Matthews Attacks! McConnell and Limbaugh Trying to 'De-Americanize Obama'

Chris Matthews bizarrely accused Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of using code language to appeal to the Birther crowd for saying, on Sunday's Meet the Press, that "The President says he's a Christian. I take him at his word." The phrasing of "take him at his word" sent the MSNBC host, on Monday's Hardball, into a rage as he charged McConnell's statement was a "Pitch perfect, dog whistle to the haters." 

In fact, Matthews devoted much of his show to "The right wing's attempt to de-Americanize the President" as he invited on Newsweek's Howard Fineman and the Huffington Post's Sam Stein, in the first segment, to dissect what they thought was some sort of nefarious strategy on the parts of McConnell, Reverend Franklin Graham, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck to ride a "message of fear" to victory in November.

Matthews began his opening segment by attacking McConnell for failing to denounce any sort of conspiracy theories as he claimed: "The Republican leader of the Senate played Birther politics with abandon." He even brought on Fineman -- who proudly claimed that since he used to work in McConnell's home state of Kentucky and therefore "understands it" --  to explain to viewers that the GOP senator was trying to get Rand Paul elected by playing to a "nativist appeal" that "really works big time" in that state.

However McConnell wasn't the only target of Matthews' ire as the conversation soon turned towards Rush Limbaugh:

MATTHEWS: Okay let's go, we gotta get to, we gotta get to Rush Limbaugh, just to complete the hat trick here. Here's, here's Mitch McConnell, Reverend Franklin Graham and now Rush Limbaugh today on this topic. Is Barack Obama of the relig-, everybody watching right now, by the way, gets credit for being of the religion you say you are. You go to the church, you go to the synagogue, the mosque, whatever? That's the one you're a member of. That's the one you are. We accept that in America. It's called freedom of religion and respect for religion. Apparently the new rule is "Oh I take him at his word." Which means "I really don't, really have any reason to believe he's telling the truth."

SAM STEIN, HUFFINGTON POST: There's a debate, yes.

MATTHEWS: Here he is. Here's Rush Limbaugh on this topic.

(Begin clip)

RUSH LIMBAUGH: What is the only proof we have that Obama is a Christian? Well, okay. His, his word. His word. But Jeremiah Wright is the only proof that we have that he's a Christian. Obama described Wright as his spiritual mentor. Well we, sorry, media. We've heard Jeremiah Wright. We know what Jeremiah Wright said. We know what he thinks of America.

(End clip)

MATTHEWS: Does everybody watching know what was going on right there? Smearing this guy? I mean, does everybody know what's happening here? He didn't answer the question. Rush Limbaugh has an IQ as high as anybody's around. He's a smart guy. He knows exactly what he's doing here. He switched the topic from what a man says his religion is to "How much do we hate Jeremiah Wright?"

FINEMAN: Yeah well, everybody who watches this show knows exactly what's going on because we're explaining it to them. And this has a deep history of fearing the other, of fearing the outsider. Look Barack Obama came in as a president representing something new, big change-

MATTHEWS: Right.

FINEMAN: He kind of came out of nowhere. This scares the heck out of these people. And they'll use any element of fear they can.

The following is the a full transcript of the entire first segment as it was aired on the August 23 edition of Hardball:

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Good evening, I'm Chris Matthews back in Washington. Leading off, tonight "Who is Mitch McConnell and why is he saying those terrible things about me?" Yesterday the Republican leader of the Senate played Birther politics with abandon. What did he say when asked whether President Obama is of the religion he says he is, quote, "I take him at his word." And there you have it. Why do 34 percent of Republicans say Obama is a Muslim? Why do only 27 percent of Republicans say he's a Christian? Only 23 percent say he was born in America. One reason might be that people like Republican leader Mitch McConnell go on Meet the Press, as he did yesterday, and say things like, "I take him at his word," when asked if the President is, as he says, a Christian. Pitch perfect, dog whistle to the haters. "Yeah sure, whatever he says, right." This is not about belief. It's an accusation that President Obama is not one of us. The right wing's attempt to de-Americanize the President is our top story tonight.

...

MATTHEWS: We'll start with the attempt to de-Americanize President Obama. Newsweek's Howard Fineman is an MSNBC political analyst and Sam Stein is a political reporter for the Huffington Post. I want you gentlemen to watch what happened on Meet the Press yesterday. Here's Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell on Meet the Press. Let's listen to the give and take between he and moderator, David Gregory.

(Begin clip)

MITCH MCCONNELL: The President's faith in the government to stimulate the economy is what people are questioning.

DAVID GREGORY: That, that, that certainly is a sidestep to this particular question. Again-

MCCONNELL: Well no I....

GREGORY: As a leader of the country sir, as one of the most powerful Republicans in the country, do think you have an obligation to say to 34 percent of Republicans, in the country rather, 31 percent who believe the President of the United States is a Muslim. That's misinformation!

MCCONNELL: The President says, the President says he's a Christian. I take him at his word. I don't think that's in dispute.

GREGORY: And do you think, how do you think it comes to be that this kind of misinformation gets spread around and prevails?

MCCONNELL: I have no idea. But I take the President at his word.

(End clip)

MATTHEWS: Well, there you have it, Howard. In politics I think we call that "trimming." When it's apparent, apparent to the person listening to you, you're not really believing the person, but you're just voicing something that undermines him.

HOWARD FINEMAN, NEWSWEEK: Yeah, and that's what Mitch McConnell was doing there. I've covered him ever since he was county judge in Louisville, Kentucky, over the years. He knows how to play the cultural fault lines and divides here. And he does it in a very low key, kind of syrupy, Kentucky way. But that's, that's what he's doing, that's clearly what he's doing.

MATTHEWS: Parsing his words in a way that says he is not lying but-

FINEMAN: Okay now I e-mailed Karl Rove. I said, Karl Rove, what do you think? Do you think, do you have any doubt that, that Barack Obama is a Christian? Karl Rove e-mailed back, "None whatsoever." On the other hand, I contacted the RNC's office, the Republican National Committee's office here in Washington. I said what is Michael Steele, the chairman, saying about this? Nothing. Here's what Michael Steele, here's what the answer was. "That's not an issue the committee has discussed."

MATTHEWS: Ha!

FINEMAN: "We're focused on how the Obama-Pelosi-Reid agenda is blah, blah." That's the same approach here.

MATTHEWS: By the way, you're always great. This is one thing I like about you. The reporting is up to the minute.

FINEMAN: I'm just trying to keep up with Sam.

MATTHEWS: No but I mean, I mean, I want to get to Sam, but the fact of the matter is the Republican National Committee knows this is a hot issue, today.

FINEMAN: Yes.

MATTHEWS: They're prepared to answer it, and their answer is "We're not talking."

FINEMAN: The answer is "We're not talking." Which allows Mitch McConnell to be the spokesperson.

MATTHEWS: Okay, look Sam, there's no accident out there. The American people are all listening to this conversation. This conversation here is like it is at a bar room somewhere, in a car pool somewhere. And somehow this delves down to the following. That 27 percent of the American people who knows this guy says he's a Christian, believe he is.

SAM STEIN, HUFFINGTON POST: Yeah.

MATTHEWS: I'm not talking about what the right religion is. Nobody actually knows what the right religions is. Everybody says what theirs is, obviously. But 27 percent of the people believe him.

STEIN: Yeah.

MATTHEWS: On the fact of what his religion is, only 23 percent believe, hard fact, he was born here - of the Republican party. This is a highly prejudicial issue. Republicans have a very different issue, position on this than most Americans do.

STEIN: Sure.

MATTHEWS: Why?

STEIN: Well-

MATTHEWS: Is Mitch McConnell to blame because of this pussyfooting or whatever the right word is, yesterday?

STEIN: Well first off I want to up my reporting chops here. I reached out...

MATTHEWS: What's the latest?

STEIN: I reached out to McConnell's office after this happened. And they were insisting that he wasn't trying to do anything of the sort. That he was being straight forward in saying he believes the President. Now to borrow their phrase, I guess I'll take him at his word, the spokesman for Mitch McConnell. What I think's going on here is you have a dichotomy. You have the Republican establishment that is perfectly willing and fine to let the commentariat, predominately, spread this stuff.

MATTHEWS: Mitch McConnell says he's a Republican. I take him at his word.

STEIN: I take him at his word as well. But listen, you have Glenn Beck, you have the Rush Limbaughs.

MATTHEWS: And what are they all saying?

STEIN: You have Franklin Graham, who actually was out there, saying very, you know, authoritatively that...

MATTHEWS: Let's take a look at Franklin Graham. Let's talk about Franklin Graham who is a man who has played this politics. Not the son of Billy Graham, he is the son of Billy Graham. He's speaking here as Franklin Graham. A guy who's engaged in this kind of anti-Muslim comments before. Here he is on CNN this past Thursday. Let's listen.

(Begin clip)

FRANKLIN GRAHAM: The President's problem is that he was born a Muslim. His father was a Muslim. The seed of Islam is passed through the father. Like the seed of Judaism is passed through the mother. He was born in a Muslim. His father gave him an Islamic name. Now it's obvious that the President has renounced the prophet Muhammad and he has renounced Islam. And he has accepted Jesus Christ. That's what he say he has done. I cannot say that he hasn't. So I just have to believe the President is what he has said.

(End clip)

MATTHEWS: What is this precious bodily fluids crap we're getting from this guy? The seed of Islam. If he's a Christian, of course, Billy Graham's son is a Christian. I take him at his word.

STEIN: Yeah, yeah.

MATTHEWS: But the fact is he's out there saying that Islam believes the seed the seed comes from the father. What is this talk about?

STEIN: Well this is my point here. And that is...

FINEMAN: There's a person in Iowa that...

MATTHEWS: What is he talking about?

STEIN: Yeah well this is my point, is that you have a commentary, you have a section of the Republican Party that's talking like this. And now we're seeing it start to filter into the actual Republican officials. We, we reported today that an RNC member in Iowa, a woman out there, actually firmly believes that Republican, that sorry, that Barack Obama is a Muslim. And she's out there publicly saying...

MATTHEWS: And who is she?

FINEMAN: This is some RNC committee woman.

MATTHEWS: So she's official.

FINEMAN: She's a member, she's a member of the Republican National Committee, in Iowa, in Iowa-

STEIN: Yeah.

FINEMAN: -the state that has the first caucuses.

MATTHEWS: Okay let's go, we gotta get to, we gotta get to Rush Limbaugh, just to complete the hat trick here. Here's, here's Mitch McConnell, Reverend Franklin Graham and now Rush Limbaugh today on this topic. Is Barack Obama of the relig-, everybody watching right now, by the way, gets credit for being of the religion you say you are. You go to the church, you go to the synagogue, the mosque, whatever? That's the one you're a member of. That's the one you are. We accept that in America. It's called freedom of religion and respect for religion. Apparently the new rule is "Oh I take him at his word." Which means "I really don't, really have any reason to believe he's telling the truth."

STEIN: There's a debate, yes.

MATTHEWS: Here he is. Here's Rush Limbaugh on this topic.

(Begin clip)

RUSH LIMBAUGH: What is the only proof we have that Obama is a Christian? Well, okay. His, his word. His word. But Jeremiah Wright is the only proof that we have that he's a Christian. Obama described Wright as his spiritual mentor. Well we, sorry, media. We've heard Jeremiah Wright. We know what Jeremiah Wright said. We know what he thinks of America.

(End clip)

MATTHEWS: Does everybody watching know what was going on right there? Smearing this guy? I mean, does everybody know what's happening here? He didn't answer the question. Rush Limbaugh has an IQ as high as anybody's around. He's a smart guy. He knows exactly what he's doing here. He switched the topic from what a man says his religion is to "How much do we hate Jeremiah Wright?"

FINEMAN: Yeah well, everybody who watches this show knows exactly what's going on because we're explaining it to them. And this has a deep history of fearing the other, of fearing the outsider. Look Barack Obama came in as a president representing something new, big change-

MATTHEWS: Right.

FINEMAN: He kind of came out of nowhere. This scares the heck out of these people. And they'll use any element of fear they can. Sometimes I think Rush Limbaugh is amusing. Sometimes I think he's useful in the conversation. This is wrong, because ministers such as Joel Hunter, who's a conservative Republican of Florida, is one of the people-

MATTHEWS: Right. Approved putting-

FINEMAN: -is one of the people that, whom Obama consults with-

MATTHEWS: Making your point-

FINEMAN: -who he talks to all the time. There, there are-

MATTHEWS: We got the new Pew poll out says 34 percent say he's a Christian. One in three, even though he says he is. You'd think most people would get credit for what they say. That's down from 48 percent in March of 2009. Eighteen percent say he's Muslim, 43 percent say they don't know. This "don't know" thing is getting out of hand. That's the game that Mitch McConnell is playing - "I don't know."

STEIN: Yeah see...

MATTHEWS: "I don't know" is a character assault. If somebody says, "I'm Jewish" and [somebody] says "No way, you're not." That's a character assault. You are, who you say you are in this country. And if somebody says you're not who you say you are, they're calling you a liar.

STEIN: Yeah.

MATTHEWS: It's basically what you're saying. It's worst than any religion, to call a guy a liar.

STEIN: Well the whole, the whole idea is to seed doubt. I mean there's so many conflicting, contradiction labels that they're putting on this man. It went from a black liberation theologist, to a communis, to a Marxist to a Muslim sympathizer, to a Muslim himself.

MATTHEWS: Okay here's a question. Pure politics. They got the economy in bad shape, most people are hurt. Middle aged people are getting hurt. People are losing jobs. Companies are dropping people they've had for years. Right? It's not the usual unemployed. All kinds of people are facing unemployment right now. They got high debt that doesn't sell. They got taxes maybe about to be back raised again, back to Clinton levels, at least. They have all of the things going for them. Why are the Republicans playing the dirt ball game when they don't need it? This is like Nixon when he could have won an election easily, he still reverted to this. I don't know why people do this. Why are they using this?

STEIN: We were talking about, we were talking about this and trying to put it in historical context, in looking back at the Great Depression when there were smears against Franklin Roosevelt for being a supposed Jew. And I think a lot of it has to-

MATTHEWS: Well that was Coughlin. Pretty far out.

STEIN: Yeah I mean driven by...

MATTHEWS: Did actual, did actual Republicans say that stuff?

FINEMAN: But millions and millions of people listened to Father Coughlin back in the day.

MATTHEWS: Yeah.

FINEMAN: But the answer to your question is right now there are two tracks. There's the economic track and there's this track involving immigration, race and religion.

MATTHEWS: Right.

FINEMAN: What I foresee happening is the two of them coming together at some point.

MATTHEWS: November election then?

FINEMAN: Sam was making the point earlier, when people are worried about the economic status that they have, they're more open to-

MATTHEWS: To a scapegoat.

FINEMAN: -these kinds of appeals of fear.

MATTHEWS: Hey we've seen this!

FINEMAN: And we've seen it with immigration and you may see it with the Islam issue as well.

MATTHEWS: Okay here's the question. Sam, hard question and then back to Howard.

STEIN: Sure.

MATTHEWS: Could it be that Mitch McConnell as a politician? Just guessing?

STEIN: Shocking, yes.

MATTHEWS: I take him at his word. He's a politician. Okay, he knows he's got a very good chance of picking up four or five Senate seats, but still being at the short end of that thing. Still having to face whoever the Democrats have. Whether it's Harry Reid or it's Chuck [Schumer] or it's Dick Durbin or somebody running the party. But he may well be on the short end, probably.

I looked at the numbers. We all, it's very hard for him to run 11 to 1 which he would have to do among the top 12 races to get the 10 point, 10 seat pick up. Could it be that he figures this is gonna be the winning cap? "We'll win on the economy, win five or six seats on the economy and then we'll take it away on culture and ethnicity and, and, and Americanism. That we can really knock the Democrats out of the batting box on this and grab the Senate."

STEIN: If that is-

MATTHEWS: With this, with this stuff.

STEIN: If that is his philosophy, the he is actually going against some people in the Republican Party who insist that's the wrong way to go about it. They look back at the impeachment trial-

MATTHEWS: How do they get hurt?

STEIN: They go back to the impeachment trial of Clinton and say that, that, that detracted from the idea that it should have been all about the economy.

MATTHEWS: Yeah but Clinton was popular.

STEIN: True.

FINEMAN: I think, I think and, most of the time, Karl Rove thinks that the economy is the way to do it. Okay? So he sort of agrees...

MATTHEWS: That's how Reagan got elected.

FINEMAN: Okay and Karl goes back to George W. etcetera and don't forget George W. was rather benign on some of these issues related to culture and so forth.

MATTHEWS: Back in 2000 he was!

FINEMAN: Okay, he was. But Mitch McConnell is looking at it through the lens of Kentucky. And since I used to work there, I understand it.

MATTHEWS: He wants Rand to win.

FINEMAN: And that's a native, that's a state where the nativist appeal outside of Louisville really works big time. He's trying to defend this guy, Rand Paul. And they're gonna use whatever fear message they can.

MATTHEWS: So the nativism is aimed at the center of the country?

FINEMAN: Well it's aimed at Kentucky, for sure.

MATTHEWS: Yeah okay, well that's what we're looking at. And I like doing this, on this show. Understand why people do what they do. These guys like Mitch McConnell know exactly what they're doing. When he says "I take him at his word," those words are crafted. Thank you. As always, you won on the reporting, by the way.

FINEMAN: No I didn't.

MATTHEWS: Howard Fineman, Sam Stein. This guy working his reporter's notebook to the last minute. He's the best this the business. Later on this show I'm going to tell you what I really think about some of this sleazy and dangerous stuff, I've begun to. It's smart, if you're evil.

Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens is the Deputy Research Director at the Media Research Center.