updated 12/20/2005 2:34:27 PM ET 2005-12-20T19:34:27

Guests: Tom DeFrank, John Ayllon, Sue Robinson

ALISON STEWART, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?  He‘s everywhere.  The president‘s all out media blitz touting his Iraq policy and attempting to explain all that‘s fine. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)         

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Do I have the legal authority to do this?  And the answer is absolutely. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)             

STEWART:  No mistaking how the Dems feel. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)         

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  He can‘t make up the laws. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)             

STEWART:  Tonight, the politics and procedures of spying on Americans. 

All of a sudden, it just burst into a big ball of fire and went right down.  That was an eyewitness description of the seaplane crash off Miami Beach.  No survivors have been pulled from the water. 

Gruesome crime led to a gruesome arrest, knives, police and confessions.  New details on the epic manhunt for alleged rapist Peter Braunstein. 

They‘re back.  Those crazy kids.  OK of them is a kid and the other is just celebrating his fiancee‘s birthday. 

Plus, a very special countdown retrospective on all the celebrity couples that make us feel a little better about our own little relationships.  All that and more now on “Countdown.”

And good evening.  I‘m Alison Stewart in for Keith Olbermann. 

With just 12 days left in the year 2005, you have to wonder if President Bush will be the first person out on the White House lawn hitting a pot with a spoon and yelling, 2006, what took you so long?  We‘ll never know if President Bush feel that ‘05 has been that hard on him.  But we do know after a year of fits and starts, hurricanes and IEDS, the president is letting us know he is ready to admit a thing or two.  Our fifth story on the countdown, President Bush unplugged. 

Only hours after addressing the nation from the Oval Office, Mr. Bush was back behind a podium this morning.  If last night‘s speech was intended to convince the American public that the United States is winning the war in Iraq, today‘s press conference was all about addressing critics of the Patriot Act extension and defending his secret program for spying on Americans. 

Kelly O‘Donnell has all the details from the White House—Kelly. 

KELLY O‘DONNELL, NBC NEWS, THE WHITE HOUSE:  Good evening, Alison.

The administration admits that no law explicitly says the president can order spying inside the U.S., but the White House is aggressively selling a legal argument claiming the constitution and Congress‘ authorization for the use of military force do give Mr. Bush broad authority. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

O‘DONNELL (voice over):  In the East Room today President Bush forcefully defended the reach of his wartime powers insisting that he did not need court approval to authorize a secret program of domestic spying where the government eavesdrops on phone calls between the U.S. and abroad to track al Qaeda suspects. 

BUSH:  I just want to assure the American people that one, I‘ve got the authority to do this.  Two, it is a necessary part of my job to protect you. 

O‘DONNELL:  Relying on a trust me argument, the administration says it must order some spying without a warrant because paperwork required by current law does not give the government sufficient speed and agility to chase threats. 

BUSH:  When people are changing phone numbers and phone calls, and they are moving quick.  And we‘ve got to be able to detect and prevent.  I keep saying that, but this—it requires quick action. 

O‘DONNELL:  Appearing agitated, the president called the leak of the once classified spy program shameful.  And disputed any suggestion that he has gone beyond the law. 

BUSH:  To say unchecked power basically is ascribing some kind of dictatorial position to the president, which I the strongly reject. 

O‘DONNELL:  Mr. Bush says Congress has been briefed a dozen times, and the program is regularly reviewed.  Shifting his own scrutiny to some member of the U.S. Senate, the president unleashed what he called his passion for the Patriot Act. 

BUSH:  It is inexcusable to say to the American people, you know, we‘re going to be tough on terror but take away the very tools necessary to help fight these people. 

O‘DONNELL:  Set to expire in 12 days, the president repeatedly called for the Patriot Act‘s reauthorization. 

BUSH:  In the war on terror, we cannot afford to be without this law for a single moment. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

O‘DONNELL:  Senior administration officials say that other tool, domestic spying, has been compromised, undermining its effectiveness because it has now been publicly disclosed.  But officials would not give any more specific details about that, saying that remains classified—

Alison. 

STEWART:  NBC White House correspondent Kelly O‘Donnell. 

For more insight on the president‘s media blitz, we‘re joined now by Tom DeFrank, Washington bureau chief for “The New York Daily News.” 

So, Tom, the president on TV Sunday night in the Oval Office, 13 and a half hours later holding a news conference.  Last week, he gave extended interviews to two major TV anchors.  This morning I joked to another anchor here at MSNBC that the president was going to end up on the a Food Network cooking with Rachel Ray next. 

Why the very public, very close together appearances by Mr. Bush? 

TOM DEFRANK, NEW YORK DAILY NEWS:  Well, this is all part of a calculated campaign, a strategy to try to shore up his standing.  And also to take advantage of the fact the elections in Iraq went off extremely well.  I think the president has had four speeches plus his prime time address plus the press conference, talking about Iraq. 

But I would suggest that while all of that has been very effective probably the long lines in the Iraqi polling booths probably did more to make the case that Democracy is starting to take root in that country than anything the president has said. 

And so though the White House has said, we‘ve got some good news here, let‘s embellish it.  Let‘s exploit it, and let‘s make the best of it.  And you can‘t blame them for doing it. 

STEWART:  We‘ve got a little bit more good news tonight.  A new poll from “The Washington Post” has the president‘s approval rating back up to 47 percent. 

So considering what you just said, media blitz, Iraqi election or both? 

DEFRANK:  Both.  There‘s no doubt about it the president has been on a roll in the last couple of weeks.  Now polls go up, polls go down.  He is to a certain extent, hostage to events, especially events on the ground in Iraq.  But there‘s no discounting the fact that I would, in my view, the last two weeks have been the best two weeks of his second term. 

STEWART:  Let‘s talk about the tone of the president‘s speech and the tone of the press conference.  They were very different.  Perhaps a more humble tone.  I‘ve heard a lot of people describe it that way of last night‘s address versus more forceful tone and language with the press.  Dissect each for me. 

DEFRANK:  Well, you‘re exactly right about last night‘s speech.  The tone was conciliatory even contrite at times and maybe even a little about it remorseful. 

But today, in the East Room, the tone was very combative, very muscular, very aggressive and assertive.  And that wasn‘t by accident.  The fact of the matter is the White House has internal polls that show that when he is behaving and coming across like he is in charge and asserting himself, his poll numbers go up. 

Somebody told me this afternoon, that when he is standing tall even some people who don‘t agree with his positions on issues think better about him as a president.  And so it was not at all an accident that the president today was using what I call action adjectives, inexcusable, shameful, dispirited, words like that. 

And I think this is part of a calculated strategy.  And I think for the last couple weeks, it has been working. 

STEWART:  You brought up the “s” word, shameful.  The president said it was shameful that someone leaked the NSA story to the press because the damage it has done to national security. 

Now as someone who knows how this White House prioritizes, why would they come forward and say it is shameful and harmful to national security while the leaking of the name of a, say, covert CIA operative is not? 

DEFRANK:  Well, I think that‘s a fair point.  There is some internal contradiction there.  But in this case, the president is counting on the fact that what he has done and he made no apologies for that today.  He did right after September 11th, and he did it because he felt the need to do that was greater. 

And so they‘re hoping to play to one of the president‘s great strengths which is his reaction to the September 11th attacks.  And forgetting about the fact that you raise a valid point there about somebody inside his government leaking information about national security to Robert Novak. 

STEWART:  The NSA spy story is not drawing just criticism down partisan line.  Senator Arlen Specter, chairman of the judiciary, said he might look into it.  Do you think there could be hearings? 

DEFRANK:  I think there could be hearings.  I‘ll bet you that Senator Specter is going to be under great pressure from the leadership to reconsider that position.  But I suspect there‘s a decent chance that there will be hearings. 

This is a very controversial argument that the president is propounding here.  He obviously feels very strongly about it.  But I think this is one of several issues where the president takes a position that is fairly polarizing.  So we‘ll have to see how it spins out. 

Now at the White House, they think that this issue has some legs.  But it won‘t have too many legs after the first of the year.  That‘s what they‘re hoping, at least.  I‘m not so sure they‘re right about that calculation. 

STEWART:  Well, we shall see. 

Tom DeFrank, Washington bureau chief for “The New York Daily News.” 

Thanks a whole lot for your time tonight. 

DEFRANK:  Thanks, Alison. 

STEWART:  Kelly O‘Donnell was mentioned earlier, President Bush argued this morning that his domestic spying program is within the law even without a court order.

So we wanted to know on what law is he basing that.

Chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell does the digging for us.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): 

The president argues that since 9/11, spying on Americans who may have contact with terrorists is not only necessary, but legal.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I swore to uphold the laws.  Do I have the legal authority to do this?  And the answer is absolutely.

MITCHELL:  The president is claiming legal authority under both the Constitution and the law Congress passed after 9/11, authorizing the use of force. 

His attorney general on the “Today” program.

ALBERTO GONZALES, ATTORNEY GENERAL:  We believe that authorization to use military force constitutes that statute which does give permission for the president of the United States to engage in this kind of very limited, targeted electronic surveillance against our enemies.

MITCHELL:  The secretary of state says the program is limited.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, SECRETARY OF STATE:  This is a program that is very carefully controlled.  It is reviewed constantly.

MITCHELL:  But since 9/11, the president has approved eavesdropping on telephone calls and e-mails to and from the United States, involving thousands of American whose names or numbers may have been found on lap tops and cell phones, keys from suspected terrorists.

The normal procedures for the government to get a warrant from the special intelligence court within the Department of Justice.  That court rarely says no.  Records show out of 4,713 other surveillance requests that the judge assigned, Colleen Kollar-Kotelly between 2002-and-2004, she denied only four and modified 96.  With the court seemingly so willing to authorize surveillance, why has the president gone around the judge?

STEVEN AFTERGOOD, NATIONAL SECURITY EXPERT:  What prompts speculation that perhaps the government was using information that was illegally obtained. 

JEFFREY SMITH, FORMER CIA GENERAL COUNSEL:  And he has essentially thumbed his nose at the Congress and has said that regardless of what you say, I can do as I wish. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MITCHELL:  Tonight, Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller released this letter he wrote to Vice President Cheney two years ago, strongly objecting to the spying.  He says he never got a satisfactory answer.  Andrea Mitchell, NBC News, Washington.

STEWART:  A fire, then a crash.  A plane goes down just off Miami Beach.  Witnesses describe what looked like an explosion in the sky.  No survivors have been pulled from the water.  We‘ll have the very latest on the crash investigation. 

A sinister crime so thoroughly planned, plotted and executed on Halloween night, it sent chills through big, bad New York City.  The alleged rapist now captured.  Peter Braunstein makes his first court appearance today.  And we‘ll hear exactly how the nationwide manhunt came to an end. 

You‘re watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  Tragedy in the skies off Miami Beach.  On the way to the Bahamas, a plane burst into flames mid-flight.  Lots of witnesses, but apparently no survivors.  The latest on the investigation, next on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  One witness described what he saw happen to a seaplane off the Miami Beach like this.  Quote, “It exploded in the air and one of the wings flew out of there.  The other part of the plane was on fire and it just went straight down.”

Our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN, the crash of flight 101.  Twenty people were on board.  All are believed to have perished, after the plane carrying them from Florida to the Bahamas crashed into the crystal clear water off Miami Beach shortly after take-off. 

Our correspondent on the scene is Mark Potter.  Mark, good evening. 

MARK POTTER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Good evening, Alison.  The Coast Guard says that 19 bodies have now been recovered.  But because there were 20 people on board and one person is still unaccounted for, the search and rescue effort continues. 

You can see the lights behind me.  That‘s where that search is being coordinated.  Meanwhile, officials, federal investigators from the NTSB, the National Transportation and Safety Board, are gearing up to begin their work trying to figure out why the plane crashed.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

POTTER (voice-over):  Police divers and rescuers searched the waters off the southern tip of Miami Beach, looking for bodies and any possible survivors.  They arrived on scene just minutes after the crash of the Grumman seaplane, around 2:30 in the afternoon.

FLOYD JORDAN, MIAMI BEACH FIRE CHIEF:  It was a quick response. 

Unfortunately, their efforts did not result in any survivors.

POTTER:  An eyewitness captured the scene on a cell phone camera.  The plane with 18 passengers and two pilots aboard crashed shortly after take-off and plunged into the entrance of a shipping channel known as Government Cut.  Security guard Mike Torres said he saw the plane on fire and the pilot losing control.

MIKE TORRES, SECURITY GUARD:  I was talking with my supervisor right here.  When the plane came into view.  And already the tail end was on fire.  And it looked like it wanted to cork screw.  So it seemed like the pilot was trying to maneuver it.  When right about over here, one of the wings broke off. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

POTTER:  The plane was headed from Miami to Bimini, the Bahamas, about a 25-minute trip.  Some witnesses said that they heard a loud explosion right before the plane crashed.  But one of the eyewitnesses that we talked to said that he thought that loud noise was caused by the wing breaking off, which was then followed by a big fire.  Alison, back to you.

STEWART:  And Mark, aside from the search and recovery effort tomorrow, what will investigators be doing?

POTTER:  Well, they‘ve got a lot of things to be concerned about. 

First of all, this is a busy shipping channel behind me, Government Cut. 

It‘s blocked now.  There is—there are no ships going in and out.

They‘re also worried about environmental damage.  Perhaps oil leakage in this sensitive area.  Also, they need to be worried about salvage of the ship, of this plane eventually.  But of course they‘re going to do all that in collaboration with the NTSB, the federal investigators.  Alison?

STEWART:  Mark Potter reporting from Miami Beach, thank you very much.  And joining me now by phone is John Ayllon, who saw flight 101 crash this afternoon.  John, tell me.  When you saw the plane at first, what exactly was wrong with it?

JOHN AYLLON, EYEWITNESS (on phone):  The plane was flying at low altitude, I believe.  The other officer and myself looking south on 100 South Point Drive.  We saw the plane really flying low.  At that time, a small explosion happened on the right side of the plane.  I don‘t know if it was the wing side or now.  However, the plane titled to the right a little and then I don‘t know whenever the pilot tried to maneuver the plane back to a position to make an emergency landing.  But that‘s when the big explosion happened and the whole plane just engulfed in flames and went down by the pier.   

STEWART:  Now did you feel the explosion at all?  Did you have any sense that something had blown up? 

AYLLON:  Yes, we did.  We actually saw the explosion when it happened. 

So we both—basically we were thrown back a little by, you know, shock. 

But we felt the explosion. 

STEWART:  Now once you realized that this plane was in terrible trouble, what did you and other witnesses do?  Because it looked like there were a lot of people on that beach. 

AYLLON:  Yes, we are lucky in that we a contact service for security, and we contacted the operation center, and we asked them to call fire rescue.  At that point, we observed also too far worst position on the beach on South Beach right in toward the pier. 

My officer and I, we did the same.  We went over there to see whether or not there were any survivors left.  But when we got there, basically the rocks did not allow us to go any closer to the plane.  But there were some surfers with boards on the water.  So they ran over there.

And I believe they were about seven or eight surfers that jumped into the water to look for survivors.  I can tell you that they ran immediately after they saw the explosion too. 

STEWART:  John Ayllon, we thank you so much for sharing your experience from today with us.  And you take care. 

AYLLON:  Thank you. 

STEWART:  He is accused of starting a fire so he could pose as a fireman to sexually assault a woman in a building.  Now Peter Braunstein faced the courts for the first time. 

And in a much-needed break from the serious news of the day.  Take a lack at this.  The biggest Santa ever?  You guessed it.  “Oddball” is just around the corner. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  I‘m Alison Stewart holding down the fort this week as Keith Olbermann takes a holiday break, and we take a wee break during our countdown now for an update from the front, as we enter the final week in war on the war on Christmas.  Let‘s play “Oddball.”

We begin north of Lisbon, Portugal where their answers to the attack on Christmas, build a bigger Santa.  One hundred feet tall sitting down.  It is the biggest inflatable Santa on earth.  Nothing can stop a big man in a red suit. 

“The Guinness Book of World Record” folks are reportedly on the way to confirm Santa‘s record.  It is their second trip to Portugal this hospital season.  Earlier they came to a nearby town to see the world‘s largest chocolate crib.  Unfortunately, somebody ate it before they got there.  That thing is big. 

To Key Largo where the elite Santa seals are guarding the coastline.  OK, well this guy is, anyway.  It is the scuba diving Santa of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary swimming all this week and taking pictures with all the kiddies to raise money for charity.  Santa swims the reef for hour on end, and he has got that thing to pull him around.  Since the barracuda had Blitzen and Dasher for a snack.  It was sad.

Finally northward to Boston where the temperature is much lower and so is the level of dress for Santas.  This is not right.  It is an annual bean town tradition.  Half naked, possibly half drunk Santas run through the streets in the freezing cold to raise money for charity.  Yes.  It is the true meaning of Christmas people braving pneumonia, hypothermia and shrinkage, all for your fellow man. 

Speaking of unseemly things, a sex toy saleswoman who converted to Christianity finds a unique way to get rid of her now unwanted merchandise.  Burn it. 

And when it comes to Tom Cruise and fiancee Katie Holmes, you just know that everything they go and do is going to be over the top.  And maybe just a little bit gross. 

And the week-long two-city celebration of her 27th birthday does not disappoint.  Those stories ahead. 

Now here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three newsmakers of the day.  Number three, professional skier Lindsey Kildow.  As first prize for winning her world cup downhill competition in France over the weekend, she was awarded 23,000 euros and a cow.  The cow, we think, was a gag. 

She was immediately offered another 1,000 euros to sell it back but Kildow decided to keep the cow.  She has no idea what she‘s going to do with it.  Only that she is not going to eat it. 

Number two, Paul Wicklund of Minneapolis, Minnesota.  The forty-five-year-old homeless man was ticketed by police this weekend for dancing on a city street.  The cops say they were afraid he would dance right into oncoming traffic. 

Plus, he was in violation of city ordinance 427.2, no person shall dance or engage or participate in any dancing upon a public street or highway in a city except at a block party.  No person shall engage in any dancing upon a public street on the highway except at a block party.  So there you have it. 

And at number one a gentleman named Rolf Harris.  The Australian man who painted the official oil portrait of Queen Elizabeth for her 80th birthday.  Rolf says early versions of the painting made her look, quote, “like a pork butcher from Norwich.” 

But he is happy with the finished product even though he says getting the royal teeth right gave him the most problem.  Rolf, you‘ve done good, my man.  You‘ve done really good. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

*

STEWART:  The crime was so disturbing and terrifying and full-on creepy it was plastered all over the New York tabloids for weeks.  The Halloween rape sparked a nationwide manhunt for the past six weeks.  On October 31st, a rapist disguised as a firefighter abused a woman for 12 hours in her own apartment.  And then he disappeared.  Our third story on the COUNTDOWN, now it appears that the heinous nature of the crime is exactly what led to prime suspects Peter Braunstein‘s capture in Tennessee late Friday. 

Today he waived extradition and will be back in New York tonight.  Our correspondent Pat Dawson now with the details of his dramatic capture, courtesy of a sharp-eyed student at the University of Memphis. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PAT DAWSON, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Peter Braunstein‘s six weeks on the run ended on a Memphis sidewalk.  And as the police closed in, Braunstein nearly ended his life there, too. 

WESLEY GIFFORD, EYEWITNESS:  Eventually, the guy turned his back to the cop and stabbed himself in the right side of his throat.  He went down, started bleeding everywhere. 

DAWSON:  Braunstein survived and spent the weekend in a Memphis hospital.  Today he faces kidnapping, sexual assault, and burglary from a bizarre attack Halloween night in New York.  Police believe Braunstein set a small fire in this Manhattan apartment me building, then posing in firefighter gear he allegedly purchase on eBay, forced his way into a woman‘s apartment, drugged her and abused her for more than 13 hours. 

The crime triggered a massive search, then a torrent of media coverage with investigators focused on Braunstein, a 42-year-old writer who had worked at the same fashion magazine as the victim.  Sightings were reported all over the city.  But each time New York cops came close to catching him, Braunstein slipped away. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  . was finally getting the attention he craved. 

DAWSON:  “America‘s Most Wanted” featured the Braunstein story.  A student at the University of Memphis recognized him from the show and called police. 

GIFFORD:  It actually worked out in this case.  Some girl saw that guy and recognized him from the video, and she called the police here on campus and they took care of it. 

DAWSON:  Braunstein‘s bond is set at $1 million.  But his story is still unfolding.  He reportedly carried a journal containing explicit details of his crime. 

ALBERTO BRAUNSTEIN, FATHER:  Limelight is important to him.  And he had his—more than his 15 minutes of fame. 

DAWSON:  Fifteen minutes, six weeks on the run, and a growing legend, even after the dramatic arrest. 

Pat Dawson, NBC News, New York. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  The capture wasn‘t just because his mug was all over the TV show “America‘s Most Wanted,” it was also the result of the eagle eyes and great memory of Ms. Annette Brown.  She told today on the “Today” show, she recognized Braunstein‘s face.  She wasn‘t sure why.  And then she remembered what he allegedly did. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANNETTE BROWN, SPOTTED SUSPECT ON CAMPUS:  I recall seeing him on “America‘s Most Wanted,” and a few times, and that was one of the reasons why I believe I remembered his face was because of the nature of his crime.  You know, it was just so horrific in my mind. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  It was about an hour after Ms. Brown alerted campus police about Braunstein, that Officer Jay Johnson found him. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OFFICER JAY JOHNSON, UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS CAMPUS POLICE:  Disobeyed my commands to stop, reached in his pocket, tried to pull out a weapon.  It turns out he pulled out a knife.  I had pulled out my pistol and was pointing it at him, ordering him to drop it.  He raised the knife up in a threatening manner to me, faced me.  But he didn‘t come toward me. 

I stood my ground in the middle of the street and ordered him to drop the knife.  He then moved the knife and pointed it in his neck.  And I ordered him to drop it.  I said, look, you don‘t have to do this, just drop it.  He then began stabbing himself in the neck.  I sprayed him with pepper gas and it didn‘t show any effect on him.  He then turned after stabbing himself in the neck several times, turned and continued to walk away from me. 

I followed him.  He went about 50 feet.  He just stopped, dropped the knife, turned around and said, OK, I give up.  I said, get on the ground.  I ran up and kicked the knife off into the grass.  He laid down and complied with my commands.  Three or four other cars showed up immediately.  They handcuffed him. 

Before they handcuffed him, I asked if he had any other weapons.  He said, I have a gun.  He started to reach into his pocket.  I grabbed his hand, I pulled out what turned out to be a black BB gun.  Threw it over with the knife.  Other officers handcuffed him.  I got down faced—right down on the ground level with him and said, what‘s your name? 

He said, Peter Braunstein.  He passed out after that and couldn‘t respond any more. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  No crime being committed here.  Just an innocent fire.  The destruction of some adult pleasure toys all in the name of religion.  One woman‘s conversion from porn to Jesus. 

And later, Jennifer Wilbanks‘ conversion from fiancee to runaway bride, one of the more memorable headlines from the year in bizarre relationship news.  But first here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three sound bites of the day. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  A couple had a—just bought a Christmas tree and they were about to decorate it.  It had been in the house for five days. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  (INAUDIBLE) says the couple learned a tiny screech owl had moved into the tree. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I kept smelling him and smelling him.  What is that odor?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Curiously enough, the owl‘s feathers smelled very, very potently like marijuana. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Laying there, happy as could be. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  And they examined the owl, looked at his eyes. 

Big owl eyes.  And the owl was, in the vernacular, stoned. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  A blood test later confirmed it. 

CONAN O‘BRIEN, HOST, “LATE NIGHT WITH CONAN O‘BRIEN”:  Several right-wing groups say they may boycott the Ford Motor Company because it continues to advertise in gay magazines.  In a related story, most Americans plan to boycott Ford because it makes Fords. 

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Her oldest son is absent.  With 17 children, the Chernenkos (ph) claim to be the largest family in the U.S. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  My name is Lilia.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  My name is Dmitri.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  My name is Anatoly Chernenko.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  My name is Lyudmila.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  My name is Vitaly.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  My name is Oksana.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  My name is Svetlana.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  My name is Inna.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  My name is Vyacheslav.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  My name is Diana.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Alina.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I have a time, he is 2 years old. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Asked if 1-week-old David would be their last, mom says she‘s not sure.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  Sometimes they are called novelty items.  Sometime toys for big boys and girls.  And you find them in big boys and girls stores.  Adult stores, if you follow me.  The battery-operated often lifelike objects inspire emotions ranging from fear to awe to confusion to pleasure.  But I would bet they are almost never set on fire.  Except in our number two story on the COUNTDOWN tonight.  The bonfire of the sex toys. 

Sue Chinsley (ph) Robinson of Dexter, Missouri, owned Erotic Temptations.  But after a car accident threatened the life of a loved one, Sue had a change of heart.  She converted to Christianity and so, first order of business, converting that porn shop into a Christian bookstore.  Now the problem, what to do with a pile of sexual aids, $6,500 worth of sexual aids?  Her pastor came one a solution.  The one you see here.  Burn, baby, burn.  I‘m joined now by Sue Robinson in front of her newly refurbished Heaven‘s Grace Bible, Bridle and Lace. 

Sue, good evening, and congratulations on your new store.

SUE ROBINSON, BURNED SEX TOYS:  Thank you, Alison.  Thanks for having me. 

STEWART:  Sure.  Let me get a little bit of background from you.  How long did you run the adult shop? 

ROBINSON:  Actually, it was three years to the exact day. 

STEWART:  Now when you were running the shop, were you ever uncomfortable with the merchandise that was in your then store? 

ROBINSON:  Yes, lots of times.  You know.  But I always passed it off that I was a good person at heart so whatever I sold, you know, I was just a business woman is the way I always made myself feel comfortable. 

STEWART:  And aside from the various sex toys, did you sell porn videos as well?  And how was your business doing? 

ROBINSON:  I had a very good business.  I lived very comfortable.  I traveled most of the time.  I usually did not even have to work my store myself for the last two years.  I did mostly traveling and just having fun and enjoying the money. 

STEWART:  All right.  Then you had this conversion.  You took on Jesus Christ as your savior.  You made this change in your life.  Now why couldn‘t you just close down your store?  Why did you need to burn everything up? 

ROBINSON:  Well, actually, Alison, to tell you the truth, I have two teenage boys that depend on me as their single mother to take care of them.  And I couldn‘t just close the doors and not have no income coming in.  I‘ve been a business owner for a long time.  So going out and making a minimum wage somewhere was not an option. 

And I didn‘t want to pass the business on to someone else because that wouldn‘t be right either.  Someday I may have to stand up there in front of God and be judged for passing that type of stuff on.  And I didn‘t want to do that.

So I had to figure out a way that I could still be able to live comfortable and live for God and be able to go sleep at night and have a clear conscience. 

STEWART:  Well, let me ask you a philosophical question.  Even though this isn‘t your choice, isn‘t the choice for people who belong to your church, is there anything actually sinful about married couples who decide to use this kind of aid in their marriage? 

ROBINSON:  Well, my opinion, that‘s up to the individual couples.  You know, I don‘t believe that there‘s anything wrong with married couples enticing their love life together as a married couple.  But you know, you can‘t check people‘s marriage license as they come in the front door and make sure that they‘re married before they purchase something. 

And there are too many people that come in and that look at the videos or the magazines or something and possibly they‘re out there and they‘re mentally sick and they‘re looking at children or women in the wrong way.  You know, the thought that maybe some time or another I‘ve sold something to someone, that they‘ve maybe went out and did wrong to one of these children or another woman, that hurts.  That‘s hard to live with, to think that I might have been a part of that in some way.  And I hope that.

STEWART:  So how did you feel when you were burning that stuff, when you were throwing it in bonfire? 

ROBINSON:  It was awesome.  You know, everybody looked at me and said, $6,500, you‘re going to just burn it?  Oh, give to it me.  And I‘m like, no.  You know, it‘s only money and it is God‘s money to start with.  So I mean, who am I to be stingy?  I mean, as far as I‘m concerned, $6,500 is nothing compared to my soul. 

STEWART:  Sue Robinson, proud owner of Heaven‘s Grace Bible, Bridle and Lace, thanks to you. 

ROBINSON:  Thank you.

STEWART:  OK.  An “American Idol” favorite hospitalized again in our nightly round up of celebrity and entertainment news, “Keeping Tabs.” This time for a real ailment, not exhaustion.  Bo Bice, the longhaired Allman Brothers-looking guy was rushed to a hospital in Vegas with complications from a recent intestinal surgery, ouch.  That‘s according to his publicist. 

The 30-year-old runner up on “American Idol” had been rehearsing for a performance on the 2005 Radio Music Awards.  His publicist said he did not collapse and he was now well enough to go back to Nashville, but for treatment.  Bice underwent surgery in August to prepared a blocked intestine, cutting short his part in the “American Idol” tour.  His album, “The Real Thing,” was released just last week. 

And from wrestling with ailments to just plain wrestling, plenty of it coming up later tonight.  USA Network will air a special tribute to the troops edition of “Monday Night RAW.” Those WWE superstars will match up in front of 4,000 men and women of the U.S. military serving in Afghanistan.  This is the third straight year the wrestlers with the mostest have entertained soldiers stationed abroad.  The special also gives our troops in Afghanistan a chance to shout out to their loved ones back home.  Check the your local listings, will you? 

2005 as the year of the TomKat.  Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes topping off a year of bizarre relationships news and (INAUDIBLE).  COUNTDOWN‘s look back at the year in love. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  This weekend marked an auspicious occasion celebrated around the country literally, cue the festivities, the birthday of Katie Holmes, the future Mrs. Tom Cruise turned all of 27 years old yesterday.  Oh but the pageantry began last Thursday.  Also cue our number one story tonight.  Tom and Katie‘s big adventure.  We‘ll be reminiscing in a moment about a year of TomKat headlines and all the other star-crossed lovers who keep COUNTDOWN in business. 

But first, People magazine provides with us the play-by-play of the birthday celebrations.  The celebratory weekend started in Manhattan, where the couple held a small, private party at famed toy store FAO Schwarz.  There were cupcakes, always good, seven-foot stuffed giraffes, always good, and plenty of Tom and Katie PDA, not always good. 

Next, the entourage hit Central Park where the pregnant birthday girl ice-skated despite falling sleet and rain.  Nothing says fun like sharp blades, bad weather and baby on-board.  But that‘s not all. 

Miami also got the honor of playing host to Katie‘s big day, well, days, part two.  The duo had dinner with famous friends Will Smith and wife Jada Pinkett-Smith, a fellow Scientologist, by the way, followed by a stop at the South Beach nightclub Snatch. 

When asked why Katie didn‘t ride the club‘s mechanic bull, her fiancee replied, quote, “if she wasn‘t pregnant, she would have been on the bull.”

All right-y, then.  If you are a regular COUNTDOWN viewer, let‘s face, if you live here in the good old U.S. of A., you know that comment falls in the less strange column of the TomKat weirdometer (ph).  They are tops in a pantheon of couples who filled our year with joy and laughter, kind of the laughing at you not with you kind, from royal wedding flubs to celebrity scandals to our favorite Greyhound customer-turned-runaway bride, we give you 2005, the year of the rooster and year of lurve (ph). 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TOM CRUISE, ACTOR:  The premiere we wanted here in France because it‘s beautiful and it‘s romantic and yes, I proposed to Kate last night. 

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST:  It‘s the story that just keeps on giving, it gives my producers fits of glee.  It gives me (INAUDIBLE).

OPRAH WINFREY, TELEVISION PERSONALITY:  We‘ve never seen you behave this way before. 

CRUISE:  I know. 

WINFREY:  Have you ever.

(CRUISE JUMPS UP AND DOWN ON COUCH)

WINFREY:  . felt this way before? 

OLBERMANN:  Tom Cruise went off on Matt Lauer this morning. 

CRUISE:  Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, I‘m asking you a question, you don‘t know the history of psychiatry.  I do. 

You don‘t even—you‘re glib, you don‘t even know what Ritalin is. 

WINFREY:  Tom, I‘ve never seen you like this. 

OLBERMANN:  If Tom Cruise doesn‘t calm down soon, somebody is going to go after him probably with an elephant tranquilizer gun. 

Tom Cruise and his fiancee Katie Holmes are expecting a baby, no, their own.  They‘re not sitting there waiting for cousins to stop by with a newborn. 

KATIE HOLMES, ACTOR:  We‘re so excited .  It‘s amazing.  It‘s a dream come true.  I‘m so excited.  There‘s so much excitement going on.  It‘s just amazing.  It‘s exciting. 

OLBERMANN:  Hold on a second. 

(SIMULATING NAUSEA)

OLBERMANN:  We‘re going to traipse around this next question delicately.  Tom Cruise, a father?  Artificial insemination?  Immaculate conception?  Neighborhood volunteer?  Pizza delivery boy? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Tom is totally the father.  He‘s not MIA.  He‘s the top gun. 

OLBERMANN:  Yes, in the immortal words of Howard Dean tonight on “HARDBALL,” we‘re not playing hide the salami here. 

Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston have just separated but Linda Tripp has just gotten married.  Our number one story on the COUNTDOWN to quote the comedian Louie Anderson, what the hell kind of world are we living in? 

ANGELINA JOLIE, ACTOR:  It‘s romantic in a very weird way. 

OLBERMANN:  Here it is, smoking gun, a kid, pail, shovel, an actor, and an actress.  Case closed.  She‘s a hussy.  He‘s a guy.  And more truly than would film of them romping down naked down Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, shots of Pitt and Jolie with Jolie Jr. indicate she‘s his girlfriend.  And Mrs. Pitt, Jennifer Aniston, filed for divorce a month ago yesterday, did not jump.  She was pushed. 

Any man will tell you that if the son is there too, this is—the woman is going for the ring. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Well, the kid is safer there than at Neverland,

OK? 

OLBERMANN:  Oh, that‘s a great finish.

JOLIE:  It‘s the discovery two of strangers. 

OLBERMANN:  We‘re finishing tonight with another addition of stories the producers made me cover. 

JOLIE:  It‘s all the heat and passion of a stranger. 

OLBERMANN:  Have you sensed yet that I‘m doing tonight‘s number one story under protest? 

JOLIE:  It‘s that hot, drunken, wild, sexy night with a stranger. 

OLBERMANN:  Keep your knees loose, thank you, producers, for making me do that story.  Good night and good luck. 

Previously on “Desperate Royal Housewives.”

PRINCESS DIANA OF WALES:  Well, there were three of us in this marriage.  So it was a bit crowded.

QUEEN ELIZABETH OF ENGLAND:  It just turned out to be an (INAUDIBLE). 

OLBERMANN:  Their love burned for 30 years.  Now on the eve of their wedding, dark forces are gathering.  Will his mother intervene?  What about his ex-wife‘s brother Earl?  And who is minding the castle on “Desperate Royal Housewives”?

So everything should be fine now, they‘re getting married on April 9th, the anniversary of the day The Beatles split up and the day the Titanic officers‘ came aboard ship. 

Previously on “Desperate Royal Housewives.” The royal marriage take two.  On the surface it looked picture perfect but underneath her designer gown, did Camilla have cold sheets?  Did the queen forget the cardinal rule of Great Britain, the stiff upper lip?  And did the guests realize short skirts plus shuttle buses equals diapers?  Next on “Desperate Royal Housewives.”

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you. 

OLBERMANN:  I don‘t mean to judge a book by its cover but those photos of this woman, I don‘t know how recent they are, it‘s just a feeling about those shots with her eyes sort of bugging out that you look at that and say, is she going to run or do something? 

Sentenced to 120 hours of community service for having lied to the police, the infamous runaway bride served a portion of that sentence in public today.  Wilbanks wearing an orange vest and a hat that reads “life is good” but what skill she lacked in lawn-mowing acumen she more than made up with her unique weed-killing ability. 

(SHOOTS LASERS OUT OF EYES)

OLBERMANN:  OK, that‘s a lawsuit.  I knew she could do that. 

Here is the apparently still-fiancee John Mason.  Here we were advised was once a rowdy hard-living dating-kind of guy but while rededicating himself to his faith, he declared himself a born-again virgin.  As I asked on Friday night, when did they change that rule?  Do you have to file paperwork on this or do I have to get a note signed by a clergyman or do I just have to put my hand on the rock and say “I‘m a born-again virgin?”

DR. DREW PINSKY:  Keith, I know you‘re very interested in this kind of thing, and we can arrange it for you, but as far as I know, there is no formal paperwork available yet.  So none that I‘m aware of anyway.  But I can arrange something for you, I‘m sure. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Will she show up this time?  Will he show up this time?  Will the blushing bride wear white or just throw on the old blanket?  Find out in nine days with “Wandering Eyes 2,” the return of the runaway bride.  MSNBC‘s special 24/7 blowout wall-to-wall unrelenting coverage begins tomorrow morning in Georgia with an unrivaled panel of experts to cover every aspect of the story, plus our correspondents will cover all the local train stations and bus depots just in case there‘s a return to flight.  It‘s the COUNTDOWN-to-the-return-to-the-wedding-that-never-happened-but-it-gripped-the-nation-because-she-ran-away-on-a-bus-to-Vegas-but-now-she‘s-back-and-they‘re-getting-married-on-August 12, only on MSNBC.  And most everywhere else.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  That is so silly and so excellent.  More of COUNTDOWN‘s favorite things this Friday at 8 p.m.  That‘s COUNTDOWN.  Our MSNBC coverage continues now with “RITA COSBY LIVE & DIRECT.”

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

Copy: Content and programming copyright 2005 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2005 Voxant, Inc. ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user‘s personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon MSNBC and Voxant, Inc.‘s copyright or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.

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