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updated 8/23/2010 11:01:21 AM ET 2010-08-23T15:01:21

Guest Host: Michael Smerconish

Guests: Andrea Mitchell, David Gregory, Joe Watkins, Jonathan Martin, Perry Bacon, Rev. Michel Faulkner, Jon Krakauer

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, GUEST HOST:  Peace for our time?

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Michael Smerconish in New York, in for Chris Matthews.  Leading off tonight: Back on track.  Israel and the Palestinians have agreed to restart Mideast peace talks.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the breakthrough today.  And just getting both sides to the table is a victory for the Obama administration.  But what can they reasonably hope to accomplish?  That‘s where we‘ll begin tonight.

Then, President Obama promised to end the Baby Boomer era culture wars, but as president, he‘s sparked a much larger debate about what kind of country we want to live in and what it means to be an American.  We‘ll talk about what that could mean for this year‘s mid-terms.

And Sarah Palin‘s defense of radio host “Dr. Laura” has gotten her in some trouble.  Dr. Laura repeatedly used the “N” word on the air, and now some prominent African-American conservatives are blasting Palin for coming to her aid.

And the questions surrounding the death of pro football start turned Army Ranger Pat Tillman—they‘re getting louder.  Tillman was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan six years ago, but his own parents still don‘t know what really happened.  John Krakauer, who wrote a book about Tillman, joins us later in the hour.

And finally, I‘ll have some personal thoughts about immigration and how America owes its greatness to those who came to this country the right way and for the right reasons.

Let‘s begin with the restart of the Mideast peace talks.  Andrea Mitchell is NBC‘s chief foreign affairs correspondent and the host of “ANDREA MITCHELL REPORTS” on MSNBC.  David Gregory is the moderator of NBC‘s “MEET THE PRESS.”  And I have got the A-team for HARDBALL.

Andrea, let me start with you, if I may, because I‘ve been waiting to ask you this question.  Is it a coincidence that the start of these talks is announced at the exact same time that there‘s this assessment by the Obama administration that an Iranian threat to Israel is not imminent?  You know that so much has been read and—said and written recently on that subject.

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Everything is related, especially in the Middle East, and it is not an accident.  But I think the most important thing is the upcoming U.N. annual—the U.N. General Assembly annual meeting, the fact that the president will be there, that President Ahmadinejad from Iran will be there.  And it again would be a moment for people to say that nothing has been accomplished on the Middle East.  It‘s been almost two years since direct talks.  The president has not been to Israel.  And this is a way to try to show that they are energizing.  This has been what George Mitchell has been inching along towards, bit by bit.

But what‘s very important is what was not said in today‘s announcement.  There was no explicit acknowledgment of the fact that Israel‘s freeze on settlements will expire on September 26th, and the fact that the Palestinians are coming back to the table without any agreement on an extension of that is interesting.  It‘s significant.  But no one has really addressed that.  And that is sort of the elephant in the middle of the room.

SMERCONISH:  David, here‘s Secretary Clinton earlier today.  Let‘s all listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: There have been difficulties in the past.  There will be difficulties ahead.  Without a doubt, we will hit more obstacles.  The enemies of peace will keep trying to defeat us and to derail these talks, but I ask the parties to persevere, to keep moving forward even through difficult times, and to continue working to achieve a just and lasting peace in the region.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH:  David Gregory, why might it be different this time?

DAVID GREGORY, MODERATOR, “MEET THE PRESS”:  Well, you know, I don‘t know that it is.  I mean, I think, you know, talking is always better than not talking.  I remember being told at the time of the Camp David summit that President Clinton said to his aid, Sandy Berger, you know, We‘re going to—you know, we‘re going to try to fix this thing or get caught trying.  And I think now the Obama administration is going to join its predecessors to try to get caught trying to bring peace to the Middle East.

But let‘s remember just how things—how bad things have been, that we‘re celebrating a moment when there‘s direct talks again.  So now we‘re just sort of getting back to a place where the Israelis and the Palestinians were a couple of years ago, where they would actually sit down and discuss some issues together.

I think Andrea‘s point is important about what was not said today.  A lot of the pressure that President Obama put on the Israelis has now been lifted at a time when there‘s been more of an embrace by this administration of the Netanyahu government.  And that‘s a real head-snapping change from where they were several months ago on the issues of freezes and even in the issue of Iran.

So there‘s even been questions, I think, within the administration about exactly where are they settling here in terms of pressuring Israel.  Now you have a movement towards some more talks, but again, a noticeable lack of that pressure that they had applied before.

SMERCONISH:  Is Mahmoud Abbas in a position where he can negotiate?  I want to play a short clip of an interview that I did with Israeli ambassador Michael Oren earlier this week on this subject.  Listen to what he had to say.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

MICHAEL OREN, ISRAELI AMBASSADOR TO THE U.S.:  Keep in mind, he doesn‘t control his entire Palestinian constituency.  Half of it is under the rule of Hamas.  There‘s a great amount of Hamas support also in the West Bank under the Palestinian authority.

SMERCONISH:  It seems like so many observers say, ultimately, if we reach a day when the lines get drawn, we kind of know what they will be.  So why can‘t we get to it sooner or later?

OREN:  Again, it‘s a question you‘re going to have to address to the Palestinian president.  Listen, they—the Palestinians have been offered a state twice, in 2000, when Ehud Barack was prime minister, and again in 2008, when Ehud Olmert was president—was prime minister.  And both times, Palestinian leaders turned it down.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

SMERCONISH:  Andrea Mitchell, how does he speak for Hamas?

MITCHELL:  Well, he can‘t speak for Hamas.  The whole point, I think, is to try to marginalize Hamas and to build up Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, because most American leaders, most diplomats, believe that he is really the best Palestinian leader.  He and Fayad (ph), his associate, somewhat rival, but associate there in the Palestinian authority, are the best that they‘re going to get.

So this is the opportunity when Hamas and the situation in Gaza is somewhat tamped down, at least temporarily, that they can perhaps try to have him negotiate.

And what they have to see—what he needs to bring home is more contiguous access, is more—more hope for Palestinians on the West Bank that they will be able to move.  When I was there most recently just in June, during the height of the trouble over the flotilla, the attack on the flotilla, the fact is that Palestinians still have so many closures.  They can‘t get ground (ph) from one place to another.  They can‘t get to their jobs.  And that is the continuing frustration that is building, that Mahmoud Abbas has not been able to show them anything for all of these efforts.

SMERCONISH:  David Gregory, who plays the role of key facilitator in all of this?  Is it George Mitchell?  Is it Tony Blair?  Is it Secretary Clinton?

GREGORY:  Well, I think—you know, you heard Secretary Clinton say today that there may be a time when there are bridge proposals that the United States offers.  In other words, the Obama administration, starting in September, when they invite the parties to talk, will play a role to try to push this along.

But the point that Andrea just addressed and which Ambassador Oren addressed in the cut that you played from your radio program today is very important.  On one side, you‘ve got a Palestinian civil war, where Hamas controls Gaza and the Palestinian authority controls the West Bank, although there are other influences in the West Bank that undermine the Palestinian authority.

So the question, can the Palestinian authority, the recognized leader of the Palestinians by the Israelis, actually deliver anything?  On the Israeli side, you have the Netanyahu government, which is a coalition government, which can‘t very easily deliver on their side, either, certainly not when it comes to freezes on settlements and the like.  So you have two rather precarious leaders, who are not really operating out of a position of strength, moving forward, when at this very moment, the big concern right now among Israeli officials is this existential threat from Iran.  And that‘s where they want to really be dealing with the United States.

SMERCONISH:  In my conversation with Ambassador Oren earlier this week, I asked him to please assess the state of the relationship between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama.  Here‘s a bit of what he had to say, and then I‘d love each of you to react.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

SMERCONISH:  How would you characterize the relationship, the personal relationship, between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama?

OREN:  I think very strong.  I think very frank.  I participated in a number of meetings between them over the course of the year.  The president has spent probably more time talking with Prime Minister Netanyahu than with any other foreign leader.  They speak pretty regularly.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

SMERCONISH:  Andrea Mitchell, does that comport with your assessment?

MITCHELL:  Well, when he said “frank,” he was being very honest because that‘s diplomatic talk for the fact that they‘ve had a lot of disagreements.  I think what you saw most recently was President Obama trying to restart, if you will, the relationship, reset the relationship with Netanyahu.  The long walk and the embrace at the car—that was so different from letting him sit and stew in the Roosevelt Room while President Obama went up and had dinner with the family and left Netanyahu sort of hanging out on the previous trip.

So I think what they‘re trying to do is they realized that they went too far in one direction.  They‘re trying to go back the other direction.  That helped pave the way for this.  And very frankly, something that Martin Indyk, a very smart observer of all of this and the former ambassador to Israel, said, the head of the Saban Center at Brookings, said to me earlier today was that Bibi Netanyahu is probably the best shot yet that anybody who wants a solution has because like Nixon to China, he is such a hard-line prime minister that he is the one person who could perhaps persuade his public.  And he‘s far more popular now.  His domestic popularity has zoomed ever since that attack on the flotilla.

SMERCONISH:  David, what‘s coming up on Sunday?

GREGORY:  Well, we will—we‘re going to talk about some of these big foreign issues, including Iraq, including Afghanistan, the mosque issue, and really focus on to what extent the issues are going to weigh on the minds of voters in the fall.  I‘ll speak to Mitch McConnell, also the tea party issue, Dick Armey and Jennifer Granholm debating that influence on national politics.

SMERCONISH:  Many thanks, Andrea Mitchell and David Gregory.

MITCHELL:  Always.

GREGORY:  Thanks.

SMERCONISH:  All right.  Coming up, candidate Obama promised to get the country away from the ‘60s-era culture wars that dominated politics for so long.  But as president, he set off a bigger debate about what kind of country we want to be and what it means to be an American.  That‘s ahead.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH:  President Obama may be winning the argument with Republicans about whether to extend the Bush tax cuts.  A new poll finds that a slim majority of Americans, 51 percent, say the tax cuts should continue for families that make less than $250,000 a year but should rise to the previous level for those making more.  Only 31 percent say the tax cuts should continue for everyone, regardless of income.  And 18 percent say taxes should rise to the previous level for all Americans.

We‘ll be right back to HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  This ain‘t your father‘s Republican Party.  This is the Republican tea party.  What they‘re going to find out is the choices are pretty stark.  They‘re going to go out there and look at a decent man—and he is a decent man in my—the best I know him—Rand Paul.  They‘re going to go out there and look at Sharron Angle.  They‘re going to go out there and look at what the Republican Party is really offering.  They‘re offering more of the past but on steroids.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  That was Vice President Biden today in St. Louis.  Democrats want to make this mid-term election a choice between President Obama and, as Biden put it, the Republican tea party.  Can that work?

We‘re joined now by Politico‘s Jonathan Martin and “The Washington Post‘s” Perry Bacon.  Perry, did we just see a framing of this issue for the mid-terms, at least according to the Democrats?

PERRY BACON, “WASHINGTON POST”:  Yes, we do.  We‘ve been hearing it for the last several days, President Obama talking about Social Security and what the Republicans would do about that.  A lot of Republicans—all the Democrats focused on Rand Paul, Sharron Angle.  We‘re seeing a lot of framing that way.  The challenge will be can—will voters—do voters care about, one, President Bush, and do voters care about—voters outside of Kentucky care about what Rand Paul thinks about issues.  It‘ll be interesting to watch.

SMERCONISH:  Jonathan, you put your finger on something in your Politico piece, “The New Battle: What It Means to Be an American.”  I can tell you as a talk radio host that heretofore, if you needed your phones to ring, you...

JONATHAN MARTIN, POLITICO.COM:  Right.

SMERCONISH:  ... you would mention gays, you would mention guns, you would mention abortion.  And every line would illuminate.  It might not be compelling radio, but you‘d get the calls.  Today, all one need say is Obama or President Obama.

MARTIN:  Right.

SMERCONISH:  What accounts for the passion that exists out there in opposition to President Obama?  And of course, I‘m speaking of the perspective of the GOP base.

MARTIN:  Well, I think it‘s a couple things.  I think, first, generationally, there‘s a declining interest in some of those old sort of cultured wars that were largely a backlash to the ‘60s.  And I think that‘s certainly an element.

But it‘s also, I think, the here and now.  And the here and now is not gays or abortion or legal drug use, inhaling or not inhaling.  The here and now is questions about this president and about his view of the role of government and his view of America and the world.  And conservatives obviously don‘t like what they perceive to be his views on those issues, and they‘re very angry about it.  And they sort of perceive him as radical.

Now, I think there‘s something to be said for the conservative base being radicalized in the Obama era, but there‘s no that question what‘s happening right now is that you‘ve got a sort of new-new right that has emerged, Libertarian, fiscally focused, but really, I think, radicalized by this president.

How that plays out at the polls, I don‘t know if we‘re going to get a great sense of it.  I think Sharron Angle in Nevada, Rand Paul in Kentucky perhaps offer the best examples as to how far this tea party movement can go.  But it‘s not at great test case because in Kentucky, you‘ve got a very conservative state, where I think anybody with an “R” after his name on the ballot is probably the front-runner of this cycle.  And in Nevada, as flawed as Sharron Angle is, running in a state that has 14.5 percent unemployment and against somebody, Harry Reid, a senator who‘s deeply unpopular in his own state.  So not the best sort of test cases but the best we have this cycle, probably.

SMERCONISH:  Is that—Perry, is that a complete answer?  And I‘m not being disrespectful to Jonathan.  I just wonder if there‘s more to it.  I want to show you—you‘ve probably seen this before.  When former governor of Delaware, now congressman, Mike Castle, was doing a town meeting.  And this is the mindset that I often encounter and that I want to hear you address.  Let‘s all watch and listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  (INAUDIBLE) January 20th, I want to know why are you people ignoring his birth certificate!

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  He‘s not an American citizen!  I don‘t want this flag to change!  I want my country back!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH:  “I want my country back” from whom and from what, Perry?

BACON:  Jonathan is talking about—what Jonathan is talking about is essentially right.  I mean, we can debate whether this is racially motivated or whether Obama is—you know, all these are rumors about Obama that are not correct, about the birth and the religion, these falsehoods that have been perpetuated for a while—but what Jonathan captures is the fact that it seems like there‘s a generational gap between Obama and a lot of his opposition that it crosses a lot of different issues.

MARTIN:  Yes.

BACON:  It seems to be, like, sort of hard to—it‘s hard to pin down this one issue.

SMERCONISH:  But none of this—none of this—none of this took hold in the waning days of the Bush administration.  If indeed, it‘s a big government level of opposition, then where was it for the final 24 months of the Bush years?

(CROSSTALK)

BACON:  I don‘t think either of us are quite saying that to be—I don‘t think either of us are quite saying it‘s all about big government.

MARTIN:  Right.

BACON:  It‘s broader than that.  It‘s about broader cultural changes, more—you know, more diverse population...

MARTIN:  Yes.

BACON:  ... a sense that things are moving too fast in both government and what Obama‘s doing—what the president‘s doing on policy.  I think it‘s more complicated than just one issue.  I don‘t—I‘m reluctant to say it‘s just race or religion...

MARTIN:  Right.

BACON:  ... without—without...

(CROSSTALK)

SMERCONISH:  Let‘s address the religion.  Here‘s Billy Graham‘s son, the Reverend Franklin Graham, last night on CNN.  Let‘s watch and listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REV. FRANKLIN GRAHAM, BILLY GRAHAM EVANGELISTIC ASSOCIATION:  The president‘s problem is that he was born a Muslim.  His father was a Muslim.  The seed of Islam is passed through the father, like the seed of Judaism is passed through the mother.  He was born a Muslim.  His father gave him an Islamic name.  Now, it‘s obvious that the president has renounced the Prophet Mohammed and he has renounced Islam and he has accepted Jesus Christ.  That‘s what he says he has done.  I cannot say that he hasn‘t.  So I just have to believe the president is what he has said.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH:  Jonathan, evaluate what you just heard.

MARTIN:  Well, obviously, that‘s not helping the cause when it comes to shooting down this notion that President Obama is a Muslim, when he caveats what he said with, you know, what the president has said.  But look, it‘s not the fact that his father was a Muslim.  I think Perry would agree with me.  The birtherism, this notion that he‘s somehow a Muslim, is an expression of outrage.

It‘s a sort of way of channeling the fact that a lot of folks on the right don‘t believe this president is legitimate.  I think race is definitely a part of that, but it‘s part of a larger cultural stew.  And by saying he‘s a Muslim or he wasn‘t actually born in America, it‘s a way that they can say he is not really legitimate.  And I don‘t think folks actually really believe he is or is not a Muslim.  It‘s just a way of sort of saying he‘s not one of us.  He‘s the other.  He‘s different from us.  And he‘s not legitimate.

SMERCONISH:  Perry, I thought in the final 24 or 36 months of the Bush years that there was a level of vehemence that I would never see again in opposition to that president.  But it doesn‘t compare, at least according to my reading of the tea leaves, to what I encounter now being directed toward this president.

BACON:  I agree with you.  Most the critiques about Bush, even the very visceral ones, were mainly about policy issues—Iraq, the economy, et cetera.  Versus now, we‘ve definitely got—the attacks are much more personal and much more about—even—even Mike Huckabee in Jonathan‘s story...

MARTIN:  Yes.

BACON:  ... said something akin to Obama‘s not the traditional American kind of president...

MARTIN:  Right.

BACON:  ... which I don‘t think most people criticized Bush for not being American enough.  It was that he had bad policies.  There is something unique going on here in the culture and in the criticism of the president.

SMERCONISH:  Here‘s that Pew pole again, by the way, that we‘ve spent a lot of time talking about in the last 24 hours -- 34 percent of the country now thinks the president is Christian, down from 48 percent in March of ‘09, 18 percent say Muslim, 43 percent, they don‘t know.

What‘s interesting about all this information is how these are pre-mosque debate numbers.

MARTIN:  Right.

SMERCONISH:  They were already spiking.  One can only imagine where they are now.  And there‘s a definite correlation.  The more you‘re inclined to believe that he‘s Muslim...

MARTIN:  Exactly.

SMERCONISH:  ... you know, the higher go those negative numbers.

(CROSSTALK)

SMERCONISH:  You know, Perry—Perry, you go first and then Jonathan. 

Go ahead.

MARTIN:  Please.  Please.

BACON:  Sorry.  I would say that—I would say (INAUDIBLE) opposite.  The more you‘re opposed to him, the more you‘re likely to think these bad things about him.  It‘s not the—that‘s what causing it.  The Republicans believe these things in part because they don‘t like the president, so they‘re more inclined to believe things about him that would be—we should—we should be clear that being a Muslim is not a bad thing.  It‘s only seen...

SMERCONISH:  Perry?  Perry?

(CROSSTALK)

SMERCONISH:  I agree with you.  I agree with you.  And I‘m doing this from memory, but hold on, my friend, because, like, a third of people in that “Time” magazine poll said, If you‘re Muslim you‘re ill equipped to serve on the United States Supreme Court or to be president of the United States.  I think we got to deal with that, as well.  Jonathan?

MARTIN:  Yes.  No.  There‘s a whole separate story, I think segment, if you will, here on TV to be done about the view of Islam by a lot of folks here in this country.  Now, President Bush, I think, tried valiantly to make the case that Islam was a religion of peace, that it was something that even in the wake of 9/11, Americans should not lash out at Muslims.

I think without President Bush or a prominent national Republican making that case now, there‘s a perception of Islam, I think, is—is changing.  I think we‘re seeing that borne now in this view—in this sort of view of the Ground Zero mosque issue.  I think that‘s a—that‘s an important thing.

But if I could just make one point, and Perry noted this, on the correlation between those that oppose President Obama and those that view he‘s a Muslim.  I think there‘s an important point to be made here also on the sort of, I think, sadly, the collapse of the traditional media in the sense that people now are more apt to believe an e-mail that is forwarded to them than what they‘re seeing on the network news or in traditional papers.  Why else would they, you know, believe the president is a Muslim when it‘s been repeatedly shot down in the news?  Because they want to believe that.  And they seize on some e-mail that their cousin or uncle forwarded to them, and that‘s what they take as the gospel.

SMERCONISH:  It‘s completely illogical.  And I got to wrap up.  But Perry, I mean, left unsaid by Franklin Graham is—and I don‘t—I can‘t challenge his credentials as a man of the cloth because I‘m not one.  He is.  But it would be an apostasy for President Obama to be secretively a follower of the Islamic faith and not saying so and saying something different.  And of course, that—that goes unstated.

Anyway, I‘m out of time, men.  I appreciate both of you being here. 

Jonathan Martin and Perry Bacon.

Up next, Rod Blagojevich in his first sit-down interview since his corruption trial.  Stick around for the “Sideshow.”

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH:  Back to HARDBALL, and now to the “Sideshow.”  First up, Blago on the record.  On Tuesday, a jury convicted ex-governor Rod Blagojevich on one count of lying to federal agents, but left him with a mistrial on 23 other counts.  Well, this morning, the “TODAY” show‘s Meredith Vieira asked Blago about the prospect of retrial on those charges.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MEREDITH VIEIRA, CO-HOST:  Can you even afford another trial?

ROD BLAGOJEVICH (D), FMR. ILLINOIS GOVERNOR:  Well, you know, you keep fighting against all the odds.  I mean, the fact of the matter is, you know, I‘m up against the giant Goliath.  And I take solace in the biblical story of David.  In this case, I don‘t have a slingshot, but I do have the truth on my side.  And without putting on a defense, let me emphasize again, the government failed to convict me of any corruption charges.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH:  Retrial or not, it‘s a safe bet that we haven‘t heard the last from Blagojevich.  And he‘s added that he‘s open to doing yet another reality show.  My idea, “Jersey Shore.”

Next up, brutal honesty from Sofi (ph) Airways.  The start-up Afghanistan airline has just been profiled in “The Wall Street Journal” for its offbeat in-flight magazine—you know, those inserts that usually advertise posh hotels and golf courses.  Well, Sofi Airways is taking a different tack.  Check out their travel tips.  They‘ve got a feature titled “Live Entertainment in Kabul, Dogfighting.”  A description of the Bibi Mahru (ph) swimming pool notes that the diving platforms were once notorious as an execution spot.  They‘ve also got ads for mine-resistant SUVs.  the proof?  They‘ve got a photo of a Mercedes plowing through a roadside bomb.  The magazine‘s editor defends the content, saying that he‘d rather have interesting things in there than allowing a marketing agency to, quote, “brainwash” the airline‘s passengers.

And time now for tonight‘s HARDBALL “Big Number.”  A new study out of George Washington and New York Universities measures the digital IQ of U.S.  senators through their use of sites like Twitter and FaceBook and YouTube.  Which senator came out on top?  Would you believe John McCain, the 73-year-old senator from Arizona, has the highest degree of on-line competence.  Tonight‘s “wouldn‘t have guessed it” “Big Number.”

Up next, some prominent African-American conservatives are blasting Sarah Palin for her defense of radio host Dr. Laura.  Palin came to the aid of Dr. Laura, who gave up her gig after using the “N” word repeatedly on the air.  That‘s ahead.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(CNBC MARKET WRAP)

SMERCONISH:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Sarah Palin‘s defense of Dr.  Laura has amped up the controversy over Dr. Laura‘s on-air use of the “N” word.  Now some African-American conservatives are questioning Palin‘s judgment in weighing in to support Dr. Laura.  The Reverend Michel Faulkner is a Republican running for Congress in New York.  What do you make of these developments?

REV. MICHEL FAULKNER ®, NY CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE:  Well, you know, I really could not understand why Governor Palin felt like she needed to weigh in on Dr. Laura‘s personal meltdown.  Dr. Laura did it.  She—Dr.  Laura is an entertainer.  You know, we are coming dangerously close to blurring the line—not dangerously close, we have blurred the line between leadership and entertainment.  Unfortunately, Ms. Sarah Palin crossed the line and became an entertainer in her tweets and in her comments trying to defend Dr. Laura.

SMERCONISH:  Reverend, for the third time, she‘s weighed in on this, most recently Sarah Palin writing on her FaceBook page.  Quote, “Does anyone seriously believe that Dr. Laura Schlessinger is a racist?  Anyone I mean who isn‘t already accusing all conservatives, Republicans, tea party members, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, of being racists?”

Answer that question.

FAULKNER:  Well, you know, we‘ve got so many more serious issues to be tackling.  We have got to deal with the issue of jobs right now, and that‘s what we‘re talking about in our campaign and that‘s why the people of New York are going to be voting for me this fall.

But we have got to—all leaders, Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, liberals have got to get to the business of getting America back to work.  That is the primary concern.  Whether or not someone is a racist or not a racist, we are taking this issue way too seriously.  And we have got to get back to the serious business of helping America get back on its feet.

SMERCONISH:  What, the if anything, does Sarah Palin‘s involvement in this issue, where she could have stayed out of it, say about her fitness to lead?

FAULKNER:  Well, to me, it says that she is not fit to lead.  To me, it says that she has opted for sensationalism and to been the lines of entertainment as opposed to being a true leader in which she‘s talking about some of the serious issues of today, getting people back to work, having—you know, talking about the economic development that we need to get to get America back on its feet.  That is the crisis at hand, not whether or not somebody is a racist or someone used the “N” word on air.  These are entertainers.  They get paid to entertain, to be sensational.  And if they use the “N” word, they get higher ratings in most cases.  You know, that‘s—those are not the issues of the day that are going to win (INAUDIBLE)

SMERCONISH:  Well, has Governor Palin crossed the line now into that of entertainer herself?  I mean, are you reading into this and saying, you know, she‘s not someone who‘s—who‘s sizing up 2012 as running for president?  Maybe now this represents her deciding she‘s no longer got a future in running for elective office.

FAULKNER:  Well, I don‘t know whether she does or she doesn‘t.  She hasn‘t said whether she is or she isn‘t.  But to me, I think that it is very clear that, you know, given her book and the success of her book and her tours and et cetera—and I wish her all the best.  I think a lot of her ideas are very good.

However, when you enter into issues that are really not yours and issues that have already been resolved—as far as I was concerned, Dr.  Laura is an entertainer.  She made a horrible, horrible mistake.  She apologized.  She actually dropped the show.  The issue was over, as far as I was concerned.  Why Ms. Palin felt like she needed to weigh on it, to get involved in a controversial issue that really had no bearing on getting America back to work, is beyond me.

SMERCONISH:  Lost in all this conversation and controversy is, I thought, a legitimate conversation that Dr. Laura was having with her radio caller, a conversation about the inappropriate use of that word and how there‘s a double standard that exists, where some can get away with saying it and others cannot.  Nobody should say it.

FAULKNER:  Nobody should stay it.  Absolutely.  And there—and you know what?  There is a double standard.  I mean, you know, let‘s face it, there is a double standard.  I hear the word all the time in my neighborhood and I hate it.  But it‘s a slang word that‘s used by kids and those who don‘t know what they‘re talking about.  It‘s certainly not appropriate for radio.  It‘s not appropriate for TV.  It‘s not an appropriate use of a word.  It should never be used.  And when Dr. Laura used it 11 times, you know, so indiscriminately to make a point, she crossed a line.  But she dealt with that.  Ms. Palin did not have to deal with that or did not have to enter into that dialogue.

SMERCONISH:  Thank you, Reverend Michel Faulkner.  Appreciate your time.

FAULKNER:  Thank you always.

SMERCONISH:  Let me bring in MSNBC political analyst and Republican strategist Joe Watkins.  Joe, is...

JOE WATKINS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Hey, Michael.

SMERCONISH:  How are you?  Is she crazy like a fox?  Because on its surface, this would seem to be such a foolish move politically speaking.  Analyze the tea leaves for me.

WATKINS:  I think Sarah Palin is very, very savvy.  She‘s a very, very smart person.  And you have to give her credit for not holding a grudge.  I mean, after all, Dr. Laura was somebody who did not support her candidacy for vice president when she was named back in 2008...

SMERCONISH:  And questioned her parenting!

WATKINS:  Exactly right.  She made some pretty harsh remarks about Sarah Palin.  And Sarah Palin, to her credit, didn‘t return it.  Instead, she‘s come back by saying, You know what?  Dr. Laura made a mistake, but she ought to be forgiven for that.  And by the way, Sarah Palin goes onto say, I don‘t think she‘s a racist.  And then she goes on to the bigger issue, which is to say it‘s so easy for folks to try to paint every conservative as a racist.  And that‘s not fair, either.

SMERCONISH:  So she‘s now weighed in on this three times.  And when I ask you, is she crazy like a fox, what I mean to say is that I think it plays well with the base of the Republican Party, for a variety of reasons.  Does she know what she‘s doing?  Does she fly off the cuff?  I mean, what‘s going on?

WATKINS:  Well, she knows what she‘s doing.  This is a hot issue.  I mean, it‘s got the attention of the national audience.  Race is still a huge issue in America.  I mean, the fact that we have an African-American as an elected president is a wonderful step forward for us.  But it doesn‘t mean that the issue of race is not a challenge for Americans, even today.

And any time you raise the specter of whether or not it‘s right or not like to use the N-word, this is going to cause a huge—a huge stir.  And Dr. Laura did the wrong thing.  She should never use the word.  If you‘re an African-American like I am, you know how hurtful that word can be.  And she shouldn‘t have crossed the line by using that word.

But she did do one thing that was right.  She apologized.  She said I‘m sorry for what I did.  And, certainly, as a Christian person, we always are supposed to accept the apology of folks.

Sarah Palin was very, very smart to raise this issue, to say that Dr.  Laura made a mistake, but that ought not make her a racist, that she ought not to be categorized or written off as a racist.  She‘s somebody who made a mistake.  She apologized for it and she ought to move on.

SMERCONISH:  Joe Watkins, good to see you.

WATKINS:  Great to see you always, Michael.

SMERCONISH:  Up next: six years later and there are more questions than answers surrounding the friendly fire death of football star-turned-Army Ranger Pat Tillman.  And now, a documentary attempts to find the truth about what really happened.  Author Jon Krakauer who wrote a book about Tillman will be joining us next.

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH:  Take a look at this ad from Democratic Congressman Joe Donnelly running for re-election in Indiana.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, POLITICAL AD)

ANNOUNCER:  At it again, smearing Joe Donnelly.  The facts, Joe Donnelly is Indiana‘s most independent congressman.  Joe opposed Bush‘s attempts to privatize Social Security and voted against Nancy Pelosi‘s energy tax on Hoosier families.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH:  In other words, that‘s a Democrat taking a swipe at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.  An earlier Donnelly ad branded Pelosi and President Obama as part of the, quote, “Washington crowd.”  Donnelly is an anti-abortion rights Democrat who‘s leading his Republican challenger.  But his campaign strategy is symbolic of how some Democrats in some parts of the country are going to great lengths to distance themselves from Washington.

HARDBALL returns after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Although it‘s been more than six years since his death, the story of Pat Tillman, the NFL star who chose to join the military after 9/11 and then was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan is still in the news.  A new movie about Tillman opens today.  It‘s a documentary by Director Amir Bar-Lev and it‘s called “The Tillman Story.”  It‘s getting rave reviews.

Kenneth Turn of “The L.A. Times” writes, “A story that won‘t go away, won‘t leave you alone, and won‘t let you feel at ease.”  And an updated biography by Jon Krakauer now in paperback is just out and it‘s called “Where Men Win Glory.”

Jon, welcome to the program.

JON KRAKAUER, AUTHOR, “WHERE MEN WIN GLORY”:  Thanks.  Happy to be here.

SMERCONISH:  In the aforementioned “L.A. Times” review of the movie, it says Tillmans turned out to be the wrong family to mislead.  That‘s a subject you know well.

KRAKAUER:  Yes.  I mean, I think the Army expected them to just sink into their grief and be honored that they received this medal, the Silver Star.  Not questioned too much about what led to the medal and not led to Pat‘s death.  And they were sorely mistaken.

SMERCONISH:  You spent a lot of time in preparation for writing your book, studying his journals.  Was he a complicated guy?

KRAKAUER:  He was a very complicated guy, a fascinating guy, couldn‘t pigeon hole him.  I mean, he—you know, politically, spiritually, everything about him was—surprised me.  And only by reading those hundreds of pages of his personal journals did I fully appreciate the complexity of character.  He was—he was perhaps the most virtuous person I‘ve ever read about or comes across.

SMERCONISH:  What stands out about the journals?  Give me an anecdote.

KRAKAUER:  What stands out is he—you know, he made this decision to enlist after 9/11.  But it wasn‘t like, OK, I‘ve done it, gung-ho.  He questioned what he‘d done from the moment he left home for boot camp.  On the airplane as he‘s taking off for boot camp, he‘s saying, boy, I hope this isn‘t a big mistake.  I hope I‘m not ruing Marie‘s life and my life.

So, he was questioning his motives the whole time.  He was a confident person, a very upbeat person.  But he didn‘t take anything for granted.  He was very introspective, very thoughtful.

He had no idea that the U.S. was going to invade Iraq when he enlisted.  And when it became increasingly clear that the invasion of Iraq was imminent, he was furious.  He called—called it an illegal war.  He believed that it was in U.S. interest.

But, paradoxically, even though he was vehemently opposed to the war, he made clear in his journals that he would—you know, he would fight as hard as anyone who ever had.  He would do his duty.  He signed up for this.  He was going to complete his service.

And, actually, the very first mission that the Rangers went on just right after the invasion in Iraq, Pat was left out of the helicopter because there weren‘t enough seats and he was among the least experienced of the Rangers.  And in his journal, he was furious.  He wanted to rip someone‘s throat out.  He felt like the last kid picked on the team.

So, he was really—you know, his motives for going were pure.  He really thought it was his duty to serve his country and just—he shouldn‘t be exempt because he‘s an NFL player.  But he also was motivated by, you know, old fashion sense of honor and masculine pride and things like that.

SMERCONISH:  In the paperback version of your book, you dissect the cover-up.  Give me the cliff note version.  Are we talking about mistakes having been made or deliberate conduct relative to the cover-up?

KRAKAUER:  The cover-up—it‘s been passed off as sort of innocent mistakes.  That‘s absurd.  You don‘t have to delve very deeply to realize this was a very aggressive, very risky move.  General McChrystal directed the cover-up.  He may or may not have been acting at the behest of Cheney and Rumsfeld, there‘s no evidence of that, that‘s all in conjecture.  But it‘s very clear from the paper trail that he directed this cover-up.

Among the things he did, he directed his staff lawyers, Army lawyers, to obstruct an Army CID investigation.  That in itself is a serious military crime.  You can be put in prison for five years for that.

He submitted knowingly a fraudulent Silver Star that misled the secretary of the Army, suggesting that Pat was killed by enemy fire.  That was very deliberate and very risky.  That‘s not just “We‘ll keep our lips sealed.”

SMERCONISH:  And the presumption is, because timing was everything in this case.  It came at a juncture where there needed to be a positive story.

KRAKAUER:  Absolutely.  This is April 22nd, 2004, the battle of Fallujah has been raging for three weeks, 27 American are dead, 2,000 Marines are fighting.  The Abu Ghraib story broke that very week.  Bush is up for reelection in six months and his poll numbers support for the war is plummeting.  The last thing they could afford was the fact that they shot Pat Tillman, the most, you know, this hero that they had been promoting.

SMERCONISH:  Jon Krakauer, well, here‘s Pat Tillman‘s mother, Mary Tillman, last week on this program with Chris.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARY TILLMAN, PAT TILLMAN‘S MOTHER:  The medical examiner in Maryland was told before Pat‘s body arrived that he was killed in an ambush.  And the medical examiner was suspicious as soon as he saw the wounds.  He did not believe that Pat was killed by the enemy because he said you can‘t shoot that accurately with an A.K-47.  So, he was suspicious that the point.  And he asked for a criminal investigation.  And the adjutant general refused, saying that, you know, they were satisfied with the information that they had.

So, there really was no criminal investigation.  So, it‘s hard to say what happened.  All the evidence was destroyed.  His uniform was destroyed.  They even tried to burn the Kevlar vest which, you know, could not be burned.  But they did try.

And evidence—you know, this is evidence in a fratricide situation, in a homicide situation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH:  Pursuant to what she‘s describing, how many knew initially, you know, from Jump Street, how many individuals were in that loop to know it‘s not the way it‘s being explained?

KRAKAUER:  Well, certainly everyone in the platoon, 30 soldiers on the ground at least.  There were a number of soldiers at FOB Salerno.  But it went up the chain of command.  It was—it was kept to a tight cadre.

McChrystal knew within hours—he notified his superiors, General Brown, General Kensinger, you know, Abizaid, and then it went up to the higher levels of the White House and Defense Department.  It‘s not clear exactly who knew there.  It‘s not clear that Bush knew.  It‘s strange to believe that Cheney and Rumsfeld didn‘t know immediately.

SMERCONISH:  Well, Jon, those who were at the same level in military rank as Pat Tillman—I mean, they had to have been incredibly uncomfortable—those 30 that you‘re describing.

KRAKAUER:  And they were ordered to lie.  I mean, one of those 30, Russell Baer, when Pat‘s body was shipped back to Dover for the autopsy, it was accompanied by Kevin, Pat‘s brother, he was one of the few people who didn‘t know.  It was kept secret from Kevin.

And Russell Baer, a specialist, was sent back on the plane with Kevin to keep him company.  He was told, “Under no circumstances will you divulge that this was friendly fire.”  He had to lie.  Baer had to lie to the Tillman family.

There were a lot of the soldiers that had to lie.  These Army lawyers had to deceive, you know, CID investigators.  That‘s an outrageous crime.  I mean—and this is all at McChrystal‘s behest, under his direction.

SMERCONISH:  And brother Kevin was in close proximity at the time that it occurred?

KRAKAUER:  Well, he was in the last vehicle.  He didn‘t arrive on the scene, last vehicle in this convoy.  So, he didn‘t arrive on the scene until Pat was already dead, probably 10 or 15 minutes after the fact.  And people—he didn‘t know Pat had died for a while.

Finally, a sergeant told him and he was devastated.  But then they whisked him off in a helicopter back to the forward operating base and he was separated from his platoon mates very quickly and he was back in the States for a month or five weeks before they returned.

And only—the only reason this was revealed, it wasn‘t the expert work of journalists, it was simply because these 200 members of the 2nd Ranger Battalion were returning to Fort Lewis in Washington where Kevin was and their commanders realized, man, we‘ve got a problem.  These guys are going to drink and someone‘s going to leaking to Kevin.

SMERCONISH:  Right.  Hey, Jon, a silver lining—last year, when I bought for my boys and me Pat Tillman jerseys from the NFL official store, it was the number one jersey at the time.

KRAKAUER:  That‘s great to hear.

SMERCONISH:  I think Tim Tebow may have replaced it recently.  Congratulations on the paperback version of your book and thank you so much for being here.

KRAKAUER:  Thanks for having me.

SMERCONISH:  All right.  When we return, I‘ll have some thoughts about immigration and the entrepreneurial spirit that still exists in so many of the people who come to this country.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH:  Welcome back.

Yesterday‘s “New York Times” featured a profile of the tiny nation of Montenegro, part of the former Yugoslavia.  I just returned from a family trip there.  My wife and I and our four children accompanied by my mother traveled to the town of Satinia (ph), to see where my ancestors came from.

My grandmother Victoria Ivanocivich (ph) was the daughter of Milo and Melisia (ph).  Milo was a shoemaker who made boots for King Nicholas Petrovic who reigned over Montenegro from 1910 until 1918.  That‘s the shoemaker outside of his shop.

And this is the king‘s official portrait.  It now hangs in the state museum.  He‘s wearing boots made by my great-grandfather.

My grandmother married a man from the same town.  He worked in the coal mines of America, sent back money so that she could join him here.  And here, the family name Greyacich (ph) became Grovich (ph).  They learned English, they assimilated and raised 11 children.  Those 11 raised their own children, myself included, who today enjoy a great quality of life in America.

For my family, this is a remarkable story.  By American standards?  Not so much.  In the United States, countless family histories read the same as mine and many are more astounding.  My ancestors played by the rules and any road map for the future needs to ensure today‘s immigrants do likewise.

Before determining what a path toward citizenship should look like, our government needs to first take control of our borders.  But we also need to insure that legal immigration continues.  This is an exceptional country, fostered by a melting pot that encourages the pursuit of dreams.

Immigrants are by nature ambitious.  They are risk-takers.  They bear the characteristics of entrepreneurs who are still the economic lifeblood of this country.

There‘s a tendency to believe that stories like that of my ancestors and maybe yours are only the stuff of a bygone era and past generations.  But really, they‘re still unfolding each day.  And if the economic opportunity that is the hallmark of our country is to continue, it will need to be reinvigorated by future generations, ones willing to accept America‘s precepts as they pull themselves up by their own boot straps.

That‘s HARDBALL for now.  Thank you for being with us.

It‘s time for “THE ED SHOW” with Ed Schultz.

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