updated 7/31/2006 12:28:41 PM ET 2006-07-31T16:28:41

Guests: Jack Jacobs, Barbara Lippert

BRIAN UNGER, HOST:  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?

Settling in for the long slog in the Middle East.  Israel decides it won‘t launch a larger ground invasion, but calls up tens of thousands of more troops.  Is there any end in sight to the fighting and the suffering?

Al Qaeda‘s call to arms.  Osama‘s number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri‘s message from beyond, again.  This time, urging Muslims to join the fight in Lebanon.

Flip-flop alert.  Senatorial candidate Michael Steele, outed by his own staff after an anonymous luncheon, where he criticized the Bush administration.  Now he says he was only kidding, and that the president is his homeboy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE MICHAEL:  I have not cheated or lied about my sex life.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

UNGER:  And finally, George Michael explains it all, why men like him wait into the bush to hook up with guys like this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL:  Women almost never understand this phenomenon.  Many more men than will admit it totally understand the concept.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

UNGER:  Now that you have seen the picture, you know why the sparks flew.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, TV COMMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Headon, apply directly to the forehead.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

UNGER:  Got a headache?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, TV COMMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Headon, apply directly to the forehead.

UNGER:  Wait.  Where should I apply it?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, TV COMMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Headon, apply directly to the forehead.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

UNGER:  The most annoying commercial of all time—

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, TV COMMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Headon.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

UNGER:  ... could be the most brilliant commercial ever.  Oh, how it hurts.

All that and more, now on COUNTDOWN.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, TV COMMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Headon, apply directly to the forehead.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

UNGER:  And good evening.  I‘m Brian Unger, in for the vacationing Keith Olbermann.

What began as a mission to destroy Hezbollah has instead become a mission to contain it.

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, day 16 of the Middle East (INAUDIBLE) crisis, bringing a change in strategy for the Israeli military.  In the words of one Israeli official, quote, “The target is not to totally dismantle Hezbollah.  What we are doing now is to try to send a message.”

Sending that message proving to be a lot more difficult than many had thought.  The prime minister of Israel forced to call up at least 30,000 additional troops to begin training for duty in Lebanon.

In a moment, the cost of staying the course, and taking the fight to Hezbollah, with Medal of Honor winner Colonel Jack Jacobs.

But we begin with the price being paid by innocent civilians.

Their story from our Beirut bureau chief, Richard Engel, in southern Lebanon.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RICHARD ENGEL, BEIRUT BUREAU CHIEF (voice-over):  The ambulances race south into the center of the fighting, through empty villages, on dirt roads, past bombed gas stations.  Our driver struggled to keep up.

The goal, to reach Tivnin (ph), a village 10 miles from the Israeli border.  It was rumored everyone there was holed up in a hospital, hoping it was safe from Israeli air strikes.

The rumors were true.  The hospital was full of refugees.  Mattresses in every corner, nothing to eat but bread and canned meat, water running low, power off and on, and only one doctor.

(on camera):  Every person who stayed in this village is now living here.  There are about 300 people in this hospital, and they all want to leave.

(voice-over):  But they can‘t afford to.  Taxis now charge up to $1,000 to drive the dangerous road to Beirut.

Abir Baz (ph) walked here.  “They bombed my neighbor‘s house, and we had to leave,” she said.  She walked 10 miles to get here, just hours after she gave birth to her son six days ago.

In the ER, we found 70-year-old Latifah Nasir (ph).  Dr. Nabil Harkoos (ph) said an Israeli shell destroyed her house.

Latifah was dehydrated, her pelvis broken too.  Medics tried to raise her gently to give her water.  Dr. Harkoos was frustrated, exhausted, and disgusted.

DR. NABIL HARKOOS:  It‘s terrible, terrible.  There is no humanity.

ENGEL:  Latifah was finally evacuated, but Abir wept as the only ambulance returned to Tyre, leaving her and her baby behind.

(on camera):  While people are trapped in that village, more are leaving here.  Today, the mayor of Tyre said of the 275,000 people who normally live in this city, 200,000 of them have escaped, Brian.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

UNGER:  Richard Engel in southern Lebanon.  Thank you very much.

Day 16 of this conflict, and the only thing that seems certain is more bloodshed to come.  Israel had said it was going to destroy Hezbollah.  Now it appears it may not be able to.

We get more on the shifting reality, if not resolve, from John Irvine of our British partner ITN, on the front lines with the Israeli army.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHN IRVINE, ITV NEWS (voice-over):  Israeli soldiers with a Hezbollah flag.  Flaunting the enemy‘s colors may encourage a worried public, but in truth, the army doesn‘t have much to show for this campaign.

Perhaps this is a more telling image.  These tired soldiers are from the Galani (ph) Brigade, the most respected units in the Israeli army.  These young men lost nine of their colleagues in fighting yesterday, and they were getting ready to head back to the front line.

This is the well-worn path the Israelis are using to enter south Lebanon to engage Hezbollah fighters in two key villages close to the border.  They don‘t want to go deep into Lebanon.  At the moment, they can supply the fighting units from their own side of the frontier and rotate them in and out of enemy territory.

(on camera):  We are actually inside Lebanon, and what you are seeing here is Israeli armor heading for the border.  These crews are going back into Israel, where they‘ll get a well-earned rest.

(voice-over):  Despite the problems, the Israeli government has decided to persevere with limited incursions.  A full-scale invasion is something they want to avoid, although, by calling up more reserves, they are keeping all their options open.

GEN. SHUKI SHICHAR, ISRAELI DEFENSE FORCE:  We did not use until now all the response that we have.  And if we will find that we have to use more, we will find a way.

IRVINE:  This afternoon, more Hezbollah rockets landed in the largely abandoned northern town of Kiryat Shmona.  There‘s nobody working in this toothpaste factory, so the toll was only structural.

The missiles keep coming.  Nobody is suggesting the Israelis are fighting a losing battle, but this nation knows victory will require further sacrifice.

John Irvine, ITV News, on the Israel-Lebanon border.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

UNGER:  As promised, time now to call in retired U.S. Army colonel and Medal of Honor recipient Jack Jacobs.

Thank you for your time tonight, Colonel.

COL. JACK JACOBS (RET.), U.S. ARMY:  Good evening, Brian.

UNGER:  Jack, heading into this conflict, Israel declared that Hezbollah would be dealt a blow from which it could not recover, that its arsenal would be completely destroyed and its fighters driven out of southern Lebanon.  Clearly, not going the way Israel had expected.  Right?

JACOBS:  No, it hasn‘t gone the way it expected, and part of the reason is that it failed to commit sufficient forces in order to accomplish the mission.  You always start at the end and work backwards.  What is it I‘m trying to do?

Well, if they wanted to expel Hezbollah, destroy Hezbollah, or at least take control of the 10 to 12 miles or so north of the border between Lebanon and Israel, so that Hezbollah would not be able to fire rockets onto Israel, well, they certainly didn‘t commit sufficient forces in order to do it.  They only had four brigades in there, or perhaps even less, and they‘re rotating them through.  They just did not want to make the commitment to get it done.

UNGER:  Jack, in these 10 to 12 miles that you speak of in this buffer zone, what is it about Hezbollah here that has proven to be so difficult for any army?

JACOBS:  Well, there are two things that come immediately to mind.  First of all, they—Hezbollah‘s had six years to build up their resources in the area.  They‘ve dug down deep.  They have reinforced bunkers.  They have defensive positions in depth.

And that makes it extremely difficult to rout them out, and why you need many more forces.  In addition to that, they‘re are situated among all the populace that‘s in southern Lebanon, and they‘re also among friends.  This is Shia territory, not like northern Lebanon, or northern part of Beirut, which is predominantly Christian.

This is Shia territory.  The bad guys are interspersed with the population, and they‘ve had a long time to get themselves prepared for this.

UNGER:  Colonel, you have amazing and great experience and expertise from your time in Vietnam.  And I wanted to ask you this question.  And based on what we‘re seeing here, in—on the border and in Lebanon, has warfare and ground warfare just changed forever this idea of armies facing one another?  As we—perhaps in World War II, even different then.

But is any army invincible anymore?  And do ground wars—are they always going to look like this from now on?

JACOBS:  Well, they won‘t necessarily look like this.  It depends largely upon what the objectives are and who the enemy is.  Here, you have a stateless enemy that‘s been given a certain amount of protection by default by the Lebanese government, and they‘ve had a long time to prepare, and as a result of that, you need to make the decision to commit large numbers of troops in order to get rid of them.

We see the same sort of thing in Iraq, don‘t we?  In a situation in which we committed far too few forces in order to get the job done.

In situations like this, where we‘re fighting stateless warriors, people who are committed to, in this case, jihad, who have absolutely—or consider themselves to have absolutely nothing to lose, you better not try to do it on the cheap.  You‘ve got to have overwhelming combat power and then some.

And if you decide that you‘re going to try to do something, and you won‘t have the resources to do it, you might as well not try to do it at all.

And you also have to have a stomach, unfortunately, for collateral damage.  The population is in the middle.  Good guys have guns.  Bad guys have guns.  And the civilians, unfortunately, do not, and they‘re going to suffer the most.  If you don‘t have the stomach for that, you ought not to try it in the first place.

UNGER:  Well, we‘re definitely seeing a lot of that on both sides.

This new strategy, quickly, Jack, this containing Hezbollah, from the military standpoint, how do you live with a sustainable amount of terror in your back yard?

JACOBS:  Well, it ain‘t going to work.  I don‘t think it‘s going to work.  They‘ve gone from deciding that they want to clear out 12 miles to clearing out one mile.  It‘s not going to work.  Quite frankly, the Hezbollah has got the range on their missiles to continue firing in northern Israel.

Nothing would have been accomplished if you settle for that.  And unfortunately, it‘s—their plan now is not going to work.

UNGER:  Retired U.S. Army colonel Jack Jacobs, thank you for your time tonight.

JACOBS:  Good to be with you.

UNGER:  The bloodshed in Iraq today far exceeding that of even Lebanon.  More than 51 killed in a string of bombings and shootings, nearly three dozen in just one precisely timed Baghdad attack, a car bomb and at least three mortar shells raining down on an upscale, mostly Shiite neighborhood of the city, 100 dying across that country on any given day now.

As a result, any American family thinking their soldier is coming home soon may be in for a nasty surprise.  All flights out of Iraq for troops at the end of deployment have been canceled, while the military tries to figure out how to make Baghdad safe.

No surprise, then, that morale is low among U.S. troops, one soldier telling “The Washington Post” that he longs for the days of World War II, when at least you knew who the enemy was, another saying, and I quote, “Honestly, it just feels like we‘re driving around waiting to get blown up.”

Iraq, the Middle East, the not-so-light stuff that U.N. Ambassador Josh Bolton has to deal with every day.  So perhaps it was good that he was given a little levity from above, a light shower interrupting his testimony on Capitol Hill.

Yes, that‘s water draining down on the ambassador.  At least we hope that is water.  Ambassador Bolton, in stormy weather for the Bush administration‘s foreign policy on just about every front, making it clear that indoor weather should not be one of them.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN BOLTON, UNITED STATES AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS:  I have seen a lot of things to interpose in between...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I‘m not responsible for this, I might say, I‘m not responsible for this.

BOLTON:  ... to interpose in between the questions and the witnesses. 

But I‘ve never seen this.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  This is a form of transparency, I suppose.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

UNGER:  First of all, it is John Bolton, not Josh Bolton, my apologies.  No rain delay necessary here.  A trash can containing the damage of the water.  That is, U.S. foreign policy, no such luck.  The water blamed on a leak, apparently from a pipe.  But Patrick Fitzgerald is being called in to investigate, just in case.

Al Qaeda is calling on Muslims everywhere to join the fight against Israel.  But is it realistic to think that Hezbollah and al Qaeda would ever join forces?

And joining sides with your homeboy.  Just days after a Republican candidate for Senate disses the president big-time, now all of a sudden Bush is back to homeboy status.  Political flip-flop of the week.

You‘re watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

UNGER:  Since the Middle East erupted 16 days ago, Western leaders, diplomatic envoys, and hard-line regimes have all laid out their positions on the conflict.

Now, in our fourth story, al Qaeda weighs in, Ayman al-Zawahiri appearing in a highly produced video, exhorting Muslims to fight and become martyrs in response to the Lebanon conflict, and warning that al Qaeda will not stand by during the bombing, though he stopped short of actually saying what his terrorist organization might contribute.

As to his location, well, it looks like he is in a TV studio.  Upon closer inspection, he could be anywhere, U.S. intelligence officials pointing out that the strange lighting and the fuzziness around Zawahiri means he might have been superimposed onto sort of a snazzy set, replete with images, track lighting, and graphics.

Adding to that theory, at least two different edit points in the video caused Zawahiri‘s image to jerk while the background remains the same.

I‘m joined now by terrorism expert and MSNBC analyst Juliette Kayyem.

Thanks for your time, Juliette.

JULIETTE KAYYEM, TERRORISM EXPERT:  Thank you, Brian.

UNGER:  I want to talk more about the setting in which this video took place in a moment.  But first, let me ask you, Juliette, about the tape‘s content, al Qaeda obviously offering its support to Hezbollah against Israel, even though Zawahiri never mentions them by name, and even though al Qaeda is Sunni Muslim, and Hezbollah is Shiite.

Is al Qaeda attempting to sort of unify the Muslim world here against the infidels, as sort of a pan-Arab appeal?

KAYYEM:  Yes, I think so.  There‘s two things going on here.  One is, clearly al Qaeda just wants to steal some of the thunder of Hezbollah.  They are the—Hezbollah‘s the player right now.  This is where everyone‘s attention is focused.  And so al Qaeda‘s sitting back there without a lot to talk about right now, wants basically to take credit for a movement that has certainly passed them by.

We‘ve seen al Qaeda do this before, when Hamas won the Palestinian elections, they said,  well, that‘s all about us.  It‘s a sort of, you know, Enough about them, let‘s talk about us kind of take.

What‘s more interesting, though, is, I really think that this is—this tape is as significant as a post-Zarqawi death tape.  AND What I mean by that is, Zarqawi spent a lot of time separating Shia and Sunnis and basically causing what‘s close to a civil war in Iraq.

What is happening in this tape and the al Qaeda tape is that they‘re saying Shias and Sunnis actually have a common enemy, Israel and the United States.  We have more in common than we don‘t.  The Zarqawi days are over, and let‘s all focus on the common enemy of all of us.

UNGER:  Would Hezbollah accept any real help from al Qaeda?  And how would the two ever converge?  I mean, how would that be realistic?

KAYYEM:  Well, there‘s—I mean—I know, it‘s—I mean, there‘s—technically, it would be very difficult at this stage, although there is some al Qaeda in Lebanon.  Hezbollah is the player right now in southern Lebanon.

But Hezbollah‘s very interesting, to this extent.  They are a political party in Lebanon.  They play politics within a democratic Arab state.  And so they‘re basically, you know, at the stage where it doesn‘t help them to embrace the al Qaeda movement, for a variety of reasons.

One is they are Shia, not Sunni, and two is, they have a lot of sympathy, I think, from the Lebanese right now in a way that they wouldn‘t if they embraced, say, bin Laden right now.

UNGER:  Pardon the superficiality of this issue I want to ask you about, but the tape itself.  There‘s higher production value on this tape.  And this is a far stretch from the images we‘ve seen in caves.  What, what, what, when you see these kinds of superimpositions and kind of a set here, what, what, what do you interpret from that?

KAYYEM:  Well, I mean, like most everyone who saw it this morning, I mean, there certainly is not a cave.  Even if Zawahiri is superimposed, that still says something about the technology of al Qaeda and their communications branch in trying to get the message out.

So I think it‘s bad news all around, because one has to assume, as we all do, that if they‘re able to have this kind of production value, they are clearly able to communicate with one another, and that‘s what you don‘t want.  You, of course, don‘t want a terrorist movement that feels empowered, or at least feels sort of safe enough to be able to communicate amongst themselves.

UNGER:  Is, is—let me ask you, though, how serious a threat we should perceive from this video.  Is this an attempt to associate a terrorist organization with another conflict, or is this a signal that they‘re not really operational anymore, that they‘re just really trying to get attention?

KAYYEM:  Well, I mean, in some ways, it is desperate, of course, because, you know, we‘re all talking about Hezbollah and Israel, and al Qaeda now seems sort of like a distant threat.  So in that sense, it is desperate of al Qaeda to sort of come out with these videotapes.  We‘ve seen a bunch lately, and sort of embrace everything and anything that may have to do with anti-Americanism.

On the other hand, there‘s something sort of, I think, not terrifying, but something not so desperate about it, is that it‘s incredibly politically savvy.  To embrace all sort of anti-Americanism within al Qaeda gives them, I think, a lot of focus in the world, and gives them—and it, you know, makes us talk about, you and I talk about al Qaeda again.

UNGER:  So you‘ll be seeing—we will be seeing other tapes, is what you‘re saying?

KAYYEM:  Yes, I think so.  There‘s rumor mill about a bin Laden tape in the next 48 hours, so everyone—not an audiotape, not a videotape, but an audiotape.

UNGER:  (INAUDIBLE).  Terrorism expert Juliette Kayyem, thanks for your time tonight.  Thanks for speaking with us.

KAYYEM:  Thank you.

UNGER:  America‘s latest sports champion has to put his superhero status on hold.  Floyd Landis, who defied the odds to win the Tour de France, is now caught in the center of a doping scandal.

And then George Michael, no stranger to scandal, gets caught literally in the bushes with another man.  In an exclusive interview, Michael explains why it‘s OK to have anonymous sex in parks.  And for the first time this week, we finally get to show you the other guy.  Yes.

COUNTDOWN continues in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

UNGER:  I‘m Brian Unger.

And here is part of a cable news exchange program, where Keith Olbermann gets to enjoy the apocalyptic heat of California.  I get to enjoy the tropical humidity of New York.

But with this bonus, the strange stories and weird video that begins when you hear the immortal words...

Let‘s play Oddball.

And we begin in Darwin, Australia, for the 32nd Annual Beer Can regatta, where guys who like to drink a lot of beer have discovered the perfect use for all their empty cans.  You build a boat, then race it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We used about 1,500 cans.  And we‘re proud to say that we‘ve drunk every one of them as a team.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

UNGER:  Oh, it sure takes DWI to a whole new height (INAUDIBLE).

And we turn to Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Missouri—there it is—where one Cardinals fan learned the hard way that windy weather plus trash cans don‘t mix.  Ooh, that‘s got to hurt.  Let‘s see that in slow-mo if we can.  There it is.  Strike.  The can comes speeding in, and bam, and hits the lady on her side, sends her flying.

That‘s terrible, we should say.  And if the sight of a trash can hitting one person out of, say, 10 people who were crossing the lane reminds you of something, consider this.  Right next door to Busch Stadium, you‘ll find the International Bowling Museum and Hall of Fame.  Taking out the 10-pin there.

And from getting hit by trash at Busch Stadium, to President Bush getting trashed by his own party.  The Senate candidate that ripped apart this administration anonymously on Monday now has Mr. Bush squarely in his friend column.

That, and the Democrats‘ plan to capitalize on high disapproval ratings for the president.

And it‘s called the most annoying ad on TV, but is its annoyance its only big claim to fame?  The headache-inducing Headon ads.

Ahead on COUNTDOWN.  Ahead on COUNTDOWN.  It‘s ahead on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

UNGER:  First, it was the president who used the word “yo,” as in “Yo!  Blair.”  Now a politician is describing President Bush as his home boy.  In our No. 3 story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, the political speak is getting way more street.  It is particularly surprising when one half of these homies is a republican senate candidate who unleashed a torrent of criticism against Mr. Bush earlier this week.  Michael Steele, the Maryland lieutenant governor now running for U.S. Senate seat, in a luncheon with reporters dished out heaping helpings of Bush administration failures, first on the condition his remarks stay anonymous, just one example:

“In Katrina, the president is at 30,000 feet, in an airplane looking down at people dying, living on a bridge, living on a bridge.  And that disconnect, I think, sums up, for me at least, the frustration that Americas feel.”

He called the “R” of republicanism a scarlet letter, and he said he would probably not want the president to campaign with him.  But on Tuesday, Mr. Steele identified himself as that anonymous republican candidate and then backpedaled on his remarks.  In a Baltimore radio interview Wednesday, Steele quit dissing the press, saying, “I‘ve been quoted before as calling the president my homeboy.and that‘s how I feel...if the president wants to come and help me in Maryland, he is more than welcome.  I‘m not going to turn my back on a friend.” 

As for the democrats, they‘ve just come out with their slogan for the Fall elections.  It does not include the words “homey” or “yo.”  Instead, dems are down with “Six for ‘06.”  It‘s part of a campaign they‘re calling a new direction for America.  The six referring to the six big issues democrats want to press ramping up to the midterm elections.  The six are: 

National security, jobs, college access, energy dependence, health care, and retirement security, despite most people‘s inability to remember six things about anything.  Democratic leaders plan 200 events across the country during the month of August alone.  Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, saying, “In the month of august, we will own August.” 

Let‘s talk to someone who witnessed both the flip and the flop of Mr.  Steele and get some insight into the democrats‘ plan for winning in November, COUNTDOWN homey, national political reporter for the “Washington Post” and MSNBC political analyst, Dana Milbank.  He was one of those reporters at the lunch, we should say, when Michael Steele was still speaking anonymously, and frankly. 

Good evening, Dana. 

DANA MILBANK, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Yo!

UNGER:  Michael Steele is a politician, after all, and we can expect backpedaling, but is the president really his homeboy? 

MILBANK:  You know, he actually didn‘t say that during the lunch.  He did say that Ken Mehlman, the RNC chairman is his homeboy, but that‘s because Ken actually comes from Baltimore, so he had some grounds for that one there.  I don‘t understand why he‘s backpedaling at all.  It seemed to me he should have been on the record in the first place.  Good politics when you‘re in the state of Maryland, very blue, democratic state to diss the president and the party when they‘re down, you know, in the low 30‘s in the polls.  So, I think if Steele was going to be more of a man of steel, he would have won more votes by just sticking to what he said. 

UNGER:  And during that Baltimore radio interview, Steele also said, “I‘m not trying to dis the president.  I‘m not trying to distance myself from the president.  I‘m trying to show those lines where I have a different perspective and a different point of view.” 

Now, in fairness, Steele does side with Bush on the stalwart conservative issues, like stem cell and abortion, but is it clear here that carrying the republican base isn‘t enough to win elections? 

MILBANK:  Yeah, I mean, I think that‘s right.  I think, basically he and a lot of others who want to follow the McCain strategy.  When you look at him, as you point out, conservative across the board with Bush on stem cells, flag burning amendment, gay marriage amendment, but what he‘s doing is rhetorically differentiating himself, and that‘s what McCain does.  And reporters love heretics.  You like a guy when he‘s, sort of, sounds like he‘s being disloyal to his party.  So, here he can be perfectly consistent on the ideology, but a lot of people, democratic voters, are going to say oh, I think he‘s one of us. 

UNGER:  Let‘s, Dana, move on to the democrats and this new direction for America, “Six for ‘06.”  Will they aggressively push any of these issues outlined in this plan, or is this a construct here to show their base, and others, that they stand for these six things? 

MILBANK:  Well, I think “Six for ‘06,” this is the sixth attempt to come up with a plan in ‘06, so I suspect that‘s what they are referring to.  Constantly under pressure to say OK, you don‘t like the Bush agenda.  What‘s your agenda?  So, you know, everybody‘s trying to sort of model it after the famous contract with America that Newt Gingrich had in 1994.  That worked once, it‘s unlikely to work again.  You know, people are not going to remember those particular issues.  I suppose at least it quiets—you know, shuts up all the reporters who are saying they don‘t have a plan. 

UNGER:  Dana, National Public Radio did a poll focusing on the 50 most contested congressional seats, finding that even in those tighter races, the public favors democrats over republicans.  Now, if the climate is the same, come election day, if the situation in Iraq is basically the same, will that weigh much more heavily than any agenda they can come up with?  I mean, can democrats just win by not being republican? 

MILBANK:  Certainly Iraq, if it‘s as it is now, is going to weigh very heavily on that.  I‘m still skeptical of the notion that there could be some sort of a tidal wave that would sweep the democrats to power in both chambers in Congress.  It just seems like they would really have to thread the needle just right, even if there is kind of a wave.  Now, how is that for a mixed metaphor?  But, still unlikely, but I think a lot of people are saying elections held today, democrats can pull it off.  So if the status quo is maintained or worsens, it‘s going to be really a very close call. 

UNGER:  Dana Milbank, COUNTDOWN homey and of the “Washington Post” and MSNBC.  Thank you so much for joining us. 

MILBANK:  Good night, Brian.

UNGER:  Thanks.

A big come from behind win of Floyd Landis at the Tour de France is suddenly called into question.  The American fails one drug test, now a larger investigation is underway. 

No investigation needed for George Michael.  He admits he has anonymous sex in parks.  He‘s been doing it for years.  And y‘all just need to get over it.  An exclusive interview with Michael and even better than that, we can now reveal the guy he met in the bushes.  That‘s right, we‘ve got him.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

UNGER:  If you‘re a famous pop star, you‘re about to marry your long-term partner, apparently it‘s fine to pick up a middle-aged van driver for anonymous sex in a park.  George Michael takes the media head on, next.  And speaking of HeadOn, apparently you apply it directly to the forehead, an explanation‘s ahead.  This is COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

UNGER:  Well, you may have heard this week that the war on infidelity suffered another high-profile setback.  This latest blow to monogamy involves a repeat offender, this time in an attempted terrorist in the bushes of a London park.  Our second story on the COUNTDOWN, if there is hanky-panky going down in the bushes and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?  The answer is yes if the paparazzi is there, too. 

Singer George Michael caught on camera trolling for sex in the wild of a London park, and some would say he found an actual troll.  Described by British tabloids as a pot-bellied, jobless van driver, there he is, Norman Kirkland.  You can see how hard it would be to resist Norm especially under the intoxicating moonlight.  Plus come on, the guy‘s a van.  And here‘s an angry George clearly upset that his romantic life, albeit with anonymous dudes in a park, has been interrupted by a stalking paparazzo.  Michael insists this kind of dating is not a problem with his partner Kenny Goss, and their plans to marry have not change and furthermore that he would have to do something really atrocious to get those nuptials called off. 

Here now is George Michael, a man who loves singing and the outdoors in an exclusive interview with ITN‘s Nina Hossein talking about... 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NINA HOSSEIN, ITN (voice-over):  A life flips through the headlines, a man who‘s now more known for his colorful and controversial private life than the music which put him in the tabloids in the first place. 

(on camera):  George, there are some people out there who are not homophobic, who are in a relationship, be that gay or straight, it doesn‘t matter.  They don‘t understand why somebody in a long-term relationship, in a partnership, wants to have casual sex outside of that relationship. 

GEORGE MICHAEL, SINGER:  And I think women almost never understand this phenomenon, and I totally respect that.  I don‘t try to explain it to them... 

HOSSEIN:  And some men, and some gay men, as well. 

MICHAEL:  Yes, but many—but many, many, many men—many more men than will admit it totally understand the concept, because the idea of no strings sex is very attractive to most men, gay or straight. 

HOSSEIN:  In terms of people who don‘t understand why somebody would want casual sex outside of a relationship, can you understand that they would be confused about why you would put your health at risk potentially?

MICHAEL:  No, I‘m sorry.  I‘m not here to talk about all this.  We can talk all night if you want to about how dangerous it is to go to a bar or a pub or an ordinary club in life these days.

(CROSSTALK)

HOSSEIN:  Absolutely, all these things have potential risks.

MICHAEL:  And I have been saying I have been doing this on and off since I was a teenager and never once seen violence.  If I want to see violence or what I call shameful behavior, the idea that women in clubs these days have to hold their hand over their drink for fear of being drugged.  Please don‘t tell me as a member of the straight community that I am taking risks.  I know what I do, and I‘m sorry, but we should not be taking questions like this from straight women in particular or males... 

HOSSEIN:  OK, from gay people.

MICHAEL:  Very few gay people are internally homophobic enough to say we don‘t want to be represented like this.

HOSSEIN:  But neither you nor I can speak for other gay people about that. 

MICHAEL:  No, we can‘t.  We can‘t, but what I can say is I do not deserve the criticism.  What I don‘t have respect for is some demand for answers from an openly gay man who‘s is living his own life.  I‘m not lying.  I‘m not cheating anyone.  These are normally the elements of a straight scandal is that a kiss and tell involves a straight person who is cheating or lying.  I have not cheated or lied about my sex life to anybody in my life in my entire life.  You know, I mean, I hate not to be able to rise above it, but there‘s only so much you can take.  When the media starts to put slurs on my relationship and indicate that my partner, who is perfectly happy with the way I live my life and the way we live our lives together, that my partner is calling off our registered partnership and that I‘m having to buy him back with money, these kind of things are just unacceptable to me.  And I‘m really just here to say I have had enough, really, and I will have to take legal action against pretty much everybody involved. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

UNGER:  Cheaters and scandals and—getting very complicated, there.  Not cheating, not a scandal.  OK, I just wanted to make sure I was clear on that.  Or why don‘t we just go ahead and turn to our roundup of celebrity and entertainment news we call “Keeping Tabs.” 

Just four days after winning the Tour de France, American cyclist Floyd Landis is battling to keep his title and save face after his team issued a statement saying Landis has tested positive for unusually high levels of testosterone.  And tonight, speaking by telephone with reporters, Landis says he just wants the chance to prove his innocence.  Our Kevin Corke has the details. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KEVIN CORKE, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  He came from behind on a grueling course, beating a world-class field, pumping through the searing pain of a disintegrating hip.  Four days ago, Floyd Landis reached the Champs-Elysee and cycling summit. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Floyd Landis steps up to take the Tour de France... 

CORKE:  Now he faces an uphill battle to keep not only his title, but his reputation.  Landis‘ team, Phonak, announced today Landis had unusually high testosterone levels in a test taken after the 17th stage of the tour.  Landis, in Germany, consulting with doctors about hip replacement said he had no idea what could have caused the positive tests. 

FLOYD LANDIS, CYCLIST:  All I‘m asking for, from, just from me is that I be given a chance to prove that I‘m innocent.

CORKE:  The team has suspended the champion until a second test can be performed to, “Prove either that this is a result coming from a natural process or that it is resulting from a mistake.”  Cycling expert, John Eustis, has covered the sport‘s ultimate event for the last 13 years. 

JOHN EUSTIS, CYCLING EXPERT:  I believe this will turn out to be a false-positive test.  For one major reason is that his actual testosterone levels, which is the performance enhancer, those levels were low. 

CORKE (on camera):  The results of the second blood test of the so-called B sample could be made available in under a week.  And if Landis tests positive once more, he could be stripped of his tour title, meaning that Spain‘s Oscar Ferraro would become the new champion. 

ALAN ABRAHAMSON, “LOS ANGELES TIMES”:  For the winner of the Tour de France to be convicted of doping, were that to happen, would be devastating. 

CORKE (voice-over):  Devastating for a sport seemingly skidding out of control.  Hurt by the loss of its biggest star, Lance Armstrong, last year, and now flattened by more doping allegations. 

Kevin Corke, NBC News, Washington. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

UNGER:  Mr. Landis‘ disappearance from the media spotlight somewhat explained, but the question everyone is asking where is our “American Idol” runner-up, Katherine McPhee?  Well, she‘s back after being MIA for weeks.  She showed up on “The View” this morning as one of the guest co-hosts.  McPhee has missed three weeks of the “American Idol” tour because of laryngitis.  There were rumors she was just dissing her fellow finalists or that she had had a relapse of bulimia, but she put all that to rest today. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KATHERINE MCPHEE, SINGER:  I didn‘t really disappear.  I mean, I was just following doctor‘s orders.  He told me you‘re not allowed to talk for three weeks.  And you know, people speculated that I was, you know, making a movie and that I was better than “American Idol” and, you know, I am so grateful for what “American Idol” did for me. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

UNGER:  McPhee will rejoin the “Idol” tour tonight in Pittsburgh.  Then she and the other 10 finalists will meet with President Bush tomorrow at the White House.  When no other distraction will work, you bring in the “Idols.”  And as your surrogate, look for wall to wall coverage of the “Idols at the White House” tomorrow on MSNBC, and right here, tomorrow night on COUNTDOWN.

Here is what we know.  It‘s called HeadOn.  It‘s applied directly to the forehead.  Its irritating medicinal powers cut through the media clutter like no pain reliever man has ever known.  That story is ahead on COUNTDOWN. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

UNGER:  According to the “Journal of Head and Face Pain,” 30 million Americans suffer from migraines.  Over half the migraineurs (ph) sampled said their heads throb so badly, their pain is so disabling they retreat to their beds.  But in our No. 1 story tonight, if your headache doesn‘t kill you, a commercial suggesting a cure for it will.  For those who have seen it or heard it you will know you‘ll never, ever wonder where to stick it.  As I first explained in my role as a contributor the NPR news program, “Day to Day.”  Here‘s some radio with pictures. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(voice-over):  Global terror, global warming and global nuclear proliferation, these, the catalyst of civilizations‘ end, the stories promising doom that dominate our airwaves, insoluble and overwhelming it‘s enough to give a person a headache. 

It might explain why viewers of cable news are offered this. 

ANNOUNCER:  HeadOn, apply direct to the forehead, HeadOn, apply directly.

UNGER:  Over and over and over again.

ANNOUNCER:  .apply directly to the forehead.

UNGER:  HeadOn, a product advertisement that makes no claim, promises no benefit, it simply tells you where to put it. 

ANNOUNCER:  Apply directly to the forehead.  HeadOn.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Well, I think that‘s bull (BLEEP), all right?

UNGER:  If all the dreadful news on TV isn‘t enough to make your head explode.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Shut up!

UNGER:  Surly, this commercial will.  Here it is, uninterrupted, in its entirety. 

ANNOUNCER:  HeadOn, apply directly to the forehead, HeadOn, apply directly to the forehead, HeadOn, apply directly to the forehead.  HeadOn, available at Walgreen‘s.

UNGER:  In this commercial, a woman against a monochromatic background rubs what looks like a glue stick on her forehead, back and forth while the HeadOn mantra is repeated like a chant.  Hypnotizing us with the product‘s directions, not its cure.  Maybe the makers of HeadOn assume, you‘ve already purchased the product, but just can‘t figure out where in the heck to put it. 

ANNOUNCER:  Apply directly to the forehead. 

UNGER:  Of course! We‘d almost forgotten, we rub it directly on my foreheads.  I almost rubbed it under my arm. 

HeadOn, a product that promises nothing, builds no expectations, disappoint no one.  It is the Hillary Clinton of over the counter meds. 

But dare we ask, if one applies HeadOn directly to the forehead, what about an achy knee? 

ANNOUNCER:  New, from the makers of HeadOn, introducing ActivOn, arthritis pain?  ActivOn, apply directly where it hurts.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

UNGER:  My apologizes to my colleagues at NPR for hoisting that piece upon them. 

Here to analyze the weird success of this commercial, I‘m joined by Barbara Lippert, critic for “AdWeek” magazine. 

Thanks for joining us, Barbara.

BARBARA LIPPERT, CRITIC FOR “ADWEEK” MAGAZINE:  Thanks, I completely agree with your “Twilight Zone” take on it. 

UNGER:  Thank you very much.  That‘s a career in journalism, right there.  It took me all the years before it to get here.

LIPPERT:  A very, very clever—I agree, and I also had the line about, it‘s a good thing, thank god, there is a god, so it‘s not applied directly to your armpit. 

UNGER:  Yeah, I agree.

LIPPERT:  Yeah, but I was thinking, like if aliens came to this country or this world and wanted to approximate human life they would make that commercial. 

UNGER:  I hope that they find other things here on earth and not just

the HeadOn.  What is it—is it just the repetitive nature about this that

obviously, we‘re sitting here talking about it, so clearly it is genius. 

It has worked.  But, here‘s the thing, and you‘re an expert on advertising. 

The fact is it never, ever tells you what it does. 

LIPPERT:  Well, it is unintentional genius.  Because, you can‘t believe that in this day and age where, you know, every fourth grader can make a commercial on their computer, an incredible sophisticated computer graphics, something from the 1950‘s like this, shows up, but it really has no guile.  They had no idea.  You know, now we see so many commercials that are all, sort of, parodies and sarcastic.  They don‘t know—they don‘t know that this looks like a parody and that‘s the amazing part of it, that anyone could be that straight, still. 

UNGER:  You know.

LIPPERT:  But, you know, in the world situation, as you said, the world is blowing up and when you think about, you know, how these ad phrases become the mantra of our times, like take, “where‘s the beef,” that was used in political conversations for saying, you know, what‘s happened to content, what‘s happened to substance.  Now we have this fake bogus product that you just put on your head and keep rubbing it and that‘s sort of a symbol of our times. 

UNGER:  It‘s like a little—it‘s like a glue stick, isn‘t it?  Kind of—remember Pritt?  Go like this?

LIPPERT:  Exactly, you know, like in kindergarten you‘re gluing stuff. 

UNGER:  Or eat it.

LIPPERT:  Yeah.  You know, it‘s sort of an arts and crafts project, kind of.  And I don‘t think they can make any claims for what it does because they‘d be sued, because don‘t think, you know, they know what it does.  I think it‘s probably, if anything, it is a placebo effect. 

UNGER:  It contains an iris extract or something like that. 

LIPPERT:  Right.  Right.  And the Egyptian gods bowed before it.  But, I think it‘s that three—you know, the repetition of the three things, it‘s like “I‘ve fallen and I can‘t get up” for our times. 

UNGER:  Let me ask you this, is Madison Avenue in trouble now because, you know, they spent a lot of money on very slick, complex ads.  Is this what we‘re going to seeing during Super Bowl time, like, Bud, put it in your mouth. 

LIPPERT:  Right.  Right.  Unfortunately, you know, a lot of people—well, they might parody it, but if every ad consisted of something like this, no one will watch television.  And obviously other products that aren‘t new and don‘t cost $5 are a lot harder to sell, and they need more sophisticated advertising.  But, you know, because advertisers are so worried about TiVoing and not seeing commercials, there, increasingly, there‘s going to be subliminal stuff where they just do the logo or they just repeat it three times. 

UNGER:  I guess we‘d better hope that we don‘t see anything like this about Preparation H.  Is that right? 

LIPPERT:  Um, well apparently they do have a hemorrhoid cream that runs after this commercial.

UNGER:  Barbara Lippert, the ad critic for “AdWeek” magazine.

LIPPERT:  You can only hope.

UNGER:  Thank you so much for joining us tonight.

LIPPERT:  Thank you.

UNGER:  Don‘t forget, apply directly to your forehead.

LIPPERT:  Where do you apply it?

UNGER:  That‘ll do it for the Thursday edition of COUNTDOWN. I‘m Brian Unger in for the vacationing Keith Olbermann.  Thanks for watching. 

Our MSNBC coverage continues now “Scarborough Country,” Rita Cosby, at the helm again. 

Hi there, Rita.

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

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