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updated 1/9/2014 10:58:53 AM ET 2014-01-09T15:58:53

HARDBALL
January 8, 2014

Guests: Kathleen Parker, John Lewis, Michael Tomasky

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Trenton, we have a problem.

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Well, good evening. I`m Chris Matthews in Washington.

"Let Me Start" tonight with this huge political bombshell out of New
Jersey. What happens when the hard evidence of political skullduggery
catches up with a politician`s all-out denials? What happens when a
possible presidential candidate -- contender even -- gets connected to the
kind of underhanded trickery and vengeance-taking that he claimed never
have had anything to do with? As I say, Trenton, we have a problem.

Governor Chris Christie has made it abundantly clear, as only he can,
that he had nothing to do with holding up traffic leading to the George
Washington Bridge last year to settle a score with a local mayor who`d
refused to endorse his reelection. You`d have to be deaf not to have heard
his denials, his mocking denials of involvement.

Well, guess what? This morning`s "Bergen Record" showed e-mails and
text messages from Governor Christie`s own office to be closely involved in
what happened those mornings at the entrance to the George Washington
Bridge. They show that officials closed those lanes as retribution against
the local mayor, just as Christie`s critics had been contending.

Quote, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee" Christie`s deputy
chief of staff signaled a bridge official. Another e-mail shows Christie`s
guy who oversees the bridge saying that he`s smiling -- and that`s his word
-- because the bridge obstructing was causing a problem for that local
mayor they had targeted for vengeance.

Well, this evening, after saying nothing all day about the Bergen
report -- "Bergen Record" report this morning and canceling his one
scheduled public appearance today, Governor Christie put out a statement
that said he was outraged and deeply saddened, that he`d been misled by his
staff`s actions, which he said he first heard about today for the first
time.

Howard Fineman`s editorial director of the Huffington Post Media
Group. David Corn is Washington bureau chief for "Mother Jones." Both are
MSNBC political analysts.

Howard, this is a stream of alibis. The first one was the governor
said there was some kind of survey going on that they had to count the cars
or what (ph) other (ph) game (ph), put the cones out to stop all the
traffic. That was his first excuse. Couple big shots on the bridge
authority quit, right?

HOWARD FINEMAN, HUFFINGTON POST MEDIA GROUP, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:
Yes.

MATTHEWS: His confides. Now it`s somebody named Bridget Kelly who`s
now taking the hit for this, and he`s saying in his statement, which he
released, like -- I don`t know, like a slip under the door tonight -- he
released it saying, Oh, she did it and never told me.

FINEMAN: Well...

MATTHEWS: But who told him about the original alibi, which was
there`s some -- it doesn`t add up.

FINEMAN: No.

MATTHEWS: It doesn`t add up.

FINEMAN: They`re contradictory...

MATTHEWS: Right.

FINEMAN: ... because either he knew something about what was going on
on the bridge or he didn`t.

MATTHEWS: Right.

FINEMAN: And he hasn`t -- this short statement in which he denies
four times in the first two sentences that he knew anything about it -- it
contradicts his administration`s earlier statement.

MATTHEWS: And David Corn, we`ll get to this in the second segment
tonight -- the larger political reality here is that this was the
moderates` great hope to take the Republican nomination in 2016 away from
the crazies, the wack-a-dogs (ph) or wack-a-birds (ph) or whatever they
call them these days. Your thoughts.

DAVID CORN, "MOTHER JONES," MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, well, you
know, the problem is that, you know, Chris Christie is not truly a
moderate, and he`s certainly not a moderate when it comes to bullying style
of politics that he practices in Trenton and New Jersey. And the real
vulnerability he has here is that this very, very petty, small matter -- it
affects people in Fort Lee, but it...

MATTHEWS: Skullduggery.

CORN: ... in the scheme of things, it`s a small matter -- really
represents what may be his deepest flaw, that he`s a bully, that he`s mean-
spirited, that he`s arrogant and that he thinks he`s above -- if not above
the law, above common courtesy and having to tell the truth.

If you look at what he has said up to now, it doesn`t track with
today`s denial. And there`s going to be further investigation, maybe even
a criminal investigation. That bus that he has may have to get bigger for
more people to be thrown under it other than just Bridget Kelly.

MATTHEWS: OK, I want to read some of the facts here that just came
out this morning. Documents subpoenaed by a panel of New Jersey state
lawmakers show a top Christie aide and a Christie appointee at the Port
Authority of New York and New Jersey, who later resigned, e-mailing about
the George Washington Bridge traffic mess a month before it happened. If
there`s a smoking gun in this affair, here it is. Bridget Anne Kelly, one
of Governor Christie`s top deputies, writing, quote, "Time for some traffic
problems in Fort Lee," to which David Wildstein, the Christie appointee at
the Port Authority, replied, "Got it."

Well, here`s how "The Bergen Record" newspaper reports some text
messages with Christie`s Port Authority appointee. Quote, "In one exchange
of text messages on the second day of the lane closures, Wildstein alludes
to messages the Fort Lee mayor had left complaining that school buses" --
this was the first day of school -- "were having trouble getting through
the traffic. `Is it wrong that I`m smiling,` the recipient of the text
message responded to Wildstein. Well, the person`s identity is not clear
because the documents are partially redacted for unknown reasons. `No,`
Wildstein wrote in response. `I feel badly about the kids,` the person
there replied to Wildstein, I guess. `Well, they are the children of Buono
voters,` Wildstein wrote, making a reference to Barbara Buono, the
Democratic candidate for governor who lost to Christie in a landslide last
November."

Well, other news organizations have reported that same conversation
word for word. But it`s not clear who said what in this conversation, but
they`re all reporting the same conversation.

Howard, this is the kind of thing where all those weeks going up until
today, in his usual big way, the governor was saying, There`s nothing to
this. We`ll go through all the quotes. We got to show them, the denial
after denial, the sarcasm, the ribbing of the reporters, the making light
it, in fact, making fun of the reporters for asking the questions. Any
time he wanted to, he might have asked -- well, we don`t even know if
there`s anything to this. I didn`t know. So let`s go on.

FINEMAN: Well, the political import of this, Chris, is that people
have been willing to give Chris Christie a look, if not a break, because he
seemed, though perhaps kind of a bully, an honest bully and a guy who
somehow was going to knock over the traditions of politics in a good way.

MATTHEWS: Right.

FINEMAN: What this seems to be showing is that he`s all too typical a
politician, in that we`re not sure if he`s telling the truth. His stories
contradict, at this point, and not just being a tough guy, he`s being an
autocrat who`s willing to make other people suffer and deliberately
inconvenience people -- this is the first day of school in Fort Lee.
Apparently...

MATTHEWS: Well, not only that...

FINEMAN: ... medical services were delayed.

MATTHEWS: ... the kids are punished. The kids are punished.

FINEMAN: The kids are punished. People...

MATTHEWS: How many people are going to get fired now?

FINEMAN: Right.

MATTHEWS: He`s fired the guy that was making a quarter million.

FINEMAN: Right.

MATTHEWS: He`s fired the guy who`s making six figures. He`s
obviously already put the screws to his deputy chief of staff.

FINEMAN: Right.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: I`m hearing you, David. I don`t -- how many people are
going to get fired? And how many alibis and balloons are going to be put
up there...

CORN: Two key points...

MATTHEWS: ... before somebody says, Wait a minute. It`s Occam`s
razor. Who do you think was behind this?

CORN: Well, yes, Chris, two key points here. That e-mail you just
showed, "Time for traffic problems in Fort Lee" -- now, is it Christie`s
contention that Bridget Kelly came up with this idea all on her own and it
had nothing to do with what goes on in his office in a typical fashion? I
mean, that`s a big question mark right there.

The second thing is, what was Chris Christie before he was governor of
New Jersey? He was a federal prosecutor. So this guy had all this stuff
going on in his own office, and couldn`t suss it out? He was not curious
to ask any questions, all these previous months, he just issued blanket
denials while everything was going on underneath him and there was a
coverup under way?

Turns out, he didn`t have much of a nose for news, if that`s how he
performed. So there are a lot of issues here that have to be sorted out,
and these investigations probably will go on for weeks. And he`s...

MATTHEWS: OK, this is so...

CORN: ... not out of the woods.

MATTHEWS: ... Nixonian. It`s so Nixonian. We`ve always asked if
Nixon was innocent of Watergate and the coverup and all the rest of it, why
didn`t he at any moment say, OK, get in here, guys. What happened?

FINEMAN: Yes. Well...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: ... whatever, get in here, what happened. He never tried.
Didn`t Christie ever ask anybody what happened? I don`t even believe
anything yet because it`s gotten so...

FINEMAN: Well...

MATTHEWS: Here`s Governor Christie being dogged by questions about
that George Washington Bridge traffic mess and whether it was a political
vendetta against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee who dared to not endorse
him for reelection. And various press conferences last month, all this
happened. On December 2nd, "The Bergen Record" -- anyway, Christie was
asked if he had anything to do with the lane closures. Here`s Christie`s
response back then.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: I worked the cones, actually, on
that. Unbeknownst to everybody, I was actually the guy out there. I
wasn`t in overalls and a hat, so I wasn`t a -- but I actually was the guy
working the cones out there. You really are not serious with that
question.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Sarcasm. "The Bergen Record" timeline showed that on
December 13th, Christie was asked whether the lane closures were related to
the Fort Lee mayor and political retaliation -- revenge, if you will.
Christie replied, "He" -- meaning the Fort Lee mayor -- "was not somebody
that was on my radar screen in any way politically, professionally, or in
any other way until these stories came out in the aftermath of the
closing." So the answer is absolutely unequivocally not. He had nothing
to do with this lane closure effort to embarrass that local mayor.

On December 19th, Christie said his national profile was keeping the
bridge story alive. In other words, he`s so famous that people talk about
the little stuff. Listen to how he does it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHRISTIE: Just because press runs around and writes about it both
here and nationally -- I know why that is, and so do you. Let`s not
pretend it`s because of the gravity of the issue. It`s because I am a
national figure, and anything like this will be written about a lot now.
So let`s not pretend that this is some great thing.

I know you all think this is some issue of great, great moment. I
don`t. Mistakes were made in the way this stuff was communicated, by
Senator Baroni`s own testimony, and they have taken responsibility, both of
them -- both of them -- for the mistakes that were made.

As far as I`m concerned that`s it. You guys all want to keep chasing
it around, chase it around. I mean, it`s your business. But I`m not
running around doing an independent investigation. I`m not a prosecutor
anymore, I`m a governor.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, there you have a couple interesting developments
there. First of all, the use of passive voice, as we all know, means
trouble.

FINEMAN: Right.

MATTHEWS: "Mistakes were made." Nobody who`s innocent ever says it
in the passive voice. Number two, I`m not going to go around and
investigate. Wait a minute. First time, he puts out the word that this
was some sort of research project.

FINEMAN: Traffic study.

MATTHEWS: And so if you`re to believe him now in the statement he put
out tonight under the transom -- he put it -- over the transom he puts it
out tonight -- then you have to believe the following, that he didn`t know
about this phony baloney research project that led to the bridge problems.
He didn`t know about that. That was all created by the staff around him
and his people, all created out of whole cloth, and they were just covering
it up from him.

Now you have to believe, in addition to that, that his deputy chief of
staff, and who knows who else, was involved in this whole rigmarole, this
whole skullduggery of saying, Let`s cause some bridge problems for that
local mayor. And you have to believe he didn`t set about a pattern of this
kind of revenge-getting, that he didn`t do this in a number of cases so
that the deputy chief of staff would naturally have said, Oh, we`re going
down a list of your enemies here. We`re just doing to each one the kind of
things that I know you wanted me to do...

FINEMAN: Well...

MATTHEWS: ... because you told me to.

FINEMAN: Chris, a couple of other things. First of all, he -- but he
did say in December that mistakes were made. How did he know mistakes were
made? In other words, as David was pointing out, if he -- he`s the former
prosecutor. Did he learn just enough about it to know that mistakes were
made? What mistakes were made?

(CROSSTALK)

FINEMAN: That isn`t clear. But your larger point is the important
one, it seems to me. This is just a window into, I think, the way that the
Christie governorship has been run in New Jersey. And far from being a
small story, this is a thread that you pull to see how this guy operates...

MATTHEWS: And the suit comes off.

FINEMAN: ... the suit comes off, and how he would govern...

MATTHEWS: OK...

FINEMAN: ... were he to become...

MATTHEWS: OK, here`s...

FINEMAN: ... president of the United States.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: David, David, David, I know you`re a man of the center-left
or left and your politics are clear to me and I love them. But let me tell
you what the stupid thing of this whole thing -- is how hideous it is for
the Republicans.

What is their opening against Obama and the Democrats? They don`t
know how to run something. They don`t know how to keeps hands on. They
don`t know how to keep control of situations.

Here`s a guy who admits...

FINEMAN: Well, you don`t put your hands around his neck.

MATTHEWS: ... as his defense, he doesn`t know anything that`s going
on.

CORN: Well, listen...

MATTHEWS: He doesn`t know what`s going on with the bridge or the guys
he`s appointed there.

CORN: Well, Chris...

MATTHEWS: He doesn`t know about traffic surveys. He doesn`t know
what his chief of staff`s are doing. He doesn`t know anything. And that`s
his defense?

(CROSSTALK)

CORN: What Christie`s sort of promotion, self-promotion has been in
the last year is, Hey, what goes on in Washington, they`re just a bunch of
kids, it`s a kindergarten down there. And you know, I`m not like that. I
make things happen. I am an adult. He has said that over and over again,
dismissing other congressional leaders who might run for president, as
well.

But now he looks like he`s the guy`s is petty, who`s a schoolyard
bully. And the whole idea that he didn`t know -- listen, there was
evidence weeks ago that that whole traffic study explanation was full of
you know what. Yet he took no initiative to look into it and get to the
bottom of this because he didn`t want to.

FINEMAN: Well...

CORN: I still think it`s really hard to believe...

FINEMAN: David, can I...

CORN: ... that so many people at the Port Authority and in his office
thought that it was fine to do this. You only do that if you get signals
from a certain culture, and that culture is set by the guy at the top. And
there`s still a lot to learn...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: As Mike Dukakis says, the fish rots from the top.

FINEMAN: He made...

(CROSSTALK)

FINEMAN: He made his repudiation in national politics by being down
at the coast during the storms...

MATTHEWS: Right.

FINEMAN: ... by knowing the details, by telling people to get out in
the interests of saving their own lives. That was Chris Christie good on
the details. Now, as you say, he`s saying, I had no idea what was going on
in my administration.

MATTHEWS: OK, we`re going to come right back in a minute and talk
about the national -- this is big-time for the Republican Party. What are
they going to run now, Ted Cruz? I mean, who`ve they got left? Anyway,
they got a weak bench to start with, and it`s crazier as you go across that
bench.

Anyway, just for the record here, here`s what Christie said tonight.
If you want to still believe him, listen to this because this statement
came out as a written statement, not him personally. He had it slipped
down under the door tonight after an all-day examination of what happened,
by him, apparently.

"What I`ve seen today for the first time is unacceptable. I am
outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a
member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned
conduct was made without my knowledge. One thing is clear, this type of
behavior is unacceptable and I will not tolerate it because the people of
New Jersey deserve better. This behavior is not representative of me or my
administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their
actions."

King Richard Lionheart has returned to England to clear things up.

Anyway, Howard and David, thank you. Stay with us because that`s what
I want to talk about next, how this scandal and what it is could scramble,
and in fact, who knows what, put the kibosh on the 2016 Republican
presidential race. Remember, the big opportunity was to run on competence.
Chris Christie is supposed to be the party`s savior from its right-wing
albatross. Who else they going to find, who they going to call? Maybe
Scott Walker. I don`t know who`s available.

Plus, Republicans claim to have a better idea how to fight poverty.
They do (ph). But in fact, they`re offering nothing new and hope we just
forget what they oppose -- everything on the poverty front, the minimum
wage, extending unemployment benefits, food stamps. They want to cut them
all!

Anyway, Republicans or conservatives are overreacting, don`t you
think, to what Robert Gates wrote in his memoir about the Iraq surge. Read
the passage carefully. President Obama did not say he opposed the surge
for political reasons, but that hasn`t stopped those on the right from
saying so. Read the book. I did today. I know I wasn`t supposed to, but
I read it.

"Let Me Finish" tonight, by the way, with a couple of personal notes.
I think you`re going to like them.

This is HARDBALL. a place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Back with more on what the scandal in New Jersey means for
the Republican Party nationally and who they`ll run for president now that
Christie is in big, big, bad trouble. Back after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: We`re back with the big implications of this Chris Christie
bridge story. Let`s look at the national fallout and what it means for the
Republican field come 2016. Governor Chris Christie would have been the
mainstream candidate, if you will, to beat. Does this he`s (ph) left (ph)
to the hard Tea Party right to win this nomination, people like Rubio,
who`s out there all over the place, and Rand Paul and Ted Cruz? Is that
what it`s come to?

Also, who benefits from the Christie mess right now, Scott Walker of
Wisconsin the only other non-Tea Partier who could run for president? How
do the Republicans win if a growing percentage of the country, by the way,
now identifies itself as independent -- we just got that number today --
and the smallest percentage ever as Republican?

And is there any way right now that Christie can climb out of this
mess? If he`s involved in this punishment -- underhanded punishment effort
of his to someone who dared to oppose him for reelection, is there any way
he can actually get forgiveness for this politically?

And will Christie`s role now be, at best, backing some right-wing
candidate back on the East Coast, somehow a guy who is vowing for crazy
right-wingers on the East Coast?

Anyway, Howard Fineman and David Corn are still with us, but also
joining us now is Kathleen Parker, syndicated columnist with "The
Washington Post."

Let`s go right across the board, Howard and David and then with
Kathleen.

And it seems to me the first question is, in Massachusetts, they say
the shape of the field determines the winner. What`s the shape of the
field now that the big guy is probably not on the list anymore?

HOWARD FINEMAN, NBC CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the shape of
the field is that he is going to get ground up in between two very angry
opposing forces.

The Tea Party people in the Republican Party have never liked him.
The conservative blogs and the Tea Party blogs today were alive with
ridicule about Christie from the right.

MATTHEWS: So, he`s a man without a country?

FINEMAN: Right.

Meanwhile, the Democrats in New Jersey, whom he had paved over and was
ahead -- the irony of his muscling the guy in Fort Lee is, he didn`t need
to do it. That`s what is so Nixonian about it.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

FINEMAN: And the Democrats now in Trenton and elsewhere around the
state are embittered. There`s going to be investigations, federal, state.
The mayor of Fort Lee is going to sue. There is going to be desire for
back money to be paid to the -- this is going to go on and it`s going to
lift the lid on his administration. It`s going to last two years this way.

MATTHEWS: Yes. And I just look at the string of firings that`s
already taken place, David Corn, and I look at it.

The guy loses the big $250,000-a-year job he put him into. And the
there guy for $130,000 a year or something, another big job working on the
bridge. And now he`s pretty much targeted his deputy chief of staff,
Bridget Kelly. She`s going to take -- how many more people are going to
take the bullet for him before somebody says, this was the deal, this is
what we were here for?

DAVID CORN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, you`re waiting for the John
Dean of Trenton to show up.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

CORN: And that may come, it may not come.

But to your question, Chris, you said the shape of the field
determines who wins. I think actually who the membership of the audience,
the composition of the audience determines what the show is. And the Tea
Party gang still controls the base of the Republican Party.

So when it comes to winning primaries and caucuses especially, that
party is so far to the right, it hasn`t moved back to the center after the
shellacking it got last year in 2012.

So I still think the gravitational pull for anybody running is toward
the right for Ted Cruz and Rand Paul.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: But they have never -- they have never -- they have never
ran -- in the history of the party that I can think of ran a wacko bird.
You would have to go back to Goldwater.

CORN: Well, I know, I know, but the party keeps moving in that
direction. And Chris Christie was going to get in there and try to fight
those currents. And now it seems like he`s wounded.

I think -- I don`t see anybody on the horizon who can come in there
and fight those currents, unless you want to say it`s a good day today for
a Huntsman, which I don`t think it is.

MATTHEWS: Well, let`s go to Kathleen, who is new here.

Kathleen, you know this political world as well as we do. And I want
to ask you about this question. After days and days and weeks and weeks,
since basically, I don`t know when, last fall, this governor has been
treading water on this issue. The boat keeps -- he keeps bailing out.
People keep getting fired, new excuses.

First of all, there`s a traffic study and now there`s somebody that
completely lied to him. And I don`t know. If he believed in the traffic
study, he was part of the cover-up, I guess. Or else that was part of
somebody else`s cover-up. And now he has got somebody else he`s blaming
for misleading him. It took him all day today.

He ducked his public appearance again today, showed no face to the
press, slipped this little statement out right before "NewsHour" tonight.
And that`s the actions of somebody who doesn`t like the light.

Your thoughts?

KATHLEEN PARKER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Well, Chris, you certainly
summed it all up well.

Look, I bet there are a lot of Republican candidates out there
paraphrasing the deputy chief of staff, saying, is it bad that I`m smiling?

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

PARKER: I think Christie very badly hurt by this.

And part of the reason is that he`s always had this -- this impression
of being a bully, and certainly people have testified to that. But it`s
always been in a moment, you know, where you`re reacting to something,
you`re angry, and you just fire off.

But this has the feel of conspiracy to do something that`s harmful to
the people, whether he had anything to do with it or not. This is the
staff that he has surrounded himself with. This is the culture of his own
administration. And I think that`s very bad for Chris Christie. Nobody
likes a bully, and nobody wants that kind of personality to represent this
country and -- to the rest of the world.

MATTHEWS: Well, I get the feeling that, you know, Scott Walker, who
our colleague Ed Schultz went after pretty heavily and has managed to
survived that onslaught from labor and other people, he`s the only guy I
can think of in American politics, Republican politics, that`s not
identified as a Tea Party type.

He may be a conservative and a tough guy, but he`s not a Tea Party
type.

FINEMAN: Well, Chris, here`s what`s I think so devastating about
this, not just for Christie, but perhaps for the Republican Party.

That new survey that you talked about that said the greatest number of
the American people identify themselves as independents.

MATTHEWS: That`s news.

FINEMAN: OK.

(CROSSTALK)

FINEMAN: Chris Christie was the guy who was going to appeal to the
independents.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

FINEMAN: Because somehow he was outside of and beyond politics. Now,
as I said, he`s showing himself to be all too typical, maybe even corrupt
and mendacious, politician.

That`s going to turn off the independents, who like good government,
who like people who are outside of the party system, and the way things,
politics are usually practiced. This smells of the way politics are
usually practiced at the lowest level. That kills him with independent
voters.

CORN: And, you know, Chris, it also...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: You know what it reminds me of? That Kelsey Grammer show
"Boss."

FINEMAN: "The Boss."

MATTHEWS: It was on for a few weeks, about eight weeks. It was so
rough, they took it off the air.

But there was like -- he would say to one of his henchmen, the sort of
middle-aged Irish guy, disproportionate, meant kill the guy. This is not
that bad, but it`s pretty rough.

(CROSSTALK)

FINEMAN: Let`s have some traffic problems. Let`s have some traffic
problems.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Yes.

CORN: Chris, this is going to -- this is going to -- this is going to
pin Christie down too. There will be a couple of investigations.

And once you start looking at anything -- you know this from
Washington and from local politics -- who knows what else can come up? He
was moving more and more towards the national stage. He took over the
Republican Governors Association. He was moving away from Trenton. This
is going to pull him back in and get him stuck in whatever mud that may be
there.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

Well, Trenton makes, the world takes.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Thank you so much, Howard Fineman, David Corn. We have all
read that on the train. And, Kathleen Parker, it`s great having you on
tonight for this sordid story. You have given us some class.

Anyway, this story is not going away. You can bet we will be talking
about it tomorrow. This is the bridge to nowhere for Chris Christie.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Up next: Good thing Dennis Rodman is making friends in
North Korea, because he`s losing them back in his country. That`s us. And
this is HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Back to HARDBALL. Time now for the "Sideshow."

Dennis Rodman`s latest adventure to the authoritarian state of North
Korea is finally proving too much to swallow for many here in this country.
The famous basketball bad boy honored North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un
today with a happy birthday serenade before an audience of regime
officials.

His unexpected tribute preceded a basketball game in which Rodman and
a group of former NBA players played against a North Korean team to
celebrate Kim`s 31st birthday. Well, the spectacle comes a day after the
former basketball star`s meltdown on CNN in which he implied that the
trumped-up charges against Kenneth Bae, an American held captive in that
country, might actually be legitimate.

Rodman is now facing fresh criticism here at home. Kenneth Bae`s
family is reportedly appalled. Former U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson has
called his actions reprehensible. And Senator John McCain called him an
idiot for allowing himself to be used this way as a propaganda tool.

He may be making new friends there, of course. I don`t know he`s got
many left over here.

Up next: Conservatives say the war on poverty that began 50 years ago
didn`t work. Maybe that`s because they have worked to gut the social
safety net every chance they have gotten.

And you`re watching HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VERONICA DE LA CRUZ, CNBC CORRESPONDENT: Hey there. I`m Veronica De
La Cruz. And here`s what`s happening.

Gabrielle Giffords marked the third anniversary of the mass shooting
in Tucson with a skydive. On Twitter, she thanked Vice President Joe Biden
for a good luck call and invited him to join her next time.

John Kerry will travel to Paris and Kuwait Saturday, where he will try
to build support for a cease-fire in Syria`s civil war.

And Vice President Joe Biden has spoken with Iraqi Prime Minister
Nouri al-Maliki for a second time this week amid rising sectarian violence
there.

I`m Veronica De La Cruz. Let`s get you back to HARDBALL.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LYNDON BAINES JOHNSON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This
administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty
in America. The richest nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot
afford to lose it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

That was President Lyndon Johnson 50 years ago today declaring a war
on poverty. You might have heard a number of conservatives this week
declare that that war was lost. Senator Marco Rubio is one of them.
Today, in a highly publicized speech, he argued the fact that so many
Americans remain in poverty proved we lost the war.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: Our current president and his liberal
allies, what they propose to address this, their proposal is let`s spend
more on these failed programs and let`s increase the minimum wage to
$10.10.

This -- really? This is their solution to what the president has
called the defining issue of our time? Raising the minimum wage may poll
well, but having a job that pays $10 an hour is not the American dream.
And our current government programs at best offer only a partial solution.
They help people deal with poverty. But they do not help people emerge
from poverty.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, Senator Rubio said what is needed is for people to be
able to get better-paying jobs and for the economy to create more
opportunities to find those jobs.

And here comes his magical solution.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUBIO: We have the single greatest engine of upward mobility in human
history at our disposal, the American free enterprise system.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: OK. Rubio also said the federal government should hand
over its anti-poverty programs and the money that goes with them to
individual states and let them decide what to do with the money.

When Rubio and other conservatives declare the war on poverty a 50-
year failure, they miss one very important point. We have not been
fighting the war on poverty for almost 50 years. After some initial
successes, conservatives went about trying to dismantle President Obama --
President Johnson`s programs back then and to a large extent, as we all
know, succeeded.

But how much more of the safety net do they want to dismantle? In `64
-- in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson was giving his address, U.S. Congressman
John Lewis was fighting for the economic and political rights of African-
Americans as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

He joins me now to give us historic perspective.

Congressman, what do you make of this Rubio proposal? I think it`s a
Rube Goldberg thing. I don`t know what it is. Oh, we will just turn
everything over to the states or we will get rid of them and somehow the
free enterprise system is going to take people out of poverty? In other
words, do nothing in Washington and everything good is going to happen.

What do you think?

REP. JOHN LEWIS (D), GEORGIA: Well, I must say, Chris, that the
proposal by the senator is wrongheaded.

I think he`s dead wrong. I lived through the `40s, through the `50s,
through the `60s. I saw poverty with my own eyes. I grew up very, very
poor in rural Alabama. And during the `60s, I traveled all across America,
rural areas, urban centers.

And what Lyndon Johnson did with the war on poverty, he made great
strides in cutting poverty in half. To go back and say give everything to
the state government, you going to give it to the state of Georgia,
Alabama, Mississippi, or to some other state outside of the South?

We don`t want to go back. We want to go forward and continue to
build. Lyndon Johnson was right. It is a war that we cannot afford to
lose. If we go back, we will have people receiving starvation wages. And
hundreds and thousands and millions of people today in America are better
off today because of the commitment of Lyndon Johnson.

When Robert Kennedy and Senator George McGovern and others traveled
and Dr. King traveled into parts of the South, the Midwest, Appalachia,
they saw people living in unbelievable condition, receiving starvation
wages. As a nation, we can continue to do better. We need to build off
what Lyndon Johnson started 50 years ago.

MATTHEWS: Do you think people have just terrible memories, and people
like Rubio, who is a young guy, who may not even know the history of this
country in the period you talk, about are being taken?

Because it seems to me that everybody knows Richard Nixon went into
office in 1969. He put Howard Phillips head of the OEO, he brought in
Donald Rumsfeld to destroy those problems. Ronald Reagan ran against the
welfare queens and all the other iconic messages he was sending, the dog
whistles. He trashed those programs.

The Bushes, the father and son -- how can they -- how do these people
get away with saying we have had a 50-year war on poverty, when we had
about a six-year war?

LEWIS: You`re so right. We had about six years and later systematic
deliberate effort to destroy what Lyndon Johnson set in motion, and we need
a greater commitment. I don`t quite understand it in our country. As we
think about what Lyndon Johnson did and what he said, the richest nation on
the planet.

We don`t need more bombs and missiles and guns. We need to take care
of our people. You don`t tell me that Head Start and (INAUDIBLE) didn`t
help create better conditions, help lift people, help resources to buy a
refrigerator, to buy books for their kids, to put food on their table?

MATTHEWS: Well, it`s a different mindset, Congressman. It`s a new
one and a bad one. Thank you so much for joining us. Congressman John
Lewis who was at the heart of this storm 50 years ago.

Michael Tomasky is a special correspondent for "The Daily Beast.`

Michael, you`ve written very well about this and I -- there was an
emotional history with the people who benefited from it. But the short
nature of the war on poverty and they`re running about -- "The Wall Street
Journal" had a big column today, 50-year war on poverty. What are we
talking about? Reagan, Nixon? What are we talking about?

MICHAEL TOMASKY, THE DAILY BEAST: Yes, you got it right. Six years.
Six years from 1964 to 1970 basically. And in those six years, as the
congressman said, the official poverty rate was cut nearly in half, not
quite -- 40 percent, something like that. So, it was working. It was
working for a while.

And then Vietnam ate up a lot of the money. Then, there was some
corruption admittedly and some problems. Then, the backlash set in. And
then Reagan came along.

There`s been no 50-year war on poverty.

MATTHEWS: You know, I think people -- you know, when you have
something, you don`t recognize how important it is, when you`re denied it.
Like right to choice. Then it`s a big issue.

TOMASKY: Yes.

MATTHEWS: Social Security is the greatest anti-poverty program this
country has ever established.

MATTHEWS: Sure.

MATTHEWS: The fact that it used to be when you were 65 and couldn`t
work any more, even if you worked for 40, 50 years, you`re going to live
with your kids if you`re lucky, if you have kids. You`re lucky to move in
with them, right?

TOMASKY: Right.

MATTHEWS: And depend on them. Once Social Security was passed, you
had a foundation for retirement and in some cases your entire retirement.
But you were going to eat.

TOMASKY: Yes.

MATTHEWS: Why don`t the Democrats out there -- you`re not a
politician -- why aren`t the Democrats out there bragging they prevented
from old people dying in the gutter?

TOMASKY: I don`t know why they`re not out there saying that. I think
they should say that every day of their lives. I made this point in the
column that I wrote this week, that Democrats have to be defending these
programs, they have to be standing up to what the Republicans like Rubio
are saying and saying, no, no, no.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Free enterprise system was there -- what the free
enterprise system meant when you were 65 and you couldn`t work and you were
broke.

TOMASKY: That`s right.

MATTHEWS: That`s the free enterprise system. And now he`s saying
bring it back to the states, I keep thinking, is the state of Georgia or
even Pennsylvania going to have a nutrition program? No.

TOMASKY: Even putting aside the question of whether states have the
will to do these things, OK? Just putting that to the side. Most states
just don`t have the capacity to do these things. They don`t do it. The
federal government can do it better.

MATTHEWS: By the way, did you notice how turning everything over to
the states really worked well with health care, with Obama.

TOMASKY: Yes.

MATTHEWS: The states that got ahold of it screwed it.

TOMASKY: Yes.

MATTHEWS: And the states didn`t let the federal government do it and
it`s working.

But anyway, thank you, Michael Tomasky. Great reporting.

Up next, the right-wing overreaction to former Defense Secretary
Robert Gates` new tell-all account of the Obama administration. Boy, have
they gotten this thing wrong. Even the press got it wrong and I`m not a
media critic.

This is not the accusation. It was cleverly not made in the book.
We`ll get to it.

This is HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Mr. Reince Priebus is telegraphing just how the Republicans
plan on coming after Hillary Clinton. And it`s pretty ironic considering
what we talk about at the top of show tonight.

Here is Priebus, the chairman of the Republican Party, talking about
the former secretary of state.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REINCE PRIEBUS, RNC CHAIRMAN: With all of the scandal around her, I`m
not so sure it would be bad for the Republican Party to tell the truth.
She wanders and scandal surrounds her.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN: Like what? Like what?

PRIEBUS: You brought up one just today. We talk about Benghazi. We
talk about the health care scandal or the health care rollout in the early
`90s. Whitewater. I mean, you name it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: I don`t know what he`s talking about. Scandal surrounds
her.

Well, there you have it from Priebus who is intent on dragging up
false accusations and phony stories about Hillary Clinton should she get
into the presidential race.

And we`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Bob, today, you`re not
only one of the longest serving secretaries of defense in American history
but it`s also clear that you`ve been one of the best. The integrity of Bob
Gates is also a reminder, especially to folks here in Washington, that
civility and respectful discourse and citizenship over partisanship are not
quaint relics of a bygone era.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

That was, of course, President Obama back in June of 2011, bidding
farewell to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in a ceremony awarding him
the Presidential Medal of Freedom. What you heard in that clip the
president praised gates for his respectful discourse while in office,
cementing his reputation, Gates is, as someone who as Bob Woodward puts it,
known for his bipartisanship detachment, the consummate team player.

Well, that`s why the ripple effects of Gates upcoming memoir "Duty",
there`s the cover, which ridicules the president, Joe Biden, even Hillary
Clinton in some parts, is already getting felt in Washington and beyond
with such tectonic force. What`s truly surprising is Gates apparent lack
of loyalty. Think about it -- a Pentagon chief going public with a hostile
portrait of a sitting president.

Well, in addition to passages that call the Obama White House the most
controlling since Richard Nixon`s day and in addition to excerpts which
berates Biden`s foreign policy experience, there`s one passage that critics
are having a field day with.

I want has to do with the 2007 Iraq surge. Here it is, according to
published reports. Quote, "Hillary told the president that her opposition
to the 2007 surge in Iraq had been political because she was facing him,
the president, in that Iowa primary. The president conceded vaguely that
opposition to Iraq surge had been political. Well, to hear the two of them
making these admissions, in front of me, was as surprising as it was
disarming."

But take a look at how it`s playing in conservative media outlets. In
the "National Review Online", the headline reads, "Gates: Hillary, Obama
admitted they opposed surge for political reasons." And the headline on
Drudge, "Gates says Obama, Hillary opposition to Iraq surge was political."

It said nothing of the kind.

Chuck Todd, the chief White House correspondent and political director
of NBC News, and the host of MSNBC`s "DAILY RUNDOWN".

Chuck, I got a look at the book, I saw that paragraph.

CHUCK TODD, NBC NEWS POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Right.

MATTHEWS: It never -- first of all, I put in there that Hillary
believed in the surge, but didn`t support it, admittedly she said because
of political reasons, she`s up against Obama who was opposing the whole
Iraq war. It never says Obama conceded that "I was operating on the basis
of politics." It said, he vaguely conceded that opposition to the surge
was political.

Well, I have no idea what those weasel words mean, those are weasel
words. Opposition, whose opposition? Vaguely, what does that mean?
Vaguely conceded the opposition, never said anything about him.

You`re reading?

TODD: Well, if I`ve been doing a lot of, sort of background reporting
and back and forth, and there`s a couple things that have -- that come to
light to me, just talking to some folks today, some folks close to Gates,
for instance, Chris, who have described the initial reporting.

The initial accounts, specifically, Bob Woodward`s account in "The
Washington Post", as sensationalized, that people close to Gates are
saying, hey, you know what, this book is candid, yes, he stands by those
quotes about whether it`s a Biden and Hillary on President Obama, but the
whole book is much more measured and much more in line with the picture of
Bob Gates that`s been painted for decades in this town.

So, there seems to be a little bit of a concern or shock in Gates`
world, of sort of how these quotes are playing, and it may not have
necessarily -- maybe sending a message that Gates, himself wasn`t
necessarily intending to send.

MATTHEWS: Yes. Well, I thought the press coverage was trying to make
it look like he was painting both with the same brush, and saying that both
Hillary and Obama were playing politics, when everybody who`s watching this
show knows that Obama since the time he was a state senator opposed the
whole Iraq war. Certainly would have opposed the surge in principal, as he
was running for president. We heard his speeches day after day against the
war. And he never ever said --

TODD: No, it would have been weird.

(CROSSTALK)

TODD: Right. It would have been weirder, had the guy -- it would
have been more inconsistent.

Look, Hillary Clinton had the harder she was having the harder time
with this issue, because she supported the resolution. She was having to
explain this stuff, and so, it was harder for her, she had no choice
politically, to come out and vote against the surge when it happened. But
-- you know, so there is sort of some politics there.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: She didn`t want to say so. That`s also in the book that
they`re not reporting, I just read the darn thing.

By the way, is this a weird way to release a book? Release the hot
quotes, and then you wait a week to --

TODD: Well, that`s what you -- it`s the way they sell books these
days. But, you know, there is a larger thing, it`s sort of -- the fact is,
there was a break between Gates and Obama, and it was never personal
between the two men, their relationship was never quite strong, but the
disrupt on the staff level, can I tell you this from my own research was
very real, and it all stemmed from, if you recall in 2009, which is really
what this book in the Obama section of the book is about, is this whole
process of trying to figure out what to do in Afghanistan, was there going
to be a surge of troops?

And a lot of the debates left a lot of hurt feelings. The White House
felt they got jammed by the generals in doing, in picking a specific number
of troops that they necessarily weren`t in favor of at the beginning.

MATTHEWS: I`m watching this from the outside, I thought that was --

TODD: It looked like a jamming. And I talked to folks in the
Pentagon who acknowledge that it looked like a jamming, but swear it was
never the intention. But the problem was, that`s how the disrupt began.
The White House and the security staff started doing their own thing and
getting their own information and started filtering things a bit,
micromanaging the Pentagon relationship, vice versa.

So, that`s where you got the hurt feelings. And this part of it is
real.

MATTHEWS: I think the sad part of it is real, and I think that`s the
real story we`re missing in this headline grabbing. I think the real story
is there`s a real culture gap between the young, anti-war people around the
president, including Rahm Emanuel, and Tom Donilon, the people you`ve
covered and have covered, and clearly, they didn`t really like those guys
in uniform, because they figured those guys just wanted to prosecute a war
because they had started and wanted to finish it, whereas Obama wanted to
end it.

Anyway, thank you, Chuck Todd. And these are real issues, the real
stuff.

Anyway, we`ll be right back as always. It`s great to have you on,
Chuck.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Let me finish tonight with a couple of personal notes.

The first is to thank Michael Smerconish for being such a good friend
and HARDBALL host when I was away over Christmas and the holidays. He`s a
first rate guy by the way, as well as the first rate host here, and I want
everyone to know I couldn`t have a better person being here when I`m not,
which is really, I got to say not that often.

On that point, I was with my family the last two weeks, but Kathleen
managed to get out the holiday card this year. I love it, and I want to
share it with you right now, everybody.

There`s Kathy and me at her birthday party last summer, Thomas and
Caroline up there in the corner, pretty glamorous couple of kids there.
Thomas is an actor now, appearing for the last two seasons as a recurring
cast member on HBO`s "Newsroom". He`s also in that new movie "American
Hustle." He plays Jeremy Renner`s son in the film.

Caroline is with Google right now, and doing a great job. She`s just
got a promotion, in fact.

Michael`s there with he and Sarah`s young daughter, our granddaughter,
the wondrous Julia. Sarah is an attorney, by the way, with the firm
Gibson, Dunn & Krutcher, out in L.A. Michael who produced a film that got
into Sundance last year, is working as a screenwriter. I can`t tell you
how proud Kathleen, who`s going to be on the show tomorrow, and I -- are of
our children, that they`re out there at the cutting edge, taking risks,
contributing to this great country in good and important ways.

Anyway, that`s HARDBALL for tonight, thanks for being with us. Pretty
hot show tonight, wasn`t it?

"ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now.

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY
BE UPDATED.
END

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