updated 3/17/2006 12:07:32 PM ET 2006-03-17T17:07:32

Guests: Michael Duffy, Dan Goure

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

Preventive war, preemptive war, the Bush doctrine of September 2002.  We can start it in order to keep somebody else from starting it, restated today as the official policy of this country.  Well, after all, it has worked so well in Iraq.

Punctuating the policy, the biggest air assault in Iraq since mid-April 2003.  And the president knew about it in advance, right?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID GREGORY, MSNBC WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  He was told after the decision had been made to do it, or did he have to say, Yes, let‘s do this?

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  No.  This was not something that he needed to authorize.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Deal or no deal, brain or no brain, is it possible you‘re actually learning something from TV game shows?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  People don‘t like to lose.  That is, losing $10 hurts much more than the joy of winning $10.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Thanks, Professor Trebeq.

Speak of losing, why are so many TV shows willing to lose their lead characters?

And speaking of characters, all the president‘s rugs.  Not toupees, carpets.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:   What color rug do you want?

(INAUDIBLE) presidents design their rugs.  Turns out, presidents design rugs.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  We‘ll ask Mo Rocca about that.

And about the unlikely defenses of the former Bush administration staffer accused of repeated, inexplicable theft, and for Congresswoman Jean Schmidt, accused of bashing Elizabeth Dole and the Young Republicans years ago.  The defense, they each have evil twins.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JEAN SCHMIDT ®, OHIO:  Cowards cut and run, Marines never do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

All that and more, now on COUNTDOWN.

Good evening.

The simplest test of sanity, the initial screen for misperceived existence, the follow-my-finger of psychology, does the individual continue to take action A and continue to get result B, while insisting that next time, he will get result Z?

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, the Bush doctrine, preemptive war, or, if you prefer, preventive war is back and better than ever tonight.  While U.S. forces in Iraq launch a major new air assault, the forces that got us into Iraq have declared anew that they‘re still expecting to get result Z, early today, the Bush White House unveiling its justification for preemptive attacks, a 49-page document titled “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” this edition looking remarkably like its September 2002 predecessor, the administration once again making no apologies for its aggressive strategy of attacking the enemy before the enemy attacks the U.S.

Quoting it, “When the consequences of an attack with WMD are potentially so devastating, we cannot afford to stand idly by as grave dangers materialize.  This is the principle and logic of preemption.”

Actually finding WMD, result Z, is apparently beside the point.

But the administration seemingly has found a new approach for stopping the sectarian violence on the ground in Iraq that has claimed more than 500 lives there in the last three weeks.  A massive operation involving some 1,500 troops, about half of them Iraqi, supported by more than 50 helicopters, the Pentagon handing out this video of the assault, all of it shot by armory—Army cameramen, the White House today, in further twists of logic, claiming that while the president was fully briefed about the assault, he did not—repeat, did not—authorize it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Are you saying that the president did not specifically authorize this?

MCCLELLAN:  No.  He was—he knows about the operation, and he‘s been briefed on it.  But this is a decision that is made by commanders who are in the best position to make the tactical decisions about the operations that are undertaken.

GREGORY:  (INAUDIBLE) give the go-ahead order (INAUDIBLE)...

MCCLELLAN:  (INAUDIBLE) we want to see, we want to see a successful operation.  We look forward to a successful operation.

GREGORY:  (INAUDIBLE), he was told after the decision had been made to do it, or did he have to say, Yes, let‘s do this?

MCCLELLAN:  No, this was not something that he needed to authorize.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Well, that certainly clears things up.

In a moment, the military nuts and bolts of what the Pentagon is calling Operation Swarmer with analyst Dan Goure.

First, here to bring clarity to some of the political questions about today‘s developments, let‘s call in “TIME” magazine assistant managing editor Michael Duffy.

Thanks for joining us again, sir.

MICHAEL DUFFY, ASSISTANT MANAGING EDITOR, “TIME” MAGAZINE:  Nice to be here, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  If this is standard operating procedure, commanders in the field operating separately from the White House, does it still politically make the president look less than informed when the press secretary has to sort of tap dance around this question, did the president know about this in advance?

DUFFY:  Well, I don‘t think so.  I think President Bush has always been, President Bush has always been pretty clear that he lets the commanders in the field do what they want.  In fact, he‘s given those guys even more authority than they might have had in the previous administration.

And he‘s kind of always been this way.  So I don‘t really think this is a problem for them.  I think, you know, President Bartlet on “West Wing” is always making those decisions, I know, but I don‘t think President Bush has ever made a big deal out of it.  And so this is kind of standard operating procedure for them.

OLBERMANN:  Yes, President Bartlet got canceled.

To the updated version of the “National Security Strategy” document, giving no ground on the idea of preemptive war, and claiming the logic of preemption is finding WMD before WMD can be used against us, maybe I‘m misremembering this, but I thought we did not find any WMD in Iraq.  Does the White House address the logic of that?

DUFFY:  No.  In the document, which is 49 pages long, it talks about Iraq simply as a case going forward in a country that‘s trying to be put back together on democratic terms.

I thought this strategy was a little more defensive than the one a couple of years ago.  It‘s much longer, it reads much more like a report card, says, Look at what we‘ve done, see how this is working.  It has a much more defensive feel.

But on WMD, it really does focus on Korea and Iran and terrorists.  It

but it doesn‘t talk about Iraq.

OLBERMANN:  All right.  And speaking of those two countries, and one in particular, were it not for this air assault in Iraq today, we probably would have spent the bulk of this conversation talking specifically about what this document has to say about the neighbor to the east.  What—does it turn the heat up on Iran?  What does it say about it?

DUFFY:  Yes, it says it is the biggest problem, the biggest challenge facing the United States, because, though it says it doesn‘t want nuclear weapons, it really does.  That‘s what the document alleges.  And there‘s a lot of evidence for that.

It‘s also true that at the same time that this document has been released, you know, Iran has really played the United States and the other European countries it‘s been negotiating with to a complete standstill.

There‘s a little bit of warming today, Keith, because Iran reached out and said, You know, if Washington would like to talk about Iraq, we‘d be glad to talk about that.  And interestingly, the White House said OK.  It was a—so there was a slight warming.  But I don‘t know whether to take those little talks seriously yet.  I think it‘s too early to know.

OLBERMANN:  Is North Korea largely left out of this?  Is it referred to at all?

DUFFY:  It is referred to, but not by the name North Korea, but by its initials, which I can‘t tell you off the top of my head.  And it—in fact, kind of North Korea‘s disappeared a little bit from the administration‘s WMD talking points recently.  But it‘s in here.  You have to look for it.

OLBERMANN:  Lastly, amid the hand wringing here, for those who are worried by the restatement of this, of the idea of preventive or preemptive war, this document is not legally binding, is it?  I mean, it doesn‘t come with additional freeze-dried military personnel, the ones who would be required to launch the preemptive actions, while nearly all the current personnel are still tied up in Iraq, right?

DUFFY:  Right.  If you were doing a ground invasion, yes, you would need ground troops, and we don‘t have a lot of extras.  If you were doing something by air, though, you probably would have those kind of forces available.

But no, it‘s not a binding document, it‘s a strategy, it‘s not a tactical document, it‘s something Congress required them to write.  But as I say, I do think it feels a bit more defensive than that thing they wrote four years ago in the aftermath of the Afghanistan invasion.

OLBERMANN:  Different set of circumstances indeed.

“TIME” magazine‘s Michael Duffy, great thanks for your insight and your time tonight, sir.

As promised, to the military end of this.  Time to call in MSNBC military analyst Dan Goure for more on the strategy behind the massive new air assault today, Operation Swarmer.

Dan, good evening.  Good to talk to you again.

DAN GOURE, MSNBC MILITARY ANALYST:  Good to see you, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Give me the overview.  What happened here?  Who went where and did what?

GOURE:  Well, what you had was a combined arms operation, a classic use of ground forces, helicopters, tactical air, air assault, to essentially surround and attack an area that was believed to be controlled by, occupied by terrorists, an area in the Sunni triangle north of the town of Samarra.  And the pictures you‘re seeing sort of show you what a combined arms air assault looks like.

OLBERMANN:  So it‘s, in essence, there‘s a massive troop movement here by air.  As a tactic, is it the right way to go?

GOURE:  Well, it has some certain advantages to it.  First of all, you can achieve surprise.  You‘re not coming by roads, where predictable routes.  You can come from multiple directions.  In a sense, you can surround the area you want to get at, preventing the escape of insurgents, allowing to you close the noose, if you like.

It also avoids some of the problems if you‘re going by air of ground convoys which might meet IEDs or the explosive devices or rocket-propelled grenades.  So it has a number of advantages.

OLBERMANN:  So why have we not done this, essentially, since April of 2003?

GOURE:  Well, we‘ve actually done so much (ph).  We haven‘t done it on this scale.  One of the reasons we have, two reasons we (ph) for this.  One is the area we want to go after.  It‘s not a city, but it‘s not a small village out in the open somewhere.  It‘s an area.

But more importantly, we‘re using the 101st Airborne, which is our, by title, air assault division.  They have a lot of helicopters, a lot of special capabilities.  They‘re trained to do this kind of maneuver, air and ground together.  So they‘re there for the first time since right after the end of major combat operations, and we have the capability now to do that kind of thing.

OLBERMANN:  Dan, the figure given, half the troops involved in this operation, which sounds like a, to some degree, a major combat operation as well, but half of them are supposed to be Iraqi.  Are they driving this ship, or are they the ones along for the ride?

GOURE:  I suspect it‘s a mix.  They‘re clearly not involved in the air assault.  We have those kind of capabilities.  But on the other hand, when it comes to the ground operations, holding grounds, looking for arms caches, looking for suspects, taking the territory and holding it, that‘s their job.  And from all accounts, they‘re doing it.

OLBERMANN:  Hearkening back here to my previous conversation with Michael Duffy, (INAUDIBLE) do you find it at all unusual for the military commanders in the field on an operation of this size, of this impact, perhaps of this symbolic importance, to be acting, in essence, if not independently of the White House, then kind of to the White House, outside the White House‘s periphery of vision?

GOURE:  No, not at all.  I mean, in the scale of operations, this is actually still relatively small.  We‘re talking about something like 1 percent of the U.S. troops, or the coalition troops, in Iraq, even less than that if you sort of combine that with Iraqi forces.

But really, the point here is that the field commanders have to make these kind of decision.  The prosecution of the war on terror, the cleaning out of terrorist nests and all the rest, is their job.  And while the president may get informed by Central Command, by Joe Abizaid, he‘s not got the stick on this one, he‘s not going to pull the trigger.  It‘s just not of the scale and of a kind in a war zone that should or would be his responsibility.

OLBERMANN:  So we should assume that the release of the essentially restatement of the Bush doctrine and this event in Iraq, this kind of large-scale, lots of pictures event, the timing of this is coincidental?

GOURE:  That part of it is coincidental, although the timing of it may have to do with trying to sell the war.  That‘s quite clear.

OLBERMANN:  The MSNBC military analyst, and the vice president of the Lexington Institute, Dan Goure.  Great thanks for your time tonight, Dan.

GOURE:  Thank you.

OLBERMANN:  Also tonight, the strategy of scandal.  Scooter Libby subpoenas reporters.  Jack Abramoff solicits friends to write nice letters to the judge.  Clever ploys?  Stalling tactics?  Both?

And some dancing presidents like to cut the rug.  Others look like they should be wearing a rug.  This one just loves his rug.  Mo Roka comments on that.

You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Full-bodied scandal, shameless defense.  That evergreen political leitmotif takes various incarnations in our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN tonight.

Scooter Libby casting a net, Jack Abramoff pleading for help, and Katherine Harris spending money she might have saved for a rainy day, and, of course, it‘s pouring.

The vice president‘s former chief of staff first.

Lawyers for Mr. Libby have issued subpoenas to “The New York Times,” its former reporter Judith Miller, as well as NBC‘s Washington bureau chief, Tim Russert, and “TIME” magazine reporter Matt Cooper.  This, according to representatives of those who have been subpoenaed.

Ms. Miller‘s lawyer, Robert Bennett, has already described the subpoena as, quote, “entirely too broad.”

To the broad brush of Jack Abramoff, who has sent an e-mail to what he describes as a limited number of friends asking them to attest to his character, the e-mail forwarded to “The Washington Times” column “Inside the Beltway,” by an reputed acquaintance of the disgraced lobbyist.  Abramoff needs letters sent, he writes, to the Florida judge who will be sentencing him on corruption charges later this month.

Quoting, “The reason letters from friends are so important,” he says in the e-mail, “is that Judge Paul C. Huck in Florida has not been privy to much of my background and life.  He probably only knows me through the harsh media caricature.”

Yes, we made him up.

Speaking of makeup, there‘s Katherine Harris, who has been laying low in her effort to unseat the Democratic senator Bill Nelson in Florida after reports linking Ms. Harris to the bribery scandal that brought down former California congressman Duke Cunningham.

Harris now says she will infuse her flagging, cash-poor campaign with $10 million that she inherited after her father‘s death.

For the point-by-point political review, let‘s call in MSNBC‘s David Shuster from Washington.

Good evening, David.

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Good evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Hard to see that Mr. Libby‘s subpoenas here would come as a huge surprise, but Judith Miller, who once went to jail to protect him, now has her lawyer saying the request is too broad.  And Tim Russert has already contradicted Mr. Libby‘s claim that he was the one who told Libby about Valerie Plame Wilson.

So what are lawyers, the lawyers for Libby trying to get out of this? 

Is this adding to the stall tactics that we think we‘ve seen before?

SHUSTER:  Well, it certainly appears that way.  I mean, Scooter Libby‘s legal team is entitled to sort of go over some of the same ground that the prosecutors already have.  But what it seems that they‘re trying to do is find some sort of nugget, some type of lead that might suggest that Russert, Miller, and Cooper‘s testimony is not as damning as it was presented by the prosecutors in their grand jury indictment.  They‘re trying to perhaps cast some sort of doubt that maybe Tim Russert‘s memory maybe not as good as prosecutors suggest.

In any case, again, it‘s not clear that they‘re going to find anything here, but certainly they‘re entitled to look.

OLBERMANN:  Two of these individuals, of course, have been subpoenaed before, Ms. Miller and Mr. Cooper, from special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald‘s grand jury, and that produced, to say the least, a standoff.  Might we see another kind of standoff this time?  And, in fact, could that part be—be part of the Libby defense strategy?

SHUSTER:  Oh, absolutely.  I mean, you‘re already looking at a battle, as you mentioned, with Judy Miller.  I mean, the defense is entitled to go over some of this ground, but they can‘t go on a wide-ranging fishing expedition.  And if they do, then the news organizes are going to fight back, and all this is going to have to be resolved by the judge and possibly the appellate courts.  And that could drag things along.

It‘s a similar issue to Scooter Libby‘s efforts to try to get the presidential daily briefs, the classified briefs that the president is given.  Scooter Libby wants these documents to show that he was preoccupied.

Again, that could provoke a huge court fight with the White House.  And again, it‘s something that the judge is trying to resolve.  The judge is trying to preserve Scooter Libby‘s right to present some of this information, his right to get the presidential daily briefs, or show that he was busy, his right to go after some of the witnesses and question the witnesses before the trial.

But at the same time, it‘s the judge‘s responsibility that this trial move forward.  And again, I mean, a tactic for Scooter Libby, he wins in one of two ways.  He wins if he is exonerated, if he‘s found not guilty, but he also wins if this case never goes to trial because of all the court issues.

OLBERMANN:  And, of course, it all adds a little bit more to the chilling effect on journalism companies as well.

To Mr. Abramoff.  That e-mail also reportedly says this, let me quote it, “While the judge is unlikely to incarcerate me while I am still cooperating, the sentence he imposes will have a direct bearing on a possible more sympathetic resentencing when my cooperation has ended.”

And he asks his supporters to reference, quote, “any redeeming character trait or actions of mine.”

Is there a—do we reality check all that?  What does that, what does that mean?  What‘s, what‘s between those (INAUDIBLE), those lines there?

SHUSTER:  Well, and part of what makes it so funny, Keith, is, this is an e-mail that ended up in the hands of lawmakers working back there on Capitol Hill.  I mean, it‘s difficult to see how a judge is going to be impressed by somebody who says, Hey, judge, be lenient with Mr. Abramoff, because I really enjoyed the 18 holes of golf that he paid for me at St.  Andrew‘s in Scotland.

The serious side of this is that Jack Abramoff is not somebody who was into yachts or drugs or women.  He was dedicated his family, a bunch of kids.  He had a charity involving his kids‘ school and some other organizes.  The problem, of course, is some of the charitable money was coming from the Indian casinos that he was essentially stealing the money from.

But in any case, he‘s trying to convince the judge that he‘s not as bad a guy as has been depicted, and that‘s why this letter has gone out.

OLBERMANN:  And finally, the redoubtable Katherine Harris, who has had a hard time keeping Republicans in her corner in the Florida Senate bid, now resurfaces to announce that she is still in this race.  The reaction on the Web seems to indicate that the Democrats are cheering here.  If she had waited long enough, would they have been willing to fund her campaign themselves?

SHUSTER:  Absolutely.  In fact, the latest polls show that the Democrat in this race, incumbent senator Bill Nelson, a in likely matchup with Harris, beats her by 20 points.  So, I mean, this is the gift from God for Democrats in Florida.  They are thrilled beyond belief that Katherine Harris is going to stay in the race.

And you‘ve got those Florida television stations, which stand to gain from all the money that she‘s going to buy in advertising.  She‘s essentially decided to transfer $10 million of her own money into the bank accounts of those television stations that are going to run her ads.  And it still doesn‘t look like it‘s going to be a very close race.

So Republicans are infuriated, Democrats could not be happier down in Florida.

OLBERMANN:  Ah, but you never know.  As Ms. Harris could tell you, it‘s—it ain‘t over till the ballots are all counted.

SHUSTER:  Yes, and we know that they‘re counted sometimes a little differently down there.

OLBERMANN:  Yes.  MSNBC‘s David Shuster, as always, sir, great thanks for your time.

SHUSTER:  Thanks, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Also tonight, the new game for Greenpeace activists, redecorate the giant Jesus.  Uh-oh.

And former White House aide Claude Allen and Congresswoman Jean Schmidt now have something in common, the oldest excuse in the book for cliches for bad behavior.  I didn‘t do it, it was my evil twin.

Ahead on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Isabelle Huppert turned 51 today.  She was one of the stars of the 1980 movie fiasco “Heaven‘s Gate.”  Its $40 million price tag and terrible reviews helped send its studio, United Artists, into bankruptcy, and helped send its director, Oscar-winning—winner Michael Chermino, into obscurity.  Lost in the blame game, the fact that Ms.  Huppert was the female lead playing an American woman in the Wyoming of the 1890s named Ella Watson, even though she had a French accent thicker than the one Peter Sellers had as Inspector Clouseau.

On that note of complaint, let‘s play Oddball.

Clouseau.

We begin in Rio de Janeiro, where the world‘s biggest troublemakers meet the world‘s biggest Jesus.  Those wacky environmental activists from Greenpeace at it again, scaling the 125-foot Christ the Redeemer statue to hang a sign about something.  It‘s the second time activists have risked their lives to hang signage on the Big Jesus.  Some might call this derivative.  But if you can find a spot with more visibility in this town, they‘re willing to listen.

In Hollywood, Florida, some good old-fashioned shoplifting caught on tape.  The man in the Pittsburgh Penguins jersey has just walked into the 441 Puppy Store and is about to snatch a puggle.  A what, you ask?  Awww, that‘s right, a puggle.  It‘s a mix between a pug and a beagle, or a bug and a peagle.

Here the thief can clearly be seen snatching the $1,500 doggie, looking around to see if anybody‘s watching, then stuffing the puppy in his back pocket and walking out the store.  The thief is still at large, and the shop is offering a $1,000 reward for the puggle‘s return, so they can then sell it for $1,500.

And, you know, this is the problem with these pet store puppy mills people.  They take helpless little animals, and they use them as --  Awww, puggle, he‘s so cute.

All right, what was I saying?  Never mind.

Tokyo now, where there finally there‘s an answer for Japanese billionaires who would like to exercise more, but it just takes too much time away for spending obscene amounts of money on ridiculous, wasteful items.  That‘s right, solid gold dumbbells, $68,000 per pair.  A city jeweler has crafted the items for the health-conscious spendthrift.  Maybe Barry Bonds used these instead of steroids.

And if the 24-caret Heavy Hands are not enough of a waste for you, they‘re offering these solid-gold shoe inserts for jogging, at $21,000 each.  The opulent gym gear highlights the widening gap between Japan‘s wealthy elite and the thousands who live in everyday poverty, and issue that --  Awww, look, it‘s a puggle!

Speaking of riches, one second of Janet Jackson‘s nipple on network TV, that‘ll be half a million dollars, please.  Half a million dollars.

And Britney Spears learns the hard way that walking barefoot through a public parking lot is not just really, really messy, it can also be downright dangerous.

Those stories ahead.

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

Tonight, a cornucopia of dumb criminals.

Number three, Curtis Gokey of Lodi, California.  A city dump truck backed into his car, causing about $3,600 in damages, so he sued, even though Mr. Gokey was the city employee driving the dump truck.  He crashed into his own car.  The suit was thrown out.  So now instead, his wife has sued the city on his behalf.

Number two, Gary Brunner of Carmel, New York, popped into the Putnam County sheriff‘s office and asked if there were any warrants outstanding for his own arrest.  Amazed officers discovered there were, for drug trafficking.  He was arrested.  Apparently the first self-serve customer they‘ve ever had there.

And number one, two thieves in Prince George, Canada, caught on surveillance tape robbing a local museum.  They stole the museum‘s surveillance cameras.  They forgot to steal the tapes made by the surveillance cameras showing them stealing the surveillance cameras.

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OLBERMANN:  What is decent or indecent on TV is pretty much in the eye of the beholder.  And complaints to the FCC have skyrocketed over the past few years in large part because of well-organized campaigns.  Our number three story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, a guy hangs himself in graphic detail, his death throes, filling the TV screen for over a minute.  Since it‘s on cable, the response is, hey, pretty good episode of “The Sopranos,” eh? 

But a washed-up singer exposes her breast for a few seconds, since it‘s not on cable, the response is, a fine of more than half a million dollars.  And that was apparently a discount. 

The FCC clearing a backlog of indecency investigations of 50 TV shows broadcast between 2002 and 2005.  One fine alone, a record $3.6 million leveled over this one scene, an episode of the missing persons drama “Without a Trace,” cited for its graphic depiction of a teenaged orgy.  Dozens of CBS stations and affiliates fined for this offending installment. 

The scene has virtually been erased out of existence, but still available on the net apparently exclusively on the Web site of the Parents Television Council, the outfit run by L. Brent Bozell.  Apparently that‘s your first stop when you want Internet soft porn. 

The fines are the first since Chairman Kevin Martin took over for former Chairman Michael Powell.  They include some golden oldies, like the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction from the 2004 Super Bowl, 550 grand against CBS for that upheld.  Also the F-word and the S-word are still strictly taboo.  Nicole Richie uttered both during a 2003 Billboard Music Awards, no fine there.  But a reminder to broadcasters that they will be responsible for even isolated instances of expletives in live telecasts. 

The commission dismissed complaints against other shows, including “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “The Simpsons,” d‘oh. 

One thing the FCC can‘t do for you is keep your favorite TV characters alive.  As we continue to wonder about the health and welfare of Tony Soprano, late breaking scuttlebutt on that in just a moment, this is a sensitive topic.  It‘s impossible to recreate just how irate fans of the series “M*A*S*H” were 31 springs ago when the producers of the supposed comedy killed off the character of Colonel Henry Blake, even after the actor, McLean Stevenson, had left the show of his own accord and had been written out of the plot with a comforting reassignment from Korea to the U.S. 

Today, as “The Sopranos” things suggest, knocking of one of your lead characters is almost a plotline cliche.  More from our correspondent George Lewis, himself absolutely irreplaceable. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GEORGE LEWIS, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  As Tony Soprano can tell you, prime time TV is a pretty dangerous place these days.  Just too many people getting whacked on a regular basis.  And while Tony will undoubtedly survive this wound until the end of the season, others are dying left and right, sacrificed in the never-ending quest for ratings. 

Among the shows planning the deaths of major characters this season,”Lost,” “The Shield,” “ER,” and “24.”

DEVIN GORDON, NEWSWEEK:  It‘s a good strategy to kill off some characters.  It may not be the most original strategy, but it definitely works. 

KIEFER SUTHERLAND, ACTOR:  Everybody stay calm, there is nothing we can do for her now. 

LEWIS:  The series “24” wiped out some of its key players in a nerve gas attack.  Last week is it was Edgar, the loveable computer geek.  On Monday, Lynn McGill sacrificed his life to save Jack Bauer and the rest of the counterterrorism unit. 

SUTHERLAND:  I don‘t know what else to say.  Thank you. 

LEWIS:  And then Tony Almeida ended up dying in Bauer‘s arms.  The executive producer of “24” says, after all, it is a show about terrorism. 

HOWARD GORDON, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, “24”:  One of the ways to I think illustrate that and I think connect with the audience that this is real or this should feel real is to sacrifice some of your dearest characters. 

LEWIS:  Although he admits viewers were angry when the show killed off Edgar. 

H. GORDON:  I‘ll tell you, we got a lot of flak.  We have gotten a lot of—I might even call it hate mail, but people weren‘t very happy. 

LEWIS:  These days, with broadcast, cable, DVDs, and the Internet all competing for the attention of viewers, many show producers have pumped up the body count to keep people tuned in.  So this TV season, it‘s open season on the characters who populate prime time. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  911, where is the emergency?

LEWIS:  George Lewis, NBC News, Hollywood. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Now you know what happened to my co-anchor on COUNTDOWN, Diane Simmons (ph).

And as promised, about Tony Soprano, the theory that the anti-hero will either be killed off on Sunday or linger for weeks while the remainder of the episodes constitute a series of flashbacks?  Ingenious, but it took a huge hit today.  Three separate industry sources say they have seen advanced copies of the first month of the last season and that ain‘t it.  But noble and trustworthy people that they are, they will not say what it is. 

Also tonight, serene political discourse, has it come to this?  Is Jessica Simpson the only prominent American willing to stand up and say, I will not be identified either as Republican or Democrat?  Is she the last hope of the independents? 

How could “Deal or No Deal” and “Jeopardy” be the best hope of understanding the marketplace factors of 20th Century America?  Yes, it has come to this, economists analyzing Howie Mandel.  Next on COUNTDOWN. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Why should you pay precious dollars for a formal education on how to manage your money when all you need is a bag of chips and the attitude of a couch potato?  Our number two story on the COUNTDOWN, put down that book, stop evolving, just turn on the tube and watch a game show. 

As our correspondent Natalie Morales reports, it may be all the financial advice you need. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HOWIE MANDEL, HOST, “DEAL OR NO DEAL”:  Deal or no deal? 

I want to you start by opening six cases. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Nineteen. 

NATALIE MORALES, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  It may all seem like a gamble with no right or wrong answer, until the last briefcase is revealed.  But for some economists, NBC‘s hit game show, “Deal or No Deal,” is a study of human behavior.  Analyzing contestants reactions, they say, may reveal how we deal when it comes to making everyday financial decisions that involve risk. 

Here‘s how is plays out on the game show.  The contestant chooses one of 26 briefcases that contain anywhere from one cent to $1 million or more.  As the briefcases are opened one by one, and the stakes get higher, a banker offers the contestant a guaranteed pay-off to walk away. 

For example, Sherman Mitchell (ph) had to make this gut-wrenching split-second decision, left with two briefcases showing $300 and $500,000.  The odds are 50/50 he will hit the jackpot.  The banker offers the deal. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  What is the offer? 

MANDEL:  $250,000? 

MORALES:  So what would do you?  Deal or no deal?  For Sherman Mitchell, after a few agonizing seconds, he goes with the safe money.  Experts watching say on the game show and in real life, that‘s what most of us would do. 

PROF. ZUR SHAPIRA, NEW YORK UNIVERSITY:  The general characterization of the population is that people are more risk-adverse than risk-seeking in financial matters, but that can vary.  She collects information now, that‘s good.

MORALES:  Professor Zur Shapira at NYU Stern School of Business, has spent nearly a decade studying the winning and losing ways of game-show contestants.  While most of us don‘t have a shot at a million, he says when it comes to money matters, we do have one thing in common. 

SHAPIRA:  People don‘t like to lose.  That is, losing $10 hurts much more than the joy of winning $10.  So if you are in a situation where you have lost money, either in the stock market or the horse races, what people would like to do is they would like break even. 

MORALES:  Take the game of “Jeopardy” where skill and strategy are involved.  Based on his years of research, Shapira knows how much these contestants should wager in the “Final Jeopardy” round. 

SHAPIRA:  The probability of the person in the lead answering that question correctly is only 63 percent, and the probability of the person who is in the second place of correctly answering the “Final Jeopardy” question is only 50 percent chance.  So any time you are going to answer the question and bet some positive amount of money, you are risking your money.  So what we figured out, you know, if you have over $9,300 for sure, your optimal bet should be zero dollars. 

But who should bet it all, you should bet all the 5,800, both Rick (ph) and Mark (ph) should bet zero.  Rick bet 2,001 and ended up with 7,599.  He went against our recommendation.  He should have bet zero. 

MANDEL:  One more case.  I swear to you I have no idea what‘s in them. 

I‘m just hoping. 

MORALES:  As in game shows, in life, emotions, pressure from others and one‘s competitive instincts can lead to irrational decision and bad bets.  So how might we all come out ahead? 

SHAPIRA:  In risk-taking situations, try control our emotions and try to basically say, forget about my intuition, what I should go is with what the data tells me. 

MANDEL:  But let‘s see how much of a winner you are. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  How much?

MANDEL:  You made.

(END VIDEOTAPE)            

OLBERMANN:  Not particularly informed decision by a pop star providing our segue tonight to the world of celebrity and entertainment news “Keeping Tabs.” Britney Spears vacationing in Hawaii, rushed to a hospital after having stepped on a hypodermic needle in a parking lot.  It appears the tabloid picture of her coming out of a gas station bathroom barefoot was not enough to teach her a lesson about remembering to wear your shoes. 

She did not remember to wear her shoes.  Fans of la Spears, if any there yet be, not to worry, test results came back indicating the needle was never used.  That sends her off with a clean bill of health.  Also a source tells the British tabloid The Daily Star, “Britney was distraught but brave.” It could have been worse, she could have been barefoot and pregnant. 

Is divine intervention in order?  Was it plagiarism or an honest coincidence?  Dan Brown‘s wife may be the one to crack “The Da Vinci Code.” In a witness statement, the sheepish author claims his wife Blythe was instrumental in conceptualizing the central theme of his best-selling book.  What does that make him, an unwitting victim of his unfettered wife‘s sneaky plagiaristic con? 

For three days in court, the media-shy author has fiercely denied allegations he lifted book ideas from Michael Baigent‘s and Richard Leigh‘s 1982 book “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (sic).” The copyright infringement lawsuit not only plaguing the famed writer, Hollywood also keeping a close eye, the outcome of the case could suspend the scheduled release of the film “The Da Vinci Code,” starring Tom Hanks.  Tom won‘t like that.

Just what is it about this innocent-looking rug that gets the leader of the free world waxing lyrical?  Mo Rocca will try to shed some light on the presidential carpet compulsion, and also the latest fad of politics, whatever it is, blame it on your evil twin. 

That‘s ahead, but first, time for COUNTDOWN‘s list of today‘s three nominees for “Worst Person in the World.” Tonight, actually, “Worst Animals in the World.”  The bronze goes to the squirrels of Lacrosse, Wisconsin.  Their presence at a celebration of the anniversary of the city‘s founding led to the prospect of the members of the Wisconsin Infantrymen firing off the 21-gun salute being fined for violating city ordinance number 381 for the protection of squirrels within the city limits.  The mayor says, relax, if there are any tickets issued, he will pay them.

Tonight‘s runner up, another squirrel, this one in Mount Pleasant Township, Pennsylvania.  It decided to cross the road, Route 116 and a motorist decided to stop to avoid hitting it.  He was promptly rear-ended by the motorist behind him, they were hit by a third car, all three were hit by a fourth, nobody was injured and the squirrel is laughing his acorns off. 

But the winner, an unnamed bomb-sniffing dog brought in to check out the Cox Arena at San Diego State University this morning before the NCAA Basketball Tournament games there.  He smelled something.  They would up evacuating the place, delaying the first game by at least two hours, there was no bomb, no threat, no nothing, no package.  The theory is he smelled nitrates in one particular place.  To quote university spokesman Jack Beresford: “A bomb-sniffing dog noticed something in a hot dog cart.” Yes, “Snausages (ph).”  The hungry, hungry bomb-sniffing pooch, today‘s “Worst Dog in the World.”  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  It was Jay Leno, then an avant-garde comedian who would come on to David Letterman‘s show wearing a motorcycle jacket and answered Dave‘s question, “what‘s your beef, Jay,” who may have first identified the trend. 

Every dramatic show on television in the ‘80s, from daytime soaps to “Dallas” had turned to the cheesy, hurried, good grief, I‘ve got to get this written in the next 10 minutes device of the evil twin. 

Our number one story in the COUNTDOWN, it has suddenly appeared in not one, but two political controversies and it‘s vying for the championship for weirdest thing in the current public discourse, with the president‘s near-obsession with the rug in the Oval Office. 

Sporting the third-lowest approval rating since modern political polling began, the president, if the conservative magazine “Insight” is correct, has delegated everything except Iraq and the reelections and the telling of rug stories.  One of his favorite stories from his early days in office has reappeared in speeches at least three times this year, how he delegated the design of the White House rug to the first lady, mentioning the sunshine yellow carpet in speeches about the economy, the war on terror, and while laying out his political agenda for the year.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I wasn‘t even sworn in yet and a fellow called me on the phone and he said, what color rug do you want to have in the Oval Office?  So I said, man, this is a decision-making job. 

So I said, I don‘t know anything about rug-designing, so I delegated it to Laura. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  There is an interior designer in all of us, evidently.  Perhaps it‘s a kind of subconscious evil twin, unless you have your own real evil twin.  Claude Allen, the president‘s former domestic policy adviser, protege of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, busted for allegedly shoplifting in effect at several stores, 25 cases.  But when the news broke, friends and family thought there had to have been a mistake, it had to be Floyd. 

Floyd Allen, the evil twin in the family, the identical brother to Claude.  “It‘s just the darnedest thing,” said the Allen stepmother. “I actually started to call Floyd then I saw it wasn‘t him.” 

And there is Congresswoman Jean Schmidt of Ohio, infamous for her

attack on Jack Murtha last November, lately criticized for remarks she

reportedly made at the 1984 Republican Convention, criticizing future

Senator Elizabeth Dole and comparing some young Republicans to Hitler

Youth.  \

Her chief of staff has actually said that Representative Schmidt did not make the Nazi remark, that her sister Jennifer had made it.  Her twin sister Jennifer.  Her evil twin sister Jennifer. 

I am joined now by the one and only, and I mean that literally, Mo Rocca, television personality and presidential historian. 

Mo, good to see you.

MO ROCCA, TELEVISION PERSONALITY:  Good to see you, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  We‘ll get to the rug in a moment.  Let‘s start with the evil twins, the pair of evil twins.  Are all twins evil or just the twins of political figures? 

ROCCA:  Usually the twins of political leaders are extra evil.  And there certainly have been a lot of evil twins in our political history, especially our presidential history.  They go at least back to Woodrow Wilson whose evil twin, of course, was Frank Gorshin.  I think we all remember that quite well. 

(LAUGHTER)

OLBERMANN:  I didn‘t know that, Mo. 

ROCCA:  And that absolutely is true.  And FDR, of course, had an evil twin, and that was Burgess Meredith. 

OLBERMANN:  Yes, that I remember, yes, I did read—I saw that in high school, yes. 

ROCCA:  And Eisenhower‘s evil twin surprisingly was Otto Preminger, a lot of people thought it might have been Eli Wallach, who also played Mr.  Freeze, as did George Sanders.  Jimmy Carter is not thought of as evil often, but of course his evil twin was Cesar Romero.  There he is, great smiles. 

And of course, Richard Nixon‘s was Anthony Hopkins.  And what‘s ironic about that is Anthony Hopkins looks more like Richard Nixon when he played Hannibal Lector than when he actually played Richard Nixon.  Funny that way.

OLBERMANN:  Now which one of these on the screen—which one of those is Nixon, on the right?  Or on the—oh, that‘s Nixon on the left and Hopkins on the right, OK. 

ROCCA:  That‘s right, exactly.

OLBERMANN:  All right.  The president and this repeated beating of the

rug story.  Your expertise in this field, is he the first chief executive

obsessed by office decor?  Is there a pattern here/

ROCCA:  No, certainly not.  When Commodore Perry returned from Japan, 1855, it was not long after that our bachelor president, James Buchanan, transformed the Oval Office into a celebration of Japanica (ph).  I mean, there was a lacquer everywhere, tatami mats.  And where the rug is now, there was a mineral bath. 

Now Buchanan‘s approvals were at an all-time low, but he was very canny.  He would invite skeptical reporters in, invite them into the bath.  He would serve them tea, the place was festooned with bonsai trees.  And before long he had them on that desk enjoying the best hour of reiki, the laying on of hands, that they had ever experienced. And if they weren‘t seduced by that, well, he would just show them to the exit and slam the shoji screen door behind them. 

He wasn‘t having any of their guff.  But I should say that some people are mocking the story of the rug, saying it‘s not very interesting.  It‘s actually a compelling metaphor.  Laura and her loom.  Think about it.  Bush brings the Sunni and Shia together as Laura reconciles the weft and the war.  Right?  Exactly. 

And Laura and her Afghani women friends, they personify shuttle diplomacy, the shuttle, of course, is on the loom, the hand lever, not to be confused with the treadle, which is actually the foot pedal, right over there. 

And there are challenges for both.  Laura has to deal with dust mites, which are a particular problem in a shag ,rug and Bush has to deal with civil war breaking out in Iraq. 

OLBERMANN:  Now I wanted to just jump back quickly to the Buchanan story.  It just occurs to me that the Buchanan story that you told also explains why we had the Civil War, right?  I mean, that was the lead—his whole obsession with Japan lead to—no, never mind. 

Was there anything involving, we have got a president now with a dog thing and a president with a rug thing.  Are these two things interrelated in any way? 

ROCCA:  Well, actually it was Heidi, the Weimaraner, that belonged to Eisenhower, was exiled to Eisenhower‘s Gettysburg farm for peeing, for urinating on the rug.  So that‘s one threat here and that‘s perhaps why the rug is yellow. 

By the way, yellow, I don‘t think of as an optimistic color.  I associate yellow with jaundice and with a medium-level terror alert.  And Cherokees, by the way, say that yellow symbolizes strife and suffering.  So do the Zulu people.

OLBERMANN:  So lastly and briefly, we have this breaking news about Jessica Simpson.

ROCCA:  Oh, gosh, yes. 

OLBERMANN:  . who is not showing up for the event, the Operation Smile event, House Majority Leader John Boehner saying, “I feel like I am really getting bagged.” Apparently she doesn‘t want to be identified with the GOP.  We must be in some sort of desperate trouble when the only person in the political spectrum trying to preserve a veneer of independence is Jessica Simpson. 

ROCCA:  Well, a lot of cynics are going to say that Jessica, like a lot of political leaders, is just looking at the polls.  You know, the trend lines are saying that Americans are tired of partisanship.  In fairness to Jessica, she has always stood for transparency, she wasn‘t the one who lip-synced.  Nick Lachey will accept soft money from anyone. 

(LAUGHTER)

ROCCA:  No, I think that what you are going to find next year, because she has got her finger on the pulse, is that a majority of senators are going to vote for McCain-Feingold-Simpson.  It will happen. 

OLBERMANN:  TV personality, presidential pet, and rug historian now, Mo Rocca, as always.

ROCCA:  Thank you.

OLBERMANN:  .thanks for joining us. 

That‘s COUNTDOWN for this, the 1,050th day since the declaration of “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq.  I‘m Keith Olbermann.  Keep your knees loose, good night and good luck.

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

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