updated 12/22/2005 9:29:25 AM ET 2005-12-22T14:29:25

Guests: Craig Crawford; Susan Low Bloch; Andy Borowtiz

ALISON STEWART, MSNBC ANCHOR (voice-over):  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?  The White House likes to watch and listen. 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  These calls are not intercepted within the country.  They are from outside the country to in the country or vice versa. 

STEWART:  That‘s not what the “New York Times” says.  Today, a bipartisan call for an investigation into the secret spy program.  Oh, and there‘s this big question:  Did the president break the law? 

The Grinch who stole the war on Christmas.  Could the man who started this faux fight now be ending this faux fight? 

I now pronounce you man and Rocket Man.  Sir Elton John ties knot.  We‘ll take you to the reception.  And I assure you the honeymoon will not be in a Thai airport. 

And it‘s 8:00.  Do you know where your jackass penguin is?  A zoo in Britain doesn‘t.  Tonight, the thrilling conclusion of, “Dude!  Where‘s my Rare, Stolen Baby Jackass Penguin?”  All that and more, now on COUNTDOWN.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  Good evening.  I‘m Alison Stewart in for Keith Olbermann. 

And it‘s an old cliche, but perhaps an appropriate one for the White House tonight.  With friends like these...

Our fifth story in the COUNTDOWN, the president not getting unanimous support from fellow Republicans over his budget bill, nor the Patriot Act, nor his controversial authorization of a secret NSA spy program.  That‘s three nors. 

The “New York Times” reporting today that the warrantless surveillance program managed to tap purely domestic calls, perhaps accidentally.  This report directly contradicts what the president said about the program this Monday. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  These calls are not intercepted within the country.  They are from outside the country to in the country or vice versa.  In other words, this is not, you know, a—if you‘re calling from Houston to L.A., that call is not monitored.  And if there was ever any need to monitor, there would be a process to do that. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  The White House today standing by the validity of the president‘s comments, citing what they were told by then-head of the NSA.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  ... Hayden is the deputy director of national intelligence and the former head of the National Security Agency.  He‘s someone who is widely respected for the work he does to protect Americans. 

And he stated how—he said, “I can assure you”—this is a quote from him—“I can assure you, by the physics of the intercept, by how we actually conduct our activities, that one end of these communications are always outside the United States of America.”  And the director of national intelligence office said that they stand by that comment.  

JOHN ROBERTS, REPORTER, CBS NEWS:  So are you saying that reports to the contrary today, that some wholly domestic communications got swept up by accident...

(CROSSTALK) 

MCCLELLAN:  I‘m telling what you the deputy director of national intelligence said to you all the other day, and they stand by that comment.  And the authorization is very clear, in terms of what is spelled out.  And there are safeguards in place.  And it‘s very limited in nature.  And, as I said, one party to the communication has to be outside the United States. 

ROBERTS:  So, therefore, it would be impossible for any wholly domestic communications to get accidentally swept up in that?

MCCLELLAN:  Well, he talked about the physics of it.  And, again, I refer you to what I just said.  I quoted him.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  On Capitol Hill, both sides of the aisle are now asking for an inquiry into the spying allegations.  Republican Senator Arlen Specter has already committed to holding oversight hearings in January at the Senate Intelligence Committee.  Others want a joint investigation. 

Republican Senators Chuck Hagel and Olympia Snowe joined with Democratic Senators Carl Levin, Ron Wyden, and Dianne Feinstein to write a letter to both the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Judiciary Committee to, quote, “express our profound concern about recent revelations that the United States government may have engaged in domestic, electronic surveillance without appropriate legal authority,” and to, quote, “respectfully request that the Select Committee on Intelligence and the Committee on the Judiciary, which share jurisdiction and oversight of this issue, jointly undertake an inquiry into the facts and law surrounding these allegations.” 

None of those senators would have actually been briefed on the program before its inception in 2001.  Because it is a waive special access program, it would have been presented to only eight people on the Hill, the big 8, as some insiders call the group, including the majority and minority leaders of both houses and the chair and ranking members on the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. 

The ongoing spy saga, not the only thorn in the president‘s side.  The Senate is stalling on renewing key provisions of the Patriot Act, with eight Republicans joining with Democrats and asking for a three-month extension of the act, which, as Kelly O‘Donnell reports tonight, is forcing the president to aggressively push members to pass the bill before the provisions expire at the end of this year. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KELLY O‘DONNELL, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  An all-out Washington tug-of-war, where today the president dug in and pulled hard to save the Patriot Act. 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  The Patriot Act is scheduled to expire at the end of this year.  The terrorist threat is not going to expire at the end of this year. 

O‘DONNELL:  But senators threw their weight in the other direction. 

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT:  Our goal is to mend it or extend it, not end it. 

O‘DONNELL:  Originally passed after 9/11 to give law enforcement broader authority to fight terror, the Patriot Act‘s reauthorization has been stuck in the Senate over adding further protections for privacy and civil liberties.  To keep it from expiring, eight Republicans joined Democrats to back a short-term extension, a move the White House flatly rejected. 

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  A minority in the Senate, led by Senate Democrats, are putting politics above our nation‘s security. 

O‘DONNELL:  But in the president‘s war on terror, defining the line between liberty and security is drawing new fire.

And new fallout over his decision to order spying inside the U.S.  without a warrant.  In protest, this federal judge, James Robertson, has resigned from the special court, known as FISA, set up to oversee government wiretaps. 

The White House vigorously defends the surveillance program, saying it‘s limited to Al Qaeda suspects and those associated with the group, and had no comment on the judge‘s resignation. 

MCCLELLAN:  I don‘t know the reason why the judge resigned from the FISA court.  The FISA court‘s an important one. 

O‘DONNELL:  Another FISA judge confirmed the resignation to NBC News and says the remaining 10 judges on the court plan to meet soon to discuss the once secret program.  NBC News presidential historian Michael Beschloss expects more political consequences. 

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN:  Unless the president resolves any doubt that the NSA spying was done lawfully and the right way, this is something that could last. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  That was Kelly O‘Donnell at the White House. 

On the Hill, it was Dick Cheney to the rescue, fulfilling his role as president of the Senate, which today meant he was the ultimate tie-breaker.  With one aye, Mr. Bush‘s budget-cutting bill passed in the Senate.  But as Chip Reed reports, not even a voting vice president mattered when it came to defeating a bill that would allow oil drilling in the Arctic wilderness. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHIP REED, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to Senate Democrats it‘s one of the country‘s last pristine wilderness areas.  But to Republicans, it‘s mostly barren tundra sitting on top of enough oil, they claim, to replace all imports from Saudi Arabia for 25 years.  Republicans and oil companies have long sought to open the refuge to oil drilling. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The majority leader?

REED:  But today in the Senate, they failed again, by just three votes, after a debate that showed how dramatically the two sides disagree. 

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA:  The wilderness would be crisscrossed by roads, pipelines, power plants, and other infrastructure. 

SEN. PETE DOMENICI (R-NM), SENATE ENERGY COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN:  All that will be there are well heads.  And actually, as you drill, they look like little outhouses. 

REED:  It was a bitter defeat for Alaska Republican Ted Stevens...

SEN. TED STEVENS ®, ALASKA:  Extreme environmentalists think it‘s their playground....

REED:  ... who‘s been fighting for drilling in the refuge for 25 years.  But Senate Republicans won a dramatic victory today on another front, with the help of Vice President Cheney. 

RICHARD CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  The Senate, being equally divided, the vice president votes in the affirmative...

REED:  In his capacity as president of the Senate, he cast the deciding vote in cutting the budget by $40 billion.  Republicans congratulated themselves for slowing the automatic growth of entitlement programs for the first time in a decade. 

SEN. BILL FRIST (R-TN), SENATE MAJORITY LEADER:  It demonstrates fiscal responsibility.  It shows that we‘re going to eliminate wasteful Washington spending. 

REED:  But Democrats complained the vote was a harsh Christmas present to millions of elderly and poor Americans who will see cuts in Medicare and Medicaid and to students who will pay more for education loans. 

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), SENATE MINORITY LEADER:  This budget is an attack on the middle class and those in greatest need. 

REED:  Tonight, the Senate is still working on the defense spending bill and $29 billion for Hurricane Katrina rebuilding.  Both are expected to pass easily.

Chip Reed, NBC News, the Capitol.

(END VIDEOTAPE) 

STEWART:  So, on the plus side for the administration, the budget bill was passed.  On the down side, no Patriot Act, no Arctic drilling, and now bipartisan calls for an investigation into the secret spy program. 

Joining me now to assess all these shenanigans in the Senate, MSNBC political analyst and “Congressional Quarterly” columnist Craig Crawford. 

Craig, thanks for being with us. 

CRAIG CRAWFORD, COLUMNIST, “CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY”:  Hi, Alison. 

They need to go on holiday, I think. 

STEWART:  That soon comes, soon coming.  OK, you have the five Republican senators almost scuttling the budget bill, eight threatening to prevent the renewal of the Patriot Act provisions.  Why are some of these Republican senators not supporting the president‘s wishes? 

CRAWFORD:  Well, Alison, a lot of Republican are getting very nervous about this president and whether they want to run on his platform or run away from it, because there‘s an election coming up, a big one in November, the fight for control of Congress. 

And while for regular civilians out there, it‘s a long ways off, here in Washington, it‘s a roaring battle already, because the control of the House and Senate‘s at stake and Republicans are going to have to make a judgment call down the road, you know, how much this president‘s agenda‘s going to help them or hurt them. 

STEWART:  All right.  Let‘s talk about one of the defeats today, which struck me as quite interesting, the Alaska oil drilling defeat issue.  It was a central component of the president‘s energy policy.  So you had Senator Stevens, a venerable senator, pushing, pushing and attaching this provision to a military bill. 

Was that a smart political move by Stevens?  And what happens to that military spending bill now? 

CRAWFORD:  Ultimately, it ended up being a ploy that didn‘t work, I think largely because it just didn‘t fit into the bill and Democrats were able to make the case to take it out. 

What Republicans had hoped to do, some of the leaders, was to put the Democrats in a straight jacket, force them to make a choice, really, a tough choice, Hobson‘s choice, between supporting the troops and military spending and a lot of the popular pork in that bill for military bases back at their districts or the drilling in Alaska. 

And so the Democrats and some Republicans didn‘t like having to make that choice, and they got this part of the bill out so the more popular defense spending bill, they can all vote for and be happy about it. 

STEWART:  Let‘s talk about that NSA spying issue, OK?  Right now, Senator Arlen Specter is saying, yes, we‘ll have hearings about this home-turf White House spying program.  But, as you said, it‘s the holiday season.  They need a winter break.  So what‘s the likelihood of this still being an issue in early ‘06? 

CRAWFORD:  Quite a bit, Alison.  Of course, if the president‘s opposing party were in control of Congress, I‘d say we‘d have more than hearings.  We might be talking about that old I word, impeachment even. 

Republicans, though, I think are still going to go for this hearing, even if they don‘t like it, because it‘s a train that‘s probably already out of the station and they can‘t stop it.  The danger for the White House and the administration and the Republican Party is if these hearings probe into a wide use of questionable tactics, like surveilling, warrantless surveillance.  If it‘s a broader that some fear it may be, and that could open it up to months and months of arguing. 

STEWART:  All right.  You brought up the I word, impeachment.  Senator Boxer told us on this program last night that she has written a letter to some presidential scholars to investigate whether there was an impeachable offense, as John Dean has maybe suggested.  Now, in today‘s climate in Washington, D.C., with a Republican-controlled Congress, is an impeachment even a reality? 

CRAWFORD:  Not with a Republican-controlled Congress.  I doubt that very much, unless something really severe comes out.  But, of course, this will be an issue for Democrats, if they can win back control of the House or Senate in November, particularly the House, because that‘s where impeachment would start. 

Then I would say they probably got plenty of time to pursue an impeachment, if they want to.  But it‘s doubtful that a president‘s own party would impeach him without something pretty clear and convincing out there. 

STEWART:  All right.  And a gut check here:  This NSA story, is this something that we political geeks just love to talk about and ruminate over on the television, or is this going to have a real political potential problem for the president? 

CRAWFORD:  It could be a potential problem, because I think it does butt up against the American notion of, you know, civil liberty and the independence from the government, you know, snooping on us. 

A lot of people have been willing to give the government more authority to do that in a wartime since 9/11.  But I think the American people, as a society, I think we need to debate this, because, if we‘re looking at a war on terror that‘s going to last for decades, how long do we want to give the government emergency power to do things like this?  And there is the old, “Give me liberty or give me death.”  And in this case, I think American have to make a good choice. 

STEWART:  Well, there‘s a reason that that saying has stuck around so long, isn‘t there? 

CRAWFORD:  Yes, I think it may be worth repeating. 

STEWART:  “Congressional Quarterly‘s” Craig Crawford.  As always, thanks for your insight.  And happy holidays to you. 

CRAWFORD:  You, too. 

STEWART:  The domestic spy matter has the commander-in-chief a little on the offensive, a little on the defensive.  But does it have him crossing the legal line?  We‘ll talk to someone smart about that, coming up. 

And remember the year that was, Geeks on the march.  It‘s our “Star Wars” hall of fame.  You‘re watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  We started the program tonight with a look at the political tempest as it unfolded today, including, but not limited to, bipartisan calls for an investigation into the secret NSA spy program, coupled with the sudden resignation of a U.S. district judge from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. 

Now we move to an examination of the legal implications.  As we first reported yesterday, according to a commentary written by “Newsweek‘s” Jonathan Alter, back on the 6th of December, the president summoned both the publisher and the executive editor of the “New York Times” to the Oval Office and asked them not to run the spy story. 

After sitting on it for a year, the “New York Times” ran the story 10 days later.  All of this leads to the big question of the day and the number four story on the COUNTDOWN:  Did the president break the law? 

To help answer that, I‘m joined now by Susan Low Bloch, constitutional law professor with Georgetown University. 

Thanks so much for joining us, Susan.

SUSAN LOW BLOCH, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY:  My pleasure. 

STEWART:  Both the president and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales have referred to constitutional authority, a certain authority that allows them to go forward and spy in this manner.  What specifically in the Constitution are they referring to? 

LOW BLOCH:  Well, they‘re referring to a provision in the Constitution, Article II, that makes the president the commander-in-chief of the military.  But it doesn‘t follow from that, in my opinion, and I think the opinion of many people, that that gives them the authority to secretly wiretap Americans. 

STEWART:  So that‘s where the issue comes in, on the domestic wiretappings, whether they‘re accidental or not, of people‘s personal conversations? 

LOW BLOCH:  That‘s right.  And then he claims that the Constitution gives him the authority.  He also seems to suggest that, when Congress authorized the use of force against those who attacked us on 9/11, that Congress was implicitly authorizing secret spying.  But, again, I think that‘s a stretch.  I don‘t think that‘s what Congress intended.  I don‘t think that‘s what the language suggests. 

STEWART:  Now, if this is a constitutional matter, ultimately who will decide whether or not this spy system that‘s in place violates the Constitution?  Will it be Congress, the Supreme Court, who? 

LOW BLOCH:  Well, it depends.  It could be the Supreme Court.  If someone who gets injured by the spying, whose wires are tapped gets injured, they can sue and claim that it was illegal.  That can go through the court system. 

The problem is, a lot of people who are tapped don‘t know it and may never feel injured.  So you might not get a case to get to the courts that way. 

The other way that we‘ll investigate this is Congress will have a hearing that‘s already scheduled, I believe, for January. 

STEWART:  We‘ve been talking a lot about the word “impeachment” raised yesterday, about President Bush and his authorization of this program.  Can you explain to us exactly what would qualify this as an impeachable offense? 

LOW BLOCH:  Well, the argument for impeachment is if someone has committed treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.  So the argument would be that his—that Bush‘s secretly wiretapping Americans in violation of the Constitution and in violation of federal statutes—there is a federal statute called the foreign service intelligence authority that gives the president some authority, but he‘s not following that statute. 

So that one could make an argument—and people are making it now—that, by violating the Constitution, and by violating federal statutes, the president is committing a high crime and misdemeanor. 

STEWART:  Well, there has been some discussion today from supporters of the president that former Presidents Clinton and Carter did very similar things in their administration.  Now, from what you‘ve read of those executive orders, is it the same thing?  Is it similar? 

LOW BLOCH:  From what I have read, the answer is no.  There were executive orders by Carter and by Clinton, but both of them very explicitly invoke this federal—the FISA act, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.  And they say under part, you know, 308 of the FISA, we are doing x, y, and z. 

Moreover, when they did it, they made the executive order public.  What Bush has done is not invoke the statute, not try and comply with the statute, and, in fact, has made the order secret.  It just was leaked by the “New York Times.”  But other than that, we wouldn‘t know about it.  So it‘s very different. 

STEWART:  So did the president break the law? 

LOW BLOCH:  I think there is a very good argument that he broke the law.  But I also think we shouldn‘t be throwing around the impeachment word too lightly.  I think we misused it as a country in the Clinton era.  And I don‘t think we should be using it lightly now either. 

I think this is the kind of matter that we ought to talk about civilized.  We ought to have a congressional hearing, and I think impeachment should be a very low priority. 

STEWART:  Your points are well-taken.  Constitutional law professor, Susan Low Bloch, thanks so much for your time tonight. 

LOW BLOCH:  You‘re welcome. 

STEWART:  OK.  There‘s breaking war on Christmas news!  One of the generals retreating.  It appears saying “happy holidays” is now okeedokee. 

And this isn‘t some silly old carnival ride.  Oh, no.  It‘s a COUNTDOWN car chase extravaganza.  Buckle up, people.  “Oddball” is next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  I‘m Alison Stewart at the wheel for Keith Olbermann, as we exit the superhighway of real news and smash head on into the bridge abutment of dumb criminals and cool video.  Let‘s play “Oddball.”

We begin in Houston, with the COUNTDOWN car chase of the week.  These guys refused to pull over this morning for a minor traffic violation.  Now, they‘re playing car wars with the police. 

I don‘t know, but it might have had something to do with the two pounds of marijuana they had in the car.  They keep going.  But checking the “Oddball” score card for the year, we can see it‘s Cops 48, Guys Who Think They Can Escape the Cops, Zero. 

And with the end of the year fast approaching, these bumper car bozos represent the dopes‘ last chance to break the streak.  They make a valiant effort, helped along by an 80‘s cutlass.  That took a licking and kept on ticking. 

But, oh, once you get out of the car, you know it‘s all over.  We have a foot chase, people.  The suspects were caught in short order, as usual.  So the cops remain undefeated.  And these two pot-toting Starsky and Hutch wannabes will not get to experience the munchies at White Castle.  They‘ll do that in jail. 

OK, wait, what‘s this?  More hope for the dopes in Vassar, Michigan.  It‘s 49-0.  Can the cops make it an even 50?  I think you know the answer to that. 

This guy ran from the police when they approached him to talk about some things, like why he was hanging around outside a bank wearing a ski mask.  “It‘s cold” not really the answer the cops were looking for. 

After leading police on a car chase, reaching speeds of 120 miles an hour on I-75, cop car dash cam gives us a demonstration of how to execute a pit maneuver.  And it‘s just that easy. 

The suspects finally surrendered.  There‘s his hand.  If you don‘t believe him, he‘ll go down in history as 2005‘s 50th dope of the year. 

Finally, to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where you think the moose would be free to roam around as they pleased, but you‘d be wrong.  Officials chased this loose moose around town for almost two days.  He was hanging around a bank with a ski mask, too, and had two pounds of pot on him. 

No, that‘s why a vet with a tranquilizer gun had to bring the big fellow down.  He‘ll spend a couple days in the big animal house before being brought back to his permanent home in the wild. 

If you‘re keeping track, it is Cops 3, Moose, 0.

If Jesus the reason for the season someone should tell the pope.  I mean, I know he is new and all.  But a Santa hat?  Could that really be?  The latest style, though, in this festive fake fight.

And the unfortunately too real wait for some frantic penguin parents.  Their baby stolen, authorities suspect, by a fan of this summer‘s movie favorite.  Those stories ahead.

But here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three newsmakers of this day.  Number three.  Lillian Elizabeth Ross, the newborn daughter of Adrienne (ph) and Anthony Ross (ph).  She was born Friday in McAllister, Oklahoma, and weighing in at 14 pounds, three ounces.  Oklahoma!  All the ladies just cross their legs.  Number two.

Thirty four year old Colleen Lacombe of Pennsylvania.  A former church bookkeeper.  She pleaded guilty to stealing money from the collection plate at the church where she worked.  Just a little bit here, a little bit there, $325,000.  And she used to it buy a beach house and breast implants.  And that is true.

And number one.  Officials at the stadium in Lafayette, Louisiana, known as the Cajundome.  The facility was used to house evacuees from Hurricane Katrina.  And let‘s just say the plumbing was in need of some major league fixing.  The plumbers think they have it all fixed.  But to be totally sure, they‘re looking for about 70 volunteers to show up on December 27th to simultaneously flush the toilets in the stadium for about 20 minutes.

It is the great Cajundome flush-off.  And if you live in the area, consider yourself warned, we‘re not telling you twice.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  I‘m Alison Stewart filling in for Steve Olbermann.

And the COUNTDOWN staff has informed me about something that is really disturbing.  Apparently there‘s this war on Christmas.  I mean, could that be true?  Yes, Bill O‘Reilly, I mean, Virginia, there is a war on Christmas.  The COUNTDOWN kids tell me that the war exists because crazed liberals roam free, it exists because “Happy Holiday” inclusivity freaks have to have it their way.  And it exists because—wait.  This just in.  Bill O‘Reilly said “Happy Holidays” is OK after all.

It‘s our number three story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, speaking to Newt Gingrich earlier this week, O‘Reilly said, quote, “‘Happy Holidays‘ is fine.  Just don‘t ban ‘Merry Christmas.‘  That‘s all we‘re saying.”  End quote.

And last night, Mr. O‘Reilly admitted he made a mistake in staying the Plano, Texas school district had been banning red and green.  Quote, “Now, I made a mistake a few days ago when I said clothing was included in that party dictum.  Clothing was not included.  It was colors of plates and cupcakes and things like that.”  End quote.

Later on, Mr. O‘Reilly said, “Look, I‘m here in New York.  I don‘t know what they‘re doing in Plano.”

Well, thanks for clearing that up.  Apparently, poor defenseless Christmas didn‘t really need anybody‘s help.  A new Gallup Poll shows most Americans choose the salutation “Merry Christmas” over “Happy Holidays” regardless of religious affiliation.  Sixty nine percent prefer “Merry Christmas”, “Happy Holidays” favored by 29 percent.

And the pope doing his part to keep the Christ in Christmas.  Seen today wearing—I‘m going to let you decide.  Is that a Santa hat?  Pope Benedict XVI donned a red velvet hat.  Called it “cammaro” (ph).  He wore it for his weekly general audience.  He wanted to keep his head warm and the red and white headgear is actually one commonly used in the Middle Ages.  Come on! That looks like a Santa hat.

The pope‘s secretary removed the hat when the pontiff sat down for the start of the ceremony.  His holiness then asked for some milk and cookies and blessed Blitzen.  We completely made up the last part.

Let‘s call in satirist Andy Borowitz to determine who is winning in this vicious war on Christmas.  Andy, good evening to you.

ANDY BOROWITZ, SATIRIST:  How are you?  Happy whatever.  Good to see you.

STEWART:  You know what?  The fact that Kwanzaa and Hanukkah have been left out of this, I don‘t know how I‘m feeling about it.

BOROWITZ:  Well, I just think it‘s terrible.  I don‘t want to have a war about this.  I think it is a terrible thing.  I think we live in a nation of compromise.  I really like what Target has done.  Because they‘ve banned Santa Claus in front of the stores but they said they‘ll continue to have many obese people inside the stores.  That‘s a great way to go.

STEWART:  It is all about compromise.  Give and take.

BOROWITZ:  It is.

STEWART:  This war on Christmas, it really is unchartered territory here.  If you had to boil it down, what does Christmas have on its side?  What does the happy holidayers‘ secret weapon?

BOROWITZ:  I think Christmas has the numbers.  I think you just saw that.  It we decide in this country according to polls.  And I think that this should be no different.  If they‘ve won the polls, they‘ve won it.  So let‘s give to it Christmas and call it an end.

STEWART:  Well, do you think the pope has taken sides by donning that hat? 

Is that a secret signal that he‘s pro Christmas?

BOROWITZ:  I don‘t think so.  The hidden story behind that is there was just this Vatican office party and they had kind of a secret Santa thing.  And everybody was exchanging gifts.  And that was the gift he got.  He was given out the Xbox 360 and he was a little disappointed that was all he got, just that hat.

But he has to take it gracefully.

STEWART:  I went to the Vatican and all I got was this stupid hat?  Is that what you‘re telling me?

BOROWITZ:  Exactly.  And it is a red Camaro but it is not the one he wanted.  At all.

STEWART:  That‘s true.  Camaro is the New Jersey State Car.  I know.

BOROWITZ:  It is.

STEWART:  Talking about what not to wear.  Mr. O‘Reilly retracted a statement saying he misstated the kids in Texas couldn‘t wear that red and green.  But I‘m thinking maybe O‘Reilly was on to something.  That these are like Christmas gang colors.

BOROWITZ:  I don‘t know.  That‘s really taking it pretty far.  O‘Reilly is a very, very festive guy.  At Christmastime, he wears a red and green loofah mitt.  And it is something that he likes to do.  That‘s not to be confused with the falafel mitt.  Which is the Hanukah variant.

STEWART:  Yeah.  You went there.  All righty, then.

Another disturbing holiday development.  These reports about these bad Santas roaming around, drunken Santas in New Zealand.  Armed and dangerous Santas in Germany.  Flashing Santas in England.  These Atlanta Santas running and training for we just really don‘t know what.  Dozens of Santas roving in New York, going into bars.  Isn‘t there a Santa union that can crack down on these folks?

BOROWITZ:  You know, I really hope there is not a Santa union.  If that were the case, the New York, Santas would be on strike right now.  We don‘t really need that.  Not at this time of the retail calendar, I don‘t think.

STEWART:  Well, perhaps the president needs to wiretap these guys.

BOROWITZ:  You know, President Bush has taken such a big role in this war on Christmas thing.  Because finally he can say that he fought in a war.  Which is what he‘s wanted to do for some time.

So he‘s actually wearing the red hat.  He‘s saying he served three years in the Salvation Army.  Which is really great.  He is building up his military record.

STEWART:  And, Andy, what do you think finally, we should all learn from this war on Christmas?  What can we take away?

BOROWITZ:  Well, I think the thing is that we have to find a way of greeting each other that doesn‘t offend anybody.  And I think we‘re just searching for the answer.  I‘ve been going up to people and saying, jihad.  No one likes that.  So just scratch that off the list.

STEWART:  That‘s wise.  That‘s wise.  The “Borowitz Report‘s” Andy Borowitz.  Thanks for taking the time tonight.

BOROWITZ:  Thank you.

STEWART:  The popularity of this summer‘s flick “March of the Penguins” causing some real heartache at an English zoo.  Someone stolen a rare baby bird.  And these two birds just tied the knot.  OK.  I‘m talking about he did wear a duck costume.  OK?  The nuptials of Mr. And Mr. John.  First here are COUNTDOWN‘S top three sound bites of the day.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JAY LENO, TALK SHOW HOST:  Man, what a disaster in New York.  Did you see that?  Buses and trains were shut down today in New York City today.  The city-wide strike by transit workers.  But you‘ve got to admire the spirit of New Yorkers, God bless them.  Since the subways are now shut down, people are now urinating in elevators and stairwells.  So yeah.

BUSH:  I want to thank Admiral Robinson and Dr. Winkenworder (ph), Admiral Arthur, I want to thank General Kiley (ph) and Lieutenant General Peach Taylor (ph).

BILLY RAY POWERS, MAKER OF SNOQWZILLA:  B. I. L. L. Y.  Ray, R. A. Y. 

Powers.  P. O. W. E. R. S.

QUESTION:  You‘re an Anchorage resident?

POWERS:  Yes, I am.

I just thought it would be fun to do.  So I started building a snow man.

I think it is about 28 degrees.  We‘re getting a little bit of a north wind.  So maybe he‘ll be nice and firm tonight.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  It‘s been a big year for penguins.  The annual and Antarctic trek in all its hardship and cuteness was beautifully documented in the hit film, “March of the Penguins.”  The movie was even narrated by Morgan Freeman.  Now, that‘s some serious penguin cinematography.

But our number two story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, there‘s some real penguin angst in New Church on the Isle of Wight in England.  A baby penguin has gone missing from the Amazon World Zoo.  And its parents are reacting just as you might expect.  Here‘s NBC‘s Brian Williams.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC ANCHOR (voice-over):  Toga is just three months old.  And as you can see in this photo handed out by police, he still sports the brown and white coloring of the juvenile.  His keepers noticed he was missing from the penguin pen at Amazon World, a tourist destination on Britain‘s Isle of Wight on Saturday.  Ever since, his parents have shown signs they‘re distraught.  They‘re not eating.  They‘re checking and rechecking their nest and generally moping around.  So we know they‘re sad.

Police say they don‘t have any solid leads in the case.  But one of Toga‘s keepers has a theory.  The hit movie “March of the Penguins” which is just out in England might have given someone an idea for a unique Christmas present.

DEREK CURTIS, AMAZON WORLD ZOO:  I think this has been stolen not for money, I think this has been stolen because someone seen this cuddly little baby animal that looks lovely and someone thought, this is going to be great for my girlfriend.

WILLIAMS:  The truth is according to the experts, a baby penguin would make a terrible gift.  A penguin this young can‘t survive without its mother.  They‘re prone to biting those who aren‘t fellow penguins and they can be, shall we say, aromatic when kept indoors.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  A diversion, then, as we take a turn into the world of celebrity news and gossip that we like to call “Keeping Tabs.”  And can you feel the love tonight?  Sir Elton John and his partner David Furnish tied the knot today, becoming one of the first gay couples to take advantage of the U.K.‘s new civil partnership law.

The uncharacteristically low key wedding as reported by Nina Nanar of our affiliate British network ITV.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NINA NANNAR, ITV CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  The crowds were all in place.  The banners were going up.  And the cards started to arrive as another famous Windsor resident prepared to celebrate a wedding.  The couple had wanted to keep the event private.  But their car will to nudge past waiting cameras outside Sir Elton‘s Windsor home.  Their arrival at Windsor‘s Guildhall just minutes later went much more smoothly.

Dressed in an uncharacteristically sober suit, Sir Elton and his partner of 12 years, filmmaker David Furnish, made a point of posing for the waiting crowds.  Beaming all the while.  Attention on the couple by far the most high profile to be making legal history today, has been huge.  But once inside, the civil partnership ceremony itself was distinctly low key.

In fact, the ceremony only lasted 20 minutes.  There were 11 guests, including both Elton and David‘s parents.  The artist, Sam Taylor Ward, who took the photographs, her husband, Jay Jopling, and their dog Arthur.

Music was played but it is not being revealed whether it was Elton himself who supplied the soundtrack.

(on camera):  Well, the ceremony is now over.  Elton John and David Gurnish were inside the guildhall for just over ¾ of an hour.  And now just as they did when they went in, it is all smiles and poses for the waiting fans and the hordes of media.

(voice-over):  There were no public kisses.  Not for each other, anyway.

Instead, kisses of thanks for a cake.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  (inaudible) and said I‘m really touched.  And he gave me a kiss on the lips.  And David gave us both a kiss on the lips.  So it was just so exciting.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  It really has made my Christmas.  The only thing is I thought is before he (inaudible) suit with glitter and everything.

NANNAR:  But this, say observers, was Elton dressing for a serious occasion.

LYNETTE PECK, “NOW” MAGAZINE:  The actual wedding ceremony, only their patience were there.  So I think that was just a bit of a nod to, this is a serious thing.  A wedding so we‘re going to wear a suit and not turn it into theater.

NANNAR:  And if theatrical is what Elton does best, in dressing for his 50th birthday, who knows what his wedding guests have in store tonight?  Nina Nannar, ITV News, in Windsor.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  From pop star weddings to a pop star popping one out.  Singer Gwen Stefani is reportedly pregnant with her first child.  According to “US Weekly,” her mom spilled and confirmed the good news with them.  Stefani and her husband, Gavin Rossdale, former front man for the band Bush, they were married three years ago after dating six.  The news comes on the heels of her five Grammy nominations, including album of the year for the album, “LAMB.”  That‘s “Love, Angel, Music.  Baby.”

Congratulations to Gwen.  She‘s a cool girl.

And from actual juveniles to adults who act like them.  Yes, there‘s Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie news.  Do you want to know?  I don‘t either.  But I‘m just a sub.  So I have got to do what the producers say.  According to “In Touch Weekly,” Paris Hilton was kicked out of an L.A. nightclub after she started talking smack about her former best friend.  The conversation at the club called LAX took place between Hilton and her sister Nikki.  There they are.  And here‘s where the trouble starts.  Richie had dated the club‘s deejay.

A so-called insider told the magazine, no one will admit it but Paris is now banned.

And a woman who says David Letterman is using code words to speak to her managed to get a temporary restraining order against him.  A judge in Santa Fe, New Mexico, granted the order for Colleen Nestler (ph).  The hearing for the permanent order is set for January 12th.  In a letter accompanying her request, Ms. Nestler admits that she began sending Letterman, quote, “thoughts of love” back in 1993.

And then he responded in code word and gestures.  For example, when Letterman joked by saying, “Marry me, Oprah,” he was actually speaking to Ms. Nestler, according to her report.  Both kind of funny and kind of sad.

Letterman‘s long time lawyer James Jackaway (ph) said Nestler‘s claims are obviously absurd and frivolous.  Letterman‘s attorneys will be asking the judge to quash the restraining order.  As for why the judge granted the restraining order in the first place, anyone‘s guess.  And that, too, kind of funny.  And kind of sad.

May the force and the freaks be with you.  A second keeping helping of “Oddball” becayse we know you can‘t get enough.  Is that actually a light saber in your pocket?  Aren‘t about 30 years old?  That‘s ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  Oh, we have a treat for you tonight!  Our number one story also happens to be a shameless shelf promotion opportunity.  The COUNTDOWN elves have been busy putting together a holiday bonanza special, only the best of the best made the cut.  Tonight, a sneak preview.  We bring you this rarely seen footage fiesta that ended up on the cutting room floor.  And let me tell you, once you watch this, you‘ll be thinking, if that didn‘t make it into the big show, imagine the wonderfully crazy stuff that did.

So sit back, grab some chips and enjoy an “Oddball” bonus round featuring a group so out there, they have their own place in the “Star Wars” hall of fame.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC HOST:  In a wing of the hall of fame far, far, far away—oh my mistake, it‘s here next to the front door, next to the gift shop.  It‘s here in a special place of honor we keep our most curious specimen in a secure glass case.  Plastic really, kind of a giant action figure box.  It is the “Star Wars” geek.  The species dates back to the last century, in fact, the late 1970s.

ANNOUNCER:  “Star Wars”, rated PG.

OLBERMANN:  With the confusing premier of the first episode of the “Star Wars” saga which thanks to marketing considerations later became known as the fourth episode.  Fanaticism spread across the world as millions of youngsters found themselves captivated by all the space ships and puppets and stuff.  But a strange thing happened, about 95 percent of men grew out of their Boba Fett Underoos and action figure collections and became productive members of society.

The rest, they got stuck somewhere along the bay and became “Star Wars” geeks.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The Jar Jars are the most irritating thing and should have been edited out of it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  This is just an average Jedi knight robe.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The critics don‘t know what they‘re talking about.  It was a great movie.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Grade-A, number one.  Go for it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  How much of a “Star Wars” fan are you?  It‘s obvious, really, isn‘t it?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Yeah it is.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  With these new three episodes, you‘re going to finally get the full scope of the drama.

OLBERMANN:  Perhaps they had trouble adjusting to life on this planet or maybe they went to look for fellowship in the force if you know what I mean.  That was certainly easier to find than it was to find a date or some of them tried to socialize with the normals and found for some reason it was hard to get women in the clubs to talk to them.  The fact is, when you‘re 10 years old and playing with a plastic light saber, you‘re as cute as a button.  When you‘re 35, you‘re a COUNTDOWN hall of fame geek.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Modify the toy version of the light saber, put a 6,000 volt transformer in it, neon tube from Mr. Neon and a 9 volt power supply and couple of switches and boom.

OLBERMANN:  So, these outsiders look inside for fulfillment.  And they began building stuff.  They build their own space ships.  They build their own robots.  They build their own lousy Chewbacca costumes and they go to conventions to rub elbows with other “Star Wars” geeks or whatever they‘re rubbing.  They camp out for days, weeks, months to see the latest installment on the first night and whatever they do, they do it in full costume just in case they should ever have to face “Star Wars” geeks archenemy, the talking rubber dog puppet.

TRIUMPH, INSULT COMIC DOG:  And what are the principles of the Jedi knight?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  To always defend truth and justice throughout the galaxy.

TRIUMPH:  And to eat a lot of peanut M&Ms.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I don‘t deal with lesser life forms.

TRIUMPH:  You don‘t deal with lesser life forms?  You must be a lonely guy.

So this is to help you breathe, yes?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Yes.

TRIUMPH:  And which of these—which of these buttons calls your parents to pick you up?

OLBERMANN:  For the nearly ever present abuse and mockery, the “Star Wars” geek perseveres and somehow even manages to pass the gene onto new generations, a phenomenon which is baffling to our research scientists here at the hall of fame.  Must be some sort of airborne or contact high kind of thing because we‘re pretty sure they‘re not procreating.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  Stay tuned tomorrow night 8:00 p.m. for the full hour “Oddball” extravaganza and again Monday December 26th.  That‘s COUNTDOWN.  Thanks for being part of it.  I‘m Alison Stewart in for Keith Olbermann.  Our MNSBC coverage continues now with RITA COSBY LIVE AND DIRECT.  Good evening, Rita.

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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