Chris Matthews, on Tuesday's Hardball, accused Fox News of "whipping up white hysteria" over allegations of the New Black Panther Party intimidating voters in Philadelphia as he wondered, at the top of his show, if there was "a rightist strategy to stir up racial resentment among whites by portraying whites as victims of black rule?" The Hardball host, during a discussion about the New Black Panther Party case with Philadelphia radio talk show hosts Michael Smerconish and E. Steven Collins, claimed that "Fox News and its friends" were pushing the story to motivate voters in the midterms because "I think there's nothing the Republican Party likes better than a nice, scared white voter. Let's be honest about it."
While Matthews did agree with Smerconish, about some of the merits of the case, the thrust of the segment was that Fox News and the right were pushing the New Black Panther Party story to race-bait as Matthews claimed: "This is just an attempt by the people on the right, I guess, especially Fox, to just keep pushing this, this beach ball in the air until it finally creates some noise."
The following teaser and full segment were aired on the July 27 Hardball:
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Also for weeks Fox News and its friends have been whipping up white hysteria over allegations that members of the New Black Panther Party, two of them, intimidated voters in Philadelphia two years ago. The Justice Department found insufficient evidence to investigate the case and now all seven Senate Republicans on the U.S. Judiciary committee of the Senate want the Justice Department investigated itself. Is this yet another example of a rightist strategy to stir up racial resentment among whites by portraying whites as victims of black rule in this country?
MATTHEWS: Let's start with all seven Republicans on the Senate Judiciary committee who sent a letter to Democratic committee chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont on Friday, pushing for a hearing, a big public hearing on a 2008 Election Day incident in Philadelphia involving two members of the New Black Panthers and whether they violated any voter intimidations laws. In their letter the Republican senators write about their concern. Quote, "Concern about the politicization of the Civil Rights Division within the Department of Justice." What's this latest push about?
Michael Smerconish is a syndicated radio host and MSNBC political analyst. And E. Steven, Collins is a Philadelphia radio host. I want, Michael you've written about this, I want you to start. Then E. Stevens jump in here. I want to try to get a thorough going presentation of what happened two years ago as best we can understand it. Give us a sense of the neighborhood involved, the voting division involved, what happened, Michael, on that day when we all voted, or most of Philadelphia, I should say, voted for, and certainly that division voted for Barack Obama for President?
MICHAEL SMERCONISH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Well, it's the 14th ward. It's the Fourth Division. It's a public housing development. And as I wrote, it is a division where there didn't need to be any voter intimidation in support of Barack Obama of any kind. In 2004, you're talking John Kerry - 501 votes and George W. Bush - 24. It was a fore gone conclusion because of the minority composition of the voting locale that Obama was going to clean house. I have always said this was a case that was about TV and not about turnout. These are a couple of knuckle heads. They are well known to anybody who walks adjacent to City Hall in Philadelphia. They are always looking to create a spectacle. Therefore I think that their mission was accomplished. They are on Hardball yet again tonight. Having said that, having said that I still think you need an investigation because you've got a Department of Justice lawyer, now former Department of Justice lawyer who is saying under oath that there was some blow back because-
SMERCONISH: -there were some political appointees in Justice who didn't want this case prosecuted.
MATTHEWS: Okay before, in other words we're talking a classic civil rights case where the, the civil rights of the voters in this case were violated allegedly by a group, by the fact that the government did not investigate. In other words the, the Justice Department itself, you say, has to be investigated. That's what you're saying right now, Michael. The Justice Department of Eric Holder has to be investigated.
SMERCONISH: I am saying that where you have a Department of Justice lawyer, who under oath, is saying my colleagues would not pursue this, because they didn't want a color blind application of the law, you've got to go to the next step.
MATTHEWS: Okay who would do the investigation?
SMERCONISH: Well in this case I think the criminal prosecution should have been permitted to continue...
MATTHEWS: No, no who investigates the investigators?
SMERCONISH: There should have been a trial in this case.
MATTHEWS: Okay what do you want now, what do you want now Michael?
SMERCONISH: What I'd like is a continuation of the criminal process, the criminal process in this particular case that was forestalled by Justice because frankly I think it's a worse reflection on the administration if it comes to a close now instead of running to it's end. Because Chris, this was a one-off case. I'm not looking to whip anybody into a hysteria. These were two guys in one polling place.
MATTHEWS: Alright let's go. Well let me, let me go to E. Steven on this. Your thoughts. You know this story better than I do. This is a Philly story. It's gotten a lot of swirl. The right wing is loving it because it's white/black. Your thoughts?
E. STEVENS COLLINS, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Only, only, but Chris the only people who are concerned about it are people that watch Fox TV. I mean African-Americans, first of all, were not intimidated by a couple of guys, one who wore some jack boots. Another guy with a, with a bat.
MATTHEWS: You're looking at them right now.
COLLINS: I've seen, I've seen worse things happen on Election Day, first of all, in Philadelphia. Second this is inner city Philadelphia where nobody was intimi-, people waited in lines to vote. And it didn't work. If they were attempting to intimidate someone?
COLLINS: Now that's number one. Number two, there was an investigation Michael, and they concluded there was no evidence. So there was no criminal behavior. There was no criminal conduct. And so what are we talking about?
MATTHEWS: Okay, okay. E. Steven I don't care about Milton Street 20 years ago out in front of the gallery telling the white people to go back to the suburbs. We're all used to that crap. I'm worried about whether the Republican precinct workers, the division workers there, were they intimidated by these guys? Was there any intimidation by, by poll watchers, any illegality here? You're saying none.
COLLINS: If there was illegality, it wasn't just a matter of the federal government. You had Philadelphia police in the district attorney's office in Philadelphia, and they looked at it, and nothing came of it.
MATTHEWS: And they let that guy stand there with a nightclub looking like a policeman.
COLLINS: It was, well, was that intimidating? Did it stop anybody from voting?
MATTHEWS: I'm asking. No but did it intimidate the Republican precinct worker there? The division worker, if there was one?
COLLINS: Did he file a complaint? I didn't see a complaint.
MATTHEWS: Well okay I'm not a lawyer. I'm asking these questions, E. Steven because a lot of people are wondering.
COLLINS: And I'm suggesting to you this is small potatoes, as a columnist has written about.
MATTHEWS: Okay, okay. Well if I went to vote and I saw those two guys there I would not think it was small potatoes. Anyway Abigail Thernstrom is the Republican Vice Chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. And here's what she wrote for the National Review. "Forget about the New Black Panther Party case. It is very small potatoes," as E. Steven Collins just said.
COLLINS: Very small.
MATTHEWS: "Perhaps the Panthers should have been prosecuted under section 11 (B) of the Voting Rights Act for their actions on November 28th. But the legal standards that must be met to prove voter intimidation, the charge are very high. In the 45 years since the act was passed, there had been a total of three successful prosecutions." So, okay, let's go back to Michael on this. You say there ought to be an investigation. You don't think this is just right wing swirl? This is just an attempt by the people on the right, I guess, especially Fox, to just keep pushing this, this beach ball in the air until it finally creates some noise.
SMERCONISH: There's a lot of swirl associated with this case. I will grant you that. I remember very well, on Election Day, when there were individuals who were trying on spin this as indicative of what was going on across the city or indeed across the country. And it's all very clear now it was a one-off incident. My position is there's no such thing as, as small potatoes. One instance is enough that needs to be prosecuted. And wait a minute, Chris. How about this? What if there were a white hood and a sheet involved and otherwise the facts were the same.
SMERCONISH: Would there then be the prosecution of the Klan? Hell yes, there would be, and there should be in this case.
MATTHEWS: Okay let me go to E. Steven Collins. I, I mean E. Steven, I think there's a challenge here to the administration of Barack Obama that may well be ethnic. He's President of the United States, the first African-American. Eric Holder is the first African-American, I guess, attorney general, actually.
MATTHEWS: And I hadn't thought about that, but I guess it's the case. We're trying not to think about these things all the time, but there's some people that like to, would like us to be thinking about race all the time.
MATTHEWS: Is that's what what's going on here?
COLLINS: It appears. That's what we saw in the Sherrod case. It was such an over, over, over-examination of everything that happened and every decision that was made. Somebody edited a tape. It was, it was a bad decision to fire her, to force her resignation. They retreated. They offered her a better job. They learned something. I mean people make mistakes, Chris. You can't just criti-, crucify the President and his staff for making a decision. The bigger issue here is the Republicans, the right wing continue to attack and attack and attack.
COLLINS: And this is small potatoes.
MATTHEWS: Okay let's go back to Michael. Michael, I appreciate your thinking because you do try to come down the middle here and I wonder if there's a middle. And here's my question. Could this be, since it's two years later, and on the eve of the big elections coming up this November, and they know a lot of older white voters are gonna run this election, because they're the people who show up in midterm elections, Michael. And you know darn well who the target could be of this campaign? They're the people who vote midterm elections - older white people. Because minorities and kids don't tend to vote as heavily around the country as older white people do in these elections. Now the question, is this aimed at [Joe] Sestak? Is this aimed at Democratic candidates in the burbs and the rural areas? To scare with big city black politics? To say the Democratic Party is the party of big city blacks? Is that what's going on here? Even though you may be right about the facts? Could that be the motive behind the push?
SMERCONISH: It might be, it might be. I mean Chris you maybe thinking three levels beyond where my head is on this issue because-
MATTHEWS: Oh come on.
SMERCONISH: Because I will, because I will grant, I will grant you this.
MATTHEWS: You talk about this, Philadelphia talks race. I know we know the issue. We try to get past it. We have a great black mayor. Whites voted for him heavily. The city really tries to get past its old problems. I know about that. Is this an attempt to rip the scab off?
SMERCONISH: I don't know what the motivation might be of those senators. Call me naive. I hope that it's not what you're insinuating but I'll say this-
MATTHEWS: I'm asking.
SMERCONISH: The more, the more this footage is shown, the more it benefits a turnout campaign for the type of voter that you have described. And therefore my advice to, to the Justice Department, to the Obama administration would have been, politically speaking, prosecute these guys. The best thing you can do politically is lock them up.
MATTHEWS: Okay, right. I agree. But E. Steven I think there's nothing the Republican Party likes better than a nice, scared white voter. Let's be honest about it.
COLLINS: You're implying there was a crime that was committed. And I'm not sure that the Justice Department and the local district attorney...
MATTHEWS: Okay let me ask you about the white sheets. Suppose I got, suppose those were white folks, with white sheets?
COLLINS: Sure. Then you have a legitimate case. I mean that's intimidation.
MATTHEWS: Now wait a minute! Where's the symmetry here? You got a bunch, two black guys, big guys with, wearing big boots and wearing what looks like uniforms to me. And one guy is carrying a pretty dangerous stick there that he could break some heads with, and that wouldn't intimidate you if you had to walk past them, and those were, just think about the symmetry what you're argument is creating. The problem.
COLLINS: But, but Chris, wouldn't you need to have someone making a complaint and someone saying, "We were, in fact, intimidated. We were not allowed. There was undue pressure put on us." No one said that.
MATTHEWS: No, no. No I looked at the voting numbers. I looked at the voting numbers. You have eight votes in the division for the Republican candidate, George W. Bush in 2000. You had about 24 votes for him again the second time in 2004. This time you had something like 13 for the Republican. About the average of the last two times. So it didn't look like there was any bottom. Michael, go back to you. No bottom line suppression. The voting totals came in about what you'd expect, given the nature of that election in 2008. What evidence do we have, bottom line of voter intimidation or suppression?
SMERCONISH: We don't have anybody that I'm aware of. We don't have anybody that I'm aware of that stands up and says, you know, "But for the presence of these two knuckleheads I would have gone in and pulled the lever." But as a lawyer I would say to you the way in which they appear and their mannerisms and the billy club is a prima facie, on its face, case of voter intimidation in the same way that Steven acknowledged, that if they were there wrapped up in sheets and hoods it would be a prima facie case on the part of the Klan.
MATTHEWS: Okay I want to thank you both gentlemen. I hope we don't have to revisit this. I hope something gets done, well maybe it shouldn't get done. But I hope we don't have to talk about this one again. Anyway thank you Michael Smerconish and E. Steven Collins. I think it was a fair debate.