Interview with Susan Rice, director of the Domestic Policy Council in the Biden administration. Last night, in his first address to Congress, President Biden laid out what might be the most ambitious progressive agenda of any president since LBJ.
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: And thanks to you at home for joining us this hour. Very happy to have you here, this post State of the Union Thursday night.
All right. So, if you were not lucky enough to live through it at the time, you may not know this -- I did live through it at the time so I know. Here`s how it looked.
You would click on the start button, lower left-hand corner of your screen, but instead of starting some normal program, you would start Microsoft bob. Microsoft Bob would then appear as a giant face on your screen, and in order to get started doing your work or your homework or whatever, you would have to knock on the door of Microsoft Bob`s house, click on the knocker.
A dog would then demand to know who you are. He would woof at you, eventually let you in, and then that is where you`re supposed to get your work done. With the dog demanding answers from you.
To start a program, click on it. What program? What are you talking about? Why am I in this barn?
If you have the wherewithal to tell the dog you want to click other options, he barks at you again. You get a gigantic list of things you`re allowed to do. Would you like to delete something? Would you like to go to another room? Would you like to click on this one that says rover`s ramblings?
Imagine if this is how you had to do your work every day. This was Microsoft Bob. Microsoft Bob was a short-lived idea for making interacting with a computer impossible and noisy and scary and slow and extra discombobulating.
Microsoft Bob. Absolutely terrifying. That was circa 1995.
Microsoft Bob did not last. Someone in the same category of the dust bin of history, you will also find the original iteration back in 1999 of something called the iSmell. It`s a product called iSmell, because sure, why not. Have you never been 8 years old and answering the telephone?
ISmell, the idea was when you went to a certain website, this thing on your desk would poof out at you a little bit of stink, a little stink that was specifically designed to create a smelly feeling about that website. There are new iterations of this around now. But the original, the iSmell, is still famous today for obvious reasons.
Microsoft Bob, the iSmell, there`s a number of different sorts of halls of fame for worst and stupidest tech things ever marketed to the American people. ISmell, Microsoft Bob, things like this. Wearable DVD players. Things like this, they`re classics.
But on many of those hall of fame lists, there`s one item that stands out to this day, because it was so stupid and so pointless, but also because it was memorable looking. It was shaped like a cat. It was a handheld scanner. I think like a bar code scanner, basically, but it was in a plastic case that was shaped like a house cat, where the cord to the thing was the tail of the cat. A handheld scanner shaped like a cat. The name of this was the CueCat.
Think about that for a second. It was a scanner shaped like a cat, and they did not call it the Cat scan. They instead decided to call it the CueCat.
CueCat, the handheld cat shaped bar code scanner, did not take off. It has become famous in the same way that like covfefe is famous, as in what the heck was that. We`ll never forget you. What was that?
CueCat has been named over the years one of the 25 worst tech products ever. The blog Gizmodo named it the number one worst invention of the 2000s. It`s famous in its own way, the CueCat.
Well, now, the inventor of the CueCat, this man, a photo of him, the man in this picture who is on the left, obviously, not the man on the right. As far as we can tell, when it came to inventing the CueCat handheld scanner shaped like a cat, we think the inventor of CueCat is, like, he didn`t invent the handheld scanner part of it. That was the thing that already existed. His real big innovation was the shaped like a cat part. That was what he brought to the table.
But after the disappointing performance of the CueCat in the marketplace, the gentleman who invented it, who invented the shaped like a cat part of it, he changed his name, which is an unusual thing in business development circles. He then reinvented himself, apparently, as a treasure hunter, or at least a person who writes books about treasure hunting.
He has dozens of books all on -- well, at least most of them on the same theme. For example, "Outlaw Gold". Lost treasures you can find of famous outlaws and bandits. Also, "Lost Treasures" you can find in the state of Pennsylvania. I think he actually has one of these for every state.
Then there`s this one, "Strike It Rich", 50 lost treasures you can find, although it`s a book you can buy, so anybody else reading the same book could presumably beat you to any one of those 50 treasures, but I guess that`s why it pays to be on the early bird list.
I mentioned that most of his books are on the topic of treasure hunting, not all of them. I`m a little reluctant to show you one that is not on that topic, but here goes, for some reason, he also wrote a book called "How to Cut Off Your Arm and Eat Your Dog." I didn`t get much further than the cover of that one. I don`t know if that has to do with treasure, but there you have it.
That is what became of the inventor of the CueCat. The cat shaped handheld bar code scanner which has gone down in consumer history as one of the stupidest, most pointless things ever invented. Even just beyond the fact the was a cat shaped scanner that they did not call the Cat scan. Dude does the CueCat, CueCat goes down in history, right, as inventions like this do.
The guy who invented the CueCat changes his name, starts writing the treasure hunting books, but he apparently never stopped inventing. And today, the Republican Party turns its lonely eyes to that guy, because the CueCat treasure hunter, eat your dog, cut off your arm guy, now has a new invention.
He has invented a way to make Joe Biden no longer the president, to reinstate Donald Trump as president of the United States. We are today at 100 days into the Joe Biden presidency.
The President was in Georgia today to celebrate the accomplishments of his first 100 days, including the historic big legislation he was already able to pass, thanks to Georgia voters picking two Democratic senators to send to Washington to work alongside President Biden to give him the majorities he needed in both the House and Senate, to get the big COVID relief act done and to hopefully in the administration`s eyes, to get the infrastructure bill, the voting rights bill, the policing reform bill, the American families plan, and all these other things they want to get passed.
Tonight, we`re going to be talking history in terms of just how ambitious Biden`s agenda is, as laid out in the state of the union and as we have seen over the first 100 days. When you compare that with other modern presidents, when you look at the markers from other modern presidents about what they have been able to get done and why, we`re going to be talking historically tonight in terms of what we ought to be looking for to predict how likely Biden is to be able to pass all those very big ideas he talked about last night.
We`re also going to be joined in a couple minutes by President Biden`s top domestic policy adviser. Susan Rice was U.N. ambassador and national security adviser to President Obama. She is now running the domestic policy shop for President Biden.
She has not done many interviews since taking on that gargantuan job, but we have her here tonight live, very much looking forward to that given the scale and the ambition of the domestic policy plans the president laid out last night, and her role running that stuff.
But at this marker, at 100 days, as we plan to set out and talk in detail about what the president has already done and what he plans to do, at this benchmark, how is the other side doing? Because today also marks 100 days since the Republican Party has been completely out of power in Washington. How are they coping? How are they building back?
Well, here`s the lead in the front-page A-1 story in "The Washington Post" tonight. Quote, more than five months after the 2020 presidential election and after numerous failed attempts to overturn the results, former President Donald Trump has seized on a new avenue to try to call the election outcome into question, a hand recount of more than 2 million ballots cast in Arizona`s largest county.
Several advisers said the former president has become fixated on the unorthodox process under way in Phoenix where the Republican-led state Senate took ballots and voting equipment from Maricopa County and turned them over to a private contractor called Cyber Ninjas. A contractor whose chief executive has echoed Trump`s baseless claims that the election was fraudulent.
Ensconced in his private club in Florida, the former president asked staffers and aides for updates about the process multiple times a day, advisers said. He has expressed particular interest in the use of UV lights to scrutinize the ballots, a method that has bewildered election experts.
Quote, he talked about it constantly, said one person who recently visited Mar-a-Lago and listened to Trump discuss the recount for about 45 minutes.
One hundred days, this is how that part of our politics is coping. The former president, twice impeached, twice impeached, ousted after one term, now under scrutiny in multiple criminal investigations, whose first personal lawyer already went to prison for a felony that the Justice Department said the president was implicated in, and whose second personal lawyer had his home and office raided by the Justice Department yesterday.
That former president who is still the unchallenged leader of the Republican Party, why would you need a fresh one, he is reportedly, according to people meeting with him, obsessing, obsessing about UV lights being shined on ballots in Arizona, which I guess if they`re shined just the right way, will somehow reveal that actually, he`s still president. And so Joe Biden needs to stop pretending and go home to Delaware.
The UV light thing, it should be noted, is bonkers. But it really is a thing that Arizona Republicans have been doing. You see the guy with the little blue light there on the left? In the specially made taped up box so it can be dark so he can see what the UV lights shows.
Here`s the "Arizona Republic" explaining. Quote: Arizona election auditors are running ballots under UV lights. What could they be looking for? Workers hired by the main contractor. Cyber Ninjas are shining what appears to be an ultra violet flashlight on each ballot. A reporter observed Tuesday that after the ballots were counted, they went to an inspection table with three people. One of the people held the ballot inside a box set up on the table and took a UV flashlight and shined it on particular areas of the ballot. Although reporters have now had a closer look at what the workers are doing to the ballots to examine them, it`s still not clear what they`re doing.
The company that orders the ballot paper and prints ballots for the county tells the newspaper there are no tracking marks or watermarks on the paper that are used in this election. Maricopa County`s Election Department also says there`s no watermarks on the paper, but nevertheless, they`re hitting them with UV light, apparently to try to reveal the watermark.
We`ll just note, if you have ever seen watermarked paper, you don`t need a flashlight to see it. You can hold it up and look at it in bright light.
But nevertheless, this started as a QAnon conspiracy theory after President Trump lost the election. There was a QAnon fantasy that somehow Trump and his secret, you know, military intelligence units or whatever had all secretly put watermarks on the ballots in Arizona, and that`s how they would reveal the fraud, and then all the Democrats and liberal celebrities would have to go to Guantanamo.
But that`s one thing for them to fantasize about that on message boards, right? It`s another thing now that QAnon supporting Trump conspiracy theorists are being allowed to actually handle real ballots and conduct a recount and audit with most of the ballots cast in the presidential election in the state of Arizona. So, they are hitting them with UV light to reveal the secret watermarks they think Trump put there and Joe Biden won`t be president anymore because they`ll have revealed the clue.
They have had a hard time explaining how this is all actually working now that it`s not just a fantasy and it is something they have put into effect in this arena in Phoenix where they`re handling all of the real ballots from the election. After Maricopa County made publicly clear again this week there aren`t any watermarks on the ballots, there`s nothing to be looking for, the spokesman hired by the Arizona state Senate Republicans, the spokesman for the audit that they hired, really couldn`t explain to the press what the UV lights were about.
Asked about the process at a news conference this week, he said workers are using UV light to look at the paper. They`re part of several teams that are part of a paper evaluation. Oh, the paper evaluation. Really? That sounds scientific.
He added that he did not know if were looking for the non-existing watermarks, adding, we`re looking for a lot of things. In an interview, he then added, quote, the best understanding I have is they`re looking for watermarks or anything that might appear under the UV light that they wouldn`t see without it. If there`s nothing there, they won`t find it.
Are you sure if there`s nothing there, they won`t find it? I`m pretty sure if there`s nothing there, they`re going to say they found something.
So, they busted out, they built these little boxes with tape around the corners and they had their volunteers stick the thing in with the blue flashlights and used the UV lights to look for the watermarks that they`re not watermark ballots. Unable to answer questions about how exactly that was working and what they were doing, unable to answer questions about whether that could be harmful to the ballots, they have now apparently stopped using the UV lights yesterday and today.
If President Trump is, as "The Washington Post" obsessed in particular with the UV flashlights being the way he`s going to get back in the White House, he must be very upset to learn that the UV lights are no longer being used. But they have a backup plan.
They have the CueCat treasure hunter guy to fall back on. Even after the UV lights for the nonexistent watermarks trick hasn`t worked and they have abandoned that, they have also got another magic trick they`re going to do to detect fold marks on the ballots.
"The Arizona Mirror" reported in detail on this fantasy among the Trump recounters that somehow fold marks on the ballots will reveal the terrible truth of all the fraud in the election and make it so Joe Biden isn`t really the president anymore.
This is from the "Arizona Mirror". Quote, Jovan Pulitzer, a favorite of election fraud conspiracy theorists who claims to have invented technology to detect fraudulent ballots, he will have a role in the Arizona Senate`s audit of the 2020 election results.
Ken Bennett, Arizona`s former secretary of state, who has been hired to be a spokesperson, confirmed Mr. Pulitzer`s involvement, although he said he`s unsure whether Pulitzer himself will be involved or whether the audit team will only be using his technology, which Pulitzer claims can detect fraudulent ballots. So, Bennett said the owner and CEO of Cyber Ninjas told him he consulted with Mr. Pulitzer while designing the process used to test the ballots.
Pulitzer is an inventor, and inventor of CueCat. And author of dozens of books on treasure hunting. He does not appear to have any background in elections related work. It is unclear whether Pulitzer`s alleged technology has ever been used on ballots or whether anyone has confirmed it works.
He`s explained in an affidavit related to the recount effort that his technology identifies kinematic markers. It`s a kinematic artifact detection process. Because there`s kinematic markers and so the treasure hunter guy with the cat shaped bar code scanner has invented something that will identify the kinematic -- kinematic marker -- kinematic artifact detection. science-ish.
And that`s going to overturn the election because it will tell you the true story of the folds. Even as they stop with their UV light magic trick, they`re actually doing the CueCat treasure hunter guy fold thing.
This is from the local Phoenix ABC station today. I almost fell out of my chair when I saw this today. ABC 15 has learned exclusively during off camera conversations with leaders of the recount that subcontractors are checking for folds in ballots outside of the counting process. So they`re counting the ballots, but then separately, they`re checking for folds, quote, they`re taking these ballots and looking for folds in the ballots, with the assumption that all early ballots have folds in them.
All early ballots do not have folds in them in Arizona, but nevertheless, that`s what they`re checking for.
The process, according to the local ABC station, that was advised on these techniques by officials involved in the recount, is quote, kinematic artifact detection.
Kinematic artifact detection, invented by the guy who invented the CueCat. Cat-shaped bar code scanner. Then changed his name and became the guy who can help you now find treasure in Pennsylvania. Or cut off your arm.
What does he have to do with elections? I don`t know, but the Arizona Senate Republicans are using his technology to try to show that Donald Trump is still president.
Today, a bunch of expert elections groups wrote to the voting rights division at the U.S. Justice Department, asking the Justice Department to send real elections monitors to Arizona, right away, to stop them from whatever it is they`re doing to the ballots and to the election results there. They have told DOJ that among other things, any UV light that these people are subjecting the ballots to could actually irreparably damage the ballots and remove voters` markings on them.
Today, a court ordered the group conducting the audit, the QAnon conspiracy group, ordered them to disclose their policies and procedures for conducting this audit. They turned in a document that from its metadata appears to have been created after their so-called professional audit was already under way. If the metadata is what it appears to be, this means they didn`t even create their policies and procedures that they disclosed to the court today until after they had already started doing this supposed professional recount and audit.
Tonight, the news here is that Arizona`s secretary of state, Katie Hobbs, she was our guest here earlier this week, expressing grave concern about what is being done to the ballots and the election results in Arizona, the big news tonight is that her office has just been granted permission by the court to send in real elections observers, actually elections experts to figure out what they are doing in that arena in Phoenix to go and watch what they`re doing. This is the first time that any actual expert observers have been allowed in.
Now, as I mentioned, there has been a request to the Civil Rights Division, the Voting Rights Unit at the Justice Department, that the federal Justice Department should also send in experts. No word on whether that will happen.
But with real experts finally being allowed in, who can tell the public about what`s going on, with them unable to explain all of these QAnon fantasy tactics and inventions that they`re using to apply to the ballots, it looks like this thing might finally be getting corralled.
But this is the animating concern in Trump politics right now. This is the animating concern for the former president and for the Trump wing of Republican politics right now. They want to do this in Arizona. Former adviser to President Trump said last week they plan to do this in Georgia.
The Cyber Ninjas QAnon group running this audit in Arizona has already said they`re going to be involved in another process to challenge what happened in Michigan, everywhere that Republicans are in control of the state legislature or state-wide elective office, they`re going to try to do what they`re doing in Arizona. To have in some cases like really cuckoo for cocoa puffs conspiracy theories, the whole stop the steal QAnon people, come in and say actually we have been given control of the election results now. And we`ll tell you how it is that Donald Trump actually won all these other states.
They are doing this right now in Arizona. And the fight is on to try to stop them from doing whatever it is irreparably to the real ballots from the election, but this is the most important thing in the Trump wing of the Republican Party.
While Joe Biden hits his 100-day stride. While we top well over 200 vaccine shots delivered in 100 days, with the COVID relief bill passed, with the infrastructure bill on its way, with voting rights reform, with policing reform, with the American Families Plan on its way, we`re supposed to be a country that has two parties, two major parties competing with competing governing visions for the nation.
With what the Biden administration and the Democrats are doing here at 100 days, do not sleep on what is happening on the Republican side right now, because one of these two parties is not like the other. As absurd as it is, it is the center of what they`re trying to do in American politics right now. Mark my words.
Susan Rice joins us live next. Stay with us.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOSEPH R. BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Can our democracy deliver on its promise that all of us created equal in the image of God had a chance to lead lives in dignity, respect, and possibility? Can our democracy deliver the most -- to the most pressing needs of our people? Can our democracy overcome the lies, anger, hate, and fears that pull us apart?
America`s adversaries, the autocrats of the world, are betting we can`t. And I promise you they`re betting we can`t.
We have to prove democracy still works, that our government still works, and we can deliver for our people.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: President Biden speaking last night, making the case that the expansive legislation he has proposed in his first 100 days isn`t just important in its direct substance in terms of what Americans are getting from the COVID relief bill and would get from the infrastructure and education and childcare bills he has proposed. The president making the argument that in his view, passing these bills is the way to show the world that our democracy functions, that American democracy as a form of government is capable of delivering for its people.
The president arguing last night this is the only way to stem the rising tide of authoritarianism around the world and in some ways in our country.
And if you are a president who sees these things as connected, your domestic legislative agenda, protecting democracy, regaining American stature in the world, competing on the global stage in the 21st century, brushing back authoritarians and holding off authoritarianism, if all of those things are intertwined for you, it might make sense to pick one of America`s most accomplished and formidable foreign policy and national security officials to run your domestic policy operation.
Which is exactly what Joe Biden did when he tapped former U.N. ambassador and national security adviser, Susan Rice, to direct his Domestic Policy Council, to be the White House point person coordinating the massive whole of government process that goes into crafting and implementing the administration`s whole big, in this case, gigantic domestic policy agenda.
I`m very happy to say that Susan Rice joins us now live.
Ambassador Rice, it`s really nice to see you tonight. Thank you so much for making time on day 100. I know it`s a really big day.
SUSAN RICE, WHITE HOUSE DOMESTIC POLICY ADVISER: Great to be back with you, Rachel.
MADDOW: Let me just ask you, if I`m reading the president right, I mean, I think he is. I think he made it clear both in sort of an earlier part of his speech last night that was ad-libbed when he talked about conversations with President Xi from China and then the culminating argument of his speech last night, is this idea that the success of what you are helming for him, the success of domestic policy in our country is what we need to - - what we need to prove that democracy still works.
Is that an animating principle for the administration right now?
RICE: It absolutely is, because we`re only as strong abroad as we are at home. Our strength at home undergirds our global leadership, our global power, our economy.
And so, President Biden is talking about the need to make a generational investment in our future -- our future infrastructure, the future of our workforce and our population, our families, in order for us to be strong, cohesent (ph) -- cohesive, economically prosperous, and competitive on the global stage.
He referred several times to China which is obviously our most significant global competitor. But the broad message is we have got to demonstrate that democracy, despite its fractiousness and its complexity, can still deliver for the people. And that`s why this program that he outlined is so important not only to our domestic strength and our resilience, but also to our international leadership.
MADDOW: In terms of what it`s like to do the work that you are doing right now, how is it different to work on domestic policy than foreign policy, national security, stuff that you not only cut your teeth on but that you rose to be one of the most prominent, respected, formidable people in the country on those -- in those fields? You made a really big shift to work on a totally different part of policy. I must imagine that the process is totally different, too.
RICE: Well, it`s not that different. Let me explain.
I mean, first of all, it`s fun. I care deeply about domestic issues. It`s in some ways where I began my early career and it`s great to be able to come back to it.
But the reality is that the way you make domestic policy is not very different than the way you make national security policy. You need to bring the agencies together. You need to formulate ideas and pressure-test them, and when decisions get made to ensure that everybody is aligned to implement them.
And one of the experiences that I brought from the national security decision-making experience to domestic policymaking was that muscle memory of how you make the government coordinate and deliver coherent policy.
So it`s actually been not a very difficult transition in terms of the process and the substance. I have had to dive deeper into policy areas like health care and, you know, immigration and veterans affairs and education that weren`t my bread and butter for many years.
MADDOW: Well, on that front, I know that one of the things that you`ve been working on and a lot of people in Congress have been working on as well as the administration is the idea of police reform. President Biden has now set a deadline to get the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act passed. He wants it passed in less than a month. He wants it passed by May 25th, which should be the one-year anniversary of George Floyd`s death.
I think a lot of people from the outside think of that legislatively as a heavy lift. It feels like there`s a long way to go before the Congress is going to be close to passing it. I know that you today at the White House met with George Floyd`s brother, the family`s attorney, Ben Crump, other family members of victims of police violence.
Can you tell us a little bit about that today and whether you think that goal is doable?
RICE: I absolutely think it`s doable. It`s absolutely urgent that we get real policing reform, meaningful policing reform, legislation like that in George Floyd`s name through the House as it has been and now through the Senate.
You know, every day, Rachel, you turn on your television, and somebody else is being shot and killed on our streets, often by police. And this cannot continue. It cannot continue.
So it`s not only a year on May 25th from the date when George Floyd was murdered, but it is past time that there be accountability in our system, that we repair the trust between law enforcement and the people that it is meant to serve. And the legislation that is now pending before the Senate would make very important steps in that direction.
I met today with George Floyd`s brother, Philonise, and I met with the mother of Eric Garner, and the sister of, you know, others who have been killed in this horrific series of crimes. And it is heartbreaking to hear their stories. They are living with this pain, this trauma, every single day. They described how they don`t sleep at night because they can`t sleep, because they`re fearful, because they`re anxious, because their loss is so immense.
We owe it to them and so many others to get this legislation passed and to make it powerful and meaningful.
MADDOW: I understand the impetus to get it passed and the passion behind it. I think on that and on the voting rights bill, though, I don`t understand the legislative gymnastics that need to be done in order to line up the votes. Obviously, there`s the issue of whether or not the filibuster exists.
And whether or not things can be passed through budget reconciliation, right, with just 50 Democratic votes even if no Republicans side with it. But on those two issues, I`m not sure that there`s 50 Democrats.
And so, is part of the work of domestic policy, and is part of the work of trying to have an executive branch pushing for these things to make it possible in the Senate to move senators off the mark, to get them to -- to persuade them to that work? Because behind -- it`s hard to see behind the scenes from outside when we keep seeing more conservative Democrats say that they`re not going along with these things, even despite unified Republican opposition.
RICE: Well, let`s talk about the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, because there, I think, there is at least a fighting chance for a bipartisan outcome. One that could garner 60 votes in the Senate. There are serious negotiations that are under way between Senator Booker, Senator Tim Scott, Congresswoman Karen Bass. And today, the same families that I met with met with Senator Scott and Senator Lindsey Graham.
So, there is at least a credible dialogue under way, and I think a recognition that there is urgency to this issue, and a need for healing.
And you know, I`ve been in this city a long time, and I can tell you that I, you know, got my own set of battle scars, as you well know, and some degree of skepticism.
But I actually think that this is one of the many issues where we must do better together, and where we can achieve a bipartisan outcome potentially. I`m not holding my breath, but I`m also not pessimistic, I think there`s a chance.
MADDOW: Susan Rice, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, former national security adviser to President Obama, now the director of the Domestic Policy Council in the Biden administration -- Ambassador Rice, it is always really good to have you here. Come back whenever you have stuff to tell us. It`s always a pleasure to see you.
RICE: Thank you so much, Rachel. Great to be back.
MADDOW: All right. We`ve got much more ahead here tonight. Do stay with us.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LYNDON B. JOHNSON, FORMER PRESIDENT: No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy`s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.
We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for 100 years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter and to write it in the books of law.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: Lyndon Johnson in his first ever address to a joint session of Congress, that was just five days after President Kennedy`s assassination. And with the benefit of hindsight, it seems sort of unremarkable to see LBJ calling for the passage of a major civil right bill. LBJ would, of course, go on to sign the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
He also created Medicare and Medicaid. He oversaw the biggest expansion of America`s safety net since FDR.
Even though it had only been five days since President Kennedy`s death, the morning after his first address to Congress, "The New York Times" led its front page with Johnson`s call to pass the civil rights bill. And it shows you what a surprise it was to hear that from him.
The reaction to his speech was one of surprise. You know, in hindsight, we think it makes sense. But up until that point, Johnson had a reputation as a moderate. He was a relatively conservative Democratic vice president to the liberal firebrand JFK, right? He had a career as a moderate, spent his career brokering deals between liberals and moderates and conservatives in Congress.
But Johnson used that first address to Congress as president as a signpost for the kind of presidency he intended to have. And then he went and got it done.
Last night, in his first address to Congress, President Biden laid out what might be the most ambitious progressive agenda of any president since LBJ. He called on Congress to pass a sweeping infrastructure bill, a host of new benefits for American families. He said he wanted a police reform bill on his desk in less than a month.
Does history help us understand the chance of an ambitious agenda like that passing? And does it matter where Biden has been in his career as he makes this case to the American public now?
Joining us now is NBC News presidential historian Michael Beschloss.
Michael, it`s been too long. Thank you for being here tonight.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, NBC NEWS PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Wonderful to see you, Rachel.
MADDOW: I`m drawing an implicit parallel with Lyndon Johnson in terms of his pre-presidency reputation and then the ambition and the progressive nature of his ambition as president. I don`t think it maps exactly to what we`re seeing with Joe Biden but is it -- does that strike you as an appropriate parallel.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, NBC NEWS PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Oh, I think it`s a great parallel, and you know, here`s a case, LBJ ran for the Senate in 1948, gave white supremacist speeches in the late 1950s when there was a civil rights bill in Congress basically the first major one to pass since the time of Reconstruction. Johnson was there to water it down because he wanted to please a lot of the conservatives in his caucus and in Texas.
So when John Kennedy was murdered on the 22nd of November, 1963, there were a lot of black Americans and a lot of righteous other Americans who were very worried that Johnson would be a deal maker and that unlike Kennedy, he would come in and he might gut Kennedy`s bill, especially because Johnson wanted to run for election himself as president in 1964.
Instead, it was exactly the opposite because you had Johnson who was a Southern president being the one to ask moderates, many Americans who might have been on the fence about civil rights, many of them felt less threatened, they said, by Lyndon Johnson than they might have been by a president who was not Southern. He was a Northeastern liberal.
MADDOW: Yeah, I feel like we have been watching this play out in very, very small ways. Just over the past few days, Michael. I was thinking about this idea when we saw right before the state of the union, President Biden announce a pay raise for federal contractors. Not the world`s most momentous thing, but it`s going to give like an average of a $3,000 annual raise to 390,000 Americans. It`s going to make a difference in a lot of people`s lives, a lot of people`s families. No reaction whatsoever from the Republican Party.
When President Obama did exactly the same thing, proposed a pay raise for federal contractors on the eve of one of his State of the Unions, the Republicans denounced him as literally a socialistic dictator and described this as the hallmark of the opening of American empire and him as the head of the imperial presidency, the end of democracy. It was lawlessness.
And I think part of what`s going on there is them reacting to having a black president but part of also what`s going on there is that they don`t feel like they can hang those same monikers and epithets on Joe Biden, partially because of race but also because of his sort of perceived moderation.
BESCHLOSS: I think that`s exactly right. And it`s horrifying to note, but it`s absolutely right that Barack Obama was more easily caricatured than Joe Biden is as a white leader, and also in Biden`s case, as someone who was known as a moderate, has been in national politics for almost 50 years, never thought of as a firebrand, and even in terms of manner.
It`s almost like Franklin Roosevelt in one respect. And that is Roosevelt was proposing, as you and I have talked a lot about, really radical policies when he came in to office in 1933. Not only to end the Great Depression but change inequality in this country and change the banking system.
But Roosevelt comes from this rich family on the Hudson River. His wife Eleanor was the niece of Theodore Roosevelt. This was about as establishment as they come. It was harder to marginalize Roosevelt as a radical, and I think if you looked at Joe Biden last night, he does not look and sound like someone who is threatening.
And the horrible thing is that a white president who is of a certain age with decades in politics, that shouldn`t be in an area which he should have an advantage as a president, but he does.
MADDOW: He has the advantage, and the thing to do with that kind of privilege and advantage is to use it to be able to go further than other people could, if they didn`t have that privilege and that sort of --
MADDOW: -- that sort of margin you`re giving.
BESCHLOSS: Also, Lyndon Johnson, forgive me for interrupting. Totally agree with what you said.
MADDOW: No, that`s -- it`s the satellite delay and it`s my fault, but you are exactly right.
NBC News presidential historian Michael Beschloss -- Michael, it is great to see you. Thank you so much.
BESCHLOSS: Same here. Be well. Thank you, Rachel.
MADDOW: All right, more ahead tonight. Stay with us.
MADDOW: In 2017, Russia`s most vocal, most effective critic of the Putin regime, Alexei Navalny, was opening up new headquarters for his opposition movement when somebody approached him to shake his hand. And when Navalny obliged, the person threw something at him, doused him with a chemical that dyed Navalny`s hand and face bright green.
It was of course scary at the time. Navalny said at first, he thought it was an acid attack because his skin started to tingle. But after he got attacked like that, he told his supporters it kind of liked it. He said it made him look like a superhero. He said he could use his green face to raise more money for his organization. He would stand out at rallies.
He said it seemed almost funny, until it happened again. A month later he was outside his offices when another unknown assailant came up to him and I attacked him with another kind of green dye. This time he said it, quote, hurt like hell. He thought the dye that kind might have been mixed with a caustic chemical.
It got into his eye. He started losing vision. He got eye surgery from an eye specialist in Spain to save his eye, save his vision.
As Russia`s most visible, most vocal, most effective opposition leader, Alexei Navalny has been threatened, jailed, dyed green twice and poisoned within an inch of his life. Navalny was poisoned with a Russian made chemical nerve agent called Novichok last year. He nearly died.
After recovering in Germany, he decided to return to Russia this year where he was promptly arrested, convicted on bogus charges and sentenced to spend years in prison. Last month, he embarked on a hunger strike in prison until he was granted access to doctors because he was starting to lose feelings in his legs and hands. They don`t know if it was from the poisoning, additional poisoning. He wanted to see civilian doctors.
He stayed on that strike for 24 days, 24 days with zero food. Until last week he was able to see independent doctors.
Well, today, Navalny was back in court, appealing some of the bogus charges that landed him in prison in the first place. And today was the first time that the world has seen him since he started that hunger strike. This is what he looked like. Here he was back in February. And here he was today, appearing in court via video link. Called himself a skeleton.
But he was not too weak to speak, he said today in court of Russian President Vladimir Putin, he said, quote, I want to tell the dear court that your king is naked. The crown is slipping off his ears. He said Putin has, quote, turned Russians into slaves.
This week, the Russian government moved to label Navalny`s political organization an extremist group. They gave him the same designation they give to ISIS. A court then ordered Navalny`s group to stop all public activity. Today they announced they`d be shutting down their entire network of offices all over Russia.
The Kremlin is scrubbing the main opposition leader in that country, scrubbing Alexei Navalny out of Russian politics, literally. This mural was painted in St. Petersburg, Russia this week, painted overnight. Just four hours after it popped up, it was gone with Russian authorities painting over it to erase him.
And, of course, Navalny is still in prison tonight and will be for at least two more years. But we learned today in court some good news. Yesterday, he said he ate four spoonfuls of porridge. Today he said he was able to eat six. Soon he thinks he can get to ten.
More ahead tonight. Stay with us.
MADDOW: You know, Trump passed this ban on transgender Americans serving in the military. President Biden`s executive order overturning that ban goes into effect tomorrow. It`s actually a whole new detailed policy on the rights of transgender Americans. That goes into effect in the military tomorrow. Be watching for news of that.
I`ll see you tomorrow night.
Now, it`s time for "THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL."
Good evening, Lawrence.