updated 11/30/2005 4:28:57 PM ET 2005-11-30T21:28:57

Guest: Richard Wolffe, Wayne Slater, Dana Milbank

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST:  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?

Back to the stump.  The president to speechify again about Iraq, this time, with strategy details.

Details on the other Novak.  Why a second “TIME” reporter‘s testimony may help Karl Rove, while his former personal assistant and a set of phone logs may do anything but.

He may be an ex-Congressman...

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REP. RANDY “DUKE” CUNNINGHAM ®, CALIFORNIA:  Today is the culmination of that process...

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OLBERMANN:  ... but California‘s Duke Cunningham can soothe himself with this.  He is the newest member of the COUNTDOWN Apology Hall of Fame.

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UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I have sinned against you, my Lord.

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OLBERMANN:  The magic wide receiver theory.  Why Senator Arlen Specter has come to the defense of football‘s Terrell Owens.

And another day, another panda.  First a fake one, and now this one, 4 months old and already auditioning for a commercial of some kind.

All that and more, now on COUNTDOWN.

Good evening.

His hand was tipped before Thanksgiving.  The president wants to be able to announce American troop withdrawals, but only after first getting to announce Iraqi troop improvements.

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, the start of the colloquy, or maybe it‘s actually a monologue, is scheduled for 9:50 Eastern time tomorrow morning at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.  And ironically, its content may have been summarized today by a Democratic senator, Joe Lieberman, himself just back from Iraq, and saying, quote, “We do have a strategy.  We do have a plan.”

No indication that the president‘s self-titled major speech will include any plans to start getting U.S. troops out, but we do know he will highlight how well Iraqi troops are being trained, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld offering a little preview of that today, noting that U.S. forces have turned over control of 29 military bases there to Iraqis.

But it fell to the White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, to

actually sell this speech as something new, noting that administration will

release a declassified version of a document called “The National Strategy

for Victory in Iraq” first thing in the morning, and the president will

reference it.  And despite his desire to talk today about immigration

policy rather than Iraq, the president did respond to media questions about his plans, on paper and in principle.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Yes, I‘m giving a speech tomorrow that outlines the training program, and the progress we‘re making in training Iraqis to provide security for their country.  And we will make decisions about troop levels based upon the capacity of the Iraqis to take the fight to the enemy.

I‘m interested in winning.  I want to defeat the terrorists.  I want our troops to come home.  But I don‘t want them to come home without having achieved victory.  And we‘ve got a strategy for victory.  The—and the commanders will make the decisions.

See, that‘s, that‘s—that‘s what the people want.  People don‘t want me making decisions based upon politics.  They want me to make decisions based on the recommendation from our generals on the ground.  And that‘s exactly who I‘ll be listening to.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  The reporter Seymour Hersh of the magazine “The New Yorker” identifies different people to whom Mr. Bush may actually be listening.  What his sources say presently.

First, let‘s bring in “Newsweek”‘s senior White House correspondent, Richard Wolffe, to preview what we will hear from the president tomorrow.

Richard, good evening.

RICHARD WOLFFE, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, “NEWSWEEK” MAGAZINE: 

Keith, good evening.

OLBERMANN:  Obviously the stay-the-course note that the president has sounded repeatedly has not resonated with most of the country, if the polls are to be believed.  Do he and his advisers think they need to package it differently, or detail it differently, or do it differently, or some combination?

WOLFFE:  Some combination.  They are obviously deeply troubled by the slide in the polls, both for the support for the war and the president‘s credibility.  So they think they need to get out there and show something real this time.

You‘re right to be skeptical about another major address on Iraq.  This time, there‘s going to be some details about those Iraqi security forces, and this time, they say, the numbers are real.  You know, you may have heard thousands of Iraqis here and there on security operations.  This time, they say, they‘re combat-ready.

So there are supposed to be differences this time around.

OLBERMANN:  This document, the “National Strategy for Victory in Iraq,” one would guess that it describes withdrawals but not timelines.  Have any of its other contents leaked out?  Do we know what it might be, what role it might play in the president‘s speech tomorrow?

WOLFFE:  Well, it‘s nice of Scott to sprinkle some hocus-pocus about declassified documents around.  But this is not secret stuff.  For a start, this isn‘t a hostile government where you have intelligence operations on the ground, and you don‘t want to compromise sources and methods, and they‘re not going to publish the military options, i.e., you know, if we reach this point we can see this many troops come home.

And those military plans are under draft.  They are being drawn up inside the Pentagon.  And there are lots of different ones.  We‘re not going to see that.  We‘re going to see basically what you and I would call propaganda, and what the administration calls public diplomacy.

OLBERMANN:  You mentioned Mr. McClellan.  He told the media today that tomorrow‘s speech will be the first of many slated for the next two, three weeks, December 15, the target date regarding the speeches, anyway, because that‘s the date of the elections in Iraq.

Is there anything that‘s going to separate these in final analysis, these speeches from the previous ones, or are we going to get this repeated drumbeat, or are they going to try a series of different drumbeats and see if there‘s one that really works?

WOLFFE:  Well, they are trying to gear things up for those December 15 elections.  You know, those elections are an important date, because it‘s a full-term government.  But, you know, White House officials tell me they really don‘t think they can hold the news cycle, hold people‘s attention all the way from now to then, even though it‘s just a few weeks away.

This is to try and move this debate on from the prewar intelligence, from the CIA leak, and to start talking about the improved security.  And there are areas of Iraq where security has improved, and there really are Iraqi security forces who can fight rather than turning and running, which is what they used to do last year.

OLBERMANN:  Last point, one of the most fascinating parts of the political dialogue of the last year, I guess, maybe more, is those murmurs that come out of the White House and the GOP with a kind of a gosh-darn attitude that they can‘t get their message out successfully.  Is there anybody in power telling the president, You know what?  We‘re in charge of the White House, the Senate, the House.  If we can‘t get this message out now, either we‘re not very good at getting out messages, or the message isn‘t very good?

WOLFFE:  Well, apart from the people who believe that you represent the liberal media conspiracy, oh, and me too, as well, there are plenty of Republicans in Congress who are saying, Yes, you need to do a better job.  What they say in general terms is, Oh, we really like it when the president is more assertive, and we‘re so pleased that he‘s finding his voice now.  But basically they‘re thinking—they think the White House needs to do a better job, and they‘re encouraged by what they see now.

OLBERMANN:  If this is a conspiracy, by the way, I‘ve seen better-run conspiracies on the playground in the fourth grade.  But that‘s another subject for another time.

Richard Wolffe, chief White House correspondent from “Newsweek,” as always, sir, great thanks for your time tonight.

WOLFFE:  Any time.

OLBERMANN:  Tomorrow‘s speech may not provide much new insight into why we are still in Iraq, but an article in this week‘s “New Yorker” magazine might, Seymour Hersh reporting that the president is convinced that bringing democracy to Iraq is his mission, “mission” used in the religious sense of the word.

Mr. Hersh cites one former senior administration official as saying that Mr. Bush‘s religious convictions started coming into play significantly after 9/11, when he supposedly felt that God had put him there to deal with the new war on terror.  According to the unnamed senior official, that sense of almost divine purpose was reinforced by first the congressional electoral victories in 2002, then Mr. Bush‘s own reelection in 2004.

On the “TODAY” show this morning, Hersh suggested it is not just the president‘s belief in God that‘s influencing his policy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “TODAY”)

SEYMOUR HERSH, “THE NEW YORKER”:  Nobody knows what drives him, whether—I think it‘s also a faith, a belief in democracy too.  I think that‘s a very strong issue.  For some of the people that I talk to, I‘ve been talking to for years, they‘re beginning to talk more about, you know, his—their sense that he does sense—they do sense a divine mission there.

On the other hand, it‘s also for democracy.  So it‘s—you know, I can‘t put myself in his head.  All I can tell you is, this president is not going to back down on this war.  And if more body bags come, and they‘re coming every day now, three, four a day, he‘s determined to stay the course.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Relative to the religion, anything to it?  Anything wrong with it?  For the components of the answers, I‘m joined now by Wayne Slater, senior political writer for “The Dallas Morning News,” co-author of the book “Bush‘s Brain.”

Mr. Slater, thank you for your time again tonight, sir.

WAYNE SLATER, SENIOR POLITICAL WRITER, “THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS”: 

Good to be with you.

OLBERMANN:  In his article, Sy Hersh also quotes this unnamed former defense official as saying that the president, quote, “is more determined than ever to stay the course.  He doesn‘t feel any pain.  Bush is a believer in the adage, People may suffer and die, but the church advances.”

In your opinion, based on your dealings with the man over many years, is that overblown, accurate, consistent, inconsistent with the pre-9/11 George W. Bush?

SLATER:  It‘s pretty accurate.  And it actually has been accurate about George Bush, not only as president, but as governor, although he wasn‘t as expressive about his religious faith.  He is an evangelical.  His religious faith has always guided his public policy.  And he is a person who believes, at this moment, God doesn‘t sit on his shoulder and say, Go bomb this outfit, go to war there.

But he believes fundamentally that he‘s engaged in part of a divine drama, that God divine—determines what goes on in the universe, and that this is his moment, an important moment, and that he is God‘s man.  I‘ve talked to a number of people who‘ve said he‘s said that inside the Oval Office, I am God‘s man at this time, fulfilling His purpose.

OLBERMANN:  Certainly among some of his critics, at least, there has been a question regarding this topic of opportunism, that maybe he‘s not all that fervent in his beliefs, and they tend to come out when his support among the heavy-duty Christians begins to wane.  Is that a valid question, or is that too, too cynical?

SLATER:  I think it‘s very cynical.  This president believes in—his religious faith is very important to him.  He is an evangelical.

On the other hand, what you have to understand is, Bush, the president, understands, and his political guru, Karl Rove, understands, the political advantages of having Christian conservatives as an important part of the political base.  Always has been, and presumably always was, through 2004.

So this expression, an authentic expression of religious faith and how religion should dictate or guide him in making public policy decisions, is real to Bush, but certainly it comes to become very advantageous when you try to rally the base, as Bush did in 2000, and more successfully in 2004.

OLBERMANN:  In many respects, this is obviously a sensitive topic, but you can ask any group in this country, from the evangelicals to the atheists, to list the top five presidents of all time.  And just to pick the one who‘s most likely to be (INAUDIBLE) at or near the top, Abraham Lincoln‘s name will be mentioned.  And he was incessantly invoking God in terms of the Civil War, ending slavery, his own policy, his own place in the White House, his own place in history.

Not to make any undue comparisons between the presidents, but if we don‘t mock or question Lincoln retroactively, why is the faith of this president necessarily an issue?

SLATER:  Great question.  And Lincoln did talk that way.  The vocabulary of Adams and Washington was replete with references to God.  The difference now, I think, is the times that we live in.  This is a more pluralistic country.

And when a president, like Ronald Reagan and now George Bush, our most religiously expressive president in memory, starts talking about religion, there is a concern among a sizable part of the population—didn‘t exist when Lincoln was president—who worries that, Is this president design—is his design to impose a narrow religious agenda on them, on a part of the constituency, whether a secular or more progressive?

And so where Lincoln had, I think, a population that was pretty supportive of this kind of expression, and comfortable with it, there is now a large group of Americans who fear that this kind of open, honest expression of conservative religious faith may mean, I want to impose my values on you.

OLBERMANN:  So would he perceive, at this moment, the criticism that he has been subject to on the subject particularly of this war in Iraq for the last four, six, eight, 12 months, would he perceive it as bona fide, or as some sort of test of his faith?

SLATER:  I think he would see it as a test of his faith.  And I would also think, knowing George Bush, that he believes that his faith gives him a sense of certitude, and that the decisions that he makes, he hopes are made in compliance and in accord with what he thinks God would want him to do.

OLBERMANN:  Wayne Slater, senior political writer for “The Dallas Morning News,” co-author of “Bush‘s Brain,” again, great thanks for your time, sir.

Religion is not just in the heart.  It is so often in the eye of the beholder.  Four Christian peace activists, two Canadians, a Briton, and an American have been kidnapped in Iraq.  The American has been identified as 54-year-old Tom Foxx from Clear Brook, Virginia.

Those who kidnapped them call them spies, the Al-Jazeera network broadcasting this video today of the hostages, who are being held by a previously unknown group calling itself the Swords of Righteousness Brigade.,  The organization that the hostages work for, the Christian Peacemaker Teams, says its mission is to document abuses in Iraq and connect victims with international human rights groups.

Also tonight, the CIA leak investigation.  How Viveca Novak might allegedly help save Karl Rove from the prospect of indictment, and why Rove‘s secretary might have the opposite effect.

And one day after Representative Randy Cunningham resigned in a corruption scandal—a big corruption scandal—today, he has earned a spot in our hallowed Apology Hall of Fame.

You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

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OLBERMANN:  In chess, there is the Sicilian defense.  In basketball, there are infinite permutations of the zone.

Well, in our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN, in the years to come, the strategy employed by Karl Rove‘s defense team may well become known as the Novak.

Jim VandeHei of “The Washington Post,” frequent guest here, hinting last night here, before reporting in today‘s paper, that “TIME” magazine‘s Viveca Novak is at the center of Mr. Rove‘s legal effort to clear his name.  While it is not clear why Rove‘s lawyer, Robert Luskin, believes her testimony could help the White House senior adviser, Mr. Luskin apparently used his conversation with Ms. Novak in persuading the special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, to hold off on a Rove indictment, at least in the days before Fitzgerald indicted Scooter Libby.

Meanwhile, for Valerie Plame Wilson, the CIA operative whose leaked identity kicked off the scandal, there appears to be no defense for reversing that damage, “The New York Post” reporting that Mrs. Wilson is quitting the agency because the exposure effectively ended her spying career.  “The Washington Post” quoted the same source, saying she was likely to retire to full-time motherhood in its editions exactly one month ago today.

Former ambassador Joe Wilson will neither confirm nor deny either report.

Time now to call on “Washington Post” national political correspondent Dana Milbank for some damage assessment on both of these fronts.

Good evening, Dana.

DANA MILBANK, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, “THE WASHINGTON POST: 

Evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  One source told our mutual friend Mr. VandeHei that the Luskin-Novak conversation is what caused Fitzgerald to hold off on charging Karl Rove.  Another said it did not appear to significantly alter the case.  Par for the course, obviously, for this story.

Does one of the statements seem to you more plausible than the other?

MILBANK:  Well, first, it‘s very touching that Karl Rove is reaching out to reporters to help him.  And I want to say that, you know, after all he‘s done for me over the past five years, I‘d like to do anything I can as well.

But perhaps, in this case, this was enough, as Jim reported today, to cause Fitzgerald to postpone an indictment.  It would appear to be removed enough, in that the conversation was with the lawyer, not with Rove himself, that it‘s possible that it was enough to postpone an indictment yet not completely forestall the entire investigation, the possibility of an ultimate indictment.  So those two things are possible at the same time.

OLBERMANN:  To that and also the political blog Raw Story, not a right-wing site, and off and on as a source, posted today that still working against Mr. Rove could be testimony from a former personal assistant, who says that she was instructed not to log the phone calls between her boss and the other reporter from “TIME” magazine in this case, Matthew Cooper.  Does that story have any merit, to your knowledge?

MILBANK:  Well, obviously, if it‘s true, it could be very damaging.  You don‘t have to be a lawyer to figure that out.  And it has tones of Martha Stewart to boot.  But that is a big if.

Now, remember, this same blog was reporting that David Wurmser, John Hannah, in the vice president‘s office were part of some web of a deliberate conspiracy to out Valerie Plame.  If that were true, it certainly is not what came out ultimately in the Fitzgerald indictment.  So we definitely have to be careful with this particular thing.

OLBERMANN:  Are there any other signs that Mr. Fitzgerald has kept his case file open here for reasons rather than just, you know, out of doggedness or stubbornness, anything on the fire that resulted from the Bob Woodward case, anything at all?

MILBANK:  Well, we don‘t know, is the first answer.  But Fitzgerald himself was cautioning us not to assume that it‘s over.  A lot of people, a lot of talking heads leapt out there and said, Well, it must mean Rove is in the clear.

Certainly, the fact that there‘s another Woodward source out there, about which we have and can continue to speculate, certainly, that means the investigation has reason to keep going.  So he has always been described as not necessarily dogged, but very cautious and thorough.  So there‘s every to assume that he‘ll leave every stone turned over.

OLBERMANN:  And it‘s ironic here that Valerie Plame would end up being a footnote to these conversations.  But nonetheless, it‘s true.  Do we know if she is indeed giving up that post-covert career at the CIA?

MILBANK:  Well, yes, my colleague Al Kamen reported yesterday that it‘s happening December 9.  She‘s served there for 20 years, so it would be a legitimate time to do that.

It is true that this whole thing ruined her career as an overseas kind of a spy.  On the other hand, she‘s not been working in that field for some time, and she‘s had the equivalent of a desk job for some time.  So she could have kept doing that.  People at the agency had been a bit sore with her when she did that photo spread in “Vanity Fair.”  She may have decided it‘s time to move on.

OLBERMANN:  It‘s always “Vanity Fair.”  “Vanity Fair” claims them from every kind of controversy in Washington.

“The Washington Post,” Dana Milbank, I don‘t believe he‘s been in “Vanity Fair.”  You ever been in “Vanity Fair”?

MILBANK:  I‘m trying.  I‘m auditioning here on the show.  How‘s the makeup?

OLBERMANN:  Well, (INAUDIBLE) I don‘t know, maybe we can work something out with Karl Rove when you‘re there on both of those occasions.

As always, sir, a pleasure having you with us.

MILBANK:  Thanks, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  After last night‘s What is it? animal story, another debate in the dark of night, but this time, if you answer incorrectly, you could wind up behind bars.

The age-old tabloid TV question, Who‘s your daddy?  It hits way too home, close to home, in English, for the king of pop.

All that and more, ahead on COUNTDOWN.

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OLBERMANN:  We‘re back, and we‘ve reached that point in the show where we reveal our exit strategy from the day‘s real news.  We withdraw into the relative comfort of goofy animal stories and gratuitous video.

Let‘s play Oddball.

And we begin where we left off last night, in the bear-eat-dog world of panda glamour and high society.  This was Columbo, the Japanese dog painted up and blow-dried in shameless attempt to cash in on the panda-monium currently sweeping the animal world.

Today, apparently inspired by the poseurs, panda baby Tai Shan made an appearance for the paparazzi at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.  Five months old, the 21-pound child star teased the cameras for a short time today before going back into seclusion.

His official debut in public scheduled for the eighth of next month.  More than 13,000 tickets have been reserved to see him in January, making him the most-famous-for-no-reason star this side of Paris Hilton.  And Tai Shan could learn a thing or two from the empty-headed heiress.  Party indoors, because, as you see here, the paparazzi is always watching, seeing if you‘re going to get caught smoking.

To Jacksonville, Florida, where, if you‘re a deer, you‘re going to want to keep a low profile at night if you do not want to get shot.  Apparently this area of Florida has got a real problem with people just pulling up in their cars in the middle of the night and shooting the deer that hang around by the side of the road.  That is illegal hunting.  And that means it‘s a job for Robodeer.  Yes, Robodeer, the world‘s first-ever robotic deer.

What did you think it was going to be?

Just remember, when hoping to draw fire with a robotic deer decoy, always keep away from the robotic deer decoy.

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UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  (INAUDIBLE), he‘s headed north.  Get on it.  Get on it.

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OLBERMANN:  Somebody driving by with a Howitzer, I see.  Robodeer took a slug in the shoulder.  He‘ll live to get shot another day.  As for our drive-by deer hunters, there will be plenty of time for late-night potshots where they‘re going, the Big House.

Where‘s football‘s Terrell Owens going?  Why is Pennsylvania‘s senior senator getting involved?  Why is he invoking the term “antitrust violation”?

And it‘d be great to live free as an artist, right?  Well, what would you do if you were an artist, what would you do for health care?  An unlikely answer tonight.

Those stories ahead.

But now, here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three newsmakers of this day.

Number three, Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans.  Much is still to be done there, but rest easy, Big Easy.  The city has today established the first municipally owned free wireless Internet service in any big city in America.  No power, lots of Internet.  Thank goodness for that.

Number two, Jim Myles, commissioner of Randolph County, Missouri.  The old jail in Huntsville has been antiquated, so Commissioner Myles has come up with a novel way of selling it.  He‘s put it on eBay.  The buyer can convert it into a home, or just lock himself away.

And number two, Ruth Barton of Boyce, Louisiana.  The 80-year-old widow was on her way to a regular Sunday morning playing the organ at the First United Methodist Church, walking down her carport steps, when she was attacked by a goat.  A goat.  She eventually knocked the goat down the steps and escaped to her car.  The devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape, or evidently, he can just dress up like a goat. 

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OLBERMANN:  Arlen Specter has been at the center of public debate for more than 40 years.  He‘s been involved in everything from the explanation of the bullet that struck both President Kennedy and Governor Connelly in Dallas, to the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Thomas too.  In our third story in the COUNTDOWN, the Terrell Owens saga. 

Tying the controversial football player to violations of federal antitrust statutes leading our nightly segment the world of wide sports. 

The story so far, Owens, perhaps football‘s most gifted pass catcher, was suspended by the Philadelphia Eagles for having trashed teammates and his coach.  Then they told him when his suspension was over, they would start paying him again, but not playing him again.  An arbitrator ruled that‘s OK, both within the parameters of the players union contract with the owners, and the owns own contract which presumably has the standard pay or play clause, which allows employers in entertainment fields to use you or not use you just so long as they keep the checks coming—you know, the Aaron Brown clause. 

Anyway, Senator Specter doesn‘t think so.  He says that not letting Owens play for the Eagles or not letting him move to another team that will let him play, could be restraint of trade and a violation worthy of inquiry by the Senate antitrust subcommittee.  He says this as a Philadelphia fan angry at Owens.

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SEN. ARLEN SPECER ® PENNSYLVANIA:  I am madder than hell at f what he has done in ruining the Eagle‘s season or doing his utmost to ruin the season.  The Eagles would be within their rights in not paying him another dime, or perhaps even suing him for damages for which they have stained, but I do not believe, personally that it is appropriate to punish him.  He‘s not committed a crime.  He‘s committed a breech of contract.  And what they‘re doing against him is vindictive. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  I don‘t know.  Magic bullet, I believe.  That, not so much. 

It is also in Philadelphia that we met the fan who took his mother onto the Eagles‘ playing field without permission.  Just to raise the stakes here, his mother happened to be dead at the time. 

We told you about this yesterday.  Now we can watch Christopher Noteboom during Sunday‘s game against the Packers spreading not joy but mom.  She was a lifetime Eagles fan who died just before Philadelphia‘s appearance in last January‘s Super Bowl.  At the end of his event, Noteboom offered no resistance as security personnel escorted him from the field. 

“I know that the last hand full of ashes I had are laying on the field,” he told reporters.  “She‘ll always be part of Lincoln Financial Field and of the Eagles.” 

This eternal resting spot is sponsored by Lincoln Financial. 

The Eagles say they have many requests to spread ashes on the field.  They turn them all down.  Noteboom was arrested and charged with defiant trespass.  As a police inspector in Philly put it, hey have, quote, “zero tolerance for people who run onto the field and dump an unknown a substance in a stadium full of people.” 

But perspective may be everything on this.  The “Los Angeles Times” says it has confirmed that shortly after the death of the legendary football coach John McKay at the University of Southern California in June 2001, his ashes were spread over U.S.C.‘s homefield at the Los Angeles Coliseum.  A note to the 5-6 Eagles about Mrs. Noteboom, since the McKay ceremony, USC has played 29 home games at that Coliseum and won 27 of them. 

John McKay was born in 1923.  Charlie Watts in 1941.  Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in 1943.  The later three are mentioned, because the Rolling Stones were today picked to headline the halftime show at the Super Bowl in Detroit next February. 

As the reverberations are still felt from the 2004 half-time, you remember the silly kids and their wardrobe, the trend has been toward the British-aged.  It was Paul McCartney last year. The Stones this time.  One look ahead to 2007, the appropriately named Jerry and the Pacemakers are still around. 

Speaking of things that are getting old, there are now three versions of the explanation from former NFL star, now commentator and football Hall of Fame nominee Michael Irvin.  Explanations for the drug paraphernalia police found in his car last week.  On the radio yesterday, Irvin told Dan Patrick and me that he had confiscated the drug pipe in his own home from a friend whom Irvin is trying to help quit and that he, Irvin, put it in his car with intention of disposing it elsewhere. 

Then the police report came out in which officers quoted Irvin as explaining the pipe‘s presence in his car by saying “it‘s my brother‘s.  He left it in there.” 

Now Irvin says the police took him literally when he was speaking metaphorically.  It is not his biological brother‘s.  He meant the owner was as close to him as a brother.

And that‘s the textbook way to keep a story alive.  Here‘s how to stop one in its tracks, no, the New York Yankees are not about to ask either American League most valuable player Alex Rodriguez or six-time all-star short stop Derek Jeter to move to center field.  That was the impression left after a Reuters news service story quoting Joe Torre, the Yankees‘ manager about the possibility of having one of the teams superstars fill its vacancy in that key position. 

“We thought about it.  We just haven‘t made a commitment to it,” the story read.  But that‘s not how the story happened, Torre told me today.  He said that a Reuters writer asked him if he had considered moving Jeter or Rodriguez to center.  And he had replied no.  The writer then asked if either player would do so if asked.  And Torre said it was obvious they‘d both do anything for the team. 

Torre said his comments thereafter were humorous in nature.  And he thought the writer would have gathered that.  When Torre also told him that ace relief pitcher Mariano Rivera would probably be the team‘s be the team‘s best defensive center fielder. 

Also tonight, you might assume that serious stress would increase your likelihood of cancer.  There has been research on this.  There is a surprising interim answer. 

And a paternity thriller: blockbuster news concerning Michael Jackson and what are supposed to be his kids.  Details on those stories ahead.  But today the top three sound bites of this day. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RIC FLAIR, PROFESSIONAL WRESTLER:  What the people here in Charlotte and that system right here treated me like a million bucks and treated me with the utmost respect.  And it‘s not a bad deal. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  So there‘s no road rage. 

FLAIR:  No road rage.  95 percent of the time it‘s great being Rick Flair, 5 percent it‘s not. 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  We recently tested the effectiveness of these steps with Brazilian illegal immigrants caught along the Rio Grande Valley of the Texas border.  The operation was called Operation Texas Hold ‘Em.  It delivered impressive results. 

JAY LENO, TONIGHT SHOW:  As I was saying in Florida, a man being arrested for indecent exposure was hit in the testicles by a police taser. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Do it. 

Ooh!  It hurts. 

LENO:  Let‘s say he‘s convicted.  How can you punish him?  What‘s worse than that?  All those 50,000 volts. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

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OLBERMANN:  Health headlines.  Does stress cause cancer?  Also an unusual way for artists to pay for their health care.  And is apologizing good for you?  Well, science is not waiting on the last one.  But it sure is fun to watch another induction into the COUNTDOWN apology hall of fame. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Instinct would tell you that a banker is more likely to develop cancer than a juggler.  Intuition would suggest that an air traffic controller would be at greater risk than a singer.  Explanation?  More stress.

But in our number two story on the COUNTDOWN, the reverse may be true.  In a moment, how artists are trying to overcome a hidden reality in their field, most of their jobs don‘t come with health insurance, so they‘re far less likely to get screened for cancer.  And as to stress professional or personal?  It may have no link at all to the disease. 

The report in the weekly must read science section of “The New York Times” looking at a bevy of recent studies finding no scientific evidence linking stress to cancer.  A study by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, one of many asking cancer patients questions about possibly stressful events, had a family member died?  Had they gotten married?  Divorced?  Lost a job?  And so forth, the results were clear: people under stress were no more likely to develop cancer than anybody else. 

And a series of Danish studies tracked categories of people under obvious stress to see if they developed cancer at a higher rate and they did not.  That included parents who had lost a child and parents whose children had schizophrenia. 

But researchers also say this is not necessarily the final word on the subject.  Anecdotally, plenty of cancer patients believe that their own cancers were brought on by periods of unusual stress. 

Which brings us to those artists, some who might be stressed because they have to pay all health care out of pocket.  They‘ve developed an extraordinary improvement on that old cliche about singing for your supper.  COUNTDOWN‘S Monica Novotny joins us now with the details.  Good evening, Monica.

MONICA NOVOTNY, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Keith, good evening. 

Last year the annual premium for an employer health plan for individual coverage averaged almost $4,000.  Now many people who work on a freelance basis, like artists, don‘t even have that option.  But a doctor at one hospital in New York has found a way to help. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  It‘s great to be valued for what you do and for what you spent your life learning how to do. 

NOVOTNY (voice-over):  Trading talent for medical treatment.  Artists are now bartering for health care. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Some old fashion things aren‘t out of style. 

NOVOTNY:  Susan Tang (ph), an illustrator and muralist, one of 250 artists who make up Artist Access, a program at New York‘s Woodhall Hospital.  Members spend time each week performing for patients or as in Susan‘s case, teaching them. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  If you stay like that it can be beautiful. 

NOVOTNY:  All in exchange for x-rays, lab tests, even doctor‘s visits. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  It allows you to pay for health care by applying your craft, by acting or singing or painting or whatever it is. 

NOVOTNY:  Susan, like countless freelance artists has no insurance. 

Living from job to job with no benefits, no safety net. 

(on camera):  How many years had you gone for having a checkup? 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  About five years. 

NOVOTNY (voice-over):  Until now. 

These days she earns medical care by spending a few hours each week painting with children in the hospital‘s pediatric ward. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  The artist community is notorious for having jobs that don‘t give health insurance. 

NOVOTNY:  Deborah Dewic (ph) interviews artists applying for the program, then works with many of them. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  So they‘re excited to have that load off their back. 

NOVOTNY (on camera):  Artists earn 40 credits for every hour they work.  Each credit is worth a dollar.  Most credits go to pay for their medical visits.  And because the artists are also part of a subsidized health care program here, those credits go a long way. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  You guys want to paint today? 

NOVOTNY (voice-over):  Doctors call it a win for the artists and the patients. 

DR. EDWARD FISKIN, WOODHALL MEDICAL CENTER DIRECTOR:  It‘s difficult being a patient.  It‘s scary even in the best of circumstances.  So bringing art to the in-patient and out-patient environment is really soothing and therapeutic and helps our patients recover. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Turn it over this way. 

NOVOTNY:  An old-fashioned idea working for modern-day medicine. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  My kids are really relieved. 

NOVOTNY:  So they don‘t have to worry about mom as much?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  If I get hit by a bus...

NOVOTNY:  Oh, don‘t say that. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

NOVOTNY:  The artists aren‘t just entertaining patients.  They are also helping to train doctors as well.  In one program, actors are given scripts and they portray sick patients.  Now interns interact with these patients and diagnosis them.  Then the young doctors are evaluated on their bedside manners. 

OLBERMANN:  I‘m having a—just taking a guess here this won‘t spot up shortly at your local H.M.O.  This is not the thing that they‘re going to go into.  But are there prospects for expanding this?  Because it sounds like it does, in fact, fill needs on both sides of the equation.

NOVOTNY:  It really does.  Right now they‘re definitely planning on expanding within New York to the city‘s other public hospitals.  They‘re able to do that, because they also have this subsidized health care program.  So, when we say 40 credits per hour that the artists earn that, it‘s only equivalent to $40.  It doesn‘t sound like a lot, but on this subsidized health care plan, those dollars really do go a long way.  One doctor‘s visit might only cost and artist $20 or $30.  So, certainly the plans are to expand at this point within New York. 

OLBERMANN:  Ever been in one of those New York public hospitals? 

NOVOTNY:  I was in one there. 

OLBERMANN:  I mean, as a patient?

NOVOTNY:  No. 

OLBERMANN:  OK.  I have been through that.  And I could have used an artist, a painter, somebody to sing to me.  Just during the period of time waiting at the emergency room, but that‘s another story for another time.  COUNTDOWN‘s Monica Novotny, great thanks. 

NOVOTNY:  Thanks. 

OLBERMANN:  Now to health care of an entirely different kind and an artist of an entirely different kind, too.  Our lead story in our roundup of celebrity and entertainment news, funny how old lyrics can come to haunt you like when in “Billy Jean” Michael Jackson saying the kid is not my son.  Jackson‘s ex-wife, Debbie Rowe, reportedly agreeing with him.  She is quoted as saying, the pop star is not the biological of their two children, neither their son, eight-year-old Prince Michael Junior, nor they‘re daughter, seven-year-old Paris.  She‘s quoted in the Irish newspaper, “The Sunday World,” “Michael knows the truth,” she says, “that he is not the natural father of Prince Michael Jr. and Paris.  He has to come clean.”  The truth, she says, dad or dads were anonymous doners to a fertility clinic. 

And another performer may say, I‘m not a married guy, I just play one on TV.  Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson may be splitsville, but it looks like their union was the inspiration for a news sitcom with Lachey as its star. 

From the WB network, a pilot about a famous baseball player in a new marriage starring Lachey, shooting to begin in April.  A romantic comedy under a microscope, according to its writer, is coming to us days after Lachey and Simpson announced their separation.  No idea who might be the cast to play the lackey to Lachey‘s star.  But a network spokesman adding, Nick is a huge talent with a major following.  Well, maybe for the WB. 

Also tonight, a capital offense in a city used to offenses.  A Rolls-Royce, a yacht, all in return for government contracts.  It deserves a big apology.  And Representative Randy Cunningham delivers a hall of fame performance.  That‘s ahead. 

But first, time for COUNTDOWN‘s list of today‘s three nominees for the coveted title of worst person in the world. 

At the bronze level, the Xcel Energy Company in Minnesota, it‘s customer Daniel Morris had wondered for years why despite every effort he made to conserve energy, his bill was always so high, nearly $200 bucks a month.  Then he happened to noticed the number on his electric meter.  It was not the same number as the one on his bill.  He‘s been paying someone else‘s bill for seven years.  The company says it can only adjust Morris‘ bill for the last three years.  So, he figures he‘s out as much as $2,000. 

And then the runner-up tonight, Igor Smikov (ph), he is a Russian attorney whose suit has been thrown out in a city court in Moscow, so he‘s going to go to the European court of human rights in Strasbourg.  Who is he suing?  “The Simpsons.”  He claims the show has morally damaged his 9-year-old son.  D‘oh—svedania. 

But the winner, Nancy O‘Donnell of Moon, Pennsylvania.  Police say the family came over for dinner Saturday night: her daughter, the kids, the whole group.  So, she made them something special.  Macaroni and cheese and bleach.  Nobody was injured.  Ms. O‘Donnell faces charges and possibly a visit to a nice rubber-walled kitchen. 

Nancy O‘Donnell of Moon, P.A., today‘s worst person in the world.

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OLBERMANN:  When former Congressman Dan Rostenkowski was indicted for corruption and convicted of mail fraud, it was for having converted $27,000 worth of postage stamps into cash at the congressional post office.  Fellow Democrat James Traficant, he of the worst congressional hair-piece ever, demanded thousands from businesses in return for official favors.  They were, it proves, pikers (ph).

Our number one story on the COUNTDOWN, dream big or go home.  Just ask Randy “Duke” Cunningham in his first full day as a former U.S. Congressman.  A California Republican resigning yesterday after confessing to evaded taxes and pocketing $2.4 million in bribes.  You heard me, $2.4 million.

Among the boss tweed-like gifts, the congressman accepted a $7,200 antique Louis Philippe commode, nearly $18,000 in repairs to his Rolls-Royce, another $17,000 in repairs to his yacht. 

Now, the big ticket items, $200,000 toward the purchase of a Washington, D.C. area condo.  Selling his California home to a defense contractor for $700,000 above the asking price and underreporting his taxable income by more than $1 million. 

Graft has never had it so good.  Such Grade-A prime payola once uncovered requiring a spectacular apology, Congressman Cunningham doing his best to deliver.  Cue the water works. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. RANDY CUNNINGHAM, ® CALIFORNIA:  I misled my family, friends, staff, colleagues, the public and even myself.  For all of this, I am deeply sorry.  The truth is I broke the law, concealed my conduct and disgraced my office.  I know that I will forfeit my freedom, my reputation, my worldly possessions, most importantly the trust of my friends and family. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Not bad.  While Jimmy Swaggart could have given him some guidance on the proper lip trembling to go with the crying and President Clinton a few pointers on gravitas, Congressman Cunningham‘s mea culpa already more than sufficient to get him inducted into the COUNTDOWN apology hall of fame.  Roll it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Let‘s get crazy.  Get some coke.  Hire a hooker. 

If you agree with this, just look at me and say, yes.

PAT O‘BRIEN, TALK SHOW HOST:  I‘m sorry I did it.  I‘m sorry it offended people.  I apologize to the people that this has offended. 

DAN RATHER, CBS NEWS ANCHOR:  It was a mistake.  CBS News deeply regrets it.  Also, I want to say personally and directly, I‘m sorry. 

TERRELL OWENS, NFL PLAYER:  Personally, I didn‘t think it would have offended anyone. 

Ah hell. 

OWENS:  You know, if it did, you know, we apologize. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I am sorry.  So, so sorry. 

DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE:  To the Iraqis who were mistreated by members of the U.S. armed forces, I offer my deepest apology. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I apologize to anyone that‘s been brought into this unnecessarily. 

ASHLEY SIMPSON, SINGER:  I feel so bad my band started playing the wrong song.  And I know it‘s new, so I thought I‘d do a hoe down. 

JANET JACKSON, SINGER:  And unfortunately, the whole thing went wrong in the end.  I am really sorry.

BILL CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I know that my public comments and my silence about this matter gave a false impression.  I misled people including even my wife.

KOBE BRYANT, NBA PLAYER:  I‘m so sorry.  I love my wife so much.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  In order to be a racist, you have to feel superior.  I don‘t feel superior to you at all.  I don‘t believe any man or any woman is superior to any other...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Did you always hold that view? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I think I did. 

TONYA HARDING, ICE SKATER:  I feel really bad for Nancy, and I feel really lucky that it wasn‘t me. 

JAY LENO, TONIGHT SHOW:  What the hell were you thinking? 

HUGH GRANT, ACTOR:  I think you know in life pretty much what the good thing to do is and what a bad thing.  And I did a bad thing.  And there you have it. 

STEVE IRWIN, CROCODILE HUNTER:  Sweetheart, who do you want to be when you grow up? 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Just like my daddy. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Steve, Steve, let me jump in here. 

IRWIN:  Poor little thing.  And you know what, I am sorry, Matt. 

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER, ACTOR:  Yes, that I have behaved badly sometimes.  And to those people that I have offended, I want to say to them that I‘m deeply sorry about that and I apologize. 

RICHARD NIXON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  That some of my judgments were wrong and some were wrong.  They were made in what I believed at the time to be in the best interest of the nation. 

JIMMY SWAGGART, TELEVANGELIST:  Please forgive me.  I‘ve sinned against you my Lord.  And I would ask that your precious (INAUDIBLE).

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  That‘s COUNTDOWN.  I‘m Keith Olbermann.  And keep your knees loose.  Good night and good luck.

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

END   

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