updated 5/3/2006 4:00:28 PM ET 2006-05-03T20:00:28

JOE SCARBOROUGH, HOST:  “American Idol” fans call him the meanest man on TV.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SIMON COWELL, “AMERICAN IDOL”:  Well, you just murdered one of the most beautiful songs of all time.  You went from torture to murder.  You are more “Jerry Springer Show” than “American Idol.”

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Oh, come on!

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Jerry Springer?

COWELL:  Appalling.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCARBOROUGH:  But a new poll suggests that Simon Cowell may also be the most powerful guy in Hollywood.  Welcome to SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY.  No passport required, only common sense allowed.

We‘re going to have that story about Simon Cowell as the kingmaker of “American Idol” straight ahead.

But first tonight—oh!  More bad news for President George W. Bush.  A new “USA Today”/Gallup poll shows the president‘s approval ratings at just 34 percent, and only 32 percent of Americans saying they approve of the way he‘s handling the war in Iraq.

Now, this is his worst Gallup rating ever.  And making matters worse, when you crunch the numbers, there are no positive numbers from which to build a recovery.  More Americans disapprove of the president‘s performance on the economy, on energy policy, on Iraq and on foreign policy than at any time since he took the office six years ago.

Now, the White House responded to the bleak news by saying the president doesn‘t look at polls.  And thank God for that.  No need for Xanax in the West Wing.  And a spokesman for Republicans in Congress said it was no big deal, since George Bush isn‘t on the ballot this fall.  Nice try.

The president is having an impact on the Republican Congress, and that effect entirely negative.  The poll also shows historically low numbers for those Republicans running for Congress, strongly suggesting that unless Mr.  Bush discovers the secret to eternal youth in the next six months—or invades Grenada again, that always helps—Democrats will take control of the House or the Senate.  Why?  Well, in one word, leadership, or in the Republicans‘ case, lack of leadership, on Katrina, on federal spending, on Iraq, on the environment, on Iran, on Sudan, and most recently, on gas prices.

The GOP—did you see this?  The GOP trotted out a plan to give taxpayers a $100 rebate on high gas prices.  The plan was laughed off the Hill by disgusted Americans, and for good reason.  That‘s leadership?  No way.

“HARDBALL‘s” Chris Matthews has dug into the poll numbers, and he‘s here to tell us why the president‘s support is collapsing so quickly—

Chris.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, “HARDBALL”:  Joe, I think the president is in political trouble for two reasons.  He‘s being pounded at home, and he‘s being pounded away.  At home, he‘s being pounded by high gasoline prices.  And you know, that‘s something people that pay either in cash when they go to a gas station, or they use a credit card.  But they feel the price, and they do look at the pump afterwards to see how much it‘s going to cost them.  It hurts, and it hurts every time they buy gas, and that‘s a political pricetag as well.

And on the war, of course, they do—people do read the newspapers and watch television.  They do see these casualty numbers continuing, American casualties, and they do have a sense that this war has become very expensive and that they don‘t see, to use an old Vietnam-era phrase, a light at the end of the tunnel.  And unfortunately for the president, he really doesn‘t have much control over prices of gasoline or when this war is going to end, Joe.

SCARBOROUGH:  All right.  Thank you so much, Chris Matthews.  Greatly appreciate it.

Now let‘s bring in “Time” columnist Joe Klein.  He‘s the author of the new book “Politics Lost: How American Democracy Was Trivialized by People Who Think You‘re Stupid,” and Tucker Carlson, host of MSNBC‘s “THE SITUATION WITH TUCKER CARLSON.”

Joe, the president‘s approval ratings have plummeted.  Tell us why.

JOE KLEIN, “TIME” MAGAZINE:  Well, they‘ve been down for a long time now.  You know, there‘ve been other polls with him at 32 percent, 33 percent.  He‘s done it the old-fashioned way, he‘s earned it.  You know, this is a president who is all vision and no governance.  He—you know, he comes up with these huge ideas, like remaking the Middle East, you know, as a haven for democracy, or, you know, remaking Social Security.  But he doesn‘t care enough about the details of governance to actually work on these problems and try and get them solved.

SCARBOROUGH:  What do you mean by that, he doesn‘t work on these problems?

KLEIN:  Well, they didn‘t have any plan for what to do the day after the statue came down in Iraq.  They didn‘t have any real game plan or detailed plan for Social Security.  On issue after issue after issue...

SCARBOROUGH:  And Jose, isn‘t the other side of that—I mean, leadership is not only having the vision, it‘s not only making the plans, but it is also doing what his father did so tremendously in 1992 -- I‘m sorry, I think 1990 -- in the lead-up to the first Gulf war, where you painstakingly reach out to your friends, your enemies, your adversaries, and bring them to you.  This president just doesn‘t do that, does he.

KLEIN:  Well, there‘s this weird Oedipal thing going on here, Joe.  The old man was all details and no vision.  The young man is all vision and no details.  And I think that he‘s a perfect exemplar of where the Republican Party has fallen to 25 years after Ronald Reagan.  You know, Reagan said that government was part of the problem, not part of the solution.  Well, if you actually believe that, as George W. Bush seems to, then you wind up hiring the head of the Arabian Horse Association to head FEMA.  I mean, I think that there hasn‘t nearly been enough appreciation of how serious the business of government actually is.

SCARBOROUGH:  Tucker Carlson, Americans are angry.  And talk about a lack of seriousness, Americans are outraged by gas prices.  You know, it was very funny, Tucker.  When I was in Congress—well, not so funny for my family—but when I was in Congress, people would always come up to me, always to talk to me, whether I was having breakfast with my family or at baseball games.  Since I got on TV, they give me a little bit more space.  Or I should say they did give me more space until gas prices started skyrocketing.  Now they come up to me all the time and say, Joe, what are we going to do?  Today, the Republicans, their answer is $100 rebate for high gas prices since last August!  Is that leadership?

TUCKER CARLSON, HOST, “THE SITUATION”:  I‘m not sure what they can do, honestly.  Let me just respond to one thing Joe said quickly.  I‘m not sure Bush‘s problem is that he doesn‘t believe in the power of government.  I think Bush does believe in the power of government.  He, you know, spent more domestically I think than any Republican president ever, maybe any president ever.  He‘s not a small government conservative, despite the label.

I think the core problem, though, is Iraq.  I almost want to defend Bush because it‘s so fashionable, so conventional to attack him, but I‘m like everyone else, so mad about Iraq that I can‘t.  If you look at the approval rating for Bush, and people‘s feelings on Iraq as measured by polls, they track pretty closely, very closely, actually, over the past three years.  As people feel hopeful about Iraq, like, you know, this project may, in fact, work, they like Bush.  As they feel worried and then terrified about Iraq, his numbers plummet.  I think Iraq is the key to understanding Bush‘s presidency and his legacy.

SCARBOROUGH:  And right now, though, obviously, Americans very angry about gas prices, angry that this president is too connected with oil companies.  Do you think it‘s hurting the president with conservatives, as well as moderates, as well as liberals that he‘s seen to be in bed with the biggest oil companies in the world?

CARLSON:  Well, the conservatives are so mad about government spending, liberals are so mad about the environment, politically, I don‘t think either group matters as much as, you know, the undecided voters, people who a week before the election don‘t know who they‘re going to vote for.  That‘s who you obviously care about, coming into the mid-terms.  They‘re not on Bush‘s side.  That‘s the real problem.

I mean, those other two issues are sort of like gun control and abortion.  You‘re not going to win those people over to your side anyway, so, you know, I‘m not sure how significant they are.  But there‘s no doubt that Bush has lost kind of core conservatives because he‘s just a big spender.

SCARBOROUGH:  And let me say, Joe Klein, you know, the one thing that Bill Clinton never lost was his hard-core left base on issues like partial-birth abortion.  He always knew where to draw the line in the sand to keep his people.  This president has lost conservatives.  He lost liberals a long time ago.  And now you‘ve got the president losing the middle by saying things like this about the war in Iraq.  Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE WALKER BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  We believe this is a turning point for the Iraqi citizens, and it‘s a new chapter in our partnership.  This government is more determined than ever to succeed.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCARBOROUGH:  Joe Klein, when independents, when undecideds hear the president talking about yet another turning point in Iraq, they just got to roll their eyes and say this guy is in Lala-land, right?

KLEIN:  Yes, we‘ve been turning and turning and turning.  I think people are getting dizzy from all this turning.

You know, what Tucker said before is partially true.  I mean, he is a big government president.  My problem with him is that he doesn‘t do his homework.  You know, the prescription drug plan for the elderly was a big, fat, sloppy program of the sort that liberals used to propose, and it‘s a tremendous waste of money.  The amount that go to farmers, a tremendous waste of money.

But I do believe that, you know, at the core of this problem is his inattention to actually running the show.  I still don‘t understand why, on May 1, the day that he announced “mission accomplished” in 2003, he allowed Tommy Franks to close down his headquarters in Qatar and come back to Tampa.  I mean, and in the next six weeks after that, they pulled 500 intelligence officers out of Baghdad.  It is mind-boggling to me how these decisions were made.

SCARBOROUGH:  You know, Joe, you talk about a lack of leadership, but I want to read you something that you wrote in your most recent book about leadership.  You say, “If you‘re going to lead, you‘d best be willing to show them something of yourself, something that hasn‘t been created by pollsters.  Sadly, most politicians are neither risk takers or leaders, they are followers of convention, of public opinion.  And while leadership‘s an art, follow-ship has become a science, measured in polls and focus groups.”

You got to give the president this, at least.  He doesn‘t seem to be following the polls.  He does whatever he wants to do, whether Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, liberals or independents like it or not.

KLEIN:  Yes, I agree with—you know, you want to root for the guy for that reason because, you know, if he were following the polls, we‘d be skedaddling out of Iraq right now, as irresponsible as that might be.  But there still is the other side of the equation, and this still remains a presidency that‘s been more about spin and about the permanent campaign than anything else.  Up until two weeks ago, you had a consultant running policy, Karl Rove.  And consultants and leaders look through different ends of the telescope.  You know, a consultant cares about winning the news cycle, winning the week, doesn‘t care too much about long term.  A leader has to think about long term, like, for example, what happens in Iraq when the statue comes down.  And that is something that we haven‘t seen, even though the president tends not to follow the polls.

SCARBOROUGH:  And Tucker, let‘s go ahead.  You were talking about how you wanted to praise the president for something when nobody else was.  It seems to me that is something to praise the president for.

CARLSON:  Well, sure.

SCARBOROUGH:  Lesser men, lesser women, lesser politicians would have gotten out of Iraq a long time ago, would have said, You know what, we‘re not going to fight to let Dubai take over the ports.  We‘re not going to fight for immigration reform.  We‘re not—I mean, the guy is unpopular right now because he‘s embracing a lot of very unpopular issues.  Talk about that side of the story.

CARLSON:  He‘s a courageous president, and that means he‘s a grand president.  So we will either sum up his presidency as a grand and colossal failure or a grand and colossal success.  I mean, if the Middle East is transformed into a decent place, with stable governments that are pro-Western, you know, Bush will be seen as the greatest president of the last 100 years.  If things continue as they are going and it becomes even more chaotic, he will be seen as a colossal failure.

I mean, that‘s—so you have to give him credit for risk taking.  I just—you know, I guess the stakes are so high and the potential down side so profound that, you know, you can hold him accountable for, you know, the screw-ups.

KLEIN:  But he didn‘t take the biggest risk of all.  There was an opportunity after September 11 to ask some sacrifice of us.  You know, I would have favored, you know, a stiff tax on gasoline that we would have repaid to the people by lowering payroll taxes or something like that.  Now he doesn‘t have the credibility to do that.

He hasn‘t taken the biggest risk, which is to try and move and think in the long term.  The times he‘s been courageous, it‘s been a very ad hoc, spur-of-the-moment thing.  I want to reform Social Security.  I want to invade Iraq.  It hasn‘t been thought through.  And if you‘re a leader...

(CROSSTALK)

CARLSON:  I love your gas tax idea.  I hope we see that rolled out in the mid-term!

(LAUGHTER)

CARLSON:  (INAUDIBLE) people talk about the high gas tax.  I mean, let‘s—you know, let‘s get these Belgian taxes on gasoline here...

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  All right.

KLEIN:  And—but you don‘t like my tax rebate idea?

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

KLEIN:  ... be penny for penny.

CARLSON:  Too complicated for me.

SCARBOROUGH:  All right.

KLEIN:  Too complicated, as opposed to tax the things you don‘t want to have happen in a society.

SCARBOROUGH:  All right.  Thank you, Joe Klein, author of the new book, “Politics Lost.”  Thank you also, Tucker Carlson, host of “THE SITUATION.”  Really appreciate both of you being here.

This debate‘s going to be going on, friends, because again, my prediction right now is if things keep moving the way they‘re moving, Democrats are going to take control of the House, possibly even the Senate.  When that happens, gear up for censure and impeachment hearings over the next two years.  It‘s going to be a long, ugly final two years for this president.

Now, coming up, “Idol” worship.  Americans who vote on “American Idol” are telling pollsters that their vote counts more on the talent contest than it does in presidential elections.  Plus, Jay Leno and Ray Romano brought down the house at recent White House correspondent dinners.  So what happened to political satire‘s Poppa Bear, Stephen Colbert?  A political blogging war‘s broken out over the comedy skit.  We‘ll have that report coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEPHEN COLBERT, “THE COLBERT REPORT”:  Look, I‘ve got—by the way, I‘ve got—I‘ve got a theory about how to handle these retired generals causing all this trouble.  Don‘t let them retire!  Come on!  We‘ve got a stop-loss program, let‘s use it on these guys.  I‘ve seen Zinni and that crowd on Wolf Blitzer.  If you‘re strong enough to go on one of those pundit shows, you‘re strong enough to stand on a bank of computers and order men into battle.  Come on!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCARBOROUGH:  Oh!  Sounded like me singing at my high school talent show contest.  It was an ugly scene, and it was ugly the other night at the White House correspondents dinner.  That was, of course, Comedy Central‘s Stephen Colbert at Saturday night‘s White House correspondents dinner.  As you heard from that clip, Colbert‘s routine just wasn‘t a big hit with the crowd.  And of course, because he is the funniest man on TV, Colbert himself pointed that out on his show last night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COLBERT:  I delivered the closing speech.  And needless to say, the audience could not contain their excitement, like right here, when I criticized the press for saying the recent White House personnel changes were just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

This administration is not sinking.  This administration is soaring. 

If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg!

Very respectful silence.  The crowd practically carried me out on their shoulders.  Although I wasn‘t actually ready to leave.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCARBOROUGH:  The guy‘s—I mean, he‘s hilarious.  So the question is, why did the funnyman strike out with the D.C. crowd?  With me now, Ana Marie Cox.  She‘s the founding editor of Wonkette and the author of the book “Dog Days.”  And we also have Michael Scherer from Salon.com.

Ana Marie, let me begin with you.  There‘s this blogging war going on.  And of course, so many on the left are saying he‘s a hero, it was the funniest routine ever.  You were there.  Was Stephen Colbert—a guy that both of us think‘s hilarious—was he funny, or did he bomb?

ANA MARIE COX, AUTHOR, “DOG DAYS”:  I think he was OK.  I think that

there‘s a middle ground here that, you know, maybe that‘s missing in the

blogosphere.  I thought he was fine, let‘s say.  But he comparatively

bombed, that‘s for sure.  I mean, I think people were a little struck odd

by his routine.

But actually, the thing that I find the funniest about this whole situation is the left‘s reaction to it, which seems to insist that if you didn‘t find it funny, that must be because you disagree, and also, therefore, because he was criticizing Bush, he was therefore funny, which is kind of Stalinist.

SCARBOROUGH:  Exactly.  And of course, it‘s insane because, of course, I‘m a—being a conservative from way back, I‘ve learned that you have to laugh at yourself because you do a lot of stupid things.  But George Bush wasn‘t laughing at himself, was he, Ana?  I mean, he didn‘t find this routine amusing.  Why?

COX:  Well, you know, it could have been that he was unamused, but also, perhaps, you know, he was just bored.  I mean, didn‘t they hear Colbert rehearsing on the wiretap they have?  I mean, surely, you know, if he isn‘t—if he was bugged, then he surely is bugged now.

SCARBOROUGH:  He may have—yes, exactly.  Now, that‘s funny.  I mean, Bush wasn‘t laughing at the routine because he had tapped Colbert‘s home and he‘d already heard it before.

Let me bring you in here, Michael, and explain to me why you think Colbert actually performed well that night.

MICHAEL SCHERER, SALON.COM:  Well, Colbert brought a different type of comedy to the White House correspondents...

SCARBOROUGH:  Yes, comedy where people didn‘t laugh at the jokes.

SCHERER:  But it was satire.  It was irony.  You—you‘re—the White House correspondents dinners are used to having stand-up comics.  They‘re used to having Jay Leno deliver jokes in which the joke is in the punch line.

SCARBOROUGH:  OK, Michael, but I run home—not to interrupt you, but I run home from my show and watch Colbert every night.  And it‘s the first time probably in 15 years I haven‘t watched Letterman every night.  He makes me cry, he‘s so funny.  At this performance, I just sat there and felt very uncomfortable for him.

SCHERER:  Well, I think he definitely performs much better on television than he does live.  I mean, his act is made for his set.  It‘s made for his character.  And up there on the podium, he was keeping in character, but he was sort of struggling with it at times, I think.

SCARBOROUGH:  Yes.  And Ana Marie, I think somebody should have sent him a memo and said what Washington likes the best at these type of events is false modesty.

(LAUGHTER)

SCARBOROUGH:  They want people—they want people criticizing themselves, but knowing that they don‘t believe it at all, like the president making fun of himself, when everybody says that the president‘s biggest problem is that he‘s arrogant.  Right?  And seriously, explain to people how much Washington politicians and pundits love this false modesty routine, where you talk about how your mother or your father or your wife henpecks you all the time.

COX:  It‘s true.  I mean, Colbert‘s routine is actually based on, you know, false immodesty, right?

SCARBOROUGH:  Right.

COX:  I mean, it‘s based on an overblown version of self, which actually is probably a more accurate depiction of the press corps.

SCARBOROUGH:  You know, you—you know what, Ana Marie?  I‘ll let you continue.  I think you just hit the nail on the head.  It wasn‘t possibly that he was too blunt with the president, it‘s that he went in the opposite direction.  They love this false modesty, you know, but they don‘t like people doing the over-the-top routine that so many pundits on TV do, right?

COX:  I think it maybe hit a little too close to home.  It‘s a little bit too much like what everyone in the audience actually does.  I personally don‘t think he was too tough on the president.  I mean, I think, you know, in theory, it‘s a night that‘s intended to honor the Washington press corps, whose job it is to be as hard on the president as they can possibly be.  I mean, he‘s the president.  I mean, it‘s not like he‘s going to go home and cry on Laura‘s shoulder because he got his feelings hurt.

SCARBOROUGH:  Right.  But let‘s show people the performance that was a big hit with the crowd.  And it was the president‘s look-alike.  Take a look at this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Let‘s hit them with some rhetorical eloquence.

BUSH:  My friends, our purple mountains, with ramparts red glare, white with foam and justice for all, fruity plains gallantly streaming from sea to shining sea, with a shining city on a shining hill above a shining prairie, and maybe some shiny trees and a few shrubs!  I see a shiny America!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCARBOROUGH:  Again, see, Michael, people like that.  Make fun of yourself.  I mean, Colbert—I mean, look at Colbert.  He had an audience of people—most people there dislike the president.  And most of the people there were drunk from the pre-parties, and he still couldn‘t get them laughing.

SCHERER:  There is a fierceness to Colbert‘s performance.  I mean, Washington humor tends to be very insider, very nudge-nudge, drops a lot of names, makes everybody feel like they‘re part of one big game.  Colbert came as an outsider, and he made it pretty clear early on.  And he was after not only the president—I agree with Ana, I don‘t think it was overly fierce for the president, but he was after not only the president, but he was after the press corps.  He was after a lot of the sort of punditry.  He was after the whole conversation.  The whole political conversation, he was lampooning.

SCARBOROUGH:  I‘ll tell you, he was the skunk at the garden party.  And I know a lot of people love him.  I‘ll just stick to what he does on TV on “The Colbert Report” every night.  Thank you so much, Ana Marie Cox.  Thank you, Michael Scherer.  Greatly appreciate it.

And right now, it‘s time for another “Flyover” of SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY, stories the mainstream media‘s not reporting.  So guess what?  We do because we‘re so important!  How‘s that for Colbert?  Right?  Right?

All right, first up tonight, Nebraska, speaking of the Wonkette, is calling Nick Nolte, Dick Cavett and Madam Wonkette.  Nebraska wants to you come home, and now.  That state‘s launching a campaign to encourage expatriated Cornhuskers to return to God‘s country.  The state‘s even working with local colleges and universities to match former Huskers with existing jobs in state.  I figure Nick Nolte as a rehab counselor, Dick Cavett as an Omaha anchor, and Wonkette as—well, I guess a sexually suggestive Internet columnist.  Do they even have those in Nebraska?

And next up, Boulder, Colorado.  Officials at the University of Colorado are adopting a new bathroom policy.  Thank God.  They think it‘s more politically correct.  It seems that Colorado officials believe their men‘s and women‘s bathrooms are discriminating because they don‘t welcome transgendered people.  So new bathrooms are being designated for the transgendered with a new sign that will feature half of a person wearing a dress and half of a person wearing pants.

I‘m not making it up, friends.

And finally, Lawrence, Kansas.  At the university of Kansas—go Jayhawks! -- official correspondence is serious business, so serious that the school‘s logo has been deemed, quote, “too much fun.”  Yes, you heard it right.  The Jayhawk logo, long the symbol of the school, will be relegated to sports teams, but a new, simpler KU logo is being designated for official letterhead and for professors‘ business cards.

I wonder what the Jayhawk people did to ruffle the administrators‘ feathers?  We‘ll figure that out and let you know.

Still to come straight ahead on SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY: What‘s with these guys?  More “Sopranos” arrests.  Are these wiseguys taking their jobs too seriously, or do they think they can get away with crime because of their big Hollywood status?  Plus, guess which “American Idol” judge carries the most weight with viewers.  I‘ll give you a hint.  He‘s also considered to be the most obnoxious and mean-spirited of the bunch.  Would you let Simon Cowell influence your vote?  We‘ll let you know when SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY returns, and also let you know why more Americans think their votes count on “American Idol” than when they go vote for president.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCARBOROUGH:  The “Idol” juggernaut rolls on, despite scandals, infighting, and news about a finalist busted for pot and his murky past.  We‘ll talk about that, and why Simon is the most powerful man in Hollywood, when SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY returns. 

But first, here is the latest news you and your family need to know. 

(NEWSBREAK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Their fathers, brothers, and sisters are fighting in Iraq, but 60 percent of college-aged Americans can‘t find that country on the map.  So why are they so clueless in America‘s colleges?  Hey, I‘ve got issues. 

Plus, they‘re thugs on TV, and now they‘re thugs in real life.  Two members of “The Sopranos” cast arrested.  We‘re going to tell you who‘s in trouble with the law this time. 

And welcome back to the show, those stories in just a minute. 

But first, it‘s time for tonight‘s “Must See SC.” 

First up, Romania.  The government there is blowing up levees—huh, here‘s a novel idea—in an attempt to control flooding along the Danube River.  Five thousand Romanians have been sent from their homes in southern Romania because of rising floodwaters and blowing up levees. 

So blowing up levees, huh?  Well, I guess it‘s one thing the Department of Homeland Security didn‘t do wrong in New Orleans.  Thank God for small favors. 

Next up, base-jumper Roger Holmes.  This Brit and his mountain bike took a plunge off a cliff in southern England.  And lucky for us, he decided to take his camera along for the ride.  Holmes freefell for 500 feet before kicking away his bike and parachuting down to the ground.  And to think my morning commute into Redneck Riviera makes me nervous. 

And, finally, to Kentucky for the Great Bed Race Festival.  Teams of five people dressed in, well, interesting costumes grab a bed and push it around a race derby track.  The winners are the ones who cross the lines with the three fastest times.  The event is all part of Kentucky Derby Week. 

It‘s time to wake Grandma, because we‘re about to talk about “American Idol.”  It‘s the show that‘s down to its final five contestants, and more Americans are watching now than ever before. 

Some say it‘s a harmless pop culture phenomenon, but others obviously take this show a little seriously.  A poll released today finds that 58 percent of “American Idol” voters think that their vote counts as much or more in the “Idol” race than their vote for president. 

Are we taking “Idol” a little too seriously?  Well, what else does the poll show?  Let me bring in Jarett Wieselman.  He‘s senior editor for “In Touch Weekly.”  And also Katrina Szish from “Us Weekly.”

Katrina, I mean, come on, this is like Beatlemania.  These people that watch this show are obsessed.  What is the secret? 

KATRINA SZISH, “US WEEKLY”:  I think the secret is that people really believe that they have a say.  People believe that their opinion counts, that they can actually be experts and take part in what could be American pop cultural history. 

SCARBOROUGH:  So they‘re making a decision themselves on who is going to be the next “American Idol,” who‘s going to be the next big star.  It‘s democratic.  I mean, it‘s not a record company executive in L.A. or some powerful radio general manager in New York; it‘s the voter.  That‘s the secret, huh? 

SZISH:  Yup, I think so.  It‘s little old me in the middle of nowhere, I actually have a say in this huge phenomenon. 

SCARBOROUGH:  And yet, Simon Cowell, one of the most hated men in America, also appears to be one of the most powerful in Hollywood.  A new poll says that 58 percent of voters respect Simon Cowell‘s opinion the most.  That‘s more than twice of the 26 percent who value Randy Jackson‘s opinion and nine times more than the 6 percent who value—or 7 percent that value Paula Abdul‘s. 

I mean, tell me, is Paula Abdul a little more than a potted plant? 

SZISH:  Paula is really there just to sort of smile and make all of the contestants feel like they‘re doing a really good job.  And, you know, Paula just re-signed her contract for a few more years, so I guess she‘s doing something right, even though it does seem like she really doesn‘t have much of an opinion. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Hey, Jarett, let‘s talk about—seriously about how 58 percent of the people that watch this show depend on what Simon says when they‘re casting their vote, 58 percent. 

Again, this show is so powerful that aging rock stars and country stars want to get on.  Record companies are begging them to let performers sing songs that are on their label.  That makes Simon Cowell one of the most powerful guys in music, right? 

JARETT WIESELMAN, “IN TOUCH WEEKLY”:  It absolutely does.  I think the one thing Simon has done better than the other two judges is assert a level of authority.  Paula‘s, all of her comments are one-off.  You can take them or leave them.  Randy is the same way.  Everything is, “Yo dog, what‘s up?”  Simon offers constructive criticism. 

And people take that for what it means:  He is honest, and he‘s truthful.  He‘s like the conscience in the back of our head that tells us what we don‘t want to hear. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Well, that‘s the key, isn‘t it, that he actually says what people at home are thinking, that they would never say to these contestants, if they were standing in front of him?  So they‘re like, yes, he‘s exactly right, I‘m going his way. 

WIESELMAN:  Exactly. 

SCARBOROUGH:  And, Katrina, that is the secret I would guess you think also, that we love saying that he‘s a mean SOB, when all he‘s really doing is verbalizing what we‘re thinking when we‘re watching those performers sing and we‘re sitting there cringing, staring at the TV set. 

SZISH:  At this point, I am so happy that Simon is there, because he really keeps the show real, so to speak.  People love...

SCARBOROUGH:  It would be fluff—wouldn‘t it just be fluff without him?

SZISH:  It would.  There would be no substance to the show without Simon.  People boo him and say he‘s horrible, and Ryan gives him a hard time every other minute.  But, really, it‘s Simon who has such an opinion.  He has such a strong voice that I think it is his opinions and his voice that actually encourages viewers to have strong opinions and, therefore, to vote. 

SCARBOROUGH:  And, of course, there‘s this friction that‘s going on.  These people are fighting all the time; there‘s infighting; there are these scandals.  We got a report that one of the finalists now has a pot bust in his past, and yet it just keeps getting more and more popular, right? 

SZISH:  Absolutely.  There is, you know, a scandal pretty much every season, so that‘s nothing new.  But once you start adding a little bit of tension between the main cast members, that‘s just one more reason to tune in twice a week, every week. 

SCARBOROUGH:  And, Jarett, talk about that, the scandals.  Who‘s been busted this time?

WIESELMAN:  Well, Taylor Hicks has unfortunately been busted for marijuana possession.  It was in the past.  But, you know, as we saw last season with Bo Bice, who had the cocaine bust in the past, drug use is fairly common amongst, you know, Hollywood stars.  And, apparently, on “American Idol,” it‘s OK, too. 

SCARBOROUGH:  I was going to say, it won‘t really matter, will it, Jarett?

WIESELMAN:  Absolutely not.

SCARBOROUGH:  Katrina, you have a prediction for tomorrow night?  Who gets bumped off? 

SZISH:  I think Paris is going bye-bye. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Jarett, do you agree with that? 

WIESELMAN:  I agree with Katrina.  It was tough.  She had it, and she lost it. 

SCARBOROUGH:  All right, and let me say this.  This is my prediction: 

I‘ve never seen any of the shows this year, but I‘m going with both of you. 

Paris, gone!  You‘re out of here!  That‘s my prediction.  We‘ll see. 

Thanks a lot for being with us, Katrina and Jarett. 

SZISH:  Thanks, Joe.

WIESELMAN:  Thank you.

SCARBOROUGH:  And speaking of predictions, voters may care what Simon says, but people out there also look to oddsmakers in Las Vegas—that‘s right—oddsmakers in Las Vegas to figure out how to place their bets on “American Idol.”

People like John Avello, who places odds on “Idol” contestants, and is the director of race and sports operations at Wynn Casino.  Let‘s hear from John and also from former “Idol” and TV show host Kimberly Caldwell. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KIMBERLY CALDWELL, FORMER IDOL:  Right now, I would have to say this is probably one of my favorite seasons ever on “American Idol.”  And I believe, now that Kellie Pickler has gone, there‘s five people remaining, and they definitely own their spot in this competition.  The best five in America, I believe, are still left in the competition. 

SCARBOROUGH:  John, you have been doing the odds on this for some time, pretty accurate odds.  Tell us who‘s going to win.  Who is the strongest horse in the “American Idol” race?

JOHN AVELLO, WYNN CASINO:  Well, Joe, you know, my favorite‘s Chris.  He‘s been the favorite from the very beginning.  I put up the odds when we get down to around 20 contestants.  At that point, Chris was a 4-1 favorite.  Now, he‘s 2-1. 

He‘s been really consistent each week.  He did have a scare, you know, two weeks ago when he was in the bottom two, and then he elevated his game the following week.  He‘s got a unique voice.  But every week, he comes with his game. 

So he‘s the favorite, followed by Katharine.  Tremendous voice, and a good-looker to boot.  And so I‘m sure that any of the male voters out there, that‘s where those votes are probably going, towards Katharine. 

She‘s the second choice at 3-1, followed by Taylor, who I really don‘t believe Taylor has a great singing voice.  I believe he‘s a great entertainer.  He‘s the third choice at 4-1.  He gathers a lot of votes every week. 

Elliott is the fourth choice at 7-1, just an average singer.  That‘s the way I see Elliott.

And then Paris, who is really a top entertainer, is 10-1.  Unfortunately, she does not connect with the audience and does not gather a lot of votes from week to week, so that‘s how I size it up. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Take us behind the scenes.  How do you guys figure out how you‘re going to place odds? 

AVELLO:  Well, it‘s not—the way I start off is I position all of the contestants in order from the way I see.  And so, you know, I do it a little bit of network.  The way we see them, as far as their talent is concerned.  And then we adjust every week, based on their singing. 

But, you know, it is voted on, so their certainly subjective to, you know, voice.  What I hear is totally different from what somebody else may hear. 

And, you know, there is—when you talk about the demographics of where these votes are coming from, maybe that‘s why Taylor‘s hanging around.  You know, down here in the south in Alabama, you know, he‘s getting a strong pop from down there, and maybe all the outer-lying states.  So he‘s grabbing a good portion of those votes in that area. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Hey, Kimberly, let‘s talk about “Idol” this year.  It seems like this juggernaut just keeps getting stronger and stronger every year. 

CALDWELL:  Well, I mean, I think that it actually kind of dropped for a little bit in between season two—that‘s my season—and season five.  But, I mean, it was huge, season two.  And I had no clue how big it was when I was even on the show.  You‘re kind of in the “American Idol” bubble. 

But I think that, you know, everybody—there‘s merchandise everywhere, of course.  You know, there‘s perfume; there‘s bags; there‘s games; there‘s coin collections; there‘s, you know, an “American Idol” magazine. 

Now there‘s a pre-show, our pre-show, “Idol Tonight,” which pumps, you know, the audience at home and the audience that is about to go into “American Idol,” pumps them up for the big show.  And they also have a post-show. 

So it just keeps getting bigger, and I think the people, you know, at home are really enjoying seeing somebody who doesn‘t have an opportunity, but has the talent, actually get that opportunity, and be able to, you know, get their name heard and get their voice heard by America. 

SCARBOROUGH:  All right.  We‘ll have to leave it there.  Want to thank both of you for being with us.  Kimberly and John, greatly appreciate it. 

AVELLO:  Thank you, Joe. 

CALDWELL:  Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCARBOROUGH:  And I‘m joined now by Rita Cosby.  She‘s the host of

“LIVE & DIRECT.” 

Rita, what do you have coming up for us? 

RITA COSBY, HOST:  Well, Joe, election results have just come in, and they were very tight.  We‘re going to tell you what the results mean for the Duke rape investigation.  This is the race for district attorney. 

Plus, one of the lacrosse players speaking out about what he saw that night and why the coach really left his post. 

Also, he is tough on screen—you were just talking to some of the “American Idol” folks—but what is he like on a date?  We will have Simon Cowell‘s girlfriend with us live.  We‘re going to have that and a whole lot more, “LIVE & DIRECT” at the top of the hour—Joe? 

SCARBOROUGH:  I wonder what kind of critique she‘s going to give him. 

Ask the tough questions, Rita.  We want to know. 

COSBY:  I promise.

SCARBOROUGH:  You always do.  Thanks a lot, Rita. 

And make sure you tune in to Rita Cosby.  She‘s “LIVE & DIRECT,” coming up next at 10:00. 

And still ahead, art imitating life.  The bad boys from HBO‘s show “The Sopranos” are racking up a rap sheet off the screen, too.  We‘re going to tell you who‘s been busted by New York cops, coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCARBOROUGH:  One of the most-watched TV shows on Sunday and always the most talked about on Monday, but now the talk ain‘t all good.  Some are saying it‘s time for “The Sopranos” wise guys to wise up. 

Over the weekend, two “Sopranos” stars continued the show‘s string of off-screen run-ins with the law by getting themselves arrested.  Tony Soprano‘s favorite chef, Artie Bucco, played by John Ventimiglia, was arrested Sunday on charges of DWI, reckless driving, and criminal possession of cocaine, among other things.  And he was released on his own recognizance.

“Sopranos” star Louis Gross, who plays Muscles Marinara, Tony Soprano‘s new bodyguard, was also busted on Sunday for criminal mischief.  He allegedly bashed in the front door of a home in Queens, New York, and walked off with $2,750 in property. 

With me now to discuss life imitating art, Katrina Szish, contributing editor for “Us Weekly,” and Curtis Sliwa, radio talk show host and founder of the Guardian Angels, and also not a friend of the mobsters himself.

Curtis, let me begin with you.  This is life imitating art.  I would take it you‘re not amused. 

CURTIS SLIWA, GUARDIAN ANGELS:  Well, you know, they‘re keeping it real.  And this is what “The Sopranos” want.  They want real-life degenerates who then can go up on the big screen and do method acting, play the character role. 

Look at Paulie Walnuts, Tony Sirico.  For years, he‘d be out in Brooklyn collecting the vig, which is the interest on the loans, and then bend your leg and stuff it in your pocket if you didn‘t deliver, while eating his pasta vazul (ph).

So as much as we think, “Oh, they may be bumped off the show, they‘ll be in contractual sort of disagreement with the producers and the directors,” not at all.  This actually enhances their ability to continue to be on “The Sopranos.”

SCARBOROUGH:  So, Curtis, you were telling me that, when they‘re casting “The Sopranos,” they‘re actually looking for guys that have murky backgrounds?  And so when these arrests happen, they‘re not surprised?  In fact, you‘re saying they‘re happy.

SLIWA:  Oh, there‘s no question.  It‘s sort of like the hip-hop rap world, keeping it real.  The more times you‘re shot, the more crimes you commit, the more stripes you get, the more street cred you get. 

Look at A.J., the son of Tony Soprano.  Look, he got in trouble, and he‘s never been making more moolah-shmoolah and getting more credits on “The Sopranos.” 

And, by the way, they‘re going into the tank.  I mean, the viewership is down.  So the more headlines these B-rated stars can get for “The Sopranos” and get you to watch on Sunday is better for HBO and better for David Chase. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Katrina, would you agree that these arrests actually don‘t hurt “The Sopranos” but may actually help HBO and may help their ratings? 

SZISH:  I think it can help the ratings, but I don‘t think it will necessarily help HBO, if they refuse to acknowledge the seriousness of some of these crimes.  If they just sort of blow them off and don‘t respond to them appropriately, I think it can reflect badly on the network, and that could lead to problems down the road. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Do you agree with Curtis that you‘ve actually have the people that are casting this show looking for street thugs? 

SZISH:  I don‘t know if I can agree that they‘re actually actively looking for street thugs, but I think having some of that street cred that Curtis mentioned kind of comes with the territory. 

And, hey, they are typecasting.  They‘re looking to fill characters for these very hard-hitting roles.  And they‘re finding people who, you know, live this life off the camera, as well. 

SCARBOROUGH:  They certainly are. 

And Robert Iler, who plays Tony Soprano‘s rebellious son, is a bad boy in real life, too.  He was arrested by New York City cops in July 2001, charged with robbery, charged with possession of marijuana.  He pleaded guilty and received three years‘ probation. 

And, Curtis, again, talk about the impact on you, as you see this news.  Talk about the impact that you see “The Sopranos” glorified—I mean, I watch it every week—but how actually your life has been changed by the mob, and how this is not a laughing matter to you or your family at all. 

SLIWA:  Oh, no question.  And what it does to the depiction of Italian Americans, feeding into that stereotype.  We see A.J., who you described, going through his deformative years, as he ultimately becomes a full-blown degenerate in real life and in method acting as the character, A.J.

And I must tell you this...

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Hey, Curtis, I‘ll tell you what.  Stay with us.  We‘ll be right back in a second with more in SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Curtis, do you think that the people that get arrested, that work on “The Sopranos” should be sanctioned by the show, should not be allowed to be a part of it anymore? 

SLIWA:  Oh, I wish they‘d be put into room temperature out there in Hollyweird, instead of being a sort of patting on the back as the geriatric, espresso-sipping psychotic killers that they‘d like to be.  They‘d like to be real-life Gambinos and Gottis. 

And, unfortunately, this is the projection of an image that‘s sent across America of what Italian-Americans are not. 

SCARBOROUGH:  And, Katrina, I‘ll ask you the same question.  Do you think HBO ought to take some strong action against these people and tell them they‘re not welcome on “The Sopranos” anymore? 

SZISH:  I think it‘s important that HBO recognizes that these crimes are not cool, they‘re not appropriate, whether these people are actors who actually play criminals on TV or whether they‘re actual criminals.  HBO does need to acknowledge the seriousness of these crimes. 

SCARBOROUGH:  That‘s not going to happen, though, is it, Curtis? 

SZISH:  Of course not. 

SCARBOROUGH:  And Katrina says no.  Curtis, that‘s not going to happen, is it?  HBO‘s just going to smile and look the other way because of the street cred.

SLIWA:  No, because it‘s all about the money, the duckets, the moolah-shmoolah.  That‘s right; they want the ratings; they want to keep it real.  And, unfortunately, they‘re promoting organized crime.  They‘re promoting mayhem, and they‘re promoting murder and killing, and running to the bank, laughing at the rest of us. 

SCARBOROUGH:  All right, Curtis Sliwa, Katrina Szish, thank you.  We‘ll have to leave it there.  And we‘ll be back with more SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY in a minute.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Hey, thanks so much for being with me tonight.  That‘s all the time we have, though.  Stick around, because Rita Cosby “LIVE & DIRECT” starts right now.

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

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