updated 3/14/2006 11:52:36 AM ET 2006-03-14T16:52:36

Guests: Howard Fineman, Michael Fletcher, Robert Funaro

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

Censure and censureability.  The reaction before the action, a Democratic congressman moves to censure the president for the warrant-free wiretaps.  Before he can actually do it, he is attacked by the vice president.  Before he can actually do it, the Senate majority leader demands an immediate vote.  Before he can actually do it, a Republican senator interrupts him and demands a copy of the motion.

Only after all that does Senator Feingold demand Mr. Bush be censured.

Oh, by the way, the president‘s previous top domestic policy adviser, he‘s been arrested for theft.

At least he wasn‘t shot by Uncle June.  Oh, yes, like we didn‘t see that coming.  “The Sopranos” is back.  Joining us, the actor who plays Gene Pontecorvo—well, played.  His character hanged himself last night.  So is Tony dead, or just tired?

And it‘s Yuri Kuklachev and His Flying Cat Circus.  And you thought live entertainment was dead.  You know, if one of those cats is named after Stan Laurel‘s partner, it would be Kukla-chev and Ollie.

All that and more, now on COUNTDOWN.

Good evening.

Sam Waterston, as former CIA director Richard Helms, quoted the poem in a scene cut from Oliver Stone‘s movie about Richard Nixon.  So it already has a small political context.  W.B. Yeats‘ “The Second Coming,” “Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon cannot hear the falconer.  Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.”

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, Yeats could not have imagined the Bush administration.  As the space between the falcon and the falconer grows, one wonders if maybe Mr. Bush could not have imagined this Bush administration.  Now, an arrest of a top domestic policy adviser-slash-judicial nominee, now reports that his senior staff may be too exhausted to turn things around, now the call for a rare presidential censure late this afternoon on the floor of the Senate.

We begin on Capitol Hill.

The plan was simple enough on face value.  Democrat Russ Feingold of Wisconsin would be introducing a motion to censure President Bush over the domestic eavesdropping program at 4:00 p.m. Eastern.

But before that was ever allowed to happen, Vice President Dick Cheney had already responded to the remarks that Mr. Feingold was still hours away from making.  The leadership of the Senate had already fought over when to vote on the still-unsubmitted censure motion.  And Republican Arlen Specter had already interrupted Mr. Feingold at the start of his remarks to get a copy of the document the Democrat had yet to introduce.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

SEN. RUSSELL FEINGOLD (D), WISCONSIN:  The president authorized an illegal program to spy on American citizens on American soil, and then misled Congress and the public—

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER ®, PENNSYLVANIA:  Mr. President, would the senator from Wisconsin yield for a question?  May we have a copy of your resolution?

FEINGOLD:  I will be introducing it at the conclusion of my remarks, Mr. President.

SPECTER:  Well, may I ask, Mr. President, (INAUDIBLE)--

FEINGOLD:  I‘ll be happy to supply the senator—

SPECTER:  ... if the senator...

FEINGOLD:  ... with a copy of the resolution.  But I do intend to introduce it at the conclusion of my remarks.

SPECTER:  Well, Mr. President, if the senator from Wisconsin would let this senator have a copy of it now, so I can...

FEINGOLD:  Mr. President, I said that I‘d be happy to give the senator a copy of the resolution right now.

SPECTER:  (INAUDIBLE) thank the senator from Wisconsin.

FEINGOLD:  Mr. President, I will ask that my time be—unanimous consent that my time be started over again (INAUDIBLE)...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Without objection.

(END VIDEO CLIPS)

OLBERMANN:  It is not clear, as we speak, when a vote on that censure will occur, as we mentioned, Vice President Dick Cheney, not waiting even till its actual submission before condemning it this afternoon in Senator Feingold‘s home state, using, ironically, five words used by Edward R.  Murrow as he condemned Joseph McCarthy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  The junior senator from Wisconsin, Russ Feingold, believes the terrorist surveillance program is grounds for censuring the president.  This outrageous proposition that we ought to protect our enemy‘ ability to communicate as it plots against America poses a key test for our Democratic leaders.  Do they support the extreme and counterproductive antics of a few, or do they support a lawful program vital to the security of this nation?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  And new reports indicating that when it comes to bucking calls for censure, or about anything else, that White House senior staff may not have that much fight left in them.  The president‘s inner circle, it is said, exhausted after six long years in office, his core group of advisers, so the theory goes, not as quick to anticipate nor respond to crises as it might once have been.

And the race to replace Mr. Bush as president picking up steam over the weekend at a GOP gathering in Memphis, the homefield favorite, Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, leading in an informal straw poll, nearly 37 percent of some 1,400 Republicans surveyed by the folks at Hotline expressing a preference for the Senate majority leader, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney placing second, 14.4, Senator George Allen of Virginia tying for third with President Bush—we believe the voters knew that he cannot seek a third term—Senator McCain finishing a distant fifth at 4.5 percent, after throwing his votes to the president as a write-in candidate in what he called a show of solidarity.

Activists say privately that Mr. McCain only did so because he knew he was going to lose on Mr. Frist‘s home turf.

For a reality check on all of the day‘s political developments, time now to call in our own Howard Fineman, chief political correspondent of “Newsweek” magazine.

Hi, Howard.

HOWARD FINEMAN, CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, “NEWSWEEK” MAGAZINE: 

Hi, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Starting with Senator Feingold‘s call for the censure of the president, for a motion had never had any hope of succeeding in a Republican-controlled Senate, none, it seems that an awful lot of effort went into not just discrediting it but throwing up real roadblocks.  They were accusing Feingold of political grandstanding?

FINEMAN:  Yes, well, at first blush, it seems like this little mouse, you know, came out into the kitchen, and all of the Republicans jumped up on the countertop.

But actually, I think they feel this is a winner, because the polls show that the American people, with some qualification, are willing to support some aspects of the president‘s program in terms of listening in on these conversations.  They wanted to try to use the magic word, the Republicans did, “extreme.”  And they wanted to jump on it right away, because they think, in their weakened position, that this is the kind of thing that can help them unify their base.

Right now, all George Bush and Dick Cheney politically are looking for is to try to keep the Republican base together at a time when it‘s in danger of falling apart.  That‘s why they were pointing at Hillary Clinton last week.  That‘s why they‘re pointing at Russ Feingold now.

OLBERMANN:  So who was Russ Feingold talking to this afternoon?  And, if what you say is correct, why didn‘t some other members of the Democratic Party hit him in the back of the head with something and knock him out for a couple of hours?

FINEMAN:  Well, they didn‘t do that, but they maybe tried to anesthetize him a little bit.  I was talking to some of the top Democratic leadership in the Senate and their staff, and they were not in a hurry to have this vote.

Now, part of that is timing, Keith.  They want to stretch this conversation out, perhaps, have it continue all the way through the fall, not play the big card of this censure motion.

But I think also they‘re a little afraid of it.  The Democrats are still gun-shy on the question of taking the president on directly on aspects of his homeland security program, of which this is deemed politically to be a part.

Harry Reid, the Democratic leader in the Senate, did not come out and call for a full-scale floor debate on Russ Feingold‘s censure motion.  Reid wants to have committee hearings, he wants to have maybe an independent panel look at it.  He doesn‘t want this floor fight now, which indicates to me the Democrats aren‘t confident of the politics of it.

OLBERMANN:  Turning to this talk that the White House senior staff might be wearing down, fatigued, missing the layups, as we used to say in sports, is there any “there” there?

FINEMAN:  I think there‘s some.  I‘ve covered the Bush campaign and presidency from the very beginning, going back to when George Bush was a governor.  He began gathering these very people around him in 1998 and ‘99.

Of course, in the case of Karl Rove, you know, his compadre going back to 1973, I think people like Karl Rove, to some extent, and Dan Bartlett, the communications director, and Andy Card, who‘s been there for a long time, and Josh Bolton, the domestic policy adviser, and even perhaps Condi Rice over at State, these people have been around George Bush from the very beginning of his presidential campaign, when he was still governor.

It‘s unprecedented for that core of people to remain around the president and a candidate that consistently for that long a period of time.

And I know these people.  You know, they look pretty tired.  They wouldn‘t tell you so, but I think they are.

OLBERMANN:  Does that feed into this game plan from the White House to try to rebound from the latest setbacks, war on terror speeches, Iraq war speeches by the president?  I mean, I seem to recall they may have done that before.

FINEMAN:  They‘ve done it several times before.  And they‘re still going from the same playbook.  It‘s essentially the playbook that was written on 9/11 and has continued ever since.

Commander in chief, war president, that‘s how he ran in the midterms.  That‘s how he ran for reelection.  That‘s what he‘s still doing.  It has the virtue, from their point of view, of being what George Bush believes.

And they aren‘t really going to change it.  I‘m not convinced they can change it, because the key decision of the Bush presidency was not only to fight the war on terror as a military battle and take the offensive, but to go to Iraq.  And there‘s no backing down from that.

OLBERMANN:  The straw poll over the weekend, Senator Frist (INAUDIBLE) winning one in Memphis, how much of that, in your opinion, indicates he‘s the frontrunner, how much of it was homefield advantage?

FINEMAN:  Well, I think a lot of it has to do with the terrific barbecue that was available right across the street at the Rendezvous Restaurant, which is a great restaurant.  All the Frist delegates were invited over there, and everybody else who could get in, including me, to eat some free ribs.  And then they were in a good mood to go vote for him.

The point is, it was his home territory.  He had to organize, he had to spend money.  And he had to win, and it was a—sort of no-win situation for him.  If he‘d lost, he‘d have been deeply embarrassed.  This way, he preserves pride, and he gets the added benefit of making John McCain look too cute by half with that maneuver he pulled in the straw poll.

OLBERMANN:  “Newsweek”‘s Howard Fineman, still obviously in the—basking in the afterglow of those ribs which he got to have...

FINEMAN:  That‘s true.

OLBERMANN:  ... and none of us in the home office got to.  As always...

FINEMAN:  I‘ll bring you some next time.

OLBERMANN:  Thank you, kindly, (INAUDIBLE).  And as always, great thanks for your time.

FINEMAN:  You‘re welcome.

OLBERMANN:  But now imagine President Bush‘s conundrum if one of his top advisers were to be arrested—not for his involvement in the CIA leak scandal, Karl Rove‘s still in legal limbo tonight on that—but instead, for something as shocking as theft.

No need to posit that now.  Claude Allen, until recently the president‘s top domestic policy adviser and one of the administration‘s most controversial judicial nominees, has been pinched.  Mr. Allen, seen in his mug shot here, accused of having ripped off two department stores in a phony refund scheme, police alleging that on more than 25 occasions, Mr.  Allen would buy items, take them out to his car, go back into the store, grab another set of the same item he had just bought, and return the second set for a full refund.

The president saying over the weekend that he was saddened by the charges against Mr. Allen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  When I heard the story last night, I was shocked.  And my first reaction was one of disappointment, deep disappointment.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  With that one statement from the president, the White house has now said more about the charges against Claude Allen than it ever has against the charges against Scooter Libby.

For more on Mr. Allen and about the suspect himself and what he faces, let‘s call in Michael Fletcher, White House reporter for “The Washington Post.”

Thank you for your time tonight, sir.

MICHAEL FLETCHER, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  Oh, thank you for having me.

OLBERMANN:  So who is Claude Allen?  Who was he supposed to be in the president‘s grand scheme of things?

FLETCHER:  Well, Claude Allen was the president‘s top domestic policy guy, the top guy ranging from health care and space exploration to education.  He was kind of a guy who would shape sort of policy discussions for the president, would often brief the president, he would brief also members of the press on the president‘s domestic policy initiatives.

OLBERMANN:  And the judiciary, his nomination was what?

FLETCHER:  It was scuttled by the Democrats.  They believed him to be too far to the right and too inexperienced as a lawyer.  I mean, their ostensible reason for blocking it was that at the time, he lived in Virginia, and it was considered to be a Virginia seat on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.  But really, the real issue driving that was his links to the Christian right.

OLBERMANN:  Has anybody who‘s worked with him, known him socially, in the administration, out of it, had anything but the highest praise for him, or about his character?  Was this as much of a shock as the president seemed to indicate?

FLETCHER:  Yes, I think everybody I‘ve talked to has sort of sounded just like President Bush did on this thing.  Everyone is absolutely shocked.  This is a guy who not only was very collegial and a softspoken guy, but very devoted to his family, devoted to his church.  No one dreamed in a million years that he would do something like this.  If these charges are true, it‘s a shock to everybody.

OLBERMANN:  He could have, obviously, as most public servants could have, could have made more in the private sector.  He was far from impoverished, though, on his government salary of $161,000 a year that he had.  Do the police have any clue?  Have they given out any possible motive, and what might have driven him to commit what‘s alleged, if he did indeed do it?

FLETCHER:  Yes, that‘s one of the most puzzling things about this whole bizarre case.  I mean, knowing it doesn‘t make sense to anybody.  It‘s totally out of character from what people know of Mr. Allen.  The police haven‘t offered a theory.  Because if you look at the sum of money, 25 instances of retail theft, a total of $5,000, which, OK, is a nice little pot of money, but not for a guy making $161,000 a year.  So it makes absolutely no sense at any level, and no one‘s really offered a good theory as to what could be going on here.

OLBERMANN:  Yes, we may be delving into the area of psychological analysis here, which we probably should just skip.  But what does Mr. Allen or, on his behalf, his counsel, have to say about the charges?

FLETCHER:  Well, his—Mr. Allen himself has said nothing, but his counsel is saying that this—these charges result from a, quote, “series of misunderstandings.”

Initially, Mr. Allen, when he was first charged on January 2, when he got a citation in an original—at a Target that started this whole ball rolling, when he, you know, walked out with less than $100 worth of stuff, and allegedly returned it to get the money, he told—he called the White House and told them that it was related to his credit card.  He had just moved from Virginia to Maryland, and he said the address didn‘t keep up.  And that‘s the story he had told to Andy Card and White House counsel Harriet Miers.

OLBERMANN:  So are these other—the other 24 instances supposed to be since January, or do they back date?  Is it...

FLETCHER:  They back date, because apparently the police alleged today that Mr. Allen said at the time of the January 2 incident that he would—he kind of admitted it to the Target store‘s in-house cop.  And from there, that launched an investigation, and they went back and at least were able to document—claim to document 25 instances where he did this.  So they go back.

OLBERMANN:  Do we know where it goes legally, how it‘s going to be handled, whose jurisdiction it is?  And I assume the White House, legally, is staying as far away from it as possible.

FLETCHER:  Oh, they certainly are.  I mean, you heard the president‘s commends.  I mean, he‘s saddened by this.  And everybody at the White House has kind of distanced themselves from Mr. Allen.  I think they‘re a little peeved with him for, in their view, misleading them, if these charges are indeed true.  They feel like they‘ve been misled.

From here, this is probably going to be resolved in the court system of suburban Washington, D.C., the Montgomery County district where he was arrested.  His lawyer talks about getting together with the store officials and clearing up this misunderstanding, but I don‘t think that‘s going to happen before it goes to court.  I‘d be surprised.

OLBERMANN:  Yes.  Perhaps the amateur psychologist can draw a straight line right through to what he said to the White House, but as I said, we‘ll leave it to them.

Michael Fletcher, White House reporter of “The Washington Post,” great thanks for joining us tonight.

FLETCHER:  Oh, my pleasure.

OLBERMANN:  Mr. Allen‘s former boss on a mission to try and sell the war in Iraq to the American people, again, as public support and optimism, as expressed in the polls, dropped again.

And the cliffhanger ending that left a legion of fans howling at the television last night.  Mother of mercy, is this the end of Tony Soprano?

You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  The numbers cascade down upon you like the dust off the book on the top of shelves.  In Iraq, as many as 78 people killed in the last two days, 200 more wounded.  In the polls, Mr. Bush‘s approval down to 36 percent in a new survey released today by Gallup, the percentage of those believing the war is going well for this country down to 38 percent.

Our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, with 70 percent of Republicans saying they now believe Iraq will descend into civil war, the president has adjusted to the worsening climate by going back to a campaign of speeches.

Our White House correspondent is David Gregory.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID GREGORY, MSNBC WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  The president‘s latest drive to soothe the country‘s anxiety comes at a difficult moment in the war.  Iraq‘s violence has grown particularly intense and sectarian, Sunni versus Shi‘a.  Bombings throughout the country have reportedly killed 78 people in the last two days.

Recalling last month‘s Shi‘ite mosque bombing in Samarra, Mr. Bush suggested insurgents are desperate.

BUSH:  They know that they lack the military strength to challenge Iraqi and coalition forces directly, so their only hope is to try and provoke a civil war.

Iraqis went to the polls...

GREGORY:  Today‘s climate is strikingly different than it was last December.  Then, Mr. Bush‘s efforts to rebuild support for the war through a series of speeches were bolstered by a successful Iraqi election.  Now, the picture is bleaker.

Republican pollster bill MacInturff.

BILL MACINTURFF, REPUBLICAN POLLSTER:  If it looks like we‘re moving to a civil war, what people are saying is, What the heck are we going to do?  Why are we in the middle of this again?  And what is the way out?

GREGORY:  Attempting to answer that, Mr. Bush was left to plead for patience at home and compromise in Baghdad.

BUSH:  A country that divides into factions and dwells on old grievances risks sliding back into tyranny.

GREGORY:  Critics argue the administration must take a harder line with the fledging Iraqi government.

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), MICHIGAN:  They‘ve got to make a decision in Iraq if they want a nation.  We can‘t make that decision for them.

OLBERMANN:  Today, Mr. Bush boasted of new technology he claims has reduced the threat of roadside bombs known as IEDs, responsible for so much carnage.

BUSH:  Today nearly half of the IEDs in Iraq are found and disabled before they can be detonated.

GREGORY (on camera):  IEDs are a major source of the violent images Americans see on their television screens so often.  That‘s why the White House hopes highlighting the battle against that threat may actually move opinion on the war.

David Gregory, NBC News, the White House.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Also tonight, there are stunts like that, and then there are stunts like this.  The Moscow Cat Circus.  What, and give up show business?

And the Pet Psychic offers up a new theory on a prized pup‘s whereabouts.  It involves emigration.  No, I‘m not kidding.  Oh, here we go.  The hunt for Vivvy the whippet, ahead on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  On this date in 1781, astronomer Sir William Herschel thought he discovered a new comet.  In fact, he‘d located a new planet, Uranus.  Hey, I‘ve made that mistake.

Let‘s play Oddball.

We begin in the cultural capital of the United States, New York, where there is something for every budget along the Great White Way in Bigtown.  Here, acrobatic cats, everybody.  Look at them go.  It‘s Moscow Cat Theater, the traveling cat show run by a Russian guy in a clown costume without the hat.  In my day, we used to call this cat flinging, and it used to merit a visit from the SPCA.

Yuri Kuklachev travels around the world with his troupe of fleabitten feline fonambulants (ph), each one a savage beast who, in the wild, would kill and eat this clown three times before you could say Meow, meow, meow, King Friday (ph), meow.  Yuri says his amazing cat training program also works on kids.

But COUNTDOWN in no way endorses letting this guy anywhere near your children.

In Jerusalem, a giant hunk of whale carcass appears to have washed up on the—no, that‘s impossible, huh?  Oh, it‘s just a big cookie, a Purim cookie, a Hamantasch, cooked up by the folks at the Angel Bakery, the Protestant said, in hopes of breaking the Guinness World Record.  It weighs 1,000 pounds.  It‘s topped with sugar, and it‘s stuffed with enough prunes to keep the entire Middle East regular for the next six weeks.

Finally, to the Peritomoreno (ph) Glacier in Argentina, or glacier, if you‘re English.  Here, thousands have gathered to watch gigantic hunks of the thing break off and fall into the river.  Dude, global warming rocks, dude.

Actually, the event is caused by a buildup of water pressure against the wall of the vast Patagonian glacier, combined with erosion caused by -- 

Dude, did you see that one?  Global warming rocks!

No such hidden positives in this, sad to say.  A devastating swarm of tornadoes and storms cutting across the Midwest, 10 dead, at least, hundreds of homes rent asunder.

And the explosive first episode of the new season of “The Sopranos.”  Our cameraman has not seen this episode yet, so I‘m loath to discuss it here.  But that actor there, who‘s—well, he didn‘t leave us hanging there at the end.  It was overshadowed by what happened to the big guy.  Was the episode some sort of flash forward?  We‘ll talk to him.

Those stories ahead.

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

A minitheme here.  Number three, an unnamed Australian driver charged after going 25 miles along the heavily traveled Hume (ph) Highway, backwards.  Twenty-five miles.  He says his other gears were broken.  You bet they were.

Number two, Arthur Marshall of Centerhall (ph), P.A.  He got out of his truck on South Allen Street in the town of State College, P.A., turned around, and the truck was gone.  He reported it stolen.  No, it wasn‘t.  He had forgotten to shut off the engine or take it out of reverse.  It had rolled down the hill and rammed two cars and a light pole.

And number one, Haldis Gundersen, of Christianson (ph), in Norway.  The dream came true for Ms. Gundersen.  She turned on the faucets in her apartment, and out flowed real, actual beer.  Turns out a worker in the bar two floors below had connected a new beer barrel not to the tap but to the building‘s water system.  And as we speak, half of my staff is headed over to Ms. Gundersen‘s place.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  “When one has faith that the spring thaw will arrive, the winter winds seem to lose some of their punch.”  The spring of which Robert Meninges (ph) speaks arrives just one week from tonight, but that offers little hope to the thousands of people reeling from the unrelenting powerful winds that uprooted lives over the last 48 hours.

Our third story in the COUNTDOWN, wind whipped wildfires in the South and strings of monster tornadoes in the Midwest, and first the twisters.  At least 10 are dead and damaged parts of Springfield, Illinois so bad that the city‘s mayor likened it to the Gulf Coast after Katrina.

Correspondent Kevin Tibbles is reporting from Missouri tonight, the state with the greatest loss of life.  Kevin?

KEVIN TIBBLES, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Keith, a terrifying 48 hours across the Midwest, especially here in tiny St. Mary and across Missouri where wave after wave of tornadoes touched down, taking lives and causing tremendous damage.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TIBBLES (voice-over):  Today, cleaning up and assessing the damage after a weekend of tornadoes.  An estimated 127 reports of twisters across the Midwest.  But it was also a day to mourn.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I just—I don‘t know where to start.  I don‘t know where to begin.

TIBBLES:  Stephanie Brown (ph) grieves the loss of her mom and dad.  Mike and Barbara Schafer (ph) killed Saturday in St. Mary, Missouri, trying to outrun a 170 mile per hour tornado in their pickup truck.  The twister slammed them against a propane tank.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  It‘s like a bad dream.  I was supposed to wake up and he‘s going to be there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  National Weather Service radar indicated a line of tornado-producing storms.  Please take shelter immediately.  This storm is headed in your direction.

TIBBLES:  At least 10 people lost their lives as a collision between mild southern air and cold northern air set off this deadly series of twisters.  In Sedalia, Missouri, one woman died when crushed by a mobile home torn from its foundation.

(on camera):  Many people say when they saw and heard the tornado coming they hunkered down.  Often lying on the floor.  But when it hit it simply tore off their roofs and sucked out everything from inside their homes.

(voice-over):  Rick Bolin (ph) survived by taking shelter in his bathtub which ended up 100 feet down the road.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  It was like I was being tossed like a rag doll.

TIBBLES:  The heavy weather set off spectacular lightning shows in Chicago, dumped 10 inches of snow on Minneapolis, closing schools and creating traffic chaos.  In Springfield, Illinois, vintage car enthusiast Doug Edwards (ph) lost his prized possessions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  It‘s pretty rough.  These are investments.

TIBBLES:  But in dozens of Midwestern towns, the loss has been total. 

And the spring tornado season has only just begun.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TIBBLES (on camera):  But in dozens of Midwestern towns, the loss has been total.  And the spring tornado season has just begun.  Keith?

OLBERMANN:  Kevin, thanks.  Kevin Tibbles at St. Mary, Missouri.

To Texas now where the wind has been responsible for fanning a ferocious wall of flame.  Officials there say it is one of the biggest fire emergencies that state has ever seen.  The areas scorched approaches the size of Rhode Island.  Seven dead in Texas.  There is some hope that the winds will be abating, but our correspondent Janet Shamlian reports from McClean, Texas, that in many respects, even that will be too little, too late.  Janet, good evening.

JANET SHAMLIAN, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Keith, good evening from the Texas Panhandle.  We‘re outside the small town of McClean at this hour.  You can see the blackened landscape behind me.  What you can‘t see is that thick, heavy smell of smoke that is all over this area right now.

Texas has been battered by wildfires in the past several months but nothing like this.  1,000 square miles torched in just the last 24 hours.  More than 100 separate fires raced across the Panhandle last night.  They were fueled by very high winds sometimes gusting up to 50 miles an hour.  And grass that hasn‘t seen rain in several weeks.  Seven people have died as a result.  Four in a chain reaction pile-up that happened along Interstate 40 near Amarillo when very dense smoke covered the road.

Three and a half million acres of Texas land has burned since late December.  That is roughly two percent of the state‘s total land mass.  So this state has taken a beating.  The concern here right now is what might be ahead.  The ground is very dry.  They haven‘t seen rain since February, and there is no rain in the forecast, at least for another week.  Keith?

OLBERMANN:  Janet Shamlian reporting from Texas.  Great thanks.

Also tonight, more than two weeks after Imette St. Guillen was brutally murdered, police finally say they have actual evidence against the prime suspect.  And saying goodbye to one of the great American actresses.  The stories ahead.  Now though, here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three sound bites of this day.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GEORGE W. BUSH, U.S. PRESIDENT:  So, Mr. Prime minister, thanks for your vision.  And I also feel sorry for the fact that you broke your leg.  This guy is a good runner.  And so now I feel comfortable challenging you to a race.  Had you been healthy I wouldn‘t even have gotten on the same track with you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  And coming up in our next half-hour, the cheerleader who kept her school spirit, even after falling 15 feet onto her head.  She‘s here this morning for an exclusive interview.  But first this is “Today” on NBC.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Entering through a hole he knocked in the front door, the bare bottom bandit crawls to stay hidden.  What he doesn‘t know is that Tobacco Hut has a state of the art security system.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Basically he busted out the front door, tried to bend the bars, couldn‘t quite get through, and lost his drawers on the way through.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We can‘t show you everything.  You don‘t want to see it.  Grinison (ph) believe the pictures his security system took are good enough for someone to identify the bare bottom bandit.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  One end or the other.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  It is impossible to truly understand why one brutal crime will grab the attention of a city or a country while others go unnoticed.  The grief and the terror contained amid the victims‘ family and friends.

But there is no doubt that a murder in New York City it has crossed that line from the private to the public.  Our number two story on the COUNTDOWN, what police claimed is the first firm evidence against the prime suspect against the prime suspect in the terrible murder of the graduate student Imette St. Guillen.  Our correspondent in New York is Rehema Ellis.

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REHEMA ELLIS, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  For Darrell Littlejohn, crime has been a career.  With a long rap sheet of convictions for armed robbery, drugs and gun possession.  Now police say little john is responsible for the vicious murder of Imette St. Guillen.  It‘s his blood, police say, that was found on the plastic ties that were used to bind St.  Guillen‘s hands behind her back.

RAY KELLY, NYPD COMMISSIONER:  This is very significant development.  When you talk about DNA here, we‘re talking about the certainty of one in a trillion.  So it is a—you know, a very important piece of evidence for us.

ELLIS:  For nearly a week, police searched Littlejohn‘s home looking for clues.  Witnesses told police Littlejohn escorted 24-year-old St.  Guillen out of the Falls Bar early in the bar two weeks ago.  Seventeen hours later after an anonymous 911 call her body was found dumped in a remote area.  She had been raped, sexually mutilated and murdered.

Police have reportedly matched carpet fibers found on the tape covering St. Guillen‘s face with fibers found in Littlejohn‘s home.  Authorities also have cell phone records that put Littlejohn‘s phone in the area of the crime scene.  But analysts say the DNA match is the most important clue.

CLINT VAN ZANDT, MSNBC ANALYST:  His DNA on the plastic cuffs that were used to bind her, I think that‘s the last piece of linking forensic evidence that ties this whole investigative train together.

ELLIS:  In jail already charged with a parole violation for working at the bar, police will now seek a grand jury indictment against Littlejohn for murder.  A relief for many.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I think it‘s good to know that they have the guy, so justice can be carried out.

ELLIS:  Rehema Ellis, NBC News, New York.

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OLBERMANN:  Another sad passing marking the somber transition tonight into our nightly roundup of celebrity and entertainment news, “Keeping Tabs.  The award winning character actress, Maureen Stapleton, has died of chronic pulmonary disease.  In a career that spanned six decades, Ms.  Stapleton starred on the stage and the big and little screens.  She made a name for herself playing supporting roles in many of her projects.  Her most famous one perhaps as the writer Emma Goldman in Warren Beatty‘s movie “Reds,” that performance winning her an Oscar in 1981 for best supporting actress.

She also won a Tony and Emmy.  She played in everything from “Bye-Bye Birdie” to “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” to hosting “Saturday Night Live” wearing a wig in the shape of a Japanese ceremonial garden.

Her secret to acting, as she outlined in her autobiography, a perfect instruction for all who speak in public, always keeping the audience awake.  Maureen Stapleton was 80 years old.

And you may recall the story of the prized whippet who disappeared from a shipping container at JFK Airport just after the Westminster Dog Show a month ago.  There is a new locale involved in the search for Vivi, France.  One out of 33 dog psychics agree the Westminster champion is on her way there on a boat.  Vivi‘s owners turned to the animal communicators not long after her disappearance.  Most of them see Vivi hunting rabbits while she struggles to stay warm in and around the JFK Airport grounds.  That‘s where she was last seen after escaping from a travel case shortly after winning top honors in her division at the dog show.

And it was three years ago this week that “The Da Vinci Code” hit bookstores.  The multimillionaire author is marking the milestone by taking the stand in his own defense against accusation that he stole the ideas for his book.  Today was day one of testimony for Dan Brown in a courtroom in London.  He called these charges completely fanciful.  Brown testified he had a structure of the “The Da Vinci Code” in place before he even read the other book but admitted in cross examination that he could not remember the exact dates.  The authors of the nonfiction work, “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail” claim Brown lifted their idea that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a child and that a bloodline survived.

Brown acknowledges the work of the authors in his book but he also says he used 38 other books and more than 30 documents in his research.  If a judge in fact imposes an injunction, the upcoming May release of “The Da Vinci Code” movie starring Tom Hanks could be delayed.

Also tonight, oh, my God, they killed Tony.  Like this wasn‘t expected.  “The Sopranos” final season premiere has a body count.  Is the lead character actually in it?  That‘s ahead.  But first time for COUNTDOWN‘s list of today‘s three nominees for “Worst Person in the World.”

Tonight with visual special effects.

The bronze, the George Washington University sophomore Jordan Knott (ph) was feeling depressed, depressed enough that a student checked himself into a campus hospital worried he might commit suicide.  Two days letter he got a letter from the school telling him if he did not withdraw from the school he could be suspended because his behavior, getting help for possible suicidal feelings, violated the university code of student conduct.

Tonight‘s runner-up, Lloyd Grove, gossip columnist of “The New York Daily News.”  There‘s a lot more on the COUNTDOWN show blog, “Bloggermann” on how he took quotes from a TV interview out of context so egregiously that the editor of my fourth grade class newspaper would have called him on it.

Just a brief example here so you know what we‘re dealing with.  I did an interview in which, among other things, I complimented NBC and its owners G.E. for never letting anyone‘s personal politics get in the way of news.  But Mr. Grove wrote that I quote, “deeply distrust the top brass at NBC and its parent company, General Electric, judging by his interview with C-SPAN‘s grand inquisitor Brian Lamb.”

He pulled this quote out of context.  Read this, “There are people I know in the hierarchy of NBC, the company, and GE, the company, who do not like to see the current presidential administration criticized at all.”

Here‘s what I actually said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  The protection of money at the center of everything, including news, to the degree that it is now, is that as long as you make them money, they don‘t care what it is you put on the air.  They don‘t care.  There are people I know in the hierarchy of NBC, the company, and G.E. the company, who do not like to see the current presidential administration criticized at all.

On the other hand, if they look at my ratings and my ratings are improved and there is criticism of the president of the United States, they‘re happy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GROVE:  So I don‘t distrust anybody here.  I trust them because unlike at least one other company that owns a news operation which I could mention, they don‘t worry about the politics.

But our winner tonight, Katherine Thompson.  She writes the column with Lloyd Grove.  Or he‘s her assistant, maybe, I‘m not sure.

She used to work here at MSNBC.  And when she left nobody cried.  Now she‘s writing stuff, inaccurate, journalistically reckless stuff about people that work here and at MSNBC as well.  The conflict of interest is as bad as anything I‘ve seen in journalism.  Katherine Thompson of the “New York Daily News.”  Today‘s “Worst Person in the World.”

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OLBERMANN:  And to God.  This is how important “The Sopranos” is to a television viewer.  Our regular cameraman, Bernie Sweetman (ph), who did not see the episode that came on last night, and is being replayed tonight has left the building rather than stay for it segment.  Because he didn‘t want it spoiled for him.  And we are authorized him to do so.

The lead character, the one the entire season is built around, unexpectedly shot, his fate unknown.  Who shot him, anybody‘s guess?  It was March 21, 1980, the season cliffhanger of “Dallas.”  The famous episode, “Who Shot J.R.”?  It was nine days shot of 26 years to the day it happens again.  Who shot Tone?

In our number one story in the countdown tonight, we know who shot Tony Soprano, but we don‘t know if he is going to be living or dead by next week or if it was a dream or flashback, or most intriguingly, a flash forward, in last night‘s season six opener, the first new episode in 22 months, Tony Soprano seemed for ripe for a heart attack.

While other characters exited stage left, one informant against him suddenly died right there in the car.  An unlucky FBI agent.  Another, played by Robert Funaro, who will join us presently, hanged himself because he could not get away from his mafia family, nor from the feds, but after nearly 50 minutes of living high on the hog, Tony finally got it in the proverbial soft underbelly.

Uncle Junior, senile, paranoid, and apparently confused, apparently came down stairs to the kitchen where Tony was making him dinner and shot him in the stomach.  James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano struggled with not one, but two different telephones, dialed 911, passed out, cut to the end of the show and maybe he died.  We don‘t know.

Joining me now, one the dearly departed, from last night‘s episode, Robert Funaro who played Gene Pontecorvo for three and a half years on the program, thanks for your time here tonight, sir.

ROBERT FUNARO, ACTOR:  Thanks, Keith. It‘s great to be here.

OLBERMANN:  Was this one of the good news-bad news things.  First episode in 22 months, the big return, hey, you have got 15 minutes of speaking scenes, finally, unfortunately then you have to kill yourself.

FUNARO:  Oh, I‘ll tell you, when David called me up, you know, he said, I got good news, I‘ve got bad news.  I said—which one do you want first.  I said give me the good news.  The good news is you have a family, you have kids and a great story line, but the bad news is that, you‘re going to be dead.

So you know, and when I saw it, I was just overwhelmed by the story.  It was just wonderful.  You know, hardboiled show about a guy who wants to get out and how hard it is, and what happens, you know.

OLBERMANN:  Yep.  Absolutely.  As a viewer, I can tell you that exactly.  We‘re going to show that hanging scene here for anybody who didn‘t see it .

FUNARO:

OLBERMANN:  . because it could not really be much more graphic, that‘s the warning if they haven‘t seen it.  I only want to show it in full once, because as convincing and compelling a piece of acting as this is, I want to know about it technically.  How did you all do that?  Was there a stunt double, is he OK, did his family get a check?  How did you do this?

FUNARO:  No.  No.  I did it all.  And in terms of, you know, an actor always tries to do preparation before, you know, he goes on, I didn‘t do any preparation, just getting on that box and having, you know, the noose around my neck and I was supported by a brace and the wonderful great stunt coordinator, Pete Ricossi (ph), he just walked me through the A, B, Cs of doing it and it took us four or five hours to do, but in terms of the actual act of doing it, I mean, it was scary, it was horrifying and it was all there, the look in the eye, just thinking about it, it just—I mean, horrific, you know.

I mean, it‘s sad, but you know, hey, I felt like I did it for my wife, to liberate them, and it was one of those things, you know.

OLBERMANN:  It told an important story that nobody thought about probably, even people who watched the show had never contemplated any of that, in a very short period of time, so it‘s well done on that, and I can‘t miss the opportunity to ask you about this.

We know you‘re not permitted to divulge major plot points, but there is one wonderful theory on which I‘d like to just get your opinion on the theory.  That what we saw last night was in effect the last episode, because some of the plot was so advanced the last time we saw Johnny Sack (ph) he was just being arrested, now he‘s certificating tile, Tony and Carmella are back together, A.J. is in college, so this analysis suggests that the last 19 episodes will go back and cover what happened over the last year without answering that question.  What do you think of that theory?

FUNARO:  I‘m sworn to secrecy here, that is I‘ll just say this.  If that is a theory, you know, there are a lot of theories out there, but I don‘t know.  I thought it was pretty real to me, you know.  I mean, I have to say, it was very graphic and pretty honest.

OLBERMANN:  So I‘m not going to bother asking you whether or not Tony survives until next week, but could the series survive his death at this point?  Would the audience stay if he just shuffles off this mortal coil at about 9:15 next Sunday night?

FUNARO:  Tony Soprano, James Gandolfini is such a terrific actor.  I mean, all the supporting players, everyone, they‘re great, but James is, what can I say, he‘s brilliant, you know, I think he can—you can ask yourself that, he‘s wonderful.  But I still can‘t say.

OLBERMANN:  That does sort of underscore the fun and the dramatic power of “The Sopranos” because nobody is safe, right?

FUNARO:  Absolutely.  Nobody is safe.  Big Pussy.  Everybody, it can happen any time anywhere.

OLBERMANN:  Uncle June can show up in anybody‘s life.  Robert Funaro, whose character, Eugene Pontecorvo had its final curtain call on “The Sopranos” last night.  Congratulations on the performance and thanks for joining us tonight.

FUNARO:  Thank you very much Keith, great to be here.

OLBERMANN:  My pleasure.  That‘s COUNTDOWN for this, the 1,047th day since the declaration of “mission accomplished” in Iraq.

I‘m Keith Olbermann.  Keep your knees loose.  Good night and good luck.

Our MSNBC 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.

END   

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