updated 1/6/2006 9:04:42 AM ET 2006-01-06T14:04:42

Guests: Brody Mullins, Michael Musto

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

Old-timers‘ day?  There may be a written plan for victory in Iraq, but that doesn‘t stop the president from inviting 13 past secretaries of state and defense to kibbitz.  Hey, didn‘t he work for Abe Lincoln?

Not likely to be invited to the next old-timers‘ day, Jack Abramoff.  For the first time since Monday, he does not plead guilty to anything, but the politicians are pleading with him to keep his distance.

The West Virginia nightmare, more poignant, more unbearable still.  The presumption proves correct, the dead miners leave good-bye notes for their families.

“I Quit,” our campaign to help you stop smoking, resumes with the question, If it gets people to quit, can it ever be too gross?

And what did I do to deserve this?  Four stories my producers are forcing me to do.  Gwyneth Paltrow calling an exorcist, Charley Sheen and Denise Richards divorcing again, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt not having a baby, and Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes not getting married?

About that last one, don‘t panic, don‘t jump off any couches.

All that and more, now on COUNTDOWN.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TOM CRUISE:  (INAUDIBLE), didn‘t even know what (INAUDIBLE).

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Good evening.

Until today, a “Pioneer” in the Bush administration was a top-tier fundraiser.  It was an honorary title bestowed on anyone bringing in more than $100,000 for Team Bush.

Instead today, one of those Pioneers, Jack Abramoff, was given the figurative boot, replaced symbolically, anyway, by a team of actual pioneers, crowd of former secretaries of state and defense, called in to discuss the war in Iraq on what proved to be one of the bloodiest days that conflict has seen in some time.

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, old-home week at the White House.  That‘s right, we will at least touch on the administration‘s designated topic du jour before moving on to all things Abramoff.

Thirteen former foreign policy leaders, a bipartisan baker‘s dozen, gathering this morning for face time with the president, not everyone in attendance actually having agreed with Mr. Bush on his decision to go into Iraq, that, by itself, may be a first in the Bush White House.  No dispute among those assembled, however, that we must succeed now that we are there.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

JAMES SCHLESINGER, FORD/CARTER DEFENSE SECRETARY:  My own suggestion is that we should think about the problems that the other side is having, al Qaeda, and they must fail, we must make them fail.

LAWRENCE EAGLEBURGER, GEORGE H.W. BUSH SECRETARY OF STATE: 

(INAUDIBLE) there are going to be a lot of bumps in this road.  And IF you think anybody can predict success at this stage, I think you‘re wrong.  All we can do is, do our best to try to get it there.  But nobody can predict absolute success yet.

(END VIDEO CLIPS)

OLBERMANN:  The day on the ground in Iraq, far from successful, at least 130 people dying in a series of attacks.  Included among that total, 63 Shiite pilgrims targeted by suicide bombers in southern Iraq, 56 more lives taken in an attack outside a police recruitment center in Ramadi, five American soldiers killed in a roadside bombing near Baghdad.

President Bush taking suggestions today on what to do differently, laying out his strategy for turning things around.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:   We take to heart the advice, we appreciate your experience, and we appreciate your taking time out of your day.  We have a dual-track strategy for victory.  On the one hand, we will work to have a political process that says to all Iraqis, The future belongs to you.  And on the other hand, we‘ll continue to work on the security situation there.

The main thrust of our success will be when the Iraqis are able to take the fight to the enemy that wants to stop their democracy.  And we‘re making darn good progress along those lines.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Contained therein, perhaps the only reason news to have come out of today‘s photo opportunity at the White House, the president‘s strategy for victory in Iraq mysteriously shrinking to only two elements, having been threefold just last month.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH:  And all three aspects of our strategy—security, democracy, and reconstruction—we have learned from our experiences and fixed what has not worked.  We will continue to listen to honest criticism and make every change that will help us complete the mission.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Reconstruction, shmeeconstruction.  Only cynics would point out that Halliburton has evidently already moved on to the American Gulf Coast.

That the Bush White House would even want the media focusing today on how it is doing in Iraq perhaps a sign of just how much it does not want anyone talking about Jack Abramoff.

Day three of this scandal, the first not to bring a new guilty plea from the Republican lobbyist, or a new hat.  President Bush joining a long line of politicians rushing to return at least some of the cash given to them by Abramoff or his clients.

In Mr. Bush‘s case, donating $6,000 of the total of $300 million he raised in 2004 to the American Heart Association.  How many Mr. Abramoff could donate to some sort of fund of his own is debatable, “The Wall Street Journal” reporting that the lobbyist has said he has information that could implicate 60 of them.

One of the names on the byline of that article, “The Wall Street Journal” reporter Brody Mullins, kind enough to join us now.

Thank you for your time tonight.

BRODY MULLINS, REPORTER, “THE WALL STREET JOURNAL”:  Thanks for having me.

OLBERMANN:  Is there reason to believe Mr. Abramoff when he says he has information that could implicate 60 lawmakers?  I mean, the number has been mentioned below 20 in some listings.

MULLINS:  Probably not.  I mean, that‘s Jack Abramoff saying that he thinks that he can implicate 60 members, the idea that he‘s trying to get his jail term down as low as possible from the beginning of 60 to 70 years, he‘s got it down to 10 years.  I think the idea is that if he can talk a big game about how he can bring down a lot of members of Congress and provide that information to the Justice Department, that he may be able to get (INAUDIBLE) an even lighter sentence.

OLBERMANN:  Even the casual political observer might note that lobbyists paying for trips and for meals, for tickets to events, to make campaign contributions, that happens more or less constantly, maybe 24 hours a day, in Washington.  What is it that makes the Abramoff case noteworthy and different?

MULLINS:  Right.  Mr. Abramoff, Jack Abramoff, did a lot of really what most lobbyists do in D.C., he just did it, everything to an extreme.  Instead of (INAUDIBLE) taking someone to play golf at Congressional Country Club around here in D.C., he would bring them to Scotland.  Instead of giving a few thousand dollars in donations, he would recruit all of his clients and of his friends to give $100,000 in donations to someone.

So the Justice Department is really going after these extreme cases, not bringing someone to a Redskins game out here at FedEx field, but flying somebody to the Super Bowl.

OLBERMANN:  Are we looking at something along the lines of Abscam here, at least the dimension of it?  Does the scale of this seem to compare to the scale of that?

MULLINS:  It could be about the same size, maybe a little smaller, maybe a little bigger.  It looks like the Justice Department is probably going after two to four, maybe six, members of Congress, perhaps in total two dozen people, including staffers.

But I don‘t know if they‘re going to send staffers to jail.  They just want staffers to flip on their former bosses in order to nail some members.

OLBERMANN:  And speaking of that, the members, is this, in fact, going to wind up being bipartisan, the prosecutions?  I mean, there are many Democrats who also have seemed to have been on Abramoff‘s money-dispensing list.  Does it reflect equally poorly on both sides of the political aisle?

MULLINS:  There‘s no doubt that this is a Republican scandal.  Politically, Democrats may have a little more difficulty saying that Congress was corrupt if they were also taking these trips, and their staffers have been hired by Jack Abramoff.  But at the end of the day, this is a Republican scandal.

OLBERMANN:  The race to return funds from him, or to donate them to charity, our show “HARDBALL” was running a crawl of the returns earlier today.

MULLINS:  right.

OLBERMANN:  And it looked like a list of donations to a local telethon or school closings during a snowstorm.  Behind the comedic aspect of that, what is this, what is the race to get rid of the cash all about?

MULLINS:  Well, it‘s fascinating.  Members are giving back campaign contributions today faster than USC was giving back fourth-quarter leads yesterday.  But it seems like people are trying to distance themselves.  No one wants to be tarred by Abramoff.  More than 200 lawmakers have gotten money from him, and now they‘re all trying to give it back, to act like they never knew the guy.

OLBERMANN:  And the last question has to be this—what seems like a piece of trivia, but everyone has commented on it.  Is there any explanation regarding the big black hat that he wore in Washington Tuesday, and the baseball cap that he wore in Florida yesterday?

MULLINS:  It‘s already next year‘s best Halloween costume.

OLBERMANN:  Yes.

MULLINS:  It‘s just a few months too early.

OLBERMANN:  It‘s a little like Boris Badinov from the cartoons.

“The Wall Street Journal” reporter Brody Mullins.  Great thanks to you tonight.

MULLINS:  Thanks very much.

OLBERMANN:  For years, Mr. Abramoff has been linked to former House majority leader Tom DeLay.  It‘s hard to believe that possible new details about those links could still be surfacing at this late date, yet today a Texas prosecutor is issuing subpoenas for records of a hefty contribution made to a nonprofit organization which may have, in fact, been funneling money to Mr. DeLay on Abramoff‘s behalf, that charity apparently not the only one.

Sorting all this out is not so simple, but as our chief Washington correspondent, Norah O‘Donnell, reports for us tonight, the best advice on how to go about it comes from remembrances of scandals past.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NORAH O‘DONNELL, MSNBC CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): 

When it comes to Washington scandals, Watergate is, of course, the most famous.  And Deep Throat gave the most important lesson for any investigative journalist.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “ALL THE PRESIDENT‘S MEN”)

HAL HOLBROOK, ACTOR:  Just follow the money.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  Washington‘s superlobbyist Jack Abramoff was taking in and doling out big bucks in direct contributions to lawmakers, but also indirectly, through nonprofits and charities.

MARK EVERSON, IRS COMMISSIONER:  One of the most disturbing elements of this sordid story is the blatant misuse of charities in a scheme to peddle political influence.  The mixing of politics, money, and charities, simply stated, is a bad cocktail.

O‘DONNELL (on camera):  One of those charities was Abramoff‘s Capital Athletic Foundation, created to help low-income kids.  But there‘s no evidence any ever benefited.  Instead, the foundation helped fund a sniper school for the Israelis in the West Bank, and a lavish golfing trip to Scotland for Congressman Bob Ney.

FRED WERTHEIMER, CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM ADVOCATE:  This is a case where money from foreign nationals was secretly channeled into our political system to influence, reportedly, Tom DeLay.

O‘DONNELL (voice-over):  Abramoff also directed millions to the U.S.  Family Network, another nonprofit run by Congressman DeLay‘s former chief of staff.

JAMES GRIMALDI, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  The web of connections between Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay were extensive, and, in part, through this U.S.  Family Network.

O‘DONNELL:  “The Washington Post” reports the group got a single check for a million dollars from Russian oil executives.  DeLay later met them in Moscow.  The owners of textile companies in the Mariana Islands donated half a million dollars.  They sought and received DeLay‘s public pledge to block legislation that would boost their labor costs.

The Mississippi band of Choctaw Indians, Abramoff‘s largest client, gave a quarter of a million dollars.  They wanted DeLay to fight legislation that would tax their gambling revenues.

WERTHEIMER:  You certainly could call this a slush fund.  You could

call it a way of laundering money.  What it wasn‘t, apparently, was a

foundation to serve charitable interests.

f

O‘DONNELL:  Congressman DeLay insists he‘s done nothing wrong and is cooperating fully with investigators.  Law enforcement officials say tonight they are at a new stage in the investigation, now that Abramoff is finally talking.

For COUNTDOWN, I‘m Norah O‘Donnell in Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Also tonight, in Israel, it would seem that the best probable outcome now for Ariel Sharon, a partial return to a normal life, but not a return to a political life.

And the mining tragedy in West Virginia.  That of which we spoke last night proves true.  As they faced mortality, the victims left notes for their loved ones.

You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Peace in the Middle East has been sought for 2,000 years and more.  Seemingly every step taken towards it, every epiphany about the prospect of mutual coexistence, has been thwarted, derailed, or become as mortal as man himself.

Our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, thus it is again in Jerusalem tonight.  Ariel Sharon, the hard-liner who had suddenly sought accelerated compromise, remains hospitalized there after a stroke.

As Martin Fletcher reports, his existence and the latest hope for peace in the region are imperiled.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARTIN FLETCHER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Tonight, up on the seventh floor of the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, in the intensive care unit, Ariel Sharon is fighting for his life, heavily sedated and on a respirator.

All day rumors swirled that he‘s dead or dying, but the hospital director came out to specifically deny all rumors.

SHLOMO MOR-YOSEF, DIRECTOR GENERAL, HADASSAH HOSPITAL:  Prime Minister Sharon is in a severe condition.  He is stable.

FLETCHER:  But after nine hours of surgery to stop massive bleeding in the brain, medical sources say even if Sharon survives, his mental functioning could be severely harmed.

(on camera):  Some small cause for hope, though.  The doctors also said Sharon‘s eyes responded to light, a sign of independent brain activity.  And, as the surgery was on the right side of Sharon‘s brain, they said, that could mean his speech and comprehension may not be impaired.

(voice-over):  At Jerusalem‘s Western Wall, there was nothing left to do but pray.

But in Gaza, Palestinians celebrated, handing out candy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  He should have died painfully, because he caused pain on a lot of people.

FLETCHER:  While Iran‘s controversial president, who recently said he hoped Israel will be wiped off the map, reportedly told students he hoped Sharon would die.

But Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas had a more measured response.  He phoned Sharon‘s temporary replacement, Ehud Olmert, and said he was very worried for Sharon and for the peaceful future they‘d both been working on.

AMNON DANKNER, EDITOR, “MAARIV” NEWSPAPER:  He was such a formidable force in Israeli politics that he could have moved it forward rather smoothly.

FLETCHER:  The question now is whether the next prime minister will have the will or the power to push through Sharon‘s plans to give up West Bank land for peace.

Martin Fletcher, NBC News, Jerusalem.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  In the country, the prime minister‘s ability to bridge the political divide, at least the one in Israel, one of many qualities that have endeared him to President Bush.

As our correspondent Andrea Mitchell explains, Mr. Sharon is not at the kind of ally easily replaced.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ARIEL SHARON, PRIME MINISTER OF ISRAEL:  Thank you, Mr. President.

ANDREA MITCHELL, MSNBC CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Sharon was one of the few foreign leaders George Bush had met before becoming president.  Bush had admired Sharon‘s reputation as a war hero.  Once both took office, within weeks of each other, they forged a close relationship.

BUSH:  Today it‘s my opportunity to once again look him in the eye and tell him he‘s got no better friend than the United States.

MITCHELL:  Bush accepted Sharon‘s hard line against the Palestinians, even to the point of overruling his own secretary of state, ordering Colin Powell to stop meeting with Yasser Arafat after this visit to Ramallah.

In Sharon, Bush and his new secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, saw a partner in the war on terror and a political survivor.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, SECRETARY OF STATE:  President Bush and I admire your personal courage, your leadership, and the crucial contribution to peace that you are making.

MITCHELL:  But after betting on Sharon‘s gamble to withdraw from Gaza and build a barrier separating Israel from Palestinian territories in the West Bank, George Bush is now left without a partner for his Middle East policy.

JON ALTERMAN, FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  And that was the genius of Ariel Sharon.  He was able to bridge these groups and bring together the left and the right.  And I don‘t see anybody nearby on the Israeli political spectrum who can do that.

MITCHELL (on camera):  The fear in Washington is that without Sharon, Israeli politics will be in turmoil for the foreseeable future.

Andrea Mitchell, NBC News, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  To the lighter news, and a vigil of a much different variety.  Notre Dame has touched down Jesus.  Now one family in Miami thinks it has the lay-up Virgin Mary.

The faithful and the basketball fans together in Oddball.

And she‘s no Madonna, but is Angelina Jolie with child, or not?  And if she is, why is she calling Jennifer Aniston?  To rub it in?

A veritable roundup of stories my producers are forcing me to cover against my will, ahead on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Long has there been criticism of the news media that it seems to report only the bad news, because bad news equals ratings.  But we here at COUNTDOWN, the future of news, have sacrificed those ill-gotten ratings.  We made the commitment each evening to bring you not only the bad news, but also the weird news as well.

Yes, life without rationalization is itself impossible.

Let‘s play Oddball.

We begin in Miami, Florida, where we have the first Virgin Mary sighting of 2006.  She‘s appeared on the basketball hoop in the driveway of a local family.  If you look closely, you can see her image on the backboard guarding the hoop as if to say, Not in my house.

Of course, no one is popping bank shots off this glass anymore, although novenas made for more than 23 feet, nine inches, count for three.  From way downtown, amen.

It has become a shrine to the Blessed Mother, and dozens of faithful have traveled from near and far to pray at the half-court homage.  No word from Rome whether the pope will be sending a team to check this out, but the New York Knicks are reportedly willing to buy the thing sight unseen.

To Voorhees, New Jersey, where the local animal shelter has named this little fellow Miracle after it survived a 70-mile highway trip clinging to the undercarriage of a family‘s car.  Of course, if they‘d seen “The Naked Gun” sequel, they might have just named him Nordberg.

The driver says she had no idea the cat was under the car when she left Newark.  Since the cat had no tags or microchips, he‘ll be put up for adoption in Voorhees, rather than driving him back to Newark where, you know, someone might be looking for him.

Oh, he‘s just a cat, what‘s the difference, right?

Finally, to Salt Lake city, where ONE of the nice things about living in a rural area, sometimes you wake up to find the local wildlife frolicking in your backyard.  Then you can bring in the guys with the heavy artillery.

A full-grown moose chillin‘ on this suburban family‘s patio.  Those were tranquilizer guns, obviously.  Wildlife officials plan to send the moose off to live in Colorado.  And in return, Colorado will send Utah one bighorn sheep.

I did not make that up.  Apparently there‘s some sort of weird animal trafficking scheme going on.  I promise you a full Oddball investigation, maybe.

To the much more serious investigations, the search for answers underway in West Virginia after the deadly coal mine explosion.  Tonight we will remember the victims and hear from one man who made it out of the mine in the moments after the blast.

And if the goal is to shock people to stop smoking, can commercials possibly crossing line of good taste?

Those stories ahead.

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

Number three, Trevor Corneliusien is an artist who decided he really needed to make a sketch of his ankles tightly wrapped up in chains out in the wild near Baker, California.  So he went there, he tied the chain around his ankles, he made the sketch, he lost the key to the chain.  He hopped five miles to the nearest gas station.  Took him 12 hours.

Judge—number two, Judge John W. Debelius of Montgomery County, Maryland, he‘s acquitted a defendant there who had been charged with mooning a neighbor.  The judge says it‘s disgusting, but it‘s not criminal.  So if you need me, I‘ll be in Montgomery County.

Number one, Duane Lammers.  General manager of the NBC affiliate in Terre Haute, Indiana, says he will not air the debut of the series “The Book of Daniel,” which features a priest who regularly converses with a physical manifestation of Jesus.

Speaking of network management, he says, “I will not allow them to make unilateral decisions affecting our viewers,” unquote.  Absolutely right.  Only Mr. Lammers is permitted to make unilateral decisions affecting his viewers.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  As our correspondent at the West Virginia mine disaster Tom Costello discussed with us here last night, we have all been in this situation in our minds, in the darkest parts of our imagination and the worst perceptions of mortality.

Our third story on the COUNTDOWN, what would you do if you were trapped alive in some inaccessible or remote environment in which both rescue and survival seemed at best unlikely?  How would you spend that time?  What would you do about your loved ones?  The answers to each of those questions, of course, intertwined, as is the concern for the victims‘ families and for the sole survivor, himself in a coma and in an hyperbaric chamber tonight.

As all of this is intertwined now, with the start of the investigation into the disaster.  The latest from Tallmansville from Tom Costello.  Tom, good evening.

TOM COSTELLO, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Keith, good evening.  We are reporting tonight that federal investigators are looking into whether lightning struck a metal pipe sticking out of the ground and running into an area of the mine and into an area with natural gas reserves.  If that happened, it could have caused a massive explosion.

Also today, a return visit to the main with one of the men who escaped with his life.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO (voice-over): Denver Anderson survived the explosion that killed 12 men ahead of him on a coal seam deep underground.  Today for the first time he returned to the Sago mine.

DENVER ANDERSON, MINER:  Well, I just felt all this debris hit me and I turned and threw my arm up to protect my face.  Also my hat and glasses.

COSTELLO:  In the pitch black he grabbed his oxygen mask and feared for the 13 miners working deeper under ground.

(on camera):  Without that rescue mask could you have made it out alive?

ANDERSON:  It would have been tough.

COSTELLO (voice-over):  While the men on Anderson‘s team survived, 12 of the 13 miners ahead of them did not.  Today, word that several of the miners bodies have been found with notes telling family members that they hadn‘t suffered.  The message on Terry Helms said simply, “I went in peace.”

MICHELLE MOUSER, TERRY HELMS‘ NIECE:  I think another miner that was in there, that stormed the barricade and stuff knew that he is passing away so they wrote the note and let the family know that he went in peace.

COSTELLO:  The only survivor, 27-year-old Randal McCloy is in serious condition he had to be transferred to a Pittsburgh hospital for treatment to stimulate brain activity.  While at the mine, federal and state inspectors have begun the investigation.  They will look at why from 2004 to 2005, even though coal production was dropping, the number of man hours and safety violations increased.

Although it is not a union mine the union is speaking out.

DENNIS O‘DELL, UNITED MINE WORKERS:  These were serious violations that they were issuing.  The were imminent danger violations.  And when you see that type of activity, it sends a red flag up and tells you the conditions of this mine was unsafe.

COSTELLO:  Bob Friend represents the government‘s Mine Safety Administration.

Did you feel this mine was you unsafe?

BOB FRIEND, MINE SAFETY AND HEALTH ADMINISTRATION:  No.  If we had we would have shut it down.

COSTELLO:  But you did shut down portions of it last year?

FRIEND:  We have shut down parts of it or pieces of equipment.

COSTELLO:  In fact, 18 shutdowns last year alone.  But the company that bought the mine in November said safety is its priority.

Did you ever feel a concern for your safety down there?

ANDERSON:  No.  I never did feel ...

COSTELLO:  You felt it was a safe mine?

ANDERSON:  Yes.

COSTELLO:  And tonight many of his fellow miners agree.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  There is nothing wrong with the ventilation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  This company is doing everything they can to make it safe for the men in there.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO (on camera):  Also tonight, word of another note pinned to another miner.  This one coming from the foreman, Martin Toler.  He wrote, “Tell all I‘ll see them on the other side.  It wasn‘t bad.  I just went to sleep.  And I love you.”  Keith?

OLBERMANN:  Tom Costello Reporting from Tallmansville.  Great thanks.

All 13 men knew the dangers of working in the mines, many even talked about quitting before the accident Monday, even though they had spent their working lives underground.  In the horror of their passing, their real lives have almost been overlooked.  Our correspondent Lisa Daniels helps correct that now.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LISA DANIELS, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Life was tough in the mines, long hours in black tunnels all for a fair day‘s pay in return.  The 12 men lost in the accident this week weren‘t connected by blood but by devotion to the job and each other.  With 35 years of experience, Terry Helms was a lifer but he had other plans for his son, Nick, a job above the ground.

NICK HELMS, SON OF KILLED MINER:  He wanted something better for me.  He didn‘t want me to have to break my back and not see daylight for days at a time.

JUDY SHACKLEFORD, SISTER OF KILLED MINER:  We all loved him.

DANIELS:  Terry was Judy‘s Shackleford‘s baby brother, only somehow he never seemed to get his role right.

SHACKLEFORD:  He was always worried about me.

DANIELS:  Marty Bennett liked routine.  His alarm clock rang at 3:30 every morning and then he‘d head to the same mine where his dad used to work.

Fred Ware believed he would die in the mines.  He left behind a fiancee.

When Jim Bennett finished work he would go home, not to rest but pray for his friends still under the ground.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  My dad was going to retire April of this year.  I reckon he required early.

DANIELS:  Twelve men whose families already miss making memories.  Elaine Talbot (ph), a grief counselor at school is having a hard time answering the kids‘ questions.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  A lot was just a fear.  A fear that maybe they were at school and something would happen with their parents.

DANIELS:  For Jerry Groves, coal ran through his veins but it was his new role he cherished the most, granddaddy.

And then there‘s Randal McCloy, the sole survivor of the group.  At just 27 years old, he wasn‘t as seasoned as the others but he already knew life in the dust wasn‘t for him.  But it‘s what they do in Buckhannon to pay the bills.

HELMS:  He never thought about himself.  He always thought about us.

DANIELS:  A sacrifice of love and now life.  Lisa Daniels, NBC News, Buckhannon, West Virginia.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Lisa mentioned Jim Bennett and Marty Bennett and Terry Helms and Jerry Groves and Fred Ware.  For the record the other men who perished were named Thomas Anderson, George Hamner, Jess Jones, Martin Tohler, Jack Weaver, Marshall Winans and at age 28, the youngest of the victims, David Lewis.

Also tonight, the continuing campaign to get Americans to kick their smoking habits.  The gross out factor reaching new heights.  Maybe it‘s a good thing.

And no fewer than three Hollywood marriages or engagements on the rocks.  Watch me write in pain as we cover them with Michael Musto.

First, here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three soundbites of this day.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GEORGE W. BUSH, U.S. PRESIDENT:  I‘m here to let the good folks know here how strongly I support the National Security Language Initiative.  I used to have a problem with the language in the past, so—if you got room in the initiative for me, let me know.

I believe everybody desires to be free.  But I also know people need to be convincing.  Convinced.  Told you I need to go to language school.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  When an elderly Houston woman used her new Evercare Medicare card to get a prescription filled, all went well but when a relative wanted to call Evercare‘s customer service line, they got a nasty earful.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Hey there, sexy guy.  Welcome to an exciting new way to go live with girls.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I don‘t know whether they were looking for women or men, but they were looking for some people.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Hey there, sexy guy.

JAY LENO, TALK SHOW HOST:  Well, you know what‘s interesting?  This Abramoff guy, he represented Indian and gaming and he defrauded them.  In emails he made fun of them.  And I guess the Native Americans were pretty upset.  Did you see what happened  yesterday at his arraignment.  Take a look here.  Watch what happens here.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  In our ongoing anti-smoking series, we told about you the gross-out message of quitting smoking.  You put a fresh pack of cigarettes and a clear jar of water and watch the water turn black as the poisons leach out.  Viewer Marcel Pelon (ph) took that a step further.  He put cigarette butts in the jar of water, and every morning or anytime he felt like smoking, he‘d unscrew the lid and take a deep breath.

Visualizing stuff like that in your head is one thing.  Seeing stuff like that or worse is quite another.  Our number two story on the COUNTDOWN, “I quit” and as Matt Lauer reports, and we warn you this might be a little gross, a series of smoking ads running in New York State that may it bring a new meaning to the word graphic.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MATT LAUER, NBC NEWS HOST:  The ads ...

ANNOUNCER:  Every cigarette is doing you damage.

LAUER:  Leave nothing to the imagination.

ANNOUNCER:  The main artery from the heart.  Smoking makes artery walls sticky and collect dangerous fatty deposits.  This much was found stuck to the aortal wall of the aorta of a smoker aged 32.

LAUER:  Demonstrating graphically how smoke destroys the lungs ...

ANNOUNCER:  Their lungs are rotting.

LAUER:  ... and its effects on the brain.

ANNOUNCER:  This is the result of a minor stroke in a smoker, aged 38.

LAUER:  Researchers say these kinds of shock ads can be effective.

LOIS BIENER, UMASS:  Ads that arouse strong negative emotion are the ones that have been shown to be effective over and over again.

LAUER:  Despite serious health warnings nearly 45 million Americans still smoke, either succumbing to addiction or a lingering image of what‘s cool.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Care for a smoke?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Sure.

LAUER:  In recent years, the National Truth Campaign used aggressive campaigns to target young people.  It‘s credited with contributing to a 22 percent decline in youth smoking.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  So you can see what 1,200 people actually look like.

LAURE:  Now anti-tobacco coalitions in New York State are hoping their new ads will scare smokers of all ages into stamping out their last cigarette.

JOANNE KOLDARE, COALITION FOR A SMOKE FREE CITY:  And we know that people who try to quit need a trigger.  These are trigger ads that are going to make you move.  They are going to make you do something.

LAUER:  Some say the images in this latest campaign are too graphic, especially for kids, but the results speak for themselves.  Calls to the New York quit line rose 66 percent the first month the ads ran.

KOLDARE:  They are not pretty but neither are the consequences of smoking.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Matt Lauer reporting.  All I remember from high school and grammar school are those sideways slides, the cutaway slides of the diseased lungs.  That scared the bejesus out of me.  More information about quitting or if you want to email us tips on what shocked you into kicking the habit, visit our Website at countdown.msnbc.com containing a wealth resources and evidence of a wealth of others who are trying to quit.  A reminder that in this, you are certainly not alone.

To our nightly round-up of celebrity and entertainment news, “Keeping Tabs.”  And if you thought they played the Rose Bowl football game on New Year‘s Day are you not only wrong but you are not much of a television executive, are you.

The game for college football‘s national championship was played last night and got a preliminary rating of 22.7, the highest rating for any football game except the Super Bowls since early 1999, pro or college.  Millions were watching but not in the replay booth.

USC led Texas 7-3 in the first half.  The Trojans tackled Longhorns quarterback Vince Young.  His knee was down like a boyfriend but the play should have been called dead right there but instead young continued and lateraled to teammate Selbin Young (ph), who scored a touchdown for Texas.  Not only was the play not reviewed by the officials in the replay booth, it turns out it couldn‘t have been.  Their equipment had malfunctioned.

Then in the fourth quarter the refs seemed to miss another bad call.  This was ruled an incomplete pass instead of a fumble.  Well at least they looked at the replay.  The play led to a Texas field goal and added to that touchdown it meant nine of Texas‘ points in a 41-38 victory came after controversial decisions by the refs.  Number two Texas ends unbeaten.  Two time national champion USC, 41-38.

More traditional celebrity news without the Keith Jackson impression, the actress Lindsay Lohan has been released from a Miami hospital after being treated for an asthma attack.  But that‘s hardly the sum of her problems.  She sells “Vanity Fair” magazine in an upcoming issue that she suffered from bulimia last year, adding that before she hosted “Saturday Night Live,” head writer and performer Tina Fey and executive producer Lauren Michael sat her down and expressed their concern.

Lohan says, quote, “ I just started bawling.  I knew I had a problem and I couldn‘t admit it.  I saw that SNL after I did it.  My arms were disgusting.  I had no arms.”

Lohan also confessed to some drug use but says she has gotten that out of her system.

Boy, can careers change in seven and a half years.  Late in 1998, his new employers at the “Daily Show,” were kind of gingerly accepting Jon Stewart as their successor for Craig Kilborn.  Early in 2006 Jon Stewart has been tabbed to host the Oscars.  The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Scientists - Sciences.  In English.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Scientists - did it twice - Sciences—picked the man who once hosted Short Attention Span Theater on the Comedy Channel.  Like I should talk about that.  To host the 78th Oscars.

As a performer he said, “I‘m truly honored to be hosting the show although as an avid watcher of the Oscars, I can‘t help but be disappointed with the choice.  It appears to be another sad attempt to smoke out Billy Crystal.”

Stewart will not be MCing a pre-game coverage of the Tom Cruise-Katie Holmes nuptials because as rumors has it, there won‘t be any.  When the rumor mill churns, we turn to Michael Musto.  That‘s ahead.

But first, time for COUNTDOWN‘s list of today‘s three nominees for worst person in the world.  There‘s Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Colero (ph) of San Romano (ph), California, the police say they went to Vegas for five days of New Year‘s fun and left their puppies with a dogsitter but their two sons, aged five and 10 they let them stay in their house alone.

The silver, Pastor Lonnie Lethem (ph) of the South Tulsa Baptist Church.  The executive committee member of the Southern Baptist Convention who has encouraged his flock to try to convert gays and lesbians from their, quote “sinful, destructive lifestyle.”  Pastor Lethem has been arrested, charged with propositioning an undercover police officer who he thought was a male prostitute.  Oopsie!

But the winner, a more prominent man of God, Pat Robertson who has now told his TV audience today that Ariel Sharon‘s stroke happened because God was angry at the Israeli prime minister for proposing to, quote, carve up and give away God‘s land.

Do you ever get the feeling if there is an afterlife Pat Robertson will spend his first 1,000 years in it really, really, really surprised?  Pat Robertson.  Today‘s worst person in the world.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Maybe it is because on this date in 1908, George Dolans was born in Italy.  He was a film and TV actor but perhaps became best known as the father of Mickey Dolans, who was the drummer in the project that was a Hollywood publicity man‘s dream.  A rock band created, contrived entirely and exclusively so it could star in its own TV series called “The Monkees.”

Whatever the cause, our number one story in the COUNTDOWN, a flood of celebrity news my producers are forcing me to cover.  So much of it that some of it even contradicts itself.

The celebrity publication “Life & Style Weekly” reporting that Angelina Jolie wanting to clear the air as well as her karma called the former Mrs. Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston to break the news that she, Jolie is carrying Pitt‘s baby.  Aniston was reportedly tearful during the call or the call didn‘t happen because the baby didn‘t happen either and a rumored wedding or civil ceremony or other union isn‘t going to happen.

Another celebrity magazine, “US Weekly” says there‘s no baby on the way nor any invitations to any marriage ceremony.  And you may see yet another Saturday free up on your busy social and wedding schedule.

“Life & Style Weekly” also reporting the planned Tom Cruise-Katie Holmes marriage is in trouble.  The couple, it says, spent the holidays with the Holmes family in order to smooth over previously rocky relations.  OK Rocky!  Rocky relations might refer to her parents who reportedly do not give a tinker‘s dam for him.  A, quote, “close friend” telling the publication the couple left three days earlier than planned and Ms. Holmes herself was distraught over the turn of events.

Another quote, “friend of the couple,” unquote, saying “my honest opinion is that the wedding is not going to happen.”  This, the kind of cascade of celebrity news not seen since back when the address book of Heidi Fleiss went public.  Only one man could handle all of it.  The esteemed columnist of the “Village Voice”, Michael Musto.  Good evening, Michael.

MICHALE MUSTO, “VILLAGE VOICE”:  Hi, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Let‘s start with the no-brainer here.  Wow, a hitch in the Tom Cruise-Katie Holmes wedding?  Nobody saw that coming, huh?

MUSTO:  Please, the sonogram saw it coming.  Ray Charles saw it coming.  Helen Keller saw it coming.  I‘m already stooping to Helen Keller jokes.  This thing has been more doomed than Britney and Kevin.  Oh, they‘re back together?  More doomed than David and Liza.  It was domed.

OLBERMANN:  I don‘t see this on any of the research on this story.  Has her family which was opposed to this wedding stopped partying and singing “Happy Days Are Here Again” yet?

MUSTO:  Yeah.  Their gravy train has ended at their own behest, mind you.  But now Katie may have to return to being an unanimous single mother who used to be on “Dawson‘s Creek” whereas Michele Williams is someone who used to be on “Dawson‘s Creek” who has a man, has a real baby coming out, not a pillow, and she‘s going to get an Oscar nomination.  That‘s not something you talk about in the Katie Holmes household.

OLBERMANN:  What about the baby?  Can the baby sue something about this?

MUSTO:  You mean little L. Ron?  Well, if it‘s a pillow, they‘ll return it to Ikea.  If it‘s real, just put him on anti-anxiety pills.  He can have prescriptions now.  Katie can even be on an epidural when she has L. Ron.  No screaming.

OLBERMANN:  And he can be all the glib he wants.  Jolie isn‘t pregnant, not marrying Brad Pitt.  “Life & Style,” first time I‘ve ever heard of “Life & Style,” by the way, says she is too pregnant and called Jennifer Aniston to tell her personally.  So is one of these right or is it possible there are multiple Angelina Jolies?

MUSTO:  There are many Angelinas.  And they‘re all trashy, have tattoos and steal your husband.  But there is one who is real and she‘s really pregnant with a real baby.  And I think she did call Jennifer and Jennifer didn‘t look at the caller ID and see 1-800-SLUT so she picked up.  This is the real scoop.

OLBERMANN:  This call to Jennifer Aniston, it was intend to be as suggested here like a karma thing or in other words is Ms. Jolie here the good witch or bad witch on the phone call?

MUSTO:  She‘s Elvira Gulch and Cruella Deville and Witchythoo (ph) all rolled into one.  She‘s so attached to the broomstick it‘s amazing she could have sex.  But she does.  She has a lot of it.  Hello, I‘ve not only stolen your husband, I‘m popping out babies for him.  She‘s a witch.  Burn her at the stake with all the vials of blood.

OLBERMANN:  And Ms. Aniston‘s reaction to this as you understand is what?

MUSTO:  They said it was tearful.  But I think she was throwing things out the window and bashing in the TV set.  She hasn‘t been so upset since she read the reviews of “Rumor Has It.”  That‘s her latest cinema oeuvre.

OLBERMANN:  Did anybody bother to review it?

MUSTO:  Yes.

OLBERMANN:  There are two other stories here.  Charlie Sheen-Denise Richards.  We rejoin this divorce already in progress story.  They were divorcing, then they were reconciled and now they‘re divorcing again.  My thinking is this was a publicity stunt to extend their careers by 45 minutes each rather than 15.

MUSTO:  Well, that‘s generous.  You‘re counting to numbers they‘ve never even heard of.  No, it was not a publicity stunt.  What actually happens is every six months I send Denise the Heidi Fleiss black book you mentioned earlier and somehow that causes a little rift.

OLBERMANN:  Was there something triggered this about a year ago?  Something that was well post Heidi Fleiss, post Laker girls, post all of that?

MUSTO:  I think once a philanderer always a philanderer.  He brought several people to the wedding that he said they were his distant cousins but we know better.

OLBERMANN:  And they all had $50 in their hands for some reason.  This other one here.  What is this Gwyneth Paltrow exorcism story?  She‘s bringing in a kabbalah rabbi because the new home has negative energy.  Ghostbusters charge too much?

MUSTO:  Yes they do and what she really needs is a caterer because that woman needs to eat or a new manager because “Poof” went poof at the box office.  Well at least she‘s only half Jewish.  So I think she only exorcised half the house.  She still has to do the kitchen and the bathroom.

OLBERMANN:  How do you define—if you—negative energy in a house is what?  You stick something into the light switch and all the energy gets sucked into the wall or what is it?  What does this mean?  Negative energy?

MUSTO:  It‘s like a power blackout or something?  I don‘t know or she‘s still thinking about Brad Pitt.  Get in line.  Because Jennifer is waiting for another phone call.

OLBERMANN:  I‘m thinking here, negative energy, you plug something in and the device explodes that could be a terrible thing.  Why a kabbalah rabbi?

MUSTO:  Because it‘s trendy.  Because Gwyneth is half Jewish which is more than Madonna.  Her father was Jewish indeed.  And if something is trendy, you get a press release out and tell people you‘re exorcising the house.  Also, you‘re mentally ill.

OLBERMANN:  I believe the last explanation much more than the other ones.  The one and only Michael Musto, always more entertaining than the stories he covers, even when they come four at a time.  Thank you, sir.

MUSTO:  Helen Keller jokes.  I‘m so ...

OLBERMANN:  Oh.  I know.  That‘s all right.

MUSTO:  I‘m sorry.

OLBERMANN:  Have a good night.  That‘s COUNTDOWN.  I‘m Keith Olbermann.  Keep your knees loose.  Good night and good luck.  Our MSNBC coverage continues now with RITA COSBY LIVE AND DIRECT tonight from Miami.  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 2006 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2006 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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