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Transcript: See Something, Say Something

The full episode transcript for Article II: Inside Impeachment, See Something, Say Something.
Presidential Candidate Ronald Reagan
Republican Presidential hopeful Ronald Reagan visits a downtown voting precinct during his presidential campaign in Manchester, N.H., on Feb. 26, 1980.Bettmann Archive


So You Wanna Be President? with Chris Matthews

See Something, Say Something


So You Wanna Be President? With Chris Matthews

See Something, Say Something

Chris Matthews: So you wanna be president? (MUSIC) I'm Chris Matthews, Anchor of Hardball on MSNBC. We're talking about how candidates get the nomination. So many have tried. Few knew how to get it. And these are the lessons learned from campaigns that figured it out. Six episodes, six lessons, six things that separate winners from losers. Lesson two. Without fail, campaign politics force unscripted moments on candidates. How they respond can make or break their chances with voters. Voters want to see candidates who can show spontaneity, something beyond the talking points, that the lights are on and somebody's home. So you wanna be president? We're calling this episode See Something, Say Something. And our campaign lesson starts with a scene from this 1948 movie.

Matthews: State of the Union starred Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. He was presidential candidate Grant Matthews. She played his wife, Mary.

Katharine Hepburn: All in all, he's quite a man, Grant Matthews, a good father and a good husband.

Matthews: All this sounded great during a campaign radio broadcast to the nation. The problem, Grant Matthews campaign had gone sideways with corruption. He'd lost his way.

Hepburn: I see a man who is honest, uncompromising, fearless. A man of great vision and enormous courage. Above all, my Grant is--

Spencer Tracy: Mary, stop it, stop. What happened to you? What changed you? I thought you were going to stay honest.

Matthews: All hell breaks loose as Grant Matthews comes to his senses.

Tracy: Ladies and gentlemen, this is Grant Matthews. I'm sorry to interrupt, but I can't take any more of this.

Matthews: The next part of the movie is important. All the men in the room who brought corruption to the campaign do everything they can to stop the radio broadcast. (SHOUTS) Then this happens.

Tracy: Don't you shut me off. I'm paying for this broadcast.

Matthews: Grant Matthews bellows that famous line, and doesn't stop there.

Tracy: Those fearless patriots you heard supporting me on the air tonight, now they're hurt, now they're hollering, now they're trying to shut me up, and I don't blame 'em.

Archival Recording: You can't call me (UNINTEL) and get away with. Give me that microphone.

Tracy: There it is. Go on, take it, take it.

Matthews: The State of the Union movie of course is fiction. But this kind of unscripted response is what we're talking about for lesson two. And you'll hear echoes of this scene during a key moment in presidential campaign history.

Ronald Reagan: Good evening. I'm here tonight to announce my intention to seek the Republican nomination for president of the United States.

Matthews: Ronald Reagan announced his 1980 presidential campaign on television.

Reagan: I've seen America from the stadium press box as a sportscaster, as an actor, officer of my labor union, soldier, office holder, and as both Democrat and Republican.

Matthews: The veteran actor could deliver his lines well, but something more unscripted would soon give his campaign a boost. Here's the setup. It was early in the election. A large field was running for the nomination, and the front runner was in trouble.

Archival Recording: Ronald Reagan, expecting to win in Iowa lost. Now he expects to win the New Hampshire primary on February 26th, and since some thought he lost in Iowa because he didn't spend much time there, he now plans an extra four or five days of campaigning in New Hampshire.

Peggy Noonan: It was 1980. Reagan had shockingly just lost in Iowa. He was coming into New Hampshire. He had to win New Hampshire.He couldn't let George H.W. Bush beat him.

Matthews: Peggy Noonan has been inside Republican politics for a long time. She was a speechwriter and advisor to President Ronald Reagan. Today she's a columnist for the Wall Street Journal and contributor to NBC News.

Archival Recording: Iowa has given Bush the one thing his campaign in New Hampshire is said to be lacking. Recognition and credibility as a candidate. And today, the crowds by New Hampshire standards were good.

Archival Recording: Seven Republicans are running, but the heat is on this one. Until he lost Iowa, he said no to debating.

Noonan: There was a stage full of secondary characters, as George H.W. Bush had been until the week before, a secondary character. Everybody thought Reagan would dominate in Iowa. He didn't show, so New Hampshire meant everything.

Matthews: So you wanna be president? Pay attention to what comes next.


Matthews: Ahead of the New Hampshire primary, The Nashua Telegraph newspaper wanted to host a debate between Ronald Reagan and George Bush, the two frontrunners.

Reagan: I accepted the invitation for what was to be a two-man debate. But then it developed that the Federal Elections Commission said that the paper could not finance this debate, because that would be an illegal corporation contribution to the campaign. I then volunteered to pick up the tab from our campaign funds and pay for this debate. (APPLAUSE)

Matthews: The facts quickly got messy, just like the situation. It's the major ingredient for lesson two, chaos.

Archival Recording: In New Hampshire last night, George Bush and Ronald Reagan were supposed to argue the issues on stage at the Nashua High School gym, and Reagan invited the other Republican contenders to join in. And Bush said, "No." And they argued--

Noonan: It occurred to the Reagan folks, the Reagan campaign, that Reagan on a stage only with George H.W. Bush elevated George H.W. Bush, who two months before was an obscure character. Whereas Reagan was the rise of conservatism within the party, which was about to crest. It made Bush look good if he got to sit next to Ronald Reagan. But if there was six people on the stage, that was fine. Reagan was still the star, and the other five guys could fight among themselves. So it was strategy.

Jon Breen: If I may for just a brief moment, I would like to go through the format that will be observed this evening.

Matthews: Nashua Telegraph executive editor, Jon Breen, tried to take control of the situation.

Breen: If we may have the first question for Mr. Bush--

Matthews: So back and forth.

Reagan: You asked me if you could make an announcement first. And I asked you--

Matthews: Then came this moment of unscripted brilliance.

Breen: Will the sound man please turn Mr. Reagan's mic off?

Matthews: He asked the technicians to turn off Reagan's microphone. Imagine telling Ronald Reagan he can't talk (LAUGH) nationally anymore. And that's what he did. And what was it about Reagan's response that made it so memorable? Because that's when Reagan, let's listen.

Reagan: Mr. Breen.

Breen: Would you turn that microphone off, please?

Reagan: You asked me if you would-- I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Breen. (CHEERS)

Noonan: All right. Presence of mind.

Matthews: Yes.

Noonan: Presence of mind and remembering a particular line from an old movie, from the movie State of The Union. It must have just been there. I have never asked him. I never said, "Did you just remember that line?" But clearly, it came to the fore, and it was something that he remembered. He deployed it quite memorably. But I will tell you, I sort of differ with the prevailing theory of 30 years of magical moments.

What we just heard was a magical political moment. But mostly I think these moments are not what made the victory. These moments are how we explain the victory to ourselves after the victory happened. Ronald Reagan didn't win New Hampshire because he had a quick, appropriate presence of mind comment to shoot out to the crowd which loved it. Ronald Reagan won for other reasons. He was more in tune with New Hampshire Republicans, the Live Free or Die state.

Matthews: Sure.

Noonan: He was gonna win in New Hampshire. But after he won, when we had to explain ourselves, how we lost Iowa and won New Hampshire, we said, it was that moment where he said, "I paid for this microphone, Mr. Breen."

Matthews: Peggy, as I often do, we disagree.

Noonan: All right.

Matthews: Because I know a guy, it's actually a guy who disagrees with you. He said that Reagan won not just the debate, not just the primary, but won the nomination--

Noonan: Oh he did.

Matthews: --because of that.

Matthews: You know who said that? Ronald Reagan.

Noonan: Oh, he would not have said that.

Matthews: He did.

Noonan: He didn't think that was why he won.

Matthews: He, I've got it verbatim, Peggy. That's what he said.

Noonan: He said that to you?

Matthews: "I won the debate," he wrote it. "I won the debate, I won the primary--"

Noonan: He did win the debate.

Matthews: "--and I won the nomination because of that."

Noonan: Oh, if he traced his victory, maybe where things started to turn to that moment, fine. And you always if you're a candidate have to trace your nominating victory to New Hampshire. But my goodness, that isn't really why he won New Hampshire or the presidency. However, it was a lovely moment. (MUSIC)

Matthews: Spontaneity. Ronald Reagan's lights were on, and somebody was home. We're gonna break down examples of lesson two a lot more with Peggy, and Jon Allen, a senior political analyst here at NBC News.


Matthews: I love effective politicians, that's what I really want to talk about in this podcast, who really do have the gift for the moment.

Jon Allen: Well, I think it's worth noting that coming into that moment, you had this rise by Reagan going on in New Hampshire, because he'd made this big change from Iowa. And he'd said, "Look, I want to do what I did--"

Matthews: He was campaigning.

Voices: Yeah. (LAUGHTER)

Allen: He was campaigning. He said, "I'd like to do what I did last time, guys. Let's shake some hands, let's get on the ground." He was rising. He really cut into what was Bush's bounce outta Iowa. And so the moment was set up. What Peggy's saying is right. Like, eventually, it was gonna reveal itself that Reagan was the better candidate. And at the same time, that moment was crystallizing for Republican voters as to why Ronald Reagan was the guy.

Noonan: Crystallizing is a good word.

Matthews: Yeah, in fact, if we could go back to make your point, if Bush had tried it, it mighta worked, but it wouldn't have sounded right.

Noonan: Oh no. And also, you have to remember, to the crowd amassed that day at the debate, Reagan simply held the right democratic, small D, view, "Let everybody speak." And Bush let himself be maneuvered into the wrong view. "No, it's just me and Ronnie." Do you know what I mean? That was not gonna be popular. New Hampshirites are just gonna say, "Let everybody talk."

Matthews: Okay. Well, it goes on like this, 'cause there is thematic here. Let's cut ahead to another example I like. 1992, and it also involves George Herbert Walker Bush, the first President Bush. And he's also unfortunately for him on the wrong side of this particular event as well.

It's a town hall debate among George Herbert Walker Bush, Bill Clinton, the challenger, and Ross Perot, the third party candidate, who for whatever weird reason didn't like Bush anyway. And an audience member rises up. It was sort of an Oprah-style town meeting. Remember, they were sitting on stools rather uncomfortably, at least in the case of George Bush. This young African American woman comes up, and she asks a question of the candidates.

Archival Recording: We have a question right here.

Archival Recording: Yes. How has national debt personally affected each of your lives? And if it hasn't, how can you honestly find a cure for the economic problems of the common people, if you have no experience in what's ailing them?

Archival Recording: Okay. Mr. (UNINTEL), Mr. President?

George Herbert Walker Bush: Well, I think the national debt affects everybody, obviously. It has a lot to do with interest rates.

Archival Recording: She's saying you personally--

Archival Recording: I mean, you on a personal basis, how has it affected you?

Archival Recording: Has it affected you personally?

George H.W. Bush: Well, I'm sure it has. I love my grandchildren. I want to think that--

Archival Recording: How?

George H.W. Bush: I want to think that they're gonna be able to afford an education.

Matthews: And here's how the other candidate, Bill Clinton, responded to that young woman.

George H.W. Bush: Thank you, I'm glad you clarified--

Archival Recording: Governor Clinton.

Bill Clinton: Tell me how it's affected you, again? You know people who lost their jobs, lost their homes?

Archival Recording: Well, yeah. Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

Clinton: Well, I've been governor of a small state for 12 years. I'll tell ya how it's affected me. Every year Congress and the president sign laws that make us do more things and gives us less money to do it with. I see people in my state, middle class people, their taxes--

Matthews: You know, Jon, President George Herbert Walker is a good guy, but he couldn't loosen up enough to figure out what that young woman was talkin' about. She wasn't talkin' about the national debt or the deficit or anything like that. She's talkin' about the economic conditions that affected her family and her friends' lives. And immediately Bill Clinton translated it and said, "I'm gonna answer the question she was actually asking." I'm not gonna talk about the national debt. I'm not gonna educate her. I'm gonna answer her.

Allen: I mean, Bill Clinton's answer coulda won the Republican primary, coulda won the Democratic primary, coulda won the general election, did win the general election. And George H.W. Bush's answer, I mean, he woulda been better off saying that it affected him personally, the debt, because he raised taxes and it was gonna cost him the election. (LAUGH) I mean, he could not have sounded more out of touch if he tried.

And I think you're right. I think what he was trying to express was he cared, as if somebody had told him in the debate prep session, "Make sure if someone asks you a question about something that's hurt them, tell them that you care."

Matthews: You know, Bill Clinton coulda said, Peggy, I agree with the president that, young lady, you don't know anything about the national debt. It has nothing to do with each person individually. It's a macroeconomic reality. It's not a microeconomic. He coulda jumped on her. He coulda double teamed, but he said, "No, here's my opportunity."

Noonan: Oh, of course he did. Look. George H.W. Bush listened to the question about the national debt and took it literally, and tried to figure out in his mind, how could the national debt be impacting me and my family in a way that I can speak to you movingly? So he was literal. Bill Clinton took it imaginatively. He saw this young lady asking the question.

He divined through imagination exactly what she meant. She meant debt. She meant hard times. She meant, things are difficult. Unemployment is not good. You know, so let's talk about that, and that is exactly what he talked about, rolling out a familiar answer that he'd been using on the campaign trail. But because he was imaginative and Bush was literal, he looked, Clinton, engaged and sympathetic. And Bush looked detached and slightly daffy.

Matthews: And you can't see it in this podcast, but the president stayed on his stool. This is a very uncomfortable thing for a president to sit on the stool, for example. But Clinton, the game, (LAUGH) young guy, he hops off his stool and comes back way out in the audience like Oprah Winfrey herself--

Noonan: He's walkin' around.

Matthews: And basically connects physically with the young woman who's asking the question. Let's talk about physical--

Noonan: Because he was TV ready. George H.W. Bush was World War II generation. Clinton was TV ready. He knew how to dominate the stage, how to walk up to the questioner, how to high-five him. George H.W. Bush was radio era, World War II, young flier.

Matthews: I have to say something at this moment, 'cause I love Peggy Noonan. So I'm in the Superdome, right, down in Louisiana, 1988, one of my favorite conventions actually, 'cause I love New Orleans. So I'm listening to the speech about a man running for president, the nominee of the Republican Party, who talked about how I'm a man, I'm awkward sometimes, I have a hard time expressing my patriotism, but it's there.

George H.W. Bush: I am a quiet man, but I hear the quiet people others don't, the ones who raise the family, pay the taxes, meet the mortgage. And I hear them, and I am moved, and their concerns are mine.

Matthews: And I'm getting teary-eyed. That speech was unbelievable. I think that speech turned the election that time. Guess who wrote it? Somebody I know very close to me.

Noonan: You know, I always thought, he never worked so hard on any speech as he worked on that one.

Matthews: Yeah.

Noonan: It was as we worked on it, there's two things about the speech. One is what you mention. He tried to explain that he's not so easy with words and with a persona, and with the show biz aspects of politics, which you have to be. He knew that wasn't his strong point.

Second, although Chris I will tell you there is a definition of conservatism, his definition of conservatism that is in that speech. It's a very long paragraph. Man, that was him, and that was the moment. That was, meaning counts. We all think show biz counts. It doesn't. Meaning trumps show biz in politics.

Allen: My father covered a lotta politicians as a reporter--

Matthews: This is UPI.

Allen: For UPI, covered Congress, covered several presidents. And George H.W. Bush is the only politician I ever heard him speak of in terms of decency and reverence with no "but" at the end.

Matthews: Nice to hear. Let's talk about, let's lighten this thing up, because we're very sentimental, all of us I think.

Noonan: Oh, why not?

Matthews: I am, and you are of course. Let's talk about a funny moment, 'cause I thought it was rapturous. This is when during the 2000 debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush, the son, the second President Bush. And Al Gore decided to get clever, gimmicky, so he walked up. This is the third debate.

He walked up in the space, (AUDIO PLAYING) as men say, get outta my space, right out a foot from the guy, and challenged him with this kinda awkward reference to some bill that he knew about that he thought Bush wouldn't know about, Dingell-Norwood. He might has well have said, (LAUGH) Dingleberry, 'cause it didn't mean anything to anybody watching on television. At which point, very spontaneously, George, who did have a gift for this, young George.

George W. Bush: It's not only what's your philosophy and what's your position on issues, but can you get things done? (LAUGHTER) And I believe I can.

Matthews: He just looked up and down, from his shoes up to his head, like what an asshole you are. I'm sorry, what a strange, awkward person you are, to walk up to me like that, as if you're gonna win the argument. I think Bush's putdown, and it's just his eye contact, won that night and won it all--

Noonan: Absolutely. Well, it mattered. That was, you remember with George W. Bush, he once said I think in his second acceptance speech was very funny. And he said, "You know, people say I strut, which in Texas, we called walking." He showed a little of it that night with Gore, when Gore was trying, I believe in a creepily manipulative way to creep up on Bush. And Bush didn't know, and suddenly he turns. And like Al Gore's going "Ooh" on his neck (LAUGH) almost. It was just so creepy. And Bush looks at him like a Texan, like up and down. You know, like, I'll smack your little face. It mattered.

Matthews: I love it. Thank you, Peggy. We share that moment. (LAUGH) I thought it was one of those moments maybe like the Fala speech from the 1940s, one of those moments in political history, where one guy shows the other guy's not quite up to it.

Allen: Yeah. I think George Bush, one of the things he had going for him, and I think a lot of our presidents have had this going for them, is the ability to cast themselves as kinda cool and the other person as not cool. And it does tell voters something about them, which is their ability to deal one on one. Their ability to keep their calm, to not choke. Here's Al Gore getting into your physical space. You're not spooked by it. You're just lookin' at him like he's a weirdo.

Matthews: The first time I met Ronald Reagan, I was in the speaker's office. He was giving a State of the Union. And he was just relaxing in the green room, which was the speaker's ceremonial office. And I went in to see him, and I said, "Mr. President, welcome to the room where we plot against you."

And he goes, "Oh no, not after 6:00. The speaker says we're all friends in this town after 6:00." And I thought that's how you do it. You just do it. You just relax. The other guy, you share the moment, you have some fun. There's no stakes. You might as well be a good guy, and we'll move on from there.

Noonan: You be in the moment, you roll with the moment, you have good cheer. You know, one of the parts of politics that we forget about is the daily necessity of a candidate to against the odds maintain and project good cheer and equanimity, and a little humor if you can.

Matthews: 'Cause you have to keep us all up.

Noonan: You have to show that you are on an even keel. You're well-balanced. You get the joke. You're good-natured. We may give you the nuclear code some day if you win. You better be showing you're a well-balanced human being--

Matthews: Let's talk about a guy who didn't quite make that standard. The 2004 election with Howard Dean running. He'd just lost the Iowa caucuses, and he spoke to his fans out there trying to rally them to win the next one in New Hampshire. Let's see what he did.

Howard Dean: You know something? If you had told us one year ago that we were gonna come in third in Iowa, we woulda given anything for that. (CHEERS) And you know something? Not only are we going to New Hampshire, Tom Harkin, we're going to South Carolina and Oklahoma and Arizona and North Dakota and New Mexico. We're going to California and Texas and New York. And we're going to South Dakota and Oregon and Washington and Michigan. And then we're going to Washington, D.C. to take back the White House. Aaaaaah.

Matthews: Give that guy the nuclear codes.

Matthews: What did you think, Jon?

Allen: Well, I think everybody pictured in their mind Dr. Strangelove, like, the poster from that with the, you know, cowboy riding on a nuclear missile. (LAUGH)

Noonan: You know, it did have the same yee-haw sound. (LAUGH)

Matthews: Yeah.

Noonan: You know, I think part--

Matthews: Slim Pickens.

Noonan: Slim Pickens, that's right. I think part of what happened that night to Howard Dean, for whom things had been going very well, is that candidates are surrounded by aides and staffers who consider themselves to be very clever. I am certain, though I have not asked, that an aide or staffer said to Governor Dean, the youngs love you, and you gotta show the youngs your fire.

You gotta go out there and be fiery. You gotta show you're energetic and on fire. Go do it. And the candidate gets this advice before going on, and then he tries to translate for himself, what does that mean? And then he gets up and he goes, yee-haw. (LAUGH) You know?

Matthews: Yeah.

Noonan: It's just one of those things.

Matthews: And he didn't know it's one of those microphones that are called a direct mic which doesn't pick up all the other sound around him. So he's in a loud room screamin' to keep up with the sound in the room. It turns out his was the only voice (LAUGH) that got on the air that night, so he sounded crazy.

Allen: I mean, he sounded like a geography teacher with a substance abuse problem. (LAUGHTER)

Matthews: Let's talk about the last one, which is another tribute to George W. Bush, because it's about spontaneity. And we all went through 9/11. And what we wanted is a sense that we can get through this. We wanted some hope. And here's a guy that went down to 9/11, the president of the United States that Friday, right after. And he went into that horrible site of what's left of these buildings.

And it's a dangerous time. It's a dangerous place to be. Chemical hell's gettin' released down there, and there're poisons in the air. And he puts his arm around a good-lookin' firefighter who's got a big hat on, a big firefighter's hat on. And he says something that was to me unforgettable.

George W. Bush: I want you all to know (WHISTLE) that America today--

Archival Recording: Go back, go back.

George W. Bush: America today is on bended knee in prayer for the people whose lives were lost here, for the workers who work here, for the families who mourn. This nation stands with the good people of New York City and New Jersey and Connecticut, as we mourn the loss of thousands of our citizens.

Archival Recording: George, we can't hear ya.

George W. Bush: I can hear you. (CHEERS) I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people-- (CHEERS) who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon. (CHANTS U.S.A.) The nation shares its love and compassion--

Archival Recording: God bless America.

George W. Bush: --with everybody who's here. Thank you for your hard work. Thank you for makin' the nation proud. And may God bless America. (CHEERS)

Matthews: Peggy, one of the great moments. Somebody yells to him from the back of the crowd, "I can't hear ya." And in that split second, he said it. "We're comin' back."

Noonan: You could also, you know, in the chants of U.S.A., I mean, that was a pumped crowd, meaning that was a crowd of suffering people who were for the first time seeing the leader of the country that had been so wounded. And when they broke into U.S.A., man, it just chokes you up. It was the first sound of New York sayin', we're comin' back. It was a perfect interplay between Bush, I think who was holding a bullhorn.

Matthews: Yeah.

Noonan: And a crowd of good guys, tough guys. He had his arm around the fireman who you mentioned sort of leaning on him as he spoke, or leaning against him. There's something else that's kinda funny. I'm not sure what words to form this thought with, but observing politics for a long time, and observing politicians and people operating within history, there's something important about being a leader and not being too sensitive. You're sensitive to the moment, to what is needed, but you are not too sensitive to the tragedy around you. You never let it leave you undone. You never let it make you quake. You never let it overwhelm you. It's very important not to be too sensitive. And he was not too sensitive.

Matthews: Yeah, because this is what I think, without getting into the politics of who's right, who's wrong in this podcast, but I think we all know that this coming presidential election's gonna call for a lot of this talent, this soul, if you will. To be able to be in the moment. This is gonna be a very rocky campaign through the primaries into the general. This is not gonna be pleasant. It's gonna call on people's fiber. Thank you.

Allen: Thanks, Chris.

Noonan: Thank you, Chris.

Matthews: Many thanks to Peggy Noonan and Jon Allen for joining me. Peggy was once a commentary writer for Dan Rather at CBS News. She went on to write speeches and advise presidents, starting with Ronald Reagan. Today, she writes a Saturday column for the Wall Street Journal, and is a contributor to NBC News.

Jon Allen is a senior political analyst here at NBC News. He's also coauthor of the New York Times bestseller Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton's Doomed Campaign. So you wanna be president? We're making our way through the lessons that will get you closer to the nomination. Next time, lesson three, the walls have ears. It's something that sounds so simple, but candidates still get it wrong. The country is always listening.

Archival Recording: You know, I think an overheard comment is more powerful than a scripted comment, because the people who are listening, the voters who here about them think, "This is when the candidate is saying what he or she actually thinks."

Matthews: I'm Chris Matthews, host of Hardball on MSNBC. See you next time, and thanks so much for listening. (MUSIC FADES)