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updated 3/3/2011 11:54:43 AM ET 2011-03-03T16:54:43

Guests: Chuck Todd, Sue Herera, David Corn, Joan Walsh, Michael Isikoff, Ron Suskind, Sam Stein, Clarence Page

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  False witness.

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews out in Los Angeles.  Leading off tonight: The Huckster.  When Mike Huckabee‘s spokesman says Huckabee didn‘t mean to say President Obama grew up in Kenya, that he really meant to say he grew up in Indonesia, it‘s a lot to swallow.  First of all, both assertions are wrong.  The president grew up, if you will, in the United States.  He went to the best prep school in Hawaii.  Second, Huckabee mentioned British imperialism.  Well, the Brits were in Kenya, not Indonesia.  And the Mau Mau revolution, that also occurred in Kenya.

No, Mike Huckabee just joined the long list of discredited Republicans spreading the bogus story that Barack Obama‘s presidency is somehow illegitimate because he‘s some kind of foreigner, the right‘s favorite propaganda that won‘t die.  That‘s our top story.

Also, speaking of evading the truth, Bob Woodward just described Donald Rumsfeld‘s memoir, so-called, as an effort to, quote, “distort history, ignore the record or simply avoid discussing matters that cannot airbrushed away.  Strong words.”  We‘ll look at how Rummy‘s book lines up with the facts.

Plus, Republicans may want to think twice about going after unions or going after Social Security and Medicare.  Our brand-new NBC News/”Wall Street Journal” poll out tonight has the latest on where Americans are and aren‘t willing to seek cuts.

And who‘s it going to be, Newt, Mitt, Haley?  With Republicans hesitating to actually get into the race for the White House, we wondered, who would President Obama most like to run against and who does he fear the most, if anyone?  We‘ll try to tell you the scoreboard and the players on the field.

Finally, how many times does new Jersey Governor Chris Christie have to say he‘s not interested in running for president before we start thinking, Hey, he really wants to be asked?

We begin tonight, unfortunately, with the lie that won‘t die.  MSNBC political analyst David Corn‘s a Washington bureau chief—or is the Washington bureau chief for “Mother Jones,” and Joan Walsh is with Salon.com.  Well, here‘s former governor Mike Huckabee on a radio program run by Steve Malzberg.  Let‘s listen to what he said on Monday.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

STEVE MALZBERG, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  Don‘t you think it‘s fair also to ask him—I know your stance on this—How come we don‘t have a health record, we don‘t have a college record, we don‘t have a birth cer—why, Mr. Obama, did you spend millions of dollars in courts all over this country to defend against having to present a birth certificate?  It‘s one thing to say, You‘ve seen it, good-bye.  But why go to court and send lawyers to defend against having to show it?  Don‘t you think we deserve to know more about this man?

MIKE HUCKABEE (R-AR), FMR GOV., HOST, “HUCKABEE”:  I would love to know more, but what I know is troubling enough.  And one thing that I do know is his having grown up in Kenya, his view of the Brits, for example—very different than the average American.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  David, is he lying?  Is he a buffoon, or what?  Where do you come up with a guy who is a former governor of a state, who‘s been in national politics for a number of years now, can read the newspaper as well as the rest of us, knows that Barack Obama grew up in Hawaii, he went to the best prep school out there in Honolulu, went on Occidental, went to—went to Columbia, went to Harvard law, ran for a number of offices.

We know all about the guy, and here he is sucking up to a guy who‘s implying we don‘t know anything about the guy‘s health records, his college records, his birth certificate.  He‘s playing to the birthers that the president of the United States is some kind of impostor.  Why is Huckabee, Mike Huckabee, playing this game?

DAVID CORN, “MOTHER JONES,” MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  You know, he is in the middle of the transmission belt of trash.  You know, Fox News is sort of the ground zero of that.  And you know, he has a show there.  All this stuff about—about Barack Obama, you know, not just being born in Kenya but being influenced by his father, who he didn‘t know, into believing, you know, as a good Kenyan would, that the Brits are terrible.

I mean, this is all coming from Dinesh D‘Souza.  It was in a “Forbes” magazine a few months ago.  Newt Gingrich was talking it up on Fox News.  I think Mike Huckabee is just immersed in those trashy, dirty waters and he‘s just absorbing, maybe by osmosis.  And you know, I was reading—let me—

I‘ll give him—I‘ll give him a plug here.  I was reading his book, Mike Huckabee, “A Simple Government,” and in the first few pages, he says he‘s not going to be involved in personal attacks on the president and the key thing that we need is integrity.  Well, he‘s showing none of that in this episode.  He is lying about the fact...

MATTHEWS:  OK...

CORN:  ... that he meant to say...

MATTHEWS:  Joan...

CORN:  ... what he said.

MATTHEWS:  Well, we know what he said and we know why he said it.  Let‘s go into this.  Joan, I always thought that everybody in the media who spent a lot of time with Huckabee—and I‘ve had pretty good experiences with him.  I don‘t know why—I thought he was a good guy, basically, even if he‘s a man of the sort of evangelical right.

JOAN WALSH, SALON.COM, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  And there he is, smearing this guy.  Here he is, engaging in what we call in our religion false witness, suggesting that he‘s some sort of Mau Mau guy who grew up in Kenya rooting for the Mau Maus against the Brits.  He never spent a day of his youth in Kenya, a day.

WALSH:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  And he‘s made this whole story up.  Here he is, by the way, to give (INAUDIBLE) before you react.  This isn‘t—this isn‘t like he misspoke—Well, I meant to say this and I said that, I meant to say Indonesia and I accidentally said Kenya.  Here he is with the full bore of this thing on the Steve Malzberg show.  Here he is talking about a bust of Winston Churchill and how he hates the British.  Let‘s listen.  It‘s a whole number he‘s got here.

WALSH:  Right.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

HUCKABEE:  When he gave the bust back to...

MALZBERG:  Of Winston Churchill, yes!  Yes!

HUCKABEE:  ... the Brits—of Winston Churchill, yes—a great insult to the British.  But then if you think about it, his perspective as growing up in Kenya with a Kenyan father and grandfather, their view of the Mau Mau revelation in Kenya is very different than ours because he probably grew up hearing that the British were a bunch of imperialists who persecuted his grandfather.

MALZBERG:  Oh!  I—he despises the West!  He despises the Brits!  And I think he could take it all out on Israel, and that‘s why he despises Israel!

(END AUDIO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  OK.  I don‘t have time for Malzberg.  I don‘t even know this guy, Joan.  You can shake your head because I‘ve given up shaking my head about these guys.  He didn‘t grow up...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  He isn‘t rooting for the Mau Maus.  He wasn‘t out there—he was a headhunter or any of that other crap they‘re trying to sell.

WALSH:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  None of this is true, complete—and there‘s Huckabee, a man with some education, playing the game.  It‘s one thing to be a rube, it‘s another one to pretend you‘re a rube and to play to the rubes.  It‘s really hard to buy this, that he‘s a good guy and doing this.  Your thoughts, Joan.

WALSH:  Well, he -- - you know, he definitely tries to act like he is the good guy.  He‘s kind of the Smurfy Republican.  He defended Michelle Obama last week when Sarah Palin was attacking her, you know, healthy eating crusade.  But you know, this is dirty stuff.  Like David said, he swims in the polluted waters of all of this right-wing paranoia about the president.

Just to take one thing out of that—we did not—he did not, we did not give the bust of Winston Churchill back.  He moved it to the residence and he put Lincoln in its place.  Now, can you imagine if he kicked out Lincoln to put in a European leader, he‘d be a Euro-phile.  They‘d be attacking him for that.  So that‘s one thing.  You know, the other thing...

MATTHEWS:  Oh, no, I guess he would have put—following this narrative, he would have Jomo Kenyatta there.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  I mean, not that—I actually look up to Jomo Kenyatta myself...

WALSH:  Well, yes.

MATTHEWS:  ... as an African liberation leader.

WALSH:  Also...

MATTHEWS:  But I, of course, am a liberal, and there‘s something wrong with that, too.  Go ahead.

WALSH:  Can‘t we all—can‘t we all say that we‘re all anti-colonialists now?  I mean, that‘s first of all...

MATTHEWS:  I thought we were!

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  By the way, the premise of this is frightening, David and Joan.  It‘s frightening.  He‘s saying that somehow, because he does have some sort of ancestral notion that colonialism is wrong—by the way, when I was in the Peace Corps in Africa—I don‘t think colonialism was entirely evil, but it was bad to go into another country, take it over, shoot anybody that got in your way, run the place.  That‘s basically...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... isn‘t it?

CORN:  Chris, here‘s the code.  Here‘s the—here‘s the code.  After he said what he said—we heard the little clip there—the radio guy goes on to say Obama despises the West.  That‘s what this really is about.  They don‘t care about what he thinks about Kenya and freedom and independence in Africa.  It‘s about he despises Israel and the West.

And what does Mike Huckabee say to that?  Absolutely nothing.  This is all about reaffirming this notion that he‘s not one of us.  Not only is he not one of us, he hates us...

WALSH:  Right.

CORN:  ... and he wants to do evil and harm to the United States, to the West.

WALSH:  Right.

CORN:  And that‘s why this is so odious.  And for Mike Huckabee not to call this guy out shows just how low he‘s gone in terms of pandering to the far right.

MATTHEWS:  Well, there‘s the question, I have to say it.  I want to get back to the roots of this because it is about roots.  I mean, we are a country immigrants.  I‘m only two generations in.  I don‘t know about you guys.  I‘m—my mother grandmother and grandfather from the British Isles, you know, not that exotic, but not from here.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  And a lot of us—in fact, most of the people I work with and know have parents and grandparents from another country.  It‘s America.  We‘re based upon the idea of being a land of immigrants.

WALSH:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  But we don‘t go back and say, Well, I know where you‘re coming from because your grandfather‘s from Russia, therefore you don‘t like this or that, or you‘re still fighting the czar.  I mean, we don‘t talk like that.  We sort of let people be themselves.  The great thing about America, the true American exceptionalism, we say, I don‘t give a damn who your grandfather was, I want to know if you can play the game, I want to know if you can deliver...

WALSH:  (INAUDIBLE) America.

MATTHEWS:  ... I want to know if you can be my doctor.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... or you can win the Academy Award.  That‘s the...

CORN:  Or you can become president.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  We don‘t care if your grandfather rooted for the Mau Maus.  But here‘s this guy, Malzberg and—and—I don‘t even know—I don‘t want to talk about him.  This guy, Huckabee—we ought to put it on.  He‘s leading the Republican polls right now...

WALSH:  He‘s leading.

MATTHEWS:  ... in our latest poll.

WALSH:  I know.

MATTHEWS:  He‘s not some character offstage we‘re beating up here tonight.  He‘s some guy who may well be the Republican nominee for president.  And he walks out there and starts talking like this in the world, I think it‘s going to shake the—there he is, 25 percent.  Joan?

WALSH:  The other thing that‘s so amazing and that does, I‘m sorry, feel racial about this, is that nobody ever talks about Barack Obama‘s white grandparents or mother.  No one is ever looking at...

MATTHEWS:  Oh, you mean, the guy that fought for Patton.

WALSH:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  We don‘t want to talk about a buy that fought...

WALSH:  What the influence...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... European theater against Hitler.

WALSH:  ... the World War II hero.  Or how about his grandmother, who was a bank executive.  Nobody talks about how those values influence Barack Obama.  Nobody talks about his white mother, who was, in fact, probably more influential, far more influential than his father.  She raised him.  She was an anthropologist.  She a great global view of the world.  But we don‘t even talk about her because that would remind us all that...

MATTHEWS:  You know why.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... call it what it is.  I say damn this point of view.  Damn this point of view.  What is he supposed to do?  You come to this country, you raise a kid—rather, she married somebody from Africa, his mother.  The kid goes to high school, does great in high school.  He gets into these great schools like Occidental and to Columbia College in New York.  He gets into Harvard law.  He doesn‘t go out and make a billion dollars, he gives back and helps the people, the poor people in Chicago.  He goes into public life.  He loves America.  He believes in democracy, what it can achieve...

WALSH:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  ... whet government can do for people.  He‘s done every single thing—he‘s kept his nose clean.  He‘s done nothing wrong.  And yet they trounce him!

WALSH:  Right.

CORN:  Because...

MATTHEWS:  They go after him with a vengeance because he looks different, he has a different name.  Isn‘t that an ethnic attack?  Isn‘t that what it‘s really about, David?

CORN:  There is no other president or even major presidential candidate who‘s ever gotten this type of illegitimate scrutiny, which, you know, yes...

MATTHEWS:  Scrutiny?  False witness.

CORN:  I mean, insulting.  I mean, there were—there were—you know, there were critics of George Bush and Dick Cheney who came up with all sorts of conspiracy theories.  You know, and presidents come under harsh attack.  But none of them are the type of attack that they‘re somebody really different than who they are, that they‘re Manchurian candidates, that the color of their skin is dictating their beliefs...

WALSH:  Right.

CORN:  ... that there‘s a—that they‘re genetically predisposed to hate the West.  I mean, that‘s what the is argument here.  He has a DNA...

WALSH:  And to hate white people.

CORN:  He has...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  OK.  We‘ve got to stop.

CORN:  ... and that‘s because he‘s black!

MATTHEWS:  You know why?  Because we all grew up in a schoolyard with kids who made fun of other kids because they were different or had a different ethnic background.  We always put up with them.  Some of them grew up and got better when they got older.  Now we got a guy talking like one of those kids in the schoolyard leading the Republican pack for the nomination.  It‘s scary, and I hope the rest of the world is not paying attention to Mike Huckabee.

Anyway, David Corn, it‘s great to have you on, as always, Joan Walsh.  You got good hearts.  This isn‘t about ideology, it‘s about bearing false witness.  It‘s in the Bible.  Check it out, Huckabee!

Coming up: How‘s this review of Donald Rumsfeld‘s memoir from none other than Bob Woodward playing?  He calls it one big cleanup job and a brazen effort to distort history.  Let‘s talk about Woodward going after Rumsfeld.  Rumsfeld, by the way, (INAUDIBLE) heard the Iraq war, apparently.  Wait‘ll you catch this guy and how he‘s slip-sliding away.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Wow, the United States Supreme Court has just ruled 8 to 1 that a much despised church group from Kansas is allowed to stage anti-gay protests at military funerals.  The group holds signs that say “Thank God for dead soldiers” and claim American soldiers are being killed as punishment for America‘s tolerance of gay people.  The Court said the group‘s actions are protected by the 1st Amendment.  Well, the lone dissenter was Justice Sam Alito.  We‘ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  A number of journalists are taking issue with some of Donald Rumsfeld‘s statements in his new memoir, “Known and Unknown.”  They say he‘s rewriting history on Iraq, the Iraq war, and trying to cleanse the record of his role in that war.  Well, I think I agree with them.

For a closer look on how the former defense secretary‘s words square or don‘t square with the facts, let‘s turn to two top journalists who investigated the Bush administration‘s run-up to the Iraq war, NBC News national investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff wrote “Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and the Selling of the Iraq War,” and Ron Suskind is the author of “The Way of the World.”

Gentlemen, I have great respect for both of you.  Let‘s start with now with what Bob Woodward, the great sleuth, has uncovered.  What is Rumsfeld trying to skirt away from here in these meetings we‘re describing here?  We‘ll just go at it generally, first of all.  Ron, you first.

RON SUSKIND, AUTHOR, “THE WAY OF THE WORLD”:  Rumsfeld is trying to back away from the real story of the Iraq war, which—much of which has been reported, but it was essentially lied about in present tense by the Bush administration, that they planned it from the first NSC meeting in January of 2001.  It was all about a way to get into war with Iraq, take out Saddam Hussein, set up a pro-American country in the middle of the Arab world.  Rumsfeld is trying to dodge and duck that.  But it‘s interesting, in this book, while there‘s lots of fabrications in it, there are also a few things where Rumsfeld‘s trying to kind of get in the right spot for the final record in terms of, you know, what he knows history will say at the end of the day.

MATTHEWS:  Well, he‘s got a big problem already.  Let‘s go to this with Michael—let‘s take a look at this, Mike Isikoff.  Rumsfeld writes that in the Oval Office meeting of September 26th—that‘s five days (SIC) after 9/11 -- President Bush, quote, “asked that I take a look at the shape of our military plans in Iraq.”  Now, that doesn‘t square with a previous claim by Rumsfeld that the president didn‘t get involved in war planning until a couple months later.  Why is Rummy moving around the dates?  What‘s he up to here?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, NBC NATIONAL INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT:  Well, look, I mean, it‘s clear he‘s trying to put as much of the onus on Bush for pushing for the Iraq war, when the record is pretty clear.  As Ron and others have written, Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, his deputy at the Defense Department, were pushing for action against Iraq from the get-go, right after 9/11.  In fact, even before 9/11, they wanted to figure out a way to topple Saddam Hussein, and they continued to push for it right through the invasion itself.

So the idea—the only reason for Rumsfeld to emphasize this is to try to say, Well, the president was—this was the president‘s idea...

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

ISIKOFF:  ... to try to subtly suggest it was the president‘s idea.  We certainly know Bush was behind it 100 percent.  We know that the day after 9/11, he went to Dick Clark and said, Find me evidence that Saddam was behind it.  But he was being egged every step of the way by Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, I think Defense Department was pushing this thing.  Let‘s take a look at some things here because, look, the reason I was skeptical of this war from day one is they kept coming up for new reasons with it.  They didn‘t have a really good reason, so they kept (INAUDIBLE) Oh, he may have WMD.  What we mean that is he may have nuclear, but we‘re not willing to say nuclear.  He may have something to do with 9/11, but we‘re not willing to prove because we don‘t know.  Maybe, maybe, shoulda, coulda, woulda.  They never had a real case for war except that they wanted to go.

Here‘s the director of intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of defense.  He wrote a report on September 5th, 2002, the year before the war, that states, quote, “We do not know if they have purchased or attempted to purchase a nuclear weapon.  Our knowledge of the Iraqi nuclear weapons program is based largely, 90 percent, on analysis of imprecise intelligence.”

Four days later, Rumsfeld wrote the following to Joint Chiefs Chairman Richard Myers, Rick Myers—quote—“Please take a look at this material as to what we don‘t know about WMD.  It is big.”

Now, here is Rumsfeld on the record in his book, in his book, Ron, admitting no nuclear on—in the country, no nuclear attempts to purchase, no nuclear attempts to build nuclear, nothing, nada, nada, nada, and admitting he knew it before we went to war.  In the midst of all the propaganda from Bush and Condi Rice about mushroom clouds, he knew there wasn‘t anything to it, and never raised his hand and said, this is all B.S. 

SUSKIND:  Right.  Right.  From the very start...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Never.  That‘s, to me, an amazing admission, to me. 

(CROSSTALK)

SUSKIND:  Yes.  The Bush administration knew from the start the American public would never support the war they wanted to fight in Iraq.  They knew that.

So, all through this period, they‘re fabricating as fast as they can any connection they can find.  Rumsfeld is now—look, in present tense, when it was happening, Rumsfeld was right there saying we have all sorts of evidence ready to go.  Now he‘s saying, ooh, actually, we didn‘t have anything. 

That goes directly against what was said at the time, and it goes right to the basic charge against the Bush administration.  They took the country to war under false pretenses.  That‘s a huge charge historically, and it‘s one Rumsfeld is trying to back away from now. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, let‘s take a look at the latest thing. 

Just a minute.  We don‘t have much time here, Mike, here‘s the thing about Rumsfeld and the connection to al Qaeda—quote—“Though intelligence did not report that Saddam was tightly connected to al Qaeda or that he was involved in the 9/11 attack, Iraq was included in almost any analysis of state supporters of terrorism.”

Well, we knew Iraq was backing Hamas, giving little rewards to families of people involved with the suicide bombing in the Middle East. 

(CROSSTALK) 

MATTHEWS:  We knew all that.  But they are tying to al Qaeda and 9/11.

(CROSSTALK)

ISIKOFF:  So were the Saudis and other countries in the Mideast that we didn‘t invade. 

Rumsfeld, on September 27, 2002, in the run-up to the congressional vote, said, we had bulletproof evidence—those were his words.

MATTHEWS:  Bulletproof.

ISIKOFF:  Bulletproof evidence of ties between Saddam and al Qaeda. 

MATTHEWS:  Al Qaeda.

ISIKOFF:  He does not repeat that—that line in his book.  He does not refer to the fact that he said that. 

Instead, he‘s now saying, well, we didn‘t really have strong intelligence on it, direct contradiction between what he was saying publicly then and what he is acknowledging now in his book.  He doesn‘t even concede that there is such a stark contradiction. 

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

And here‘s the latest one that‘s in the book.  And it‘s all part of the analysis we‘re doing.  This has to do with Tora Bora, when everybody thought we had a good shot at catching bin Laden before he left the country, which was the whole purpose of going in, by the way, was to catch this guy and fry him, basically, for his hand in orchestrating the attack on us on 9/11.  That‘s what the war was about.  We keep forgetting.

Here‘s Rumsfeld writing—quote—“Though a number of people, including some at the CIA, suspected that bin Laden might have taken refuge in the Tora Bora area, no one knew that for certain.”

Well, here we go again with the shell game.  Ron Suskind, here we go with the shell game.  Well, we didn‘t really know.  We really didn‘t know.  We really didn‘t know.  By the time they sold us, they knew everything. 

SUSKIND:  Well, it—late November, before bin Laden escapes, in December of 2001, Bush was briefed in the Oval Office by the CIA.  They said specifically, he‘s in Tora Bora.  Unless we move now with special forces, he will slip away. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

SUSKIND:  And the president ultimately flinched.  That‘s what Rumsfeld knows.

Look, ultimately, at the end of the day, this community, this Bush administration lied in ways that frankly other people in power simply have not.  Look, lots of them lie, but not in terms of issues of war.  That‘s what makes these guys different.

And Rumsfeld right now is trying to paper over as much as he can as fast as he can. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Guys, I want to start with Mike.

Mike, you‘re my colleague now, and I want to—I really respect you.  Do you think there‘s any chance in the next five years or in the near future, when we still have these guys alive, we‘re going to get something like a Fulbright set of hearings, a Pentagon Papers, that really goes back and puts these guys under oath, Wolfie and all these guys—all of them were involved—and make—and Cheney especially—and make them swear under oath why we went to war in Iraq, just so we will know the history of this war? 

(CROSSTALK)

ISIKOFF:  Chris, the short answer is no. 

The only opportunity, the only chance for anything like that would have been right after the Democrats won control of the Congress in 2006.  They could have done it in early 2007.  They chose not to.  And so the opportunity for that was—was basically lost. 

I just want to say one thing on the Tora Bora section, because I...

MATTHEWS:  Sure.

ISIKOFF:  ... actually found that probably the most single stunning passage in Rumsfeld‘s book.  He talks about how, well, we didn‘t know bin Laden was in Tora Bora.  It was only speculated on, when, if you read Peter Bergen‘s excellent summary of that whole passage in his book, he makes it absolutely clear that it was a virtual 100 percent certainty that bin Laden was there. 

The NSA intercepted conversations from bin Laden was there.  People on the ground were pleading with Tommy Franks, the CENTCOM commander, to bring in troops to prevent him from escaping.  Why didn‘t they do so?  Because, at that very moment, Franks was working with Rumsfeld on updating the war plan for invading Iraq. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, this one time I wish that this president we just had, Bush, had kept White House tapes.  Don‘t you wish we had White House tapes of all those meetings, Ron and Mike? 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  We could just listen to their little conniving.  Anyway, maybe they don‘t even tell the truth to each other. 

I‘m still stunned—we‘re going to show this tape time and again—that Rummy told me over at the Pentagon years ago that he was never asked if we should go to war in Iraq.  That is, to me, stunning.  What kind of conversations did they have, if they never talked about whether the chief in chain of command, the defense chief, who controls the nuclear football, why we never had a conversation:  Should we or should we not invade? 

Because we now know he knew there were no nuclear weapons there.  So, we know that the guy the president should have asked knew there was no reason for the war that they were giving to the public, that Condi was full of it, that Colin Powell was given a crap—a bunch of crap to sell, and all that stuff was being sold at the time, that nobody asked the defense chief, knowing all you know, do we have a case for war?  It would have been nice to get that on the record.

Thank you, Michael Isikoff. 

Thank you, Ron Suskind, as always.  Suskind, you‘re great. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Up next:  We have heard Chris Christie.  He‘s got the hot hand in the Republican Party.  They keep asking him:  Are you going to run?  He keeps saying:  I‘m not going to run.  But he keeps saying it in such a sort of interesting, sexy way:  Well, I‘m not really going to run.  And then he keeps getting asked again and again.  You‘ve got to wonder about this guy‘s seductive powers.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Back to HARDBALL.  Time for the “Sideshow.” 

First up:  New Jersey Governor Chris Christie says he‘s not running for president, and he can‘t stop talking about it.  The governor just told “The National Review”—quote—“I have people calling to me and saying to me, let me explain to you how you could win.  And I‘m like, you‘re barking up the wrong tree.  I already know I could win.  That‘s not the issue.”

“I know I can win”?  Wow.  By the way, let‘s recap the many colorful ways Christie has insisted he‘s not running.  Ready, set, go. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE ®, NEW JERSEY:  I am not arrogant enough to believe that, after one year as governor of New Jersey and seven years as a United States attorney, that I‘m ready to be president of the United States. 

In your heart, you‘ve got to want it more than anything else, more than anything else.  I don‘t want it that badly.

Here‘s the thing.  Why would I want a less powerful job than the one I have now? 

(LAUGHTER)

CHRISTIE:  Because being governor of New Jersey is...

JIMMY FALLON, HOST, “LATE NIGHT WITH JIMMY FALLON”:  Pretty powerful.

CHRISTIE:  Short of suicide, I don‘t really know what I would have to do to convince you people that I‘m not running.  I‘m not running. 

My wife will kill me. 

(LAUGHTER)

CHRISTIE:  She will just kill me.  We‘re going to be married 25 years in two weeks.  And there‘s certain things, once you‘ve been married 25 years, you‘re kind of locked in, you know?  And there‘s certain things that you know just will not be accepted.  And I think that‘s on the list. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, Christie obviously has what the others don‘t:

pizzazz. 

Next, Wisconsin legislators take on a pressing issue: prank calls.  Two Republican state senators have just introduced a bill to criminalize calls that—telephone calls—that fraudulently hide the caller‘s identity.  The dumb part?  The lawmakers insist it has nothing to do with last week‘s taped telephone call to Governor Walker out there from someone possessing as right-wing billionaire David Koch, an incident that ended up being very embarrassing for that Republican governor. 

The proposed punishment, by the way, for these prank calls, $10,000. 

That‘s pretty steep, if you ask me -- $10,000 for a prank call. 

Finally, a priceless news lead from across the pond.  This is from an actual British “Daily Mail” report—quote—“A former seaman who disgusts his neighbors with loud foul-mouthed rants at politicians on TV has just been banned from having a television or radio in his home.”

I say, whatever happened to opening the window and yelling, I‘m sick and tired and I‘m not going to take it anymore?

Time for tonight‘s “Big Number.”

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour said this week that Medicare

recipients should pay for their own prescriptions.  His reasoning—quote

“We have people pull up to a pharmacy window in a BMW and say they can‘t afford their co-payment.”

Medicaid recipients in BMWs?  It sounded a bit off to “The Washington Post,” too.  Well, they—their fact-checkers just raided the claim by Barbour.  Their verdict, four Pinocchios, the highest rating in unreality. 

The cost of lowest—lowest—lowest-end BMWs is apparently four times what a family on Medicaid could earn in an entire year.  BMW, four times the annual income you can make and still get Medicaid.  Barbour‘s tall tale earns four Pinocchios—tonight‘s “Big Number.”  

Up next:  Our new NBC/”Wall Street Journal” poll has just come out, and some big warnings for Republicans looking to cut spending.  Wait until you hear this.  It‘s very practical.  It won‘t surprise you a lot, but it really will clarify the air.  We‘re talking about all these cuts. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SUE HERERA, CNBC CORRESPONDENT:  I‘m Sue Herera with your CNBC “Market Wrap.”

A rocky session ending in positive territory, the Dow climbing eight points, the S&P 500 adding just two, but the Nasdaq gained 10.5. 

Investors balancing rising oil prices with some upbeat economic reports and some retail optimism today. 

The Federal Reserve‘s Beige Book showing modest economic growth in most parts of the country, with merchants and retailers starting to feel comfortable raising their prices. 

Private employers added 217,000 jobs in February, but analysts are scratching their heads about planned layoffs, which were up 20 percent over last year. 

And oil prices continue to climb, and for the first time in a while today, doing that independently of the S&P.  Usually, we see rising oil prices driving the S&P lower.

Many retailers finished in the green, ahead of what‘s expected to be a very strong February sales report, which is due out on Thursday. 

And that‘s it from CNBC, first in business world—now back to HARDBALL and Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  It‘s time for our NBC/”Wall Street Journal” gut check. 

Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

The budget battles are coast to coast.  All eyes are on Wisconsin and Washington to see what can be done about these mounting deficits.  Well, our new NBC/”Wall Street Journal” poll out tonight finds that—here are some interesting numbers—three out of four people say they know what‘s going on in Wisconsin.  They‘re really following this story.

The same number, three out of four, say that public employee unions should have the same bargaining rights as other people do, other workers.  But when it comes to what people consider acceptable steps that the state officials could take to deal with deficits, the poll has some tough medicine for the state employees themselves. 

Catch these numbers -- 68 percent thinks states should require public employees to contribute more of their pay for their retirement -- 63 percent say they should pay more as co-pays for their health insurance—

58 percent say states should actually freeze the salaries out there in Wisconsin for a year.  But just one in three think there shouldn‘t be collective bargaining at all.

For more on the new numbers, we‘re joined by NBC News political director, chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd. 

Chuck, are you surprised?  I mean, this seems to be the way all the way polling is going.  Our poll confirms people want everybody to pay their share.  They think the employees out there have been getting it too easy, but they have a right to complain, they have a right to collectively bargaining. 

CHUCK TODD, NBC NEWS POLITICAL DIRECTOR:  Americans are always uncomfortable taking away a right.  They may—they take—it sometimes takes them a hard—a long time for them to come around to giving a new right to somebody.

But, boy, are they hating the idea of taking away a right.  And that‘s what you‘re seeing here.  You‘re seeing as if the—the message that is being sent in this poll, Chris, is, we not be—we‘re not happy with labor unions as a set of organizations right now, but with—the idea behind labor unions, we‘re in favor of, right, and that they seem to have created that split. 

And that‘s an appreciation, for instance, that I think Scott Walker is not seeing.  And it could politically be very—a very bad thing for him and all Republicans, because you know this number about who is following this story?  First of all, more people are following the story in Wisconsin than the Middle East crisis.  That‘s—that‘s one sense.

But in the Midwest in particular, it was 84 percent of Midwesterners are following this story very closely.  Well, that‘s the battleground of American politics, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Boy, that squares with everything I have noticed in terms of audience on TV.  People do want to know more about what is happening here than what is happening there.

But let me be brutally tough here about—in analyzing these things, totally nonpartisan here.  You can‘t give a person a right that they‘re not going to utilize.  And if you give somebody the right to collectively bargaining, they‘re going to ask for more than they have right now.  That‘s what collective bargaining actually means. 

Do the voters have in their minds the common sense that, if you give a person, a man or woman, a right to—to complain, to get to bitch, if you will, and get more money from them, it‘s going to cost them money as taxpayers?  Do they get the close reality of that thing?

CHUCK TODD, NBC NEWS:  Well, that‘s hard to decipher?

MATTHEWS:  Or don‘t they get it?

TODD:  I think they do get it because the fact is, they believe in 90 percent of what, for instance, Scott Walker is trying to do in Wisconsin.  Hey, guess what?  Times are tough.  You‘ve got to contribute more to your pension.  You got to do this.  That gets to the fairness aspect of Americans, right?

We‘re always, at the end of the day, we‘re looking for—we‘re looking for the fairest solution—

MATTHEWS:  Right.

TODD:  -- possible in our own minds, but don‘t take away a right, you know?  And that is—and that‘s what the bridge too far.  I‘m just—when you see the fact that the respondents drew that distinction, I think that‘s pretty—and here was the other thing, Chris, about it, we had some favorable and unfavorable teachers versus teacher unions, public employee unions versus private unions.

And what you see is there‘s a polarization, there‘s an ideological split on unions.  But on the idea of collectively bargaining, there is no ideological split.  There really wasn‘t a partisan split on this.

MATTHEWS:  Wow.

TODD:  So, that just tells you Americans believe—don‘t believe in taking away a right.

MATTHEWS:  They like teachers but not teachers unions?

TODD:  Yes.  So, look, they didn‘t mind teachers union, but teachers by a 23-point margin.  Teachers, in general, had a hirer favorable rating than teachers union.  Really not surprising considering everybody is beating up on teachers union, whether it‘s President Obama—

MATTHEWS:  Yes, sure.

TODD:  -- or Chris Christie.

MATTHEWS:  It makes sense.

Let‘s take a look at the budget fight in Washington.  Our poll finds that the public is much more concerned that Republicans and Tea Partiers may go too far in spending cuts than they are concerned about the Democrats and Obama going too far.

That doesn‘t surprise me a bit.  Obviously, Republicans are more conservative.  They‘re bigger cutters.  That‘s pretty common sense right there.

TODD:  It is.  It is.  The bigger problem for Republicans in this poll is their base says the number one or two issue in this country, core Republicans say the top issue in this country is spending and the deficit.  The rest of America—independents, Democrats—are saying the top issue is jobs and the economy.

MATTHEWS:  I agree.

TODD:  And the problem Republicans have is: are they backing themselves into a corner.  They‘re listening to their base, talking about spending and budgets.  I mean, Chris, it‘s almost as if the White House is reading polls, and the Republican congressional leadership isn‘t.  That might feel them good, but, boy—as our pollster said, there‘s a flashing yellow sign in this poll for them as they continue to go down this road.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  When people asked what to do about the deficit, 37 percent say cut big programs, 29 percent say raised taxes.  These are like the final things they‘re willing to go for if it really gets tough.  Obviously, you want to cut the fat and waste, everybody does that first.

TODD:  Sure.

MATTHEWS:  But then you asked them, what do you want to do once you‘ve already done that, if you‘ve done that that?  And they say, basically, if I had to choose between going after Social Security and taxes, they sort of suggest go after Social Security.  But then when you asked particularly about Medicare and Social Security, hands off, 80 percent.

People really don‘t want to make these decisions, do they?

TODD:  No.

MATTHEWS:  They want the politicians to have to make them.

TODD:  Well, that was another.  There‘s another way to read that poll.  That‘s right.  Look, there are no popular solutions.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

TODD:  I‘ll give you one that actually wasn‘t.  The most acceptable idea of—we tested 26 different budget proposals.  The most acceptable what us was a surtax on millionaires at 81 percent.  There‘s no chance that any member of the Republican Party elected in Congress right now would vote for a proposal that did that, even though it has an 81 percent acceptable rating.  That‘s sort of the Chuck Schumer idea.

MATTHEWS:  That‘s why we have a republican form of government, not an actual democratic form of government.  You got to get somebody else to make these decisions.  In the end, who wants to cut their own Social Security?  Who wants to raise their own taxes?  Nobody wants to do that.

TODD:  Nobody does.

MATTHEWS:  That‘s why we have politicians to fight with.

Anyway, thank you, Chuck Todd.  And I‘m darn serious about this—these choices are brutal.

Up next: Newt looks like he‘s in, Mitt looks like he‘s coming in, and Sarah is up in the air—all the Republican contenders.  Who does Obama and the people around the president, and the people around, the smart guys and women over there, who are they most afraid of?

We‘ve been trying to get to this question.  We‘re going to nail it tonight.  In the innermost secrets, when they put their head on the pillow at night, who do they fear?

This is HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Southern voters will be key, of course, to who the Republicans pick for their presidential nominee next year.  Right now, overwhelmingly for Mike Huckabee, the guy we‘ve been talking about tonight, who‘s sucking up to the birthers right now.

The former Arkansas governor takes 22 percent of probable Republican primary voters in 11 states across the South.  Newt Gingrich is second at 13 percent.  Three northerners round out the field.  Palin is third with 9 percent, followed by Chris Christie and Mitt Romney.  Palin does not do well in these polls.

We‘ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back.

We‘re now in the third month of 2011 and still no Republican candidates, major candidates, have tossed their hats in the ring to run for president.  Some have even decided against to run to the chagrin of conservative Bill Kristol.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

BILL KRISTOL, THE WEEKLY STANDARD:  I‘m getting a little tired of these quotes from Huckabee, and Thune, and Bush, and everyone about how tough Obama is going to be and they think maybe they prefer to do it four years from now.  You know, I don‘t think they asked our soldiers or marines whether they prefer to deploy two years from now or this month to Afghanistan, and this is really kind of important for the country.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  But I think that some Republicans out there do have a shot to win the nomination and go on and be a tough race for the president.  Take a look at a new NBC/”Wall Street Journal” Poll out tonight.  Obama leads a generic, any Republicans, sort of brand X Republican, by only five points.

So, let‘s break down who could pose a threat to the president right now?  Who might be his easiest opponent?  Different questions.

Sam Stein is a White House correspondent for “Huffington Post”; and Clarence Page.

Gentlemen, I want to nail you right now.

Clarence, I‘m going right to you, my friend.  All these years we‘ve worked together, and I want to know.   You‘re Mr. Chicago.  You‘re with “The Tribune” out there.  You‘ve got the close eye and ear out of the hotshots out there like Axelrod and the president, Valerie, and all those people.

Who do they fear when they go to bed at night might be the Republican nominee against them?

CLARENCE PAGE, THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE:  Well, I think they mostly fear the ones who aren‘t running or say they aren‘t—Chris Christie, Jeb Bush.  Mitt Romney, if he can survive the primaries, would certainly pose a challenge, because this battle is all about the middle, winning the swing voters out there in the middle.  And those aren‘t the candidates who are winning the party‘s base right now.

But I do caution, though.  I think four years ago, we were saying the election was going to be between Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani.  That didn‘t happen either.  So, I‘m leaving my options open.

MATTHEWS:  You‘re getting more like Jack Gammon (ph) every year.  The older you get, my friend, the more you get afraid—you people make these—take these polls so seriously!  Well, it‘s all we‘ve got.

Let me go to a young guy here, Sam Stein.  Maybe you‘re going to see

you‘re going to belly up here and take a chance here.

      

SAM STEIN, “THE HUFFINGON POST”:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  Make your bet.  Who are they really afraid of when you‘re reporting?  Who do they fear in the White House inner circles?

STEIN:  Clarence is right except that I‘d add one more name.  There are people in the top White House circles who are very afraid of John Thune.  They thought that he present himself as a—

MATTHEWS:  He ain‘t running.

STEIN:  I know.  And that‘s the point.  There‘s no one who‘s out there who‘s they‘re directly fearful off.

I‘d say among the remaining candidates, I‘d put Huckabee up there as well.  He‘s shown that he can appeal to some moderate voters.  He‘s not knee-jerk anti-Obama.  He‘s praised the first lady on her anti-obesity movement.  But then, again, this morning, or yesterday, he has this rhetorical gaffe where he sort of dancing with birtherism.  And that shows again that all of these have flaws—

MATTHEWS:  No, no, no.  Sam, it wasn‘t a rhetorical gaffe.  He got all the way into the mud on this one.

STEIN:  OK.

MATTHEWS:  He went in with the Mau Mau and the Brits and the whole history of this kid, this kid that grew up in Kenya, was under—enthralled with his grandfather and father and just was rooting against the Brits, rooting for Jomo Kenyatta, hating the Brits, loving the Mau Mau.  He built a whole story line about this.  And it turns out that Barack Obama was never in Kenya his whole growing up.

STEIN:  That‘s the whole point.

MATTHEWS:  He totally made up his story, and then he said, oh, I thought he meant—or his flak said, I meant to say Indonesia.

STEIN:  Indonesia, yes.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  -- like three years.  He just made this up.

But why is he in the mud pile with the birthers?  That‘s my question.  You say he‘s a serious candidate, why is he spouting this stuff?

STEIN:  That was my point.  You know, he was at a Christian Science Monitor event about a week ago.  And I asked him after the event, and I said, you know, you‘re on FOX News a lot, you‘re doing radio a lot.  Is that a way to reach conservative voters?  And he said there that it‘s, you know, it‘s a double-edged sword because he could slip up and anytime people would jump on him.  And he proved it very much yesterday.  I think that‘s his main problem.

MATTHEWS:  Why is he playing in this mud pile, Sam?  Why is he playing with the people who are either stupid or racist?

STEIN:  I wish I knew.  I wish I knew.  I think—I think it was careless.  I think he—I think he likes to appeal to the rabid conservative base, but it was clearly an error.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you this thing.  They‘re starting to fire people over at FOX because they‘re just trying to double-dip.  They‘re trying to go both ways now.  Newt and Santorum are clearly running right now, Clarence.  I think anybody else on the list ready to jump in.

I don‘t think Newt is a factor.  How many times he‘d been married?  I mean, I just think this whole experience wit Newt—you can‘t just wipe the board and say that wasn‘t just me who got kicked out of the speakership for totally embarrassing the country with ethics and his personal life.  I mean, how can he walk back in and say that wasn‘t me?

PAGE:  Well, this is Newt‘s time to run, though.  I mean, the party‘s base is fired up.  He‘s always been probably the leading fundraiser out there, at least before Sarah Palin came along.  He has a good shot at winning the nomination.  Winning the general is a whole different—

MATTHEWS:  But he looks like a car bomber.  He looks like a car bomber, Clarence.  He looks like a car bomber.  He‘s that crazy Mephistophelian grin of his.  He looks like he loves torturing.

Look at the guy.  I mean, this—this is not the face of the president.

PAGE:  But don‘t kid yourself, Chris.  We in the media—we in the media love Newt, though, because he‘s just a sound bite machine.  He‘s a gaffe maker.  I mean, you know, and he‘s very affable.  You know, he just can‘t stop talking—

MATTHEWS:  OK.

PAGE:  -- and saying what‘s on his mind, which we in the media love. 

There‘s not a media primary out there was, but he‘d win it.

MATTHEWS:  Look, Sam, do you think this guy and his presentation is a little bit to Mephistophelian, a little too frightening for people to be a presidential candidate?  Don‘t you have to sort of like the guy first before you vote for him?  Just a thought.

STEIN:  Yes.  I mean, listen, he could, theoretically, I can see a path for it to work in the conservative base primary.  He‘s loved at the CPAC conventions.  He comes in with the eye of the tiger theme music blaring and he walks through the crowd and people eat it up and he‘s a great showman.

The problem is that, first, is the election is not decided in the Republican primary.  And he‘s been through so many variations and incarnations that it‘s going to come back and bite him.  I mean, these—people might also—these are people who are not new creatures.  This is an old creature in Washington, him and Haley Barbour.  That doesn‘t necessarily lend itself favorably to the Tea Party crowd—which just as much as they hate Obama, want to wipe their slate clean from the Bush years, too.

MATTHEWS:  You know, this car bomber reference is very clear to me.  I had this notion of a guy—he‘s obviously not a car bomber.  But this guy that‘s kind of like he loves the attack.  He gets a thrill, Clarence, out of going for the opponent‘s midsection and hitting him so hard and getting delight in the attack itself.  Is that a winning proposition for a presidential candidate?  Clarence, last word.  Yes or no?

PAGE:  Well, he was an attack dog—

MATTHEWS:  You think yes?

PAGE:  -- before attack dogs became cool with the Tea Party.  Again, I don‘t think that helps him in the general so much.

MATTHEWS:  OK.

PAGE:  But as far as the primary goes, when you‘re trying to get ahead of the pack, it could help him.

MATTHEWS:  Got to go.  Got to go.  Clarence Page, thank you always. 

Thank you, Sam Stein.

When we return, “Let Me Finish” with Mike Huckabee and a dangerous chorus of birthers on the right spreading lies about the president.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  “Let Me Finish” tonight with this potentially dangerous talk in American politics.  It comes, I suppose, from a mix of belief and sheer politics.  Consider seriously what Mike Huckabee has been saying.  The other day, he was on a radio program and followed up a challenge of Obama‘s basic American identity by adding his own charges.

What Huckabee did was repeat basically something Newt Gingrich said in September about the president looking at the world from his father‘s perspective, as a Kenyan living under British colonialism.

Huckabee said on the radio on Monday that he finds it troubling that because of Obama‘s, quote, “having grown up in Kenya, his view of the Brits, for example, is very different than the average American.  His perceptive, growing up in Kenya with a Kenyan father and grandfather.  Their view of the Mau Mau Revolution is very different—very different—from ours because he probably grew up hearing that the British were a bunch of imperialists who persecuted his grandfather.”

This story, this narrative that Mike Huckabee is preaching is simply the kind of African story the cultural right wing in this country wants to hear.  It‘s a story of foreignness and exotic ethnicity that fits with its notion that if you‘re not a right winger from the back country, you‘re not a real American.

This is dangerous talk, just telling a birther he would love to know more about the president‘s background, like there‘s something un-American here in Obama‘s background.

Mike Huckabee shouldn‘t be spreading false witness about people. 

It‘s just wrong. 

That‘s HARDBALL for now.  Thanks for being with us.

More politics ahead with Cenk Uygur.

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