updated 3/1/2006 10:59:37 AM ET 2006-03-01T15:59:37

Guests: Dana Milbank, Savannah Guthrie, Tom O‘Neil, Ernie Banks

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

I forgot.  Scooter Libby‘s defense team hires a memory loss expert, and it‘s not The Amazing Mesmo.

See if you can find anybody who remembers when the president‘s poll numbers were good.  Thirty-four percent approval, on counterterror 43 percent approval, on Iraq 30 percent approval.  And from the troops, on Mr.  Bush‘s idea they should stay as long as necessary, only 23 percent agreement.

She cries, she poses, she wears a cross.  Yes, Mrs.  Smith goes to Washington, dazzling the Supreme Court and necessitating Anna Nicole Smith Supreme Court Puppet Theater.  I‘m here for the oral argument.

Will she next be followed to the high court by Howard Stern?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HOWARD STERN:  Now I‘m being told that CBS wants to file a lawsuit against me, which I believe is a personal vendetta from Les Moonves.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  CBS does sue, reportedly for $500 million.  Is $500 million still personal?

And Buck O‘Neil does not take it personal.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUCK O‘NEIL:  That committee, I know they were voting just like they felt it should be.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  But they still won‘t say why they refused to elect the grand old man of baseball to its Hall of Fame.  Buck O‘Neil‘s greatest protege, Ernie Banks of the Cubs, joins us.

All that and more, now on COUNTDOWN.

Good evening.

Some days politics gives us conflict or statesmanship or eloquence.  Today, it gives us freelance memory loss experts and Anna Nicole Smith at the Supreme Court wearing hair extensions.

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, and what kind of a day was it?  A day like any day that alters and illuminates our time.

More evidence that the Scooter Libby defense strategy is already scoring high points for ingenuity, if nothing else, a renowned memory loss expert telling NBC News that he has been hired by Libby‘s legal team to assist with what looks to be the I-was-busy-so-I-forgot defense, a modification of the Steve Martin ploy of 1977.

The man is Harvard professor Daniel L. Schachter, author of books that offer explanations for the, quote, “vulnerability of memory,” writing in one of them that if we are distracted as an event unfolds, quote, “we may have great difficulty remembering the details of what happened.”

And—wait, did I just say something about folds?

Whether Professor Schachter ever makes it to the witness stand, however, is debatable, Judge Reggie Walton having strongly scolded the Libby defense team, saying, quote, “We are not going to have a trial that boils down to who has the better memory expert, the defense or the government.”

Libby‘s lawyers might be well served to put Anna Nicole Smith on retainer, her day in court, that would be the United States Supreme Court, going just swimmingly, the former stripper-slash-model-slash-20-something bride of an 89-year-old Texas oil tycoon finding a sympathetic audience today on the bench, several justices indicating they were concerned she may have been kept unfairly from pursuing a piece of her late husband‘s massive fortune.

Analysis and second-ever addition of Anna Nicole Smith Supreme Court Puppet Theater ahead on COUNTDOWN.

On a far more serious but no less strange note, this day also calling into question whether Americans in uniform are still firmly behind their commander in chief, an overwhelming majority of American troops who are actually serving in Iraq now saying in a poll that it is time for them to go home.

While still literally behind Mr. Bush, often serving as part of the backdrop at the president‘s recent speeches about Iraq, 72 percent of those troops surveyed by Zombie International for LeMoyne College in New York feeling they should exit Iraq within the next year.  One in three of them said immediately, only 23 percent wanting to heed the president‘s call to stay as long as they needed, those numbers going a long way toward explaining these latest numbers from a CBS News poll.

Mr. Bush‘s job approval rating, proving it had not yet hit rock bottom, now at 34 percent, the new all-time low.  That is overall. On fighting terrorism in the wake of the ports deal controversy, 43 percent, disapproval there is 50 percent.  On his handling of Iraq, 30 percent approval, 30 percent.  Three years ago next month, people were talking about Iraq and insisting it made George W. Bush one of the greatest presidents ever.  Thirty percent.

This day in Iraq regrettably proving that the recent spate of sectarian violence there could and has gotten worse.  At least 68 more killed.  We also learned today from the Baghdad morgue via “The Washington Post” that more than 1,300 may have been killed since last week‘s attack on the Shi‘ite shrine that kicked off the violence.

Time now to call in “Washington Post” national political reporter Dana Milbank.

Good evening, Dana.

DANA MILBANK, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, “THE WASHINGTON POST”: 

Evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  And beginning tonight with the president, both sets of those numbers certainly look bad, but let me ask you first about that poll in Iraq.  Does not a whole class of political arguments in defense of the war go out the window if the troops are just as critical of the war as the president‘s opponents are?

MILBANK:  Well, potentially.  There are a couple of caveats there.  It‘s an unusual poll in that it was done sort of person to person.  A lot of other pollsters question the techniques used by John Zogby, who conducted that poll.

That said, it does certainly indicate other signs that the morale hasn‘t been great.  The—it seems the Reserve units were much—the morale was much lower than in, say, the Marines.

You could put, perhaps, a favorable spin on it, and suggest that the troops were saying, We‘ve done all we can here, we‘ve completed the mission, let‘s get out.

OLBERMANN:  How, though, might those numbers impact, if at all, the midterm elections, the congressional elections?  Could Republicans in Red State districts with military bases wind up distancing themselves from the president on the subject of Iraq?

MILBANK:  I‘d be very surprised if these numbers or military families in general would turn against the president.  But they hardly need another reason to.  I mean, the—as you were indicating, the poll numbers overall are quite disastrous.  There‘s another poll out today suggesting that by two to one, Americans think the country is on the wrong track.  The president‘s not getting much credit for the economy.

And once that terrorism number slips down to 43 percent, that‘s sort of been his source of strength, and once that slips out from under him, then all the other numbers tumble.

OLBERMANN:  And particularly that overall one in the CBS poll, 34 percent.  How low can you go?  Is that the bottom line?

MILBANK:  Well, in that same poll, the—only 18 percent of the people had a favorable view of poor Vice President Cheney.  So in theory, you could go lower.  That‘s indeed lower than Nixonian levels, or even the lows reached by Carter.

In theory, Bush could go lower.  But you have to think that he has sort of a hardened core of support there.  The other poll out today had him at 40 percent.  We‘re somewhere in the high 30s, presumably.  That‘s still not a place where he‘s going to get any respect up on Capitol Hill to move his agenda.

OLBERMANN:  Let‘s switch over to Scooter Libby, the I-was-busy-I-forgot strategy, Ask my memory loss expert.  As these defenses get more and more bizarre, does Mr. Libby become more of a political story, or less of a political story?

MILBANK:  Well, he‘ll continue to be a political story regardless.  But what really is going on here is not, did Scooter remember this, or did Scooter forget, or does he need to reconstruct his memory and go back through his childhood, but can he pose enough obstacles to the government?  He‘s demanding the president‘s daily briefs, and he knows very well, better than most people, that the administration‘s not going to turn that over.

So he wants to make a prosecution impossible.  Sounds like the judge is not really going to go along with that, going to let him have some—not have the briefs, but have some descriptions of them.

So it‘s going to be hard for him to throw up the kind of defense he was originally proposing.

OLBERMANN:  And speaking of judges and briefs and perhaps of throwing up, anticipating our Supreme Court coverage, the political impact of Anna Nicole Smith is what, exactly?

MILBANK:  Well, people were saying they need, you know, after Sandra Day O‘Connor departed, they needed another woman on the bench.  I‘m not sure this is exactly what they had in mind.

But I tell you, whenever I go up there, I still can‘t keep my eyes off of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

OLBERMANN:  “Washington Post” national political reporter Dana Milbank, dodging the ombudsman as we speak.  As always, sir, great thanks.

MILBANK:  Thanks.

OLBERMANN:  Yet another poll out tonight showing an overwhelming majority of Americans unconvinced, still feeling Congress should block the Dubai ports deal if, or is it just when, the president approves that deal.  Congress, as we know, may not get the power to block the deal.  But today, as always, lawmakers did get a chance to hold some hearings.

And thus our Capitol Hill correspondent, Chip Reid, got the chance to attend the live version of deal-or-no-deal.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHIP REID, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Just two days after authorizing a new investigation of the controversial ports deal, the president today reiterated his support.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  If there was any doubt in my mind, or people in my administration‘s mind, that our ports would be less secure and the American people endangered, this deal wouldn‘t go forward.

REID:  Critics accused the president of making up his mind before the new investigation has even begun, and questioned whether he‘s taking the investigation seriously.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK:  If the investigation proves to be a charade, if it‘s not truly independent and thorough, then the bipartisan legislation that we introduced yesterday will pass through the Senate and the House like a hot knife through butter.

REID:  That legislation would give Congress the power to kill the ports deal, even if the president approves it.

Critics of the deal cite a new poll showing 61 percent of Americans say Congress should block the decision.  Only 27 percent say they trust President Bush‘s decision.

On Capitol Hill today, critics from both parties zeroed in on this document, showing that in December, the Coast Guard found many intelligence gaps on the potential of the Dubai company to support terrorist operations.  But the administration insists all concerns were resolved before the deal was approved.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY:  We were certainly satisfied that we had everything that we needed.  Coast Guard was satisfied.

REID:  Adding to the controversy, today‘s online edition of “The Jerusalem Post” reports that the government of Dubai, which owns the ports company, participates in the Arab trade boycott against Israel.  Today, a top American executive of the Dubai company appeared to concede the story is correct under questioning from Democratic senator Barbara Boxer.

SEN. BARBARA BOXER (D), CALIFORNIA:  Do they support and respect the boycott?

Say it again?

EDWARD BILKEY, DUBAI PORTS WORLD:  I would imagine they would.

BOXER:  OK.

REID:  One leading Republican critic of the deal says his big worry is that instead of using the next 45 days to investigate the deal, the administration will use that time to lobby Congress to back it.

Chip Reid, NBC News, the Capitol.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  You guys went to see Schumer and Chertoff when Anna Nicole was dancing at the Supreme Court?  This is a serious case about territorial jurisdiction and eyeliner.  Here it is.

But what is the next lawsuit about?  CBS sues Howard Stern reportedly for half a billion dollars, reportedly for stealing their air.

You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  There have been stranger moments at the Supreme Court, not that anyone could remember of them today, not with Anna Nicole Smith actually in the venerated chamber, in a case that, to her, means millions, but to the justices means merely a debate over federal jurisdiction over state-level lawsuits, and the chance to see Anna Nicole Smith in person, and more or less live.

Our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN, all rise in court.  Dressed in a black dress with uncharacteristically modest cleavage, Ms. Smith wore visible blond air extensions and a cross necklace to the Supreme Court today.  Those who have enjoyed Ms. Smith‘s flamboyant outbursts in the past were doomed for disappointment.  She actually tried to avoid the media on her way into court.

Once inside, though Ms. Smith‘s lawyer said she was in tears for a good part of the hearing.  Apparently she gets that way whenever the subject of her late husband comes up.  It has nothing to do with the $474 million from his will.

These court sketches, of course, do not do justice to all that emotion.  Thus we have resorted again to the new genre of news, Puppet Theater.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  I‘m here for the oral argument.  I miss my husband.  My husband—my husband—what‘s his name?

OLBERMANN:  Howard.  His name was Howard.

OLBERMANN:  Yes,  Howard.  Howard.

OLBERMANN:  Can we get on with the cross-examination?  Heh heh heh.

OLBERMANN:  Justice Thomas, that‘s not appropriate.

OLBERMANN:  Shut up, rookie.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  The spirit of tonight‘s puppet news apparently accurate, except the judges came closer to falling all over themselves than Anna did over herself.

One of the innocent bystanders there today, Court TV correspondent Savannah Guthrie joins me now from our nation‘s capital.

First a year of Michael Jackson, now this.  Thanks for your time tonight.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE, COURT TV:  My pleasure.

OLBERMANN:  So what was it like in there today?  Was it was little less Supreme Court-ish than usual?

GUTHRIE:  You know, Puppet Theater notwithstanding, the Supreme Court was its usual dignified self, as was Anna Nicole Smith.  I mean, she really behaved herself.  She sat in the back of the courtroom.  It didn‘t seem like she was trying to draw attention to herself.

And the justices really focused on the legal issue at hand.  They grilled the lawyers.  And it seemed like they were sympathetic to Anna Nicole Smith‘s side.  But we won‘t know for sure probably until late this summer, when they issue their ruling.

OLBERMANN:  To the layman, the assumption would be these are the Supreme Court justices and the chief justice of the United States.  They do not know who the hell this woman is.  Yet here‘s the Associated Press quoting Justice Brier as saying, of her version of events, “It‘s quite a story.”  They at least know of her, don‘t they?

GUTHRIE:  Well, I think they do by now.  I think what you‘re really asking me is, do the Supreme Court justices read “Playboy” or watch “Access Hollywood”?  I mean, the fact is, I think they know, of course, her history now.  And some of these lower-court cases read like a paperback that you get at the supermarkets, really seamy.

But the issue before the court today is kind of an esoteric legal issue, and they treated Anna Nicole Smith like any other litigant that comes to their court.

OLBERMANN:  With hair extensions.  The—how is it possible that this is the typical case that represents conflicting jurisdictions between the state and federal courts on this issue?

GUTHRIE:  Well, what you have here is a state probate court that sided with Anna Nicole Smith‘s former stepson and said she was entitled to nothing in the will, and that her former husband, J. Howard Marshall, had no intention to give her any money at all.

And at the same time, you have federal courts saying the exact opposite.  And so what it does, it set up a conflict.  You‘ve got a federal court ruling, you‘ve got a state court ruling.  What ruling stands?  And that‘s the issue before the Supreme Court.

OLBERMANN:  If they do wind up ruling in her favor, obviously they‘re not ruling on the money, they‘re ruling on who has the jurisdiction.  But what happens to the case?  Does it go back to federal court?  Do her chances of getting the money increase?  Does she have to wear longer hair extensions?  What happens?

GUTHRIE:  Well, Keith, do you like litigation?  Do you like really long litigation?  Even if Anna Nicole Smith wins here, it‘s going back to the federal court, going back to the Ninth Circuit, where E. Pierce Marshall, her former stepson, is ready for a long, long list of arguments, other arguments he plans to make.  I talked to him after the hearing today.  He looked me in the eye and he said, I don‘t care if we have to spend another 10 years in court, she‘s not going to get a cent, not ever.

OLBERMANN:  Well, there‘s always that videotape to keep playing again and again and again, and then there‘s the cosmetic work she could get done in the interim.  Next time we see her, she might look really, really younger.

Court TV‘s Savannah Guthrie, good to talk to you on the program again.

GUTHRIE:  Nice to see you.

OLBERMANN:  Many thanks.

More big-time celebrity legal news.  CBS has sued its former recent employee Howard Stern to the tune of a reported $500 million.  Stern says CBS‘s boss, Les Moonves, is just trying to create a diversion from the fact that he doesn‘t know squat about running a radio network.  I‘m paraphrasing here.

McGruff he ain‘t.  But this little fellow is still on the police force, helping to take a very small bite out of crime.

That‘s next here on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  For a little reminder that the latest in the intellectual thought or the latest test case in the courts will not necessarily prove to stand the test of time, we consult the historical calendar and note that on this date that in 1692, that refusing to sit around and be logical and calm when the situation called for panic, the good people of Salem, Massachusetts, began the investigation that would lead to the burning of witches in their community.

On that note, let‘s play Oddball.

We begin not in Massachusetts but in Ohio, for another episode of Gawga (ph) County Canine: Life in the Streets.  Brutus here is the grizzled veteran of (INAUDIBLE) unit, the German Shepherd with 49 dog years on the force.  A couple of more, and he retires with a (INAUDIBLE) pension.

But Brutus didn‘t count on his new partner, Midge (ph), a two-pound chihuahua with a nose for narcotics and a suicidal death wish.  Well, a nose for narcotics, anyway.  But don‘t be fooled, Mr. Drug Dealer.  This chihuahua would rip your stupid face off if she got the chance.

Whatcha gonna do when Midge comes for you?

The sheriff‘s department is hoping Midge will make the perfect drug-sniffing doggie detective due to her incredible sense of smell, as long as she doesn‘t get stuck in the detective‘s holster.

To Surrey in England, for the unveiling of artist Sharon Baker‘s self-sculpture, made entirely out of bread.  Do you get the pun?  Sharon Baker.  The five-foot-three-inch statue came out of the oven to a great reception, although, ow, her feet are crusty.

The carbolicious work of art then sliced up and eaten by the art enthusiasts on hand, most of whom enjoyed their Baker bread with a little bit of butter Elvis, thank you very much.

Also tonight, the Elvis of radio, Howard Stern, versus  the Elvis of management, Les Moonves.  Stern holds a stinging news conference, lashing out at his old boss.  CBS responds with a $500 million lawsuit.  Is it bad blood, or is there legal jeopardy here?

And could there be bad blood towards baseball great Buck O‘Neil?  He says, do not get angry with the voters who left him out of the Hall of Fame.  My guest, his protege, Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks, is likely not so sure about that.

All that ahead.

But first, time now for COUNTDOWN‘s top three newsmakers of this day.

Number three, Clear Channel Radio hosting a semiformal event at the Milwaukee Art Museum, offering unlimited martinis for $30.  Four patrons got so gassed they climbed up on a large statue of a goddess.  Others, during the general bacchanalia that ensued, decided to rearrange the artwork.  The police were called.

Speaking of the artwork, number two, the unnamed 12-year-old at the Detroit Institute of Arts must have seen that Monty Python sketch where the little boy started eating the paintings at the museum.  He stuck his wad of gum on Helen Frankenthaler‘s (ph) 1963 abstract, “The Bay.”  The painting is now worth a little less than the million-and-a-half dollars it was before that gum stain.  But it is a little more abstract than it was.

And number one, Kimberly Du of Des Moines, Iowa.  The media is full to the bursting point with people like Ms. Du, who are accused of faking their own deaths.  But seldom do they share her motive.  She faked an obituary notice from the local newspaper, made up a fake newspaper, forged a letter from her mother describing her death in a car accident in December.  She did this to avoid paying a couple of traffic tickets.  And she seemed to be about to get away with it, until police pulled her over to give her another traffic ticket.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  One of the men is, simply put, the highest paid performer in the history of radio and may yet turn out to be the highest paid performer in the history of broadcasting.  He was the $600 million man. 

The other was a guest star once on season four, episode 20 of “The Six-Million-Dollar Man” playing Bob Kemps. 

Our third story on the COUNTDOWN, it‘s Howard Stern versus his ex-boss and former journeyman actor Les Moonves.  Moonves, the chairman of CBS, suing Stern tonight, possibly for as much as half a billion.  Stern saying it‘s a personal vendetta. 

Hours after the famed shock jock held a news conference saying CBS was threatening to sue him, sue it did, late in the afternoon, charging Stern, his agent, Don Buchwald, his new employers, Sirius Satellite Radio, with breach of contract, fraud, unjust enrichment, and misappropriation of CBS Radio air time. 

I‘ve heard some bad shows on CBS Radio.  Can I sue for misappropriation of my time? 

CBS says Stern stole their time, in effect, by promoting his move to satellite while on the CBS air, in order to reach a subscriber target that would trigger a huge bonus.  CBS says Stern never revealed that motivation.  Stern says it was never a secret. 

And while going after Moonves and CBS Radio Chairman Joel Hollander, at least he didn‘t bring up Mr. Moonves‘ other appearance as Pasqual in the February 25, 1976, episode of the CBS William Conrad detective series, “Cannon.”

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HOWARD STERN, RADIO HOST:  The radio division at CBS is in shambles.  It‘s in shambles.  They are getting crushed.  Ill-prepared, Les Moonves and Joel Hollander, the two stooges, are running this radio division right into the ground to record losses. 

Now they‘re claiming I misused CBS air time.  Why didn‘t they hit the dump button?  They had complete control over content.  They gave me permission.  But now they want to turn around and sue me. 

Why didn‘t you stop me if you didn‘t like what I was doing?  And Les goes, “Well, I‘m the one who kept you on the air, and I knew I could sue you afterwards.” 

This guy is a—he‘s the one perpetrating the hoax.  He is a very good guy at picking television shows that you will like to watch.  He cannot run CBS Radio.  He doesn‘t know a thing about radio.  He turns to me and he goes, “I can‘t believe I had to read about—I had to hear about Howard Stern leaving CBS on my birthday.”  I said, “What are you, 11 years old?”

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  To try to figure this out, I‘m joined now by the senior editor of “In Touch Weekly” magazine, Tom O‘Neil.  Thanks for your time tonight, Tom. 

TOM O‘NEIL, “IN TOUCH WEEKLY”:  Great, thanks, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  I‘m having trouble following the CBS logic here.  Stern used their air to promote his own show, so instead of, as he points out, simply taking him off when he was a lame duck, they left him on—something you‘re never supposed to do, never—hi, I‘m living proof of this—you let him do what he wants, and then two months later after he‘s gone, you sue him?  I don‘t follow the logic. 

O‘NEIL:  Well, I think they knew that Howard would self-destruct on the air.  All Howard had to do was just shut up, share the business terms of Sirius with CBS to honor his contract, and just be above board about everything, go out the door, claim that $600 million. 

But they knew this big baby with a big mouth couldn‘t keep it in check.  And he ended up benefiting $200 million while in stock while he was still an employee of CBS.  The question is:  Is Howard right?  Did CBS know this or didn‘t they? 

OLBERMANN:  If you are Howard Stern and you‘re trying to restart in essentially a new medium, and you have this much money, even if you‘re getting sued for what still would be a lesser figure than your stock in the new company is worth, is it still not all publicity is good publicity?  But on the other part of the equation, if you‘re Les Moonves, you‘re the chairman of CBS.  Is that still true?  Isn‘t CBS, in effect, right now still just promoting Howard Stern‘s radio show? 

O‘NEIL:  Sure.  But that may be worthless, in terms of what it‘s worth in the future, because I don‘t think Howard‘s in a very good spot here.  If these terms are clear and CBS is right here, they have a right to these hundreds of millions of dollars that he made on their watch while promoting.

Because, remember, this was an accelerated—what Howard had to do was bring in enough subscribers to Sirius by a certain date, which he seemed to be doing on the air on CBS‘s nickel, even though they could have pulled the plug, and if he benefited that much from it, you know what?  That‘s part of CBS‘s money, too.  I think this is a big blunder on Howard‘s part. 

OLBERMANN:  But on the other hand, again, that original point, if you think somebody‘s doing something that damages you, and your option—your first option is that you have complete control editorially, and you can just say, “You‘re done, go home, and we don‘t have to pay you, because you violated the contract now,” but you choose to deliberately leave him on in hopes that he‘s going to do something that allows to you sue him, is that not some sort of legal entrapment? 

O‘NEIL:  I don‘t think so.  I think they kept telling him, “Knock it off,” and he just kept violating it, and they were stacking up his number of violations, and would give him the bill for it later.  And he fell for it.  All he had to do was shut his mouth, Keith, but Howard‘s not good at that. 

OLBERMANN:  Ultimately, this is about a, quote, “talent,” unquote, my favorite term, leaving a broadcasting company to go work for another broadcasting company.  Do you think that this is the right time for Mr.  Moonves to be turning things like this into lawsuits, given the widely reported and presumed courting by him and people who work for him of a certain co-host of a certain morning program that I really am not supposed to mention without permission? 

(LAUGHTER)

O‘NEIL:  Yes.  But of course we all know what you‘re talking about.  That has nothing to do with this.  Les Moonves was mocked and ridiculed on Howard‘s show constantly, the same way that “David Letterman” makes fun of him.  But David Letterman knows where to pull back; Howard never did and made this man an absolute laughing stock in the media world.

And now I think Les Moonves wants revenge.  And he knew that Howard couldn‘t keep his big mouth shut, and I think that he‘s going to have to pay the bill for it now. 

OLBERMANN:  We will find out, I suppose, in the courts.  Tom O‘Neil of TheEnvelope.com and “In Touch Weekly.”  Great thanks for your time. 

O‘NEIL:  Thanks, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  And speaking of O‘Neils, one of the classiest acts sports has ever seen, baseball‘s Buck O‘Neil not elected to the hall of fame but saying now he‘s willing to speak on behalf of those who were. 

New questions tonight about that vote.  And speaking on his behalf, his friend, Mr. Cub, the hall-of-famer Ernie Banks. 

And as revelers enjoyed the distraction from Katrina provided by Mardi Gras, we‘ll have the story of the smallest victims of the hurricane, the thousands of lost pets.  That‘s next.  This is COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Six months ago tomorrow, Hurricane Katrina swept on shore to the east of New Orleans.  Within 24 hours, the mayor estimated that 80 percent of that city was underwater.  It was the worst natural disaster in America history. 

In our number-two on the COUNTDOWN, the use of that word “was” suggests the past tense here.  It is hardly that for residents still searching and just once in a while finding their pets.  That in a moment.

First, the traditional Mardi Gras parade and party snaking through the French Quarter in celebration of Shrove Tuesday.  Thousands lining the street, although attendance obviously down from last year.  Restaurants reporting brisk business, though only a third of the establishments pre-Katrina are open. 

Hotel rooms are filled.  Though, again, only 15,000 of the 25,000 rooms once available are available tonight. 

Half the human residents of New Orleans are not yet back, though many are still trying.  And as our correspondent Martin Savidge reports tonight, hundreds of members of the animal population, they‘re still looking to go home, too. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARTIN SAVIDGE, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Now living in Las Vegas, 72-year-old Shirley Washington feared two loved ones never made it out alive from her home in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. 

She was wrong. 

SHIRLEY WASHINGTON, PET OWNER:  I don‘t know what I would do without you. 

SAVIDGE:  Sassy and Kelly were rescued...

WASHINGTON:  Hi, baby. 

SAVIDGE:  ... and, over the weekend, reunited with the owner who had missed them so desperately. 

WASHINGTON:  Just searching, and hoping, and praying that I would get them back, and it‘s happened. 

SAVIDGE:  They are the lucky ones.  Many Katrina pets still wait for their reunions, in cages at facilities like this one at a miniature golf course and arcade just outside New Orleans. 

Since the first week after the hurricane, the group Best Friends has been collecting and caring for them.  They‘ve rescued 7,000 animals; 275 are still here, unclaimed or unwanted.  Call them special-needs pets, so traumatized by Katrina or their life of loneliness afterwards, many just cower in the corner. 

JULIETTE WATT, VOLUNTEER COORDINATOR:  She‘s probably been out for about six months on the streets, you know.  And thanks to all the food and water stations, she‘s managed to survive, but she‘s super, super shy. 

SAVIDGE:  Red‘s the exception.  He‘s the fastest thing on two feet and two wheels.  Struck by a car just after Katrina, he was partially paralyzed.  Unable to care for the dog, his owner left Red. 

WATT:  His spirit is amazing. 

SAVIDGE:  But now another sad twist.  Best Friends has lost its lease.  The shelter must close.  Volunteers are feverishly working to relocate the animals to other facilities around the country, determined to make sure none of these Katrina victims go homeless again. 

Martin Savidge, NBC News, New Orleans. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  On to our nightly roundup of celebrity and entertainment news, “Keeping Tabs.”

And George Michael‘s speedy admission over his latest run-in with the law, charges of drug possession.  Mr. Michael was found slumped over the steering wheel of a car on Saturday at Hyde Park Corner in central London, that according to a police statement. 

“It is my own stupid fault, as usual,” said George Michael in his own statement.  “I was in possession of class-c drugs,” he said, “which is an offense, and I have no complaints about the police, who were professional throughout.” 

Class-c drugs are the lowest category in Britain, including marijuana, tranquilizers and some painkillers.  Conviction carries a possible jail term up to two years and a fine.  Mr. Michael was previously arrested in 1998 for a lewd act in a public toilet in Los Angeles; he parodied that arrest in a music video.

An encouraging prognosis tonight for singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow, who is recovering from surgery for breast cancer.  Her chances of a full recovery are excellent, says her publicist.  Ms. Crow underwent surgery last Wednesday for what she described on her Web site as “minimally invasive surgery.” 

She said she will be undergoing radiation treatment, but that she had benefited from early detection.  She urged other women to have themselves checked.  She also said she would reschedule her North American concert tour as soon as possible. 

Her former fiance, Lance Armstrong, also expressed confidence in Crow‘s recovery, saying he had spoken with her and her doctor. 

Meantime, the fallout continues from the snubbing of one of baseball‘s most well-known ambassadors.  It turns out the voters could have elected as many as they wanted to the Hall of Fame and they still chose not to elect Buck O‘Neil.  His greatest protege, hall-of-famer Ernie Banks, joins me next. 

But first, time for COUNTDOWN‘s list of today‘s three nominees for “Worst Person in the World,” not counting Hall of Fame voters. 

The bronze to Principle Mike Neece at Ramona High School in Riverside, California.  Two seniors there decided what the school needed was a snowball fight, in southern California.  So they drove to the San Bernardino Mountains to load up their pickups.  They drove the snow to the school and were promptly suspended because snowballs are considered dangerous there. 

Mr. Niece, you need a week in January in upstate New York. 

Runners up:  Randy Beaty, Carlos Torres-Ramos, Humberto Ponce, and Enrique Pena, drivers on Highway 26 in Rock County, Wisconsin.  You probably thought, “Too bad that drunk drivers don‘t crash into each other.”  Each of these men arrested after a four-car accident, each charged with drunken driving.

But tonight‘s winner:  Brit Hume from FOX News at it again.  Monday, he described the Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid as “factually challenged” after the senator said Dubai Ports World was taking control of our ports.  Hume said they were not getting control of the ports, emphasis on the word control. 

But as recently as last Wednesday, the situation was described thusly on FOX News, quoting, “The Bush administration was trying today to dig itself out of a political hole on the question of who should control some of the nation‘s ports.”  Who used that word control and then criticized the senator for using the same word?  Brit Hume, today‘s “Worst Person in the World!”

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OLBERMANN:  The man some call baseball‘s greatest ambassador denied admission yesterday to its Hall of Fame, in what is scheduled to be his last opportunity for election.  Today, he told the people who voted against him that he would be happy to speak at the induction ceremonies anyway on behalf of the 17 deceased individuals who they did elect. 

Our number one story on the COUNTDOWN, that is Buck O‘Neil in a nutshell.  Ninety-four years old, first baseman on four pennant winners and manager of five more in the old Negro Leagues, the first man of color to be a coach in the major leagues, also told the rest of us who are still incensed at the snub not to be angry at those voters.

This while those voters continued to hide behind the cloak of anonymity, refusing to say who voted for O‘Neil and the equally deserving Minnie Minoso and who didn‘t and why.  This while it proves that the voting process that excluded O‘Neil and the 83-year-old Minoso was a blank check, a yes or no ballot.  The 12-member committee had 39 finalists to select from; it could have elected all 39, O‘Neil and Minoso included, if it had wanted to. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUCK O‘NEIL, BASEBALL LEGEND:  That committee, I know they were voting just like they felt it should be.  They were looking at the records, and they‘re doing that, and that‘s the way they voted.  Uh-huh, and it was nothing wrong, so don‘t feel bad with them for feeling that way.  And don‘t you shed any tears, man, because I‘m not going to the Hall of Fame, because I‘m a hall-of-famer. 

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Explanations from that committee, though, have been few and cowardly.  One who did speak up who apparently had voted for Buck O‘Neil was Ray Doswell, curator of the Negro League‘s museum. 

“Honestly,” he says, “Buck has a lot of fans on this committee, and I think even the people who didn‘t vote for him are his fans, but they decided to vote with their conscience and the high standards of the Hall of Fame.”

Those high standards, by the way, permitted them to yesterday elect Alex Pompez, a former racketeer in the Dutch Schultz crime family, who once owned the New York Cubans and later scouted for the New York Giants.  And to honor the Negro Leagues, that committee also elected two white owners, J.L. Wilkinson of the Kansas City Monarchs and Effa Manley of the Newark Eagles, whose co-owner husband reportedly traded away at least one of the team‘s players because she was having an affair with that player. 

These were not the regular Hall of Fame voters, but 12 so-called experts, at least eight of whom are, like me, members of the Society for American Baseball Research.  Nine votes from them were required for election. 

The voters were named Todd Bolton, Greg Bond, who‘s associated with the University of Wisconsin, and Adrian Burgos, Jr., an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Dick Clark, Ray Doswell, who mentioned, Leslie Heaphy, associated with Kent State, Dr. Larry Hogan from Union County College of New Jersey, Larry Lester, Sammy Miller, Jim Overmyer, and the late Robert Peterson, who passed away just two weeks, and Rob Ruck.

I contacted seven of them by e-mail, got four replies today.  Each refused a request to say even how they voted on Minoso or O‘Neil.  Mr.  Overmyer wrote, “The members of this committee were specifically asked by the Hall not to talk about their choices, and I have to respect the implicit promise I made to the Hall when I took this assignment.”

However, baseball‘s Hall of Fame tells us it only asked the voters not to talk about their choices yesterday, as those choices were first being revealed to the public.  There is nothing restricting the voters from speaking publicly now; they just won‘t. 

Of the hundreds of players Buck O‘Neil influenced, the first on the list has to be Ernie Banks.  He broke in with O‘Neil‘s Kansas City Monarch‘s in 1950.  Three years later, he was with the Chicago Cubs.  Six years after that, he won back-to-back awards as most valuable player in the National League.  And in 1957, with 512 home runs and the indelible status as Mr. Cub under his belt, Ernie Banks went to the Baseball Hall of Fame. 

He joins us now.  Thank you for your time tonight, Ernie. 

ERNIE BANKS, HALL OF FAME BASEBALL PLAYER:  Thank you very much, Keith.  Nice being on the show. 

OLBERMANN:  How did this happen?  How did the committee to end all committees to honor the Negro Leagues and make some right out of all that wrong wind up not electing Buck O‘Neil?

BANKS:  Oh, Keith, I was totally disappointed in the results of this vote, and I‘m in the Hall of Fame because of Buck O‘Neil.  I spent many time and many years with him.  He‘s a scout and a teacher. 

And he saw something in me when I first arrived with the Kansas City Monarchs that I didn‘t see in myself.  And he‘s that type of person; he can really pull the skills that a person have out.  And I just love this man.  He‘s a great human being.  And I was just totally disappointed that he did not make it into Baseball Hall of Fame. 

OLBERMANN:  As so many of us were.  You know that these voters were unlike the other elections when it‘s writers or historians; these were amateur historians.  These were mostly people from the Society for American Baseball Research. 

I‘ve been in that group for 22 years nearly.  I write for them.  It‘s one of my favorite pastimes.  And after what the members of my group did here, I‘m ready to resign in protest. 

This may be a really off-the-wall idea, but when you heard about this vote about the Hall of Fame, did you think, even for a moment, “I don‘t want to be in any Hall of Fame where Buck O‘Neil is not allowed to be a member”? 

BANKS:  Well, I thought about that a lot.  I mean, I‘ve known Buck, been around him, and seen him, and he got a lot of African-American players into Baseball Hall of Fame when he was on the committee, and that was his mission and goal in life, is to get more African-Americans into the Baseball Hall of Fame. 

He did that.  And I‘ve really—although he didn‘t think about himself being in the Baseball Hall of Fame.  He‘s a wonderful human being.  And he really should be in the Hall of Fame. 

And I‘d like to see the committee stay intact and not disband the committee.  Let the committee stay intact so next year that these other African-American players will have a chance to be in Baseball‘s Hall of Fame. 

OLBERMANN:  You mentioned, Ernie, what might be the ultimate irony and the greatest pain in all of this.  Without Buck O‘Neil reminding people what it was like and who played before the color line was broken, they wouldn‘t have had that vote yesterday, right?  I mean, none of those 17 people gets enshrined.  He was the man who raised the consciousness, wasn‘t he? 

BANKS:  Yes, he was.  He was really—he really raised the consciousness.  That was his whole mission in life as I was around him, is to raise the consciousness of this situation, where more African-American players could play in the major leagues, number one, but most of all to be in Baseball‘s Hall of Fame. 

He got me in.  He got Lou Brock in the Hall of Fame, Billy Williams, many of the players that Buck O‘Neil was around.  And when he scouted all the black colleges and all the black high schools and searched for black players to play in the major leagues—and he did that—and his goal was to get us in the major leagues and get us into Baseball‘s Hall of Fame.  He‘s a remarkable human being. 

OLBERMANN:  He, of course, comes out last night and says, “Don‘t be upset about this.”  And now today he volunteers to speak at the induction ceremony about the men they selected instead of him. 

Should we, as his fans, as his admirers say, “Hey, Buck, whatever you want.  You got it.  We‘ll shut up now”?  Or should we continue to protest this?  What do we do?  There seem to be two conflicting things here. 

BANKS:  Well, just follow Buck O‘Neil, and that‘s what I‘ve always been and seen from being around him.  This man is a leader.  He‘s a genius.  He understands people.  He understands life.  And he will do that.  And he will keep this going. 

He never gives up on situations and things that he believes in.  He‘s not discouraged about any of this.  He believes that he‘s came along at the right time, he‘s doing the right things.  He started the Negro League Museum in Kansas City, and that was his goal, his mission, and many people resented that. 

But he stayed on course with his situations.  And all of us should learn from this man.  He‘s an ambassador.  He‘s a humanitarian.  He‘s just a great human being.  And we should follow him and lead—follow him and see what he has to say and just be with him.  He‘s just a remarkable human being. 

OLBERMANN:  A yes or no on one other topic that‘s kind of gotten shunted aside.  While you were starring for the Cubs in Chicago, Minnie Minoso was starring for the White Sox.  He didn‘t get in, either.  Is Minnie Minoso a hall-of-famer? 

BANKS:  Yes, he is.  Now, that‘s two things.  I‘m glad you mentioned that, Keith.  In my career and life, basically the same, Buck O‘Neil encouraged me and developed me so I could get in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977. 

And then when Minnie Minoso, being with him and seeing him play in this city, and being around him, to see how he played, he hustled, his love for the game, and the way he responded to people, was a big inspiration to me.  It was a big inspiration to me and my life, which is following these two men.

OLBERMANN:  Ernie, I‘m out of time.  Ernie Banks, great thanks for your time tonight.

BANKS:  Thank you.

OLBERMANN:  Buck O‘Neil himself will be my guest live Wednesday night right here on COUNTDOWN.  That‘s our program for tonight.  I‘m Keith Olbermann.  Keep your knees loose.  Good night, and good luck.

Our coverage continues now with Rita Cosby LIVE & DIRECT.

Good evening, Rita.

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

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