efforts on helping prepare more capable Iraqi security forces, forces with skilled officers and an effective command structure.”
Chris, is that the way for this president to remind people that the elections in Iraq went really well without breaking his own arm by patting himself on the back too hard?
MATTHEWS: I think you said it well. I think the president is going to benefit from coming off in that very successful election result, the great turnout in Iraq that no one expected to be that positive, the relatively low violence, the sense that the people of Iraq have said no to the insurgents, and also said they want to be part of their own future. They want to be self-determining where the future of Iraq lies.
All good for us. All good for the president‘s policy. And you‘re right, he may not want to congratulate himself.
But I can predict that a good part of the early minutes of this address tonight will be aimed at creating what we call in this business applause lines. And I think forcing the Democrats to stand up against their nature and applaud him, I think the pressure‘s going to be on those Democrats on the right side of our screen to stand up and applaud as dramatically as the Republicans are going to do.
OLBERMANN: Is there, though, also a second more delicate matter about Iraq that, to some degree, people in this country may have believed that those elections Sunday, especially if they were to be as successful as they turned out to have been, were to be a milestone in terms of when U.S. troops would start coming home? Obviously it was not that it wasn‘t intended as that. But how does he tell those people who are not as clued in as many others might be that it wasn‘t a milestone and make that sound like a necessary or even a positive thing?
MATTHEWS: I think he may well say that our number one job in Iraq right now is to train the security force, to train an Iraqi army that can stand up and defend the government that is elected this December against coups, insurgencies, outside terrorists, whatever.
OLBERMANN: Not just—just Iraq now, but obviously there‘s going to be more on the international front and more about what Secretary Rice dubbed in her confirmation hearing the outposts of tyranny.
OLBERMANN: The inaugural speech had that kind of broad doctrinal view of Bush world. And one of the advance quotes refers to—let me go to the quote again. “The only force powerful enough to stop the rise of tyranny and terror, and replace hatred with hope, is the force of human freedom.”
Do we expect that at any point in this address there will be details on that, or is the method—was the method proved on Inauguration Day, stay general, leave the detail for others at other times?
MATTHEWS: Well, the president‘s foreign policy is kind of hydro-headed. Anyone who thinks it‘s simply about democracy and freedom isn‘t paying attention.
Anyone who says it‘s simply about fighting terror isn‘t. And anyone who thinks it‘s about either of those two or both of them and only them is wrong. It is about a lot of things.
It is about securing the Middle East. There‘s a lot of hawks on the Republican side backing the president who, regardless of whether Iran had 50 elections a minute over there or not, they don‘t want them to have nuclear weapons in that region. And they‘re going to fight like hell to push the president. You‘re already reading on the blog sites tonight, pushing the president to say he‘s not going to stand for Iraq having nuclear weapons.
Well, we all know democratic countries, good countries have nuclear weapons. We do. Israel does. India does. Russia does. But there are people around the president who don‘t want Iran to have those nuclear weapons no matter what its political system.
There are also people who are still concerned about terrorism in Iraq, certainly Zarqawi and his operation there, and what could grow even within a democratic government. So there‘s three causes right now: spread democracy, fight terrorism, and prevent any country that the administration doesn‘t want to have nuclear weapons.
And I think that third one‘s going to be tricky tonight. Will the president come out and say, I am determined that Iran not get a nuclear weapon? And that would be strong words indeed.
OLBERMANN: It has been a while since Israel and Palestine were on the front burner here, and yet we see in the advance quotes, “The goal of two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace is within reach. And America will help achieve that goal.”
“Within reach,” that‘s pretty strong language, wouldn‘t you think?
MATTHEWS: Well, especially given the fact that a lot of the president‘s allies on the right don‘t want a Palestinian state. They continue to refer to it as Samaria and Judea.
They see it as part of Israel. They do not want to give it to the Arabs who live there. And so that‘s going to be a fight.
Everyone thinks the president is the most right wing guy on the right wing coalition. He is not. He is on the right, but he‘s not the far right.
He has people surrounding him who want to push for Israel to grab all that territory and hold it. Certainly Gaza and also the West Bank. He has people that want to carry this fight to Iran. The president of the United States, I sense, is going to look more and more like a moderating force on the right in the next four years than a leader of it.
OLBERMANN: So, will he, in fact, when we get to the post-game show, back to your control of the thing after the speech is made, will we, in fact, see some Democrats applauding some part at least of this international policy contained in this speech tonight?
MATTHEWS: There‘s no way a person can call themselves a Democrat if they don‘t applaud democracy. And I think that if you see anybody sitting on their hands when the president talks about the tremendous voter turnout in Iraq on Sunday, and they don‘t stand up and applaud, I think they‘re political imbeciles, first of all, because everyone is going to spot them as hopeless lefties.
But the other thing is I think most people look at them and say, “What a spoiled sport. The president deserves a hand for this.”
It will be interesting to watch faces of people like Ted Kennedy, for example, and Harry Reid, the new Democratic Senate leader. Will they stand up and exuberantly applaud for the success of democratic voting in Iraq, a country that has never had it before, or will they sit there and look like malcontents, like, “Oh, damn it. The president had a good day. I‘m not going to give him it”?
And I think if the Democratic Party wants to show that it‘s really solid in terms of values, it would be well advised to give the president his due. But that‘s up to them politically. They have to make that decision.
OLBERMANN: Stand up for Iraq and sit down for Social Security. All right.
MATTHEWS: Well, that‘s common. That one—that one I can predict will not get—the Democrats, when it comes to Social Security, will be sitting on their hands. In fact, looking around and seeing which Democrats are applauding. And the ones who applaud will be heavily questioned in Statuary Hall afterwards, what they‘re applauding, if they‘re Democrats.
OLBERMANN: Yes. A lot of overnight phone calls to those houses.
MATTHEWS: You‘ve got it, from the constituents.
OLBERMANN: That‘s half the speech, maybe. Then there‘s the domestic half. Obviously, as we just discussed, Social Security reform and the difference between the words “personalizing it” and “privatizing it” will come up.
OLBERMANN: Chris, stand by. Chris Matthews and I will continue to count down to the State of the Union here on MSNBC.
OLBERMANN: This is the countdown to the State of the Union. As you see, the congressional leaders filing in, and the delegation passing through. Senator Payne there.
Keith Olbermann at MSNBC headquarters, Chris Matthews will anchor our coverage, joining me from Washington.
And we‘ve looked at what we expect out of the international element now. Let‘s look at the domestic. And tonight, that obviously mean Social security reform.
And Chris, just listening to how the president‘s words have softened on this in the last week or 10 days, did he—did he scare people about this? Did he scare them about the wrong part of it? Does he have to backtrack or refocus tonight? I mean, the advance quotes at least seemed utterly nonspecific about this.
MATTHEWS: Well, there‘s two things. Let‘s say you‘re 65 or you‘re older and you‘re retired—and I always try to think about people who are very old, in their 80s, late 80s, 90s, when they‘re fragile and they really need that check every months. Their lifetime savings has gotten pretty small at that point and they need the money.
I mean, there‘s two things they have to worry about. One is the fact that the president is talking about reducing benefit level from basing them on wages, which we now do, which go up a bit faster than prices. And making it a price-based benefit, which means it won‘t go up as much.
So if you‘re a senior, and you‘re depending pretty much on your Social Security check, every year or so, it won‘t quite go up as high as it used to before. You won‘t be a little better off every year than you were the year before. And that‘s not a good outlook for somebody who get very old, because it‘s really a big part of your life.
The second thing older people will be told to worry about by the Democrats, and maybe they should, is the president basically saying, the minute you pass this bill, I‘m going to take a third of the revenue flow of the younger people that‘s paying your checks, basically, to the older people, and I‘m taking it away from that flow towards your retirement account, which it‘s now going to, and putting that toward their personal accounts.
So instead of the younger generations helping the older generations 100 percent, they‘ll help them 66 percent with their money. And I think the older people will say, wait a minute, that may well endanger the fund if it is not—if it is being siphoned out by these younger people.
OLBERMANN: As we see the vice president come in to great applause in anticipation of the speech, I‘m gathering—we‘ve heard this all day—that the president is going to make some kind of guarantee regarding the Social Security reforms to people who are 55 and over. Can a blanket guarantee address those issues that you just brought up?
MATTHEWS: Well, there‘s a wonderful old story about the 1960s, when an older woman said to a commentator like yourself, “I‘m not voting for this Barry Goldwater.” And the commentator said, “Well, why not?” And she said, “Well, I hear he‘s going to take away my TV.”
MATTHEWS: And the commentator said, “No, he‘s going to get rid of the TVA, the Tennessee Valley Authority.” And the older woman says, “Well, I‘m not taking any chances.”
I think that may capture the mood of an older person about these promises from presidents about Social Security.
OLBERMANN: What else are we going to get tonight domestically, judicial nominees or the...
MATTHEWS: Yes, tort reform. I think the good argument for the president will be, take a state like Pennsylvania, where the specialists, the medical specialists, the various specialists we need as we get older, are leaving the state because of malpractice insurance. They‘re getting out of dodge.
So you can‘t find in many parts of Pennsylvania, for example, a specialist to treat you because of these fears of these big suits, these big costs of doing business as a doctor. Even for doctors that don‘t have problems with the patients. They‘re paying enormous malpractice insurance. That‘s a one good case.
And, by the way, they‘ve got a winning argument because everybody knows the trial lawyers give tons of money to the Democrats for the Senate and the House, and they‘re basically in bed together. And that‘s going to be an opportunity for the president.
On tax simplification, I remember years ago Dan Rostenkowski saying when you pay your taxes honestly, like a regular person tries to do, you feel like a chump because you think there‘s so many people out there with all their deals and dodges. And you‘re saying, wait a minute, why am I paying this percentage when the other guy is not?
And I think that‘s the sense a lot of people have. They do try to be honest. And they always walk away either fearing they cheated on their taxes or they were chumps, as Rosti called them, instead of feeling like it was a nice clean system.
Twenty questions, you answer them. If you finished high school, you can do your own returns. I think if the president comes out for simplified tax returns, he‘ll get a whooping applause from the American people tonight.
OLBERMANN: And an irony, as you‘re seeing him finally turn his face to the camera. Mostly it has been back to the camera. And great embraces from the man who is not giving the State of the Union address. John Kerry entering the chamber tonight.
One more on this domestic thing, Chris. I‘m wondering to what degree we‘ll be talking tomorrow about what is not in this speech purely domestically. There seems to be a whole lot of folks on the religious right who have been getting increasingly steamed that Mr. Bush campaigned on the gay marriage amendment and made a big deal about it but has largely shrugged it off in the last few weeks.
MATTHEWS: Well, I think the—in fairness to the Republicans and the president, the Democrats, they‘re all waiting to see how the Defense of Marriage Act holds up.
If the courts rule that that vote by the—that bill passed by the Congress and signed by Bill Clinton does protect, for example, Nevada from having to go along with a Massachusetts decree on the fact you can have same-sex marriage and Nevada can make its own decision, or Pennsylvania can make its own decision, and then people will say we don‘t need a constitutional change.
If, however, you find people running into Philadelphia courts with Massachusetts driver‘s licenses—marriage licenses saying, “I‘m married to this other guy,” and winning a case in court with a liberal judge, that‘s when you‘re going to see a lot of constitutional movement again. But in the meantime, I think the president is waiting to see how the Defense of Marriage Act holds up.
I think that‘s the—on the abortion front, I really do think there‘s a lot of pro-choice for people who are very much for abortion rights within the Republican Party. And their wives, especially, of these politicians. Especially the Bush family.
It‘s been said that if the president voted in his own family, he would be outvoted 3-1 in his nuclear family against abortion on that issue. So I don‘t think they really want to go into that fight.
OLBERMANN: All right. Chris, stand by.
MATTHEWS: Thank you.
OLBERMANN: One more break and then we will talk bipartisanship, if any. Chris Matthews and I continue with COUNTDOWN to the State of the Union here on MSNBC.
OLBERMANN: Craig Crawford advises us that Mr. Bush‘s adviser, Dan Bartlett, advised him that tonight‘s State of the Union address will have a lot of words in it. Our number one story on the COUNTDOWN, some people will like those words and some will not.
We await the arrival of the 43rd president of the United States. We, you, the House, the Senate preparing to hear the first State of the Union address of his second term.
With Chris Matthews in Washington, I‘m Keith Olbermann at MSNBC headquarters.
And Chris, you were wondering earlier if Ted Kennedy would rise to applaud when Mr. Bush brings up Iraq. He will not. He will not be in attendance for sad personal reasons.
But this brings up the whole question of the Democratic reaction. We‘ve talked about the likely domestic elements here, about the likely international ones. What about the least likely element, the one that anybody in the audience, Democrat or Republican, could like? Do we see any outreach from the president to his disaffected Democratic brethren or vice-versa?
MATTHEWS: Well, I think—I think there will come a moment when the Republicans waved their ink-stained fingers up as a tribute to the people who had the guts to go out and vote in Iraq against gunfire this Sunday. I think that‘s a moment that will unite the country.
I think there is something in this country of a democratic spirit that gets a lot deeper than who‘s going to win the next election. And I said it with some tough language a few minutes ago.
The Democrats have to believe in that or they believe in nothing. I believe no American can call himself an American if you don‘t believe in elections.
And I think that that‘s one moment the nation is going to be honed together there. I think it will be a great moment for the country, when we all applaud the guts of the third world people to do what we do so casually. And that‘s participate in an election.
OLBERMANN: And you weren‘t speaking metaphorically there, either. The young newly elected congressman from Louisiana is actually coming in with a purple-stained finger to pay tribute to the Iraqi voters.
One quote from the excerpts I‘m wondering if the Democrats will have a cause for complaint about. Let‘s—let me read this one here.
“In the long term, the peace we seek will only be achieved by eliminating the conditions that feed radicalism and ideologies of murder.” I mean, I can just imagine all the Democrats getting to their feet and simultaneously shouting, “Eliminating?” Do you think we have a point of contention here?
MATTHEWS: Well, sure, because that‘s such a broad-sweeping commitment, that we‘re going to turn the Middle East into a democratic center. That we‘re going to have the Egyptians really holding elections for president of Egypt when everybody knows that Mubarak wants his kid to be the next president.
And certainly, you don‘t tell King Abdullah, who succeeded to the thrown of his father because of the monarchy in Jordan, that they‘re going to have a democracy. Or that Mohammed VI of Morocco is going to suddenly say, “I love democratic politics.”
Or Saif Gadhafi doesn‘t want to become the next head of Libya. Or Bashar Assad didn‘t like the fact that his daddy gave him the job.
I mean, just like George W. Bush to some extent inherited the presidency because of his famous name, these guys really did inherit it because of their father‘s clout. They were given the jobs.
And now to say to them, we want to have a democracy throughout the Middle East, they must be chuckling. Who‘s going to agree?
HL Mencken once said, “Never argue with a man whose job depends on not being convinced.” Well, they‘re certainly not going to be convinced they shouldn‘t be the leaders of those countries or their kids shouldn‘t be the leaders of the country. And that‘s the challenge the presidents face—faces right now, democracy for people who don‘t necessarily want it.
OLBERMANN: We just saw Senator Clinton coming into the chamber less than two days after her brief fainting spell in Buffalo. And I guess that‘s a good point to wrap up on.
Is there going to be any kind of statement that does not pertain to Iraq or terror? Just a generalized “let‘s all work together?” And maybe I‘m sounding like the ultimate Pollyanna when I ask you that question, Chris.
MATTHEWS: I remember—in fact, just a couple days ago, I read the president‘s first speech to Congress, his unofficial first State of the Union, and he did make that plea and it didn‘t work.
OLBERMANN: That tells you a lot.
Well, there‘s the preamble. Chris Matthews and “HARDBALL” hosting the coverage of the address itself and the post-game show that will follow it. Thanks for participating in this, Chris. Take a deep breath.
MATTHEWS: Thank you very much, Keith. I will. Thanks, Keith.
OLBERMANN: All right. I‘ll wrap it up in a moment.
After the speech, and after “HARDBALL” at midnight Eastern, late night analysis, “AFTER HOURS.” Joe and Ron will be in to kick in there.
That‘s COUNTDOWN to the State of the Union. Thanks for being part of it.
For Chris Matthews in Washington, I‘m Keith Olbermann at MSNBC headquarters.
Goodnight and good luck.
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