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Transcript: The Walls Have Ears

The full episode transcript for Article II: Inside Impeachment, The Walls Have Ears.
Image: Gary Hart
Gary Hart quiets applause from supporters during a news conference announcing his withdrawal from the Democratic presidential race, in Denver on May 8. 1987.Jack Smith / AP Photo


So You Wanna Be President? with Chris Matthews

The Walls Have Ears

Chris Matthews: So you want to be president?

Mitt Romney: Mr. Chairman--

Barack Obama: Madam Chairwoman--

Romney: --and delegates--

Obama: --delegates--

Romney: --I accept your nomination for president of the United States--

Obama: --I accept your nomination for president of the United States.

Matthews: We've come to Lesson Three: The Walls Have Ears. Michael Beschloss is presidential historian for NBC News and author of a ton of books, including his newest, Presidents of War. Welcome, Michael.

Michael Beschloss: Thank you, Chris.

Matthews: Susan Page is Washington bureau chief for USA Today. She has covered six presidencies. She wrote the book The Matriarch: Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty. Susan, thanks for being part of this.

Susan Page: Hey, great to be with you, Chris.

Matthews: So we're talking about lessons learned from presidential campaigns that win. One of them plays out time and time again for presidential candidates. And it's this: The country is always listening. Put another way, don't say anything to one group you don't want everyone, every voter certainly, to hear. (MUSIC)

Beschloss: Even these most practiced people who know absolutely that the country and the world are always listening, sometimes they say things that are very much off message and wind up really hurting them.

Matthews: Susan, what do you think? Why do they get in this trouble of forgetting that there's mics on, that there's a larger world out there and there are people listening who may not be their best friends?

Page: You know, I think an overheard comment is more powerful than a scripted comment because the people who are listening, the voters who hear about them think, "This is when the candidate is saying what he or she actually thinks, what's in their heart, not what they've been told to say." And I think they tend to get traction when they are consistent with questions that voters already have, when they illustrate some question that voters have about what this person actually believes and how he or she would behave in office.

Matthews: So people would say, "Yeah, I knew that was her. I knew it was him."

Page: "I suspected that's what he felt."

Matthews: Here we go, lesson three.

Matthews: "The walls have ears." That's actually something Tip O'Neill used to say all the time in the backroom in the Capitol. When you're in any room, however, assume that you're in a room with the whole country and they're all listening. Our first example comes during the presidential race of 1984.

Gary Hart: I'm glad you're all here because I have an announcement that I want to share with you. I am a candidate for the presidency of the United States in 1984. (APPLAUSE)

Matthews: When Gary Hart announced his campaign, he was in his second term as Colorado senator. Did people see him then as a winner in national politics? Well, the field in 1984 was hard. Fritz Mondale, Jesse Jackson, John Glenn, even George McGovern, and others.

Hart: We now face in this country a stark choice.

Matthews: How was Hart different? How was Gary Hart different?

Page: Well, he was young, fresh. He was a fresh face. He said he had new ideas. He portrayed himself as kind of the John Kennedy of his generation. And he portrayed himself as the alternative to Walter Mondale, who was very well established as the Democratic establishment contender.

Matthews: Michael?

Beschloss: And he was in a position to make the argument (he didn't use exactly this language) that Mondale was sort of the routine party hack and he should be the candidate of the younger progressive activists that tend to dominate Democratic primaries.

Matthews: Yeah, he also seemed to be the outdoor candidate. He always had that woodsman shirt on. You know, he--

Beschloss: Environmental.

Matthews: And he threw the axe one time, and it hit right into the tree. It seemed to be magical. And Mondale was such an indoor political type. You know, the officious. Even Fritz once said, "I know I'm sometimes too officious, (LAUGHTER) too much a guy in office." Well, anyway, Hart tried to make it a two-man race with Mondale. Here he is coming in second in Iowa.

Hart: The Vice President, of course, went into that state with substantial advantages, and I think he made the best use of those advantages. The campaign now moves on to New Hampshire, where we're looking forward to another giant step in narrowing the race down. I believed all along this would become a contest between former Vice President Mondale and myself. I think that sets up a contrast and a choice for our party and eventually for the country between this nation's future and its past.

Matthews: I think, Michael, they call that the slingshot. That's when you come in second in Iowa but you're the second and they don't really like the guy who came in first.

Beschloss: No, that's exactly right. And he was putting himself in the position to be the chief opponent to Walter Mondale, which is something that had not been foreseen, you know, very long earlier. You know, John Glenn, this international celebrity astronaut hero, was on the cover of national magazines and thought of as maybe the more likely challenger to Mondale. And Hart essentially is saying, "No, it's gonna be me."

Page: It's a wonderful example of spin, too. Because if you remember, Walter Mondale got 49% of the vote in Iowa against a really crowded field. You would ordinarily think that would be just an overwhelming victory. Hart got 17%. And yet he managed to portray himself as Mondale's virtual equal as they headed into New Hampshire. And it was good for him because Hart had a particularly good organization in New Hampshire. He had really focused on New Hampshire as the state where he could show his stuff.

Matthews: And he was sort of the guy leftover from the McGovern campaign because he had been his campaign manager. He hung out with Warren Beatty. He was glamorous.

Beschloss: Right.

Matthews: He was the young guy. And I guess the press liked that look 'cause they went with the spin.

Page: They went with the spin. And of course we like a two-person race in the press because it's complicated to cover a seven-person race. And we like the idea of, "Here's this guy, Mondale, who did really well, but there's gonna be a contest anyway."

Matthews: So he wins New Hampshire. He's on a roll. He's at a fundraiser with his wife, Lee, out in Los Angeles in a neighborhood out there with a pretty smart crowd I assume. During the event he told supporters, and I'm reading here from the New York Times, "The deal is that we campaign separately. That's the bad news. The good news for her is she campaigns in California and I campaign in New Jersey." (LAUGH)

It gets better. Lee Hart was heard saying, "I got to hold a koala bear." And Senator Hart responded, "I won't tell you what I had to hold. Samples from a toxic waste dump." Not the best choice of words, Susan, about a state that has some problems with that issue.

Page: Well, you know, people from New Jersey do not like the idea. They see themselves as the Garden State. (LAUGH) You know, some other people don't see 'em that way. It also made Hart sound so elitist, so arrogant, so coastal. And that did not sit well, I think, with people in New Jersey and also people elsewhere who thought politicians when they're not talking to them from the stump are probably making fun of them behind their backs.

Beschloss: And it's also the flip side of what you were saying, Chris, about him being so glamorous. A lotta people think that glamorous people look down on them. And he seemed to be doing that. And the amazing thing is that Hart, and just as you're saying, had been George McGovern's campaign manager. He was young, but he'd been in politics for a long time. For him to concentrate on impressing that room of upscale donors in California rather than realizing that the walls do have ears.

Matthews: Yeah. And I think he was trying too hard to be elite and to be aesthetic. And I think my dad heard it very clearly the way you mentioned, Susan. He was living in New Jersey, his retirement state. He chose it. And he said, "I don't like what he said about my state." This is personal with these guys.

Anyway, Walter Mondale, who was still competing with him and possibly going to beat him (in fact, eventually did), has this great quote, again in the New York Times: "The good news is that Gary Hart is coming back to New Jersey (LAUGH) 'cause the primary in New Jersey's coming up. The bad news for Gary Hart is that the people of New Jersey are going to vote on June 5th." So he stuck it in. How did Fritz Mondale capitalize on Hart's mistake, Susan?

Page: Well, he made fun of him for it. And, you know, having a light touch, that can be the toughest blow of all. Not to come on and frontally saying, "How dare you say this about the people of New Jersey," but just to needle him about it and to make clear that he, Walter Mondale, really liked New Jersey and appreciated its many attributes.

Matthews: Michael, because guess what happened? New Jersey went for Mondale.

Beschloss: Went for Mondale. And Hart had had a chance to put himself on a trajectory that could have made this a very competitive convention. He could've won that nomination. To this day, a lot of Walter Mondale people say that basically Hart won that primary race and lost it perhaps in New Jersey.

Page: You know, the New Jersey primary was late in the day. It was in June. It was almost the end of the calendar. And Mondale won New Jersey but he was still just a little bit short of numerically clinching the nomination. And you know what super delegate put him over the top?

Matthews: No.

Page: Frank Lautenberg--

Matthews: Wow.

Page: --who just happened to be the senator from, yes, New Jersey. (LAUGH)

Matthews: Anyway, what did that moment in Bel Air out in California where he had that lovely fundraiser, what did it do to the rest of the campaign? Did it put a mark on him?

Beschloss: One comment meant that Gary Hart that summer was a loser rather than a winner I think it's not too much to say.

Page: But I think it's also important to note that if he had been seen as somebody who really connected with blue collar voters, it wouldn't have resonated the way it did. It resonated because this is what a lot of blue collar voters suspected Gary Hart was saying about them when he was in Bel Air.

Matthews: And it's, again, I think a case of somebody trying to be somebody and then convincing people they are that person when they're not that person. Gary Hart was a guy who grew up sort of right out of a Theodore Dreiser, you know, American tragedy. He grew up with very super religious family. His name was Hartpence. He changed it. He changed his date of birth to seem younger and more Kennedy-esque. He tried to be this swell. And he wasn't at all. And yet that's what trapped him. Isn't it something?

Beschloss: Made him seem counterfeit in a way that he may or may not have been. (MUSIC)

Matthews: Well, you get blamed by both sides. The little people don't like you, and the big people don't believe in you.

Beschloss: Right.

Matthews: It gets tricky up there in the middle reaches. (LAUGH)

Matthews: When you're in any room, assume that you're in a room with the whole country. Here's our next example, during the 2008 campaign.

Obama: Our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there's no evidence of that in their daily lives.

Matthews: That's Illinois Senator Barack Obama running for president, 2008. It's hard to hear. He's at a fundraiser. He didn't know he was being taped. He's in San Francisco in front of a very wealthy group. And he was asked about the economy. And his response this way, originally reported by the Huffington Post.

Obama: You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest--

Matthews: "You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years."

Obama: They've gone through the Clinton administration and the Bush administration. And--

Matthews: And then he continues with this description of people, the actual people in these small towns.

Obama: So it's not surprising then that they get bitter and they cling to guns, or religion, or antipathy toward people who aren't like them.

Matthews: "It's not surprising then they get bitter," he said. "They cling to guns, or religion, or antipathy toward people who aren't like them," to explain their frustrations.

Beschloss: A way to explain their frustrations.

Matthews: Susan, this was a big problem for him. It made him look like what?

Page: You know, it made him look like an elitist who was coolly analyzing Americans without actually connecting, without actually feeling their pain. And, you know, used the full clip. Only six words of that clip mattered: "They cling to guns or religion." And that just became emblematic.

For people who thought Obama was not really one of them, that he didn't understand Americans' allegiance to guns in some parts of the country or the importance of their faith, it just convinced them that they were right, that he wasn't like them.

Matthews: Michael, he stood by those remarks, incredibly. He didn't think he was being taped. In fact, if you look at the video of the tape, it looks like somebody had it almost under the table. They were shooting up the aisle. No way he could have known about it.

Beschloss: But he should have assumed that everything he says in every venue would be heard by every single American and everyone around the world. And when he said those things, it sounded as if he was looking down on people.

Matthews: And he's talking to people we all know in Pennsylvania in the tea, it's called. It's rural Pennsylvania. It's very religious. It's very pro-gun. Anybody who saw Deer Hunter knows all about it. They believe in deer season, and they certainly don't think of religion as something to cling to.

Page: As James Carville famously said, "Pennsylvania is Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, and Alabama in between." (LAUGH)

Matthews: And they believe in being Alabamians. They are very conservative on cultural issues. You don't make fun of them. He initially stuck by his comments. Then he finally apologized. What's the right approach, Susan?

Page: It's like your mother told you. Apologize, say you won't do it again, make amends. That's what politicians ought to do when they find themselves in a situation like this. Instead, for a while, Barack Obama continued to dig the hole a little deeper.

Matthews: Yeah. Michael, he did have to run in states which are always important, as we've learned in recent years. Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio. What's called, you shouldn't call it anymore, the Rust Belt.

Beschloss: That was clear in 2008. It was even more clear in 2016.

Page: You know, I think he in a way laid some groundwork, or maybe he was previewing, the trends that would lead to the success of Donald Trump eight years later in that these are the kind of voters that felt increasingly marginalized by Obama, certainly by Hillary. They felt that Donald Trump was speaking for them in a way that was respectful, that didn't say they were clinging to guns and religion.

Matthews: Obama, what might be one of the smartest presidents we've had, certainly was the most politically skilled in terms of rhetoric, do you think he learned?

Page: You know, I think he learned that was an inept thing to say out loud, but I don't think he thought he was wrong. And I think for the rest of his presidency he would probably kinda stick to the analysis that he made there. And in fact, when Hillary Clinton was running for president, he made some similar comments. Not using the words, "They cling to guns and to religion," but the point that it was the failure to address the concerns in their life that had led them to be so disconnected.

Matthews: Yeah. And bad times lead to that alienation.

Beschloss: Right. And, remember, he was saying this even before the Great Recession of 2008.

Matthews: Well, let's go to our next lesson of Lesson Three: The Walls Have Ears. This one comes from a fundraiser in San Francisco, another one. And the candidate here is Mitt Romney in 2012 when he ran for president. Here he goes.

Romney: There are 47% of the people who will vote for the president no matter what.

Matthews: Well, these words of Mitt Romney were originally published by Mother Jones. In the video, Mitt Romney said, "There are 47% of the people who will vote for President Obama no matter what."

Romney: There are 47% who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled.

Matthews: "47% are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe they are victims, who believe they are entitled," I love that word, "to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it."

Romney: The president starts off with 48, 49--

Matthews: "And these are the people who pay no income tax." Michael, pretty explosive stuff. And, by the way, to his credit Romney after the campaign said, "I said that. I can't blame that on anybody else."

Beschloss: He owned up to it. But this was a candidate whose net worth was and is above $200 million, who was running in a fall campaign hoping that many people would see him as more centrist than perhaps he actually was. And so by saying this, this looked like this is someone who is inside himself an elitist person who doesn't feel that government should help as many people as possible.

Matthews: Again, back to your thought about what they really think. He didn't think he was giving a State of the Union address. (LAUGH)

Page: You know, there's a temptation always to speak to the audience that's right in front of you and not to think about what it would sound to a larger audience. But presidential candidates have to do that. Now, I'm not sure Mitt Romney was ever gonna be a big candidate of the people. But it is hard to win the White House if you have explicitly and out loud written off 47% of the American people.

Matthews: He basically said that Democrats are all loafers, freeloaders, livin' off the government, you know, welfare, whatever, beneficiaries that only vote 'cause that's who's payin' for their dinner, right? (LAUGH)

Beschloss: He did say that--

Matthews: They're all bought. He basically said they're not only poor but they're bought.

Beschloss: He did essentially say that. And that was the reason it was so damaging. There are some people today who think that if he had not said this there would have been a chance that he might have been elected president in 2012.

Matthews: So all the wearing the poplin jacket and everything you do to try to seem regular, you know?

Page: You know, you are who you are. And it's like your point about Gary Hart. Gary Hart might have had a better chance of being president if he had portrayed himself as a kid who grew up poor in Kansas.

Matthews: You know, I asked when he was riding high in Iowa, he was out there with the poplin jacket on. He's a good-lookin' guy, and he's out there signing autographs on these big posters and having the time of his life. You know, the idiot kind of stuff you do in politics that's fun.

And I walked up to him with a camera right next to him, 'cause I knew he was a mission head in France. I said, "Can you say, 'Let them eat cake,' in French?" (MUSIC) And he's so funny. He leaned up to me, he leaned over, and he goes, "I can, but I won't." (LAUGHTER) That guy coulda won.

Beschloss: Right.

Matthews: Because that is the real guy anyway.

Matthews: So what's the pattern here? How do these decisions by candidates shape campaigns time and time again? How do they sink candidates? Michael?

Beschloss: Well, I think as time goes on, these campaigns get more and more scripted and people are more and more aware of the fact that one ill-chosen sentence can sink your whole campaign. That the result is that the public is just hungry for something that sounds genuine that's gonna give you an idea of who this person is.

Page: You know, I also think that when you're running for president, people are not only looking at your policy positions. They don't only care about what is precisely your plan for health care for America. They also care about who you are as a person. In a way, it's a more personal vote than a vote for a member of Congress or for the city council is. They want to feel like, "This is someone who will have me in mind when he or she is facing the biggest decisions in the White House." And that's why I think these moments may matter more than they would for other kind of campaigns.

Matthews: Well, let's look backward now at something that happened in the early part of January this year. And that is a conversation which was said to have occurred between Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Neighbors you might say and political, you know, buddies basically.

They're both on the Democratic left, both progressives. And they apparently had a conversation which somehow, and I do think Elizabeth Warren was trying to tell the truth. She got from the idea in that backroom meeting with Bernie Sanders that he was saying, "You ain't gonna win 'cause you're a woman. Trump's gonna kill you."

And she walked out and told that to some friends apparently. And that got out into the press. And then she backed it up and said, "Okay, that's what I believe. And I'm glad we're talking about gender." Now, we had the tiff in that debate, right? Pretty much near to the Iowa caucuses. I don't think they intended to have that out, but it's out.

Page: I think Elizabeth Warren folks intended to put that out. I think they leaked it. But what I don't think they intended to have everyone hear was her confrontation after the debate was over--

Matthews: Off-mic.

Page: --in Iowa where she went up to him, to Sanders, refused to shake his hand, and said, "You just accused me of being a liar on national TV."

Elizabeth Warren: I think you called me a liar on national TV.

Bernie Sanders: What?

Warren: I think you called me a liar on national TV--

Sanders: No. Let's not do it right now. You want to have that discussion, we'll have that discussion. You told me-- all right. Let's not do it now.

Tom Steyer: I don't want to get in the middle of it. I just want to say hi, Bernie.

Sanders: Yeah, good.

Page: And if you want to parse that exchange, I think it indicates, it's evidence that she is telling the truth about that--

Matthews: And he said--

Page: --2018 conversation.

Matthews: He came back in a retort, but it was reactive. "Oh, you're saying the same thing about me. You're lying." But then he didn't want to talk about it. And that, well, you make your assess. Anyway, that was the part that I wanted to get to 'cause it is the walls have ears. Nobody knew there was a second mic. The mics were turned off for the national broadcast.

They had every reason to believe nobody else would heard that conversation except Tom Steyer, the other candidate. He was standing there kind of goofily. I think he was just standing like, "What are you doing here? Why are you here? Three's a crowd." But it was raw.

Beschloss: It was raw, and it was at the end of a long debate in which people said things in that debate that were very careful and in most cases scripted. So once again, just as you'd been saying, Chris, here's a case where people felt that they were hearing an inner reality that they hadn't been hearing before.

Matthews: The mic's always on. That's what we hear in our business. The mic's always on.

Page: You know, I wonder though if Donald Trump has, with so many things, turned it on its head. Because we repeatedly hear things that he says in private that seem outrageous and extraordinary. And he makes it part of his brand. It makes it part of his willingness to stand up to the elites and to refuse to be politically correct. So I wonder if this is yet another case where Donald Trump has changed the rules.

Matthews: Let's leave it at that. He's not finished yet. He's running for reelection. There may be something, Michael, he does say that brings him down.

Beschloss: We will see.

Matthews: Susan Page, it's great working with you, as always. You're one of the superstars. All the front pages of USA Today, the writing to this woman here. (MUSIC) Anyway, thank you. Michael Beschloss, love your books. You know so much more than you have in your books even. (LAUGHTER)

Beschloss: I wish that were true. Thank you, Chris.

Matthews: Thanks for being with us. So You Wanna Be President? These are the lessons learned from campaigns that win. Six episodes, six timeless things that separate winners from losers. Next time, lesson four. Play from the back. Know how to turn a loss into a win.

Archival Recording: That's what a great politician does. They change the narrative to what they want it to be.

Matthews: So You Wanna Be President? I'm Chris Matthews, host of Hardball on MSNBC. Thanks for listening. (MUSIC)