updated 12/14/2006 10:54:37 AM ET 2006-12-14T15:54:37

Guests: Michael Crowley, Joan Walsh, Joshua Green, Katrina Szish, Ted Casablanca, Matthew Felling, Rachel Sklar, Diana DeGarmo

JOE SCARBOROUGH, HOST:  Welcome to the show, tonight coming to you from the White House, where we begin with breaking news and the health of a U.S. senator at the top of everybody‘s mind here in Washington.  U.S.  Senator Tim Johnson, the senior senator from South Dakota, suffered an apparent stroke earlier this morning at the Capitol.  Tonight, Democrats and Republicans alike are closely monitoring the situation for both personal and political reasons.  If Senator Johnson were  unable to complete the term—and tonight that‘s a big if—the balance of power would likely shift in the U.S. Senate.

NBC‘s Chip Reid has the latest on this developing story.  Chip, a lot of confusion at the White House, news executives from all networks reporting tonight earlier that he did, in fact, suffer a stroke, and most were saying that the situation was serious, and yet tonight, some conflicting news from his office.  Get us up to date.  What‘s the very latest you know?

CHIP REID, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Well, his office had said earlier today it was a possible stroke.  We had talked to some other sources, including one who went to the hospital, a high-ranking source, who said it was a stroke.  A spokesperson from his office this evening came out and said, no, it was not a stroke, but it was some other undiagnosed illness.  So some confusion now as to exactly what it is, but certainly, it was something of great concern.

Now, the first sign that something was wrong came today as the senator was doing a radio interview in the Senate radio studio over the phone, and we will play for you here—it‘s a little hard to listen to, but here is what happened.  He was talking, and then at some point, he began to stutter.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

SEN. TIM JOHNSON (D), SOUTH DAKOTA:  The money was—was proposed to be provided a year ago.  Second—you know—you—it just is—is frustrating.  And—and—and...

(END AUDIO CLIP)

REID:  Now, his staff and other people immediately had concerns, but we are told that he seemed to recover.  He walked back to his office, and then when he got there, we are told that he suddenly was barely able to move and barely able to speak.  So they summoned the attending physician at the Capitol, who is there all the time when there is a member of Congress on the premises.  And they had the ambulance, which is always there also when there is a member of Congress on the premises, and took him immediately to the George Washington University hospital, where they had a stroke team evaluate him.

And apparently, they are still evaluating, doing some tests, and will have some firmer news in the morning.  But right now, some confusion.  But clearly, it was either a stroke or some other undiagnosed illness that really made it difficult for him to talk and to speak—Joe.

SCARBOROUGH:  Chip, the question that some have been asking throughout the day is if it is a situation that‘s serious enough that he had a stroke or is suffering from stroke-like symptoms and is incapacitated, obviously, as you mentioned earlier today and everybody is talking about tonight at the White House, that throws the balance of power in Washington into a chaotic mix.

Tell me, what‘s the law in the Senate or in South Dakota regarding incapacitation and whether a senator continues working or resigns?  And of course, give us a political breakdown in the U.S. Senate and why this story is being followed so closely by political observers.

REID:  Right.  Well, the breakdown in the Senate will be 51-49, Democrats in control, in January.  That is what everybody is expecting and that‘s what the elections told us.  But there is a Republican governor in South Dakota.  And if there were a vacancy in this Senate seat—and again, we have no reason to believe there‘s going to be—but theoretically, heaven forbid, if that were to happen, if this were that serious an illness, then that Republican governor, would have the power to appoint a senator to replace Tim Johnson.  And presumably, that Republican governor would appoint a Republican.

And that would then make the Senate 50-50.  And with Dick Cheney breaking tie votes—as the vice president, he is the president of the Senate—the Senate would then become a Republican-controlled Senate.  So that one-vote margin is a very tenuous thing.

I‘ll tell you, any time a Democratic senator from a Republican state, a state with a Republican governor, gets a cold, they worry up there.  So it‘s—this is a potentially serious situation.  But again, we have no reason to believe that it is that serious.  But obviously, we‘re waiting for the tests to come back to see exactly what happened to Tim Johnson today.

SCARBOROUGH:  And I understand, Chip, that majority leader-to-be Harry Reid has been at the hospital for most of the day, right?

REID:  That‘s right.  He‘s been there quite a bit.  He‘s supposed to go back tonight.  And as I said, some source haves told us that they do believe it was a stroke, but perhaps there is a semantic issue here.  Maybe there is something else that could have caused this.  But it‘s enough that people are certainly deeply concerned.

But you know, we had talked about the politics here.  Obviously, everybody who talks about it with us prefaces it by saying the most important thing right now by far is his health and his full recovery.  But Washington being Washington, and with the Senate so closely divided, people also bring up the issue of the political ramifications.

SCARBOROUGH:  And like you said, Chip, even on the Hill these days, even when a Democratic senator catches a cold, it‘s a reason for concern.  NBC‘s Chip Reid, thank you so much for that report.

REID:  You bet.

SCARBOROUGH:  And friends, let me just—I want to underline this tonight, that Washington is a town, obviously a political town, that continues to work year in and year out through political and personal relationships.  Senator Johnson is obviously well liked on both sides of the aisle, but that doesn‘t mean that Democrats and Republicans alike aren‘t also looking at the possible political ramifications.

I mean, you talk about any issue, whether you‘re talking about the war in Iraq, whether you‘re talking about the next Supreme Court vacancy, and with that the control of the Court on issues like abortion, Affirmative Action, and just about every other social issue that impacts you, your family, your community, your state and your nation, it obviously rides on the control of the United States Senate in large part.

So again tonight, let me just say—let me ask all of you a personal favor, a personal plea, please, for the sake of Senator Johnson and his family, we ask for your thoughts and prayers, that they be with Senator Johnson tonight.  We certainly will be thinking about him and my family will be praying for him and his family, a very difficult evening.  But again, we hope again that it is not serious.

Well, the news of Senator Johnson‘s health comes at the end of a long day here in Washington, where the president came out swinging this morning about the situation in Iraq.  Mr. Bush emerged from a meeting at the Pentagon, saying he‘s not going to be rushed into changing course in Iraq and that we won‘t leave until, quote, “the job is done.”  The president said that despite the fact that an overwhelming number of Americans say we are losing the war in Iraq and we cannot turn it around.

And tonight, it looks more likely than ever when those changes take place and we hear what the new change of course is decided upon in the White House behind me here, it will more than likely mean more troops in Iraq and not less.

Here now, Michael Crowley—he‘s a senior editor for “The New Republic”—Joan Walsh—she‘s editor-in-chief for Salon.com—and Joshua Green—he‘s senior editor for “The Atlantic Monthly.”

Michael, let me begin with you.  With most Americans calling for the withdrawal from Iraq—and the numbers are now approaching the 70s, numbers we never even saw in Vietnam—we now hear the possibility out of the Pentagon and from Senator John McCain of more troops in Iraq.  Does that policy show that we‘ve got a Pentagon and a White House that‘s determined or delusional?

MICHAEL CROWLEY, “THE NEW REPUBLIC”:  Well, look, Joe, you know, I‘m not an expert on military strategy, but it does seem to me that—I have yet to see someone explain convincingly how a lot more troops are going to solve what seems to me like an intractable problem.  And it‘s really sort of alarming.  I mean, I feel like if Bush doubles down and calls for a lot more troops over there, there‘s going to be a reaction to that in this country that will involve people on the streets and protesting in a way that we haven‘t seen since Vietnam.

I mean, I really think it‘s kind of a scary thought because I think that there are people who are, not to be glib about it, going to sort of freak out if it looks like—I mean, people were expecting I think the response to the Baker-Hamilton report to be a drawdown.  And if looks like Bush is going in the other direction, it‘s just sort of alarming to imagine what kind of shock wave that might have.

SCARBOROUGH:  You know, Joan Walsh, the thing that puts this White House in such a difficult situation is the fact that the president hasn‘t just lost the liberals on this war or moderates or Democrats and independents, there are also a lot of Republicans and a lot of conservatives that are very concerned about the way forward in Iraq.  But obviously, you have John McCain, the presumptive frontrunner for the 2008 nomination, also talking about doubling down, the term that‘s been used today.  What‘s your reaction to that approach?

JOAN WALSH, SALON.COM:  First of all, you know, these guys need to get some gambling advice from their friend, Bill Bennett, because you double down...

(LAUGHTER)

WALSH:  You only double down, Joe, when you have a good hand.  Isn‘t that right?  I mean, I don‘t get to Vegas very often anymore, but—so doubling down is just the craziest delusion yet.  We don‘t have the troops to double down.  We don‘t have a winning hand.  So again, it does seem rather delusional.

I mean, the president today sounded so petulant when he talked about, I‘m going to have a long deliberation, I‘m going to have a steady deliberation, in this voice like, I‘m the decider and you all have to wait on me.

SCARBOROUGH:  But you know, Joan, what‘s so interesting about that is the fact that the reason George W. Bush got elected in 2004 is because of that determination, because he was willing to stay the course even when his critics attacked him, and he‘s been unmercifully attacked since we‘ve gone into Iraq.  Again, it seems the problem for this White House tonight, and for supporters of this war tonight, is the fact that the conservatives have even abandoned the White House‘s approach toward this war, and I doubt conservatives would even support doubling down in Iraq...

WALSH:  How could they?

SCARBOROUGH:  ... sending 10,000, 20,000, 40,000 new troops.

WALSH:  We don‘t have them.  I mean...

SCARBOROUGH:  So where do we go, though?  For a president that does not want to lose this war in Iraq, what does he do?  What does the Pentagon suggest?  What does John McCain do?

WALSH:  I think the best hope for the president is this stalling maneuver and hoping that we get to January and people forget that he ultimately will take many of the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton group.  We simply don‘t have the troops to send in, at this point.  So I really think—you know, he was petulant today.  He‘ll be petulant.  I think the idea that, Well, we can‘t get much done in December—nobody said it was because of the holidays, but that was looming there.  He acted as though, Oh, Robert Gates needs time to get up to speed.  He was on the Iraq Study Group.  I‘m sure Gates knows exactly what his plans are.

There‘s this fiction that they need more time, but there‘s been no change.  I wish the president had gone on his listening tour before he took us into this war.  But at this point, I really can‘t imagine that they‘re going to have a huge new influx of troops because they simply aren‘t there.

SCARBOROUGH:  Josh Green, a military analyst called to the White House this week to advise President Bush told “The LA Times” this.  Quote, “No one should go into this thinking if we double the size of the military, the result will be victory.  Maybe, maybe not.  You are buying the opportunity to enter a lottery.”

And an anonymous defense official adds, quote, “I think it‘s worth trying, but you can‘t have the rhetoric without the resources.”

This is a double down.  Do we have the resources?  Do we have the troops?  Do we have the ability to send 20,000, 40,000, 50,000 more troops to Iraq?  And is there the political willpower there?

JOSHUA GREEN, “THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY”:  Well, I think there are a couple of different questions here.  And to respond to what Joan was saying, too, I think it‘s more significant than just, you know, Bush is going to wait and get a little cover and take some of the Baker commission‘s report.  I think pretty clearly what he‘s doing is sending a signal and fishing for an alternative plan and really does seem to be serious about sending more troops.

I mean, if you talk to military analysts, they‘ll tell you there are ways to get 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 more troops, but it involves calling up more reserves, you know, sending out people who have already spent years in Iraq, sending them back there.  I mean, it comes at a great political and personal cost.

SCARBOROUGH:  Josh, is there a belief, though, Josh—is there a belief among military generals—you can talk about General Barry McCaffrey and Wayne Downing, people that were telling the president several years ago we needed more troops in Iraq, saying that Don Rumsfeld was trying to win the war on the cheap.  Is there any evidence from these gentlemen that you‘ve heard, or from any other military leaders, that sending more troops to Iraq will stop the Sunni insurgents from blowing our people up?

GREEN:  I think, at this point, I would characterize it as sort of a faint hope, and I think most military experts would, too.  But I mean, but pretty clearly, George Bush doesn‘t want to give up on the idea that somehow, some way—you know, to refer back to the military analyst in “The LA Times” today, you know, that you can buy a winning lottery ticket and somehow pull a rabbit out of a hat and turn things around.

I mean, I think the real danger that we began to see today—you know, if I were a Republican, I would be very concerned.  You know, up for the past couple of weeks, we‘ve been thinking about this in terms of here‘s George Bush trying to cement his legacy, trying to turn things around.  But if he‘s seriously talking about, you know, bringing significant levels of troops up in Iraq, then that pulls into question the entire 2008 Republican presidential race.

SCARBOROUGH:  Right.

GREEN:  If things go bad, does that destroy John McCain‘s presidency?  And talk to all the Republicans up on the Hill who just got shellacked in the midterm elections a couple of weeks ago specifically because, you know, of the situation Iraq and voters‘ anger over it.

SCARBOROUGH:  And what is so fascinating to me is that John McCain, a man who obviously is the frontrunner in the Republican Party right now, is also a man who‘s talking about sending more troops to Iraq.  John McCain is not a dumb man.  And John McCain hasn‘t been sitting in line for seven years, waiting for another chance to be the next commander-in-chief, to make a stupid decision of doing something that Americans don‘t like.  That‘s a fascinating question.

Again, if you read the polls, though, it would suggest that both John McCain and President Bush are swimming against the tide.  We‘re going to be talking about the polls that have come out, terrible news for supporters of the war in Iraq and this White House.  So everybody stay with us.  We‘ll continue our discussion after the break, including a look at some of those new polls that show new lows for supporting the White House and also this war.

Speaking of new lows, Katie Couric‘s ratings have hit their lowest level since she took over at the anchor chair there.  Is America tuning her out because she‘s a woman, or does she just need a little more time to prove herself?  All that and much more when SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY returns from the White House.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Welcome back to SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY.  Breaking news tonight, reports in Washington that Senator Tim Johnson, Democratic senator from South Dakota, suffered an apparent stroke earlier this afternoon.  Some conflicting reports, but obviously, friends and family members and loved ones are close by, hoping that he recovers, as well as his friends in the Senate on both sides of the aisle.

But people are watching this obviously closely tonight because, of course, the balance of power in the U.S. Senate rides by one vote, basically.  If Senator Johnson were not able to continue to serve there—and it‘s a big if tonight, but if he were not able to serve there tonight, continue serving, then the balance of power most likely would be shifted.

Let‘s bring back our panel right now.  Michael Crowley, obviously, all of Washington following this story very closely, as well as a series of numbers that have come up and just show dismal support for this war, this White House, and this approach as we move forward in Iraq.  What‘s your response?

GREEN:  Well, I mean, it‘s a mess.  And it‘s unfortunate because

people are so dissatisfied with what‘s happening in Iraq and seem to have

so little faith in this administration.  But you know, I think we‘re in for

look, regardless of what happens in the Senate—and obviously, everyone is really hoping that Senator Johnson recovers fully, for nonpolitical reasons—you‘re not going to see, I think, a lot done in Washington in the next couple of years.

I mean, Bush is going to have to make some decisions about the course in Iraq, but unfortunately, I don‘t see a lot of promise that someone is going to step forward and be able to change the direction of America and Iraq or pass legislation in Congress that‘s going to start to turn things around and improve the public mood.

I mean, I think we have a bleak couple of years.  And the next—and I think I‘ve said this to you before, Joe, but whoever gets to be president next inherits a pretty poisoned chalice.  I mean, it‘s not going to be fun to be the next American president.

SCARBOROUGH:  No...

GREEN:  He‘s going to have a huge budget deficit.  This war is not going to be over.  There are going to be a lot of problems still playing out.

SCARBOROUGH:  And you know, you talk about a soured mood, a new NBC/”Wall Street Journal” poll out tonight is showing that only 23 percent of Americans approve of the job the president is doing in Iraq, his lowest mark on this question and an 11-point drop since the last NBC/”Journal” poll in late October.

You know, Joan Walsh, obviously, right now, it doesn‘t matter who controls the House.  It doesn‘t matter who controls the Senate.  The Americans have decided they don‘t support this war in Iraq anymore.  Doesn‘t that basically tie the hands of all politicians, and it may be one reason why we saw a Republican senator, Gordon Smith, take to the floor yesterday, calling this war almost criminal?

WALSH:  I saw that, Joe, and I think you‘re going to hear the cries of other Republicans in the weeks and months to come.  People have acted like this is a situation that Democrats are going to have to, you know, show some spine on, but I think there‘s going to be an increasingly bipartisan call for withdrawal soon.

I want to go back to something you said in the earlier segment, though, about the president, you know, one of his virtues being his appearance of being resolute.  And I don‘t quite think that‘s what we‘re seeing now.  I think we‘re seeing stubbornness and we‘re seeing petulance.  And part of the reason his numbers continue to drop, I think, is that he doesn‘t seem to have a plan.  He‘s not standing out of a sense of strength, it‘s more like a tantrum, really.

And ever since the hints began about what the Iraq Study Group would say, ever since, of course, the congressional election, which was very disappointing for Republicans, he‘s seemed more and more out of touch and more petulant, not resolute.

SCARBOROUGH:  But Josh Green...

WALSH:  And it‘s frankly scary.

SCARBOROUGH:  But Josh Green, what‘s a president to do?  It‘s the war that he decided it was a war we needed to fight.  Americans have turned against him.  But basically, his legacy is in the balance on this Iraq war.  If he brings all the troops home tomorrow, the war is seen as a failure and he‘s seen as a failure, right?

GREEN:  Yes, well, I mean, I think the answer is he needs to do something.  I mean, what nobody has mentioned is the fact that Bush isn‘t just rejecting the Baker commission proposal, he hasn‘t put forward anything of his own.  He was supposed to come out with this speech next week and announce a new direction on Iraq.  That‘s been punted until next year.  So he‘s not even being resolute in defense of any particular cause or toward any particular goal, he just seems to be spinning his wheels and doesn‘t really have any idea what he‘s doing.

SCARBOROUGH:  All right.  Josh Green, we‘re going to have to leave it there.  Thank you, Josh.  Thank you, Joan.  And thank you, Michael Crowley, as always.

And coming up, as we continue tonight from the White House, Katie Couric delivers her lowest ratings yet.  The sharks are circling.  Does Couric need more time to prove herself or is it time for her to go?  We‘re going to debate that.  And those guys at JibJab are at it again and an animated look back at the events of 2006.  “Must See S.C.” coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Hey, sure, we‘re coming to you tonight from the White House, but that‘s not going to stop tonight‘s “Must See S.C.,” video you got to see.  First up: You know, the vice president may not always seem to be a happy fellow, but behind that gruff exterior lies a great sense of humor.  David Letterman has an example.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, “THIS WEEK”:  Listen to Ken Adelman.  He called your administration among the most incompetent administrations in the post-war era.  Individually, each team member had serious flaws.  Together they were deadly dysfunctional.

RICHARD CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Hm.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCARBOROUGH:  Oh!  And finally, JibJab, the Web site that made you laugh with this election cartoon, is back.  Jay Leno gives us a sneak peak at their year-end recap.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CARTOON CHARACTERS (SINGING):  Tom Cruise got the axe.  The Thai had quite a coup.  I learned at summer camp Mel Gibson hates the Jews.  Haggard fell from grace.  Zarqawi bit the dust, and the Google guys bought Youtube for a couple billion bucks.  Whoo-hoo!  Did you hear this past year Castro nearly croaked?  And Ariel Sharon suffered a hemorrhagic stroke.  Abramoff, Tom DeLay, freezers full of cash, my congressman IM‘d me for a picture of my ass!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCARBOROUGH:  Oh, it‘s so terrible!

Coming up: Katie Couric‘s ratings on the slide, even though critics say she‘s getting better.  Is Katie not ready for primetime or is America not ready for a woman to anchor the evening news?  What‘s going wrong at CBS?  We‘ll talk about that next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Well, it‘s more bad news for Katie Couric.  The “CBS Evening News” with Katie Couric has been in a ratings freefall since the exit of Bob Schieffer.  And last week, Ms. Couric drew her lowest ratings since taking over the anchor chair for the Tiffany Network.  CBS has lost almost a third of their viewers since Couric took over.  Does it mean that America isn‘t ready for a female network news anchor or that Katie just isn‘t up to the job? 

Here‘s Rachel Sklar.  She‘s media editor for “The Huffington Post.”  And also Matthew Felling.  He‘s media director for the Center of Media and Public Affairs. 

Matthew, things are going pretty badly at CBS News.  This was a gigantic gamble from the man at the top of CBS News.  It‘s not working out well right now, is it?

MATTHEW FELLING, THE CENTER FOR MEDIA AND PUBLIC AFFAIRS:  No.  And “CBS Evening News with Katie Couric” is only the first half of the title, because every time I hear those words, I always hear, “This week with lower ratings than ever.”  I mean, when this thing is bottoming out every single week, that‘s a serious sign of trouble. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Why is that?

FELLING:  It doesn‘t even plateau.  I think we‘ve got a couple of things going on here.  First of all, nobody in America is without an opinion of Katie Couric.  And the people who didn‘t like her automatically tuned her out, went to Charlie, went to Brian.  And the people who did like her stuck with her, and then realized, “I‘m not really that crazy with her in this new format.” 

And a big problem with CBS‘s presentation was they spent $15 million on an advertising promotional campaign that basically said, “She‘s going to change the face of news.”  And then they brought on correspondent, and an anchor desk, and human interest stories, and it strangely resembled every other news thing you‘ve ever seen.  So she was almost built to fail.

SCARBOROUGH:  You know, Connie Chung anchored the “CBS Evening News” with Dan Rather for a couple of years, and she says it‘s too early to judge Couric, saying, quote, “I think Katie is holding her own nicely.  I just wish everybody would stop analyzing her.  It‘s not quite fair to constantly pass judgment on her in the evening news.  She‘s a pioneer in this arena, so it‘s the nature of the beast today.”

Rachel, I certainly agree with one part of that, and that is that it is way too early to judge Katie Couric.  It may take her a year; it may take her a big breaking news event. 

But at the same time, she‘s getting paid so much money, and CBS has put so much on her—they talk about doubling down.  But if she drops below where Bob Schieffer last year before they started paying her, what, $15 million, $20 million, obviously she‘s going to be under pressure.  She‘s got to reform or get out, right? 

RACHEL SKLAR, HUFFINGTONPOST.COM:  Well, it‘s not too early to start evaluating her.  I mean, she‘s got a newscast.  She‘s on every night.  And it‘s been a few months. 

So absolutely evaluate, reflect, you know, how things are going, and make changes if need be.  But I think that the question of whether or not America is ready for a female anchor is definitely the wrong question.  You would never say, is America ready for Brian Williams?

SCARBOROUGH:  What‘s the right question? 

SKLAR:  The question is:  Hey, what kind of job is she doing?  Is Katie Couric doing a good job?  The same way we‘d ask, is Brian Williams doing a good job?

SCARBOROUGH:  Is she doing a good job, Rachel?

SKLAR:  You know, she‘s doing an all right job.  I‘ve got to say, I watched the newscast this evening in preparation for talking about this, and I thought it was very interesting that the Couric CBS newscast led with, you know, holiday shopping news and retail news.  And NBC led with the Tim Johnson story and the implications for the Senate. 

SCARBOROUGH:  I was just going to say, how fascinating.  And, in fact, I was talking to executives from ABC and NBC about that tonight at the White House Christmas party, and they were rolling their eyes, saying, “Can you believe that Tim Johnson may be seriously ill, the balance of power may be tipped because of his illness, and yet ‘CBS Evening News‘ leads with a story about holiday shopping?”  They just can‘t believe it. 

FELLING:  Well, the balance of the Senate versus whether or not you can get a good deal on a Tickle Me Elmo Extreme is all on the news judgment of CBS right now. 

SKLAR:  That‘s important.

FELLING:  That‘s what they‘re leading with right now, which only caters to the people who think, “Oh, you know what?  This wasn‘t Katie‘s thing.”  And it also feeds the fire of the silly people who think America is not ready for a woman anchor. 

I mean, I would have put out, if not Katie Couric, I would have suggested Christiane Amanpour, Andrea Mitchell from this here very network, right here, you know, Diane Sawyer.  There‘s a lot of people out there with serious journalistic chops who maybe weren‘t hanging out with Wolfgang Puck for 10 years.  It‘s not a female-male issue.

SKLAR:  I definitely agree with that.

SCARBOROUGH:  Well, let me read a quote from Katie Couric.  This is what she told “Esquire” magazine, if you guys can put it up there.  Hold on one second.  Said, “You guys even take a shot at me, you have something in the November issue, something about how, since I‘ve become an anchor, you don‘t know me anymore.  You don‘t know me anymore?  Bite me.”

SKLAR:  Well, hold on a second, Joe.  I think that that‘s actually a really interesting point, because one of the things that I think...

SCARBOROUGH:  What, “bite me”? 

SKLAR:  No, no, no, wait a second, no, about Katie Couric.  Sorry, I thought that you were saying, “Bite me.”

(LAUGHTER) 

SCARBOROUGH:  No, Katie Couric said that.  So let me finish the quote. 

“Bite me,” close quotation marks.  Go ahead. 

SKLAR:  It‘s always appropriate to say, “Bite me.”  However, in this situation, I think that that‘s actually a germane observation.  She is different.  She is different than she was on the “Today” show. 

I feel that she is kind of muted.  I feel like Katie is hiding her light under a bushel.  Like, she used to be all about personality, and there was nothing wrong with that.  I feel like I don‘t really recognize this dulcet-toned person. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Katie, we hardly knew ye. 

Matthew Felling, in the end, do you think that may be the problem, that she‘s taken over the chair of Cronkite, that chair of Murrow?  It‘s an awful lot of pressure for anybody, and maybe she‘s just trying too hard to play it straight.  Maybe we‘re not seeing her personality. 

And, let me just say, my god, this is—I‘ve done a lot of things.  I‘ve coached football.  I‘ve been in Congress.  Don‘t know if you ever knew that or not.  I‘ve run businesses.  I‘ve done a thousand different things.  This is the hardest thing I‘ve ever done.  It is not easy. 

And imagine taking what‘s considered to be one of the highest, toughest jobs in all journalism, Matthew.  Maybe she‘s just trying too hard, huh?

FELLING:  Well, yes.  And, first of all, let me join in the participation of the conversation, “Bite me.”  And I think that what Katie Couric is—we need to just block out the Murrows of the world and the Cronkites of the land.  They‘re ancient history. 

Where we are is CBS-Viacom, major marketing, major media, and she is groupthink in action.  We want her more light, but more serious.  We want her funnier, but we want her also very, very full of heft.  So she is trying to please everybody and winds up pleasing nobody. 

SCARBOROUGH:  And I‘m sure she will take my advice.  I think Katie Couric needs to take the advice that Ronald Reagan took in 1984 after a failed first debate.  It‘s time to let Katie be Katie.  And you know what Connie Chung said?  You can give her some time. 

Rachel Sklar, Matthew Felling, thanks so much for being with us.

And, Rachel, we will talk about why you think saying “bite me” at any time is appropriate.  You, of course, come from Canada, where a former prime minister, said, quote, that I can‘t really say here in front of the White House or anywhere else. 

Anyway, call it a ho, ho, hoax.  NBC News has learned that a charity campaign known as the government‘s version of the United Way is giving away donations to charities with some pretty sketchy backgrounds, including histories of tax evasion and worse.  NBC News senior investigative correspondent Lisa Myers has more on this investigation. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LISA MYERS, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Joe, each year, federal workers receive a book like this, listing thousands of charities to which they can contribute.  Now, they may assume these charities have been vetted.  They would be wrong. 

Federal investigators discovered that the federal government basically approves any group that applies, with virtually no questions asked. 

(voice-over):  It‘s the holiday season and a time for giving.  Also a time for the government‘s big charity drive, the Combined Federal Campaign.  Federal workers gave more than $216 million last year, helping more than 20,000 charities. 

But federal investigators discovered this year that 6 percent of charities receiving donations owed back payroll taxes.  And 15 they audited had engaged in abusive and potentially criminal activity, including improperly diverting money. 

STEVE ELLIS, GOVERNMENT SPENDING ANALYST:  What is outrageous is, is that we have people who are making contributions out of their hard-earned dollars, expecting it to go to some charitable interest, but instead it may be lining the pocket of some tax cheat. 

MYERS:  Among the government‘s approved charities:  a museum which owed more than $100,000 in payroll taxes; a rehab center which owned $70,000, yet bought a boat for its director; a clinic which owed $1.5 million, stretching back 15 years. 

To see just how lax the federal screening process was, investigators created a fake charity and filled out this application to receive donations.  The fake charity was approved. 

TRENT STAMP, PRES., CHARITY NAVIGATOR:  When the federal government is recommending charities to their employees that don‘t actually exist, I can‘t imagine that you could create a worse system. 

MYERS:  The agency responsible for vetting charities, the Office of Personnel Management, says it has now begun to check whether charities are legally tax exempt.  But officials say the law does not allow them to screen charities‘ tax payments, so this year‘s book of charities still includes hundreds which may owe back taxes. 

STAMP:  This year, there will still be some donations that go to tax cheats and bad actor organizations. 

MYERS:  A damper on the season of giving. 

(on screen):  Experts advise federal workers and, for that matter, anyone making charitable contribution to do their own research on charities.  Are they legitimate?  And how much of the money actually goes to the designated cause? 

Joe? 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCARBOROUGH:  Thank you so much, Lisa Myers. 

And from the White House in Washington to Los Angeles and pop culture.  An “American Idol” tells us about the dark side of fame.  Diana DeGarmo shares her story of how an obsessed stalker tried to rob and blackmail her, and how she fought back. 

And later, K-Fed plans to write a book about his marriage to Britney Spears.  The big question tonight, here in Washington and across the world, is whether K-Fed really knows how to write.  We‘ll find out when “Hollyweird” comes up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Now to the dark side of “American Idol.”  Sure, winning a spot on the ratings giant might seem like a dream come true, but as Diana DeGarmo, “Idol‘s” runner-up from season three, discovered, it can turn into a frightening experience.  For the last year, DeGarmo has been stalked and harassed by a fan she met on the Internet.  She recently shared her chilling story of “Idol” worship with me. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RYAN SEACREST, HOST, “AMERICAN IDOL”:  Of course, Diana DeGarmo, our runner-up.  Unbelievable to be standing here on this stage. 

DIANA DEGARMO, 2004 “AMERICAN IDOL” RUNNER-UP:  Thank you very much.

SEACREST:  You‘re both champions. 

DEGARMO:  The aftermath of “American Idol” was wonderful, and then a whole other storm hit, to say the least.  I have been dealing with a stalker, or I guess you might say, a person who has been trying to steal my identity or so for the past nine months.

I have been dealing with this young woman who decided that she would like to become me, pretty much, and try to take over my life.  So, you know, I had a MySpace account, just like every other performer and a young person in the country, and now around the world, and all of a sudden, you know, started having all these weird things happen. 

My account was signed on.  I started receiving odd e-mails, as if I was replying to someone.  And, finally, you know, my fan site also started getting all these weird things.  And we were able to track through the I.P.  addresses that it was the same person in Australia who was deciding that they wanted to become me. 

So, through all and all, they were terrorizing my family, my friends, you know, any person that I ever came in contact with, they were able to get in touch with, sometimes pretending to be me, and, you know, cursing these people out, or sometimes pretending—or she was actually acting as her self and saying, “Well, you know, if I can‘t get to Diana, I‘m going to get to you.”  So it‘s been quite an ordeal. 

SCARBOROUGH:  When you finally confronted her, did you ask her what she wanted? 

DEGARMO:  I was almost at the boiling point emotionally.  I was going nuts, because, you know, she was sending me text messages, and calling me, and e-mailing me, you know, almost 100 times in one day. 

SCARBOROUGH:  A hundred times a day? 

DEGARMO:  Yes, yes.

SCARBOROUGH:  Oh, my gosh. 

DEGARMO:  On top of text messaging and things like that, I finally said, “OK, OK, what do you want?  I will give you any autograph.  I will give you any videotape, any piece of memorabilia of mine, you know?  Just will you please just go away?  What do you want from me?  Like I don‘t understand; I never did anything wrong to you.” 

And she simply wrote back in an instant message, “1 m.”  And I said, “Well, what does 1 m stand for?”  And she said, “$1 million.”  And I just remember my jaw absolutely hitting the floor.  

SCARBOROUGH:  I guess there is a good warning for people out there, if they just want to go on “American Idol,” this is not just a casual—it‘s not a casual visit into fame.  There are millions and millions of people who watch this show, who are extraordinarily intense...

DEGARMO:  Around the world.  All around the world.

SCARBOROUGH:  ... around the world, as you found, right? 

DEGARMO:  Yes, you know?  I mean, the great thing is, in a way, is I guess luckily I was fortunate to have somebody that was, you know, in an English-speaking country, because I literally have fans—I get fan mail from people in Pakistan, you know, Russia, Belgium, England, Australia, I mean, Singapore, all around the world. 

But “American Idol” and other such different reality shows really catapult people.  And your life becomes kind of like an open book to the world, so you‘d better be prepared for anything and everything.  

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCARBOROUGH:  Hey, our thanks to Diana DeGarmo for coming on and telling her personal story.  And we want you to know she got some good news earlier this week:  The woman who‘d been harassing her for so long finally pleaded guilty to stalking. 

Coming next, will a tell-all book hurt Oprah‘s Teflon reputation? 

That and a lot more, in “Hollyweird.”

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Hey, set the TiVo, because your “E! True Hollywood Story” is on tonight.  It‘s time for “Hollyweird.”

First up, Christina Aguilera, the singer tells “People” magazine she‘s playing Santa to Britney Spears‘ two kids.  Here now, “US Weekly‘s” editor-at-large Katrina Szish and E! Online columnist Ted Casablanca.

TED CASABLANCA, E! ONLINE:  Hey there.

SCARBOROUGH:  Which means, in Spanish, White House, baby.  White House!

CASABLANCA:  And that‘s where you are, baby!

SCARBOROUGH:  I was feeling kind of dirty about doing “Hollyweird” in front of the White House.  Not anymore. 

KATRINA SZISH, “US WEEKLY”:  No, no.

CASABLANCA:  Hey, there‘s plenty of dirty stuff going on in that White House, so I think you‘re fine just right there. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Very good.  And, Ms. Szish, speaking of dirty and dirty Santa, what do you make of Christina Aguilera playing Santa to Britney‘s kids? 

SZISH:  Christina Aguilera seems like she was going to be the girl who was going to turn into the train wreck.  Way back when we sort of met Christina, we met Britney, we really thought she was going to be the one who would really go off the deep end.  But it turns out that she is the most normal of the bunch, and I think it‘s very good that she‘s spreading cheer.  And hopefully some of her good example will rub off on Ms. Britney. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Well, Mr. Casablanca, is she not the dirty pop star anymore?

CASABLANCA:  I have to agree.  I mean, remember, there was a time when she was Miss Skanky, and now it‘s Britney.  So I think Christina is kind of glad to see someone else going through this.  And also, don‘t forget, they were on the “Mickey Mouse Club” together, so there‘s some history there. 

SZISH:  Oh, my, how they‘ve changed.

CASABLANCA:  And I think this is her way of cheering her on and saying, “You can come through it.  I did.”

SCARBOROUGH:  You can make it through, girl.  Yes, exactly.

CASABLANCA:  And what about K-Fed? 

SCARBOROUGH:  I was just going to say...

CASABLANCA:  I mean, he‘s the one who we should really be talking about.  Is he going to be writing a tell-all book?  I think we should hold out for him to see who‘s going to be the highest bidder.  I think he‘ll go to—will Britney give him enough money to shut up? 

SCARBOROUGH:  Ted, can he write?

CASABLANCA:  Or will he get a book deal and do a thinly veiled novel? 

No, someone will write it for him.  Come on.  Get real. 

SCARBOROUGH:  I need to get real. 

Katrina, what about K-Fed writing a book?  He can‘t find 18 people to go to his rap concert.  Who‘s going to buy a book by K-Fed? 

CASABLANCA:  That‘s a good one.

SZISH:  Well, you know, I think it‘s interesting.  I think, again, we‘re seeing poor K-Fed can‘t really be the first to initiate an idea.  He had to copy Britney‘s first husband, Jason Alexander, who is writing a tell-all book.

So if it‘s true that K-Fed is actually writing this, he didn‘t even come up with the idea himself.  And, you know, that‘s just sad right there. 

But I know Britney and K-Fed did get together about a week ago, and they did make a pact that they were going to try to make this divorce go smoothly and without lots of bumps in the road.  So I‘m not sure that he definitely would go as far as to challenge Britney this way. 

SCARBOROUGH:  I smell a big cash settlement. 

And speaking of writing, the notorious biographer Kitty Kelley is planning a book on the queen of talk, Oprah Winfrey.  Katrina, what about it?  Is she going to really dish the dirt on Oprah? 

SZISH:  Well, suddenly, Kitty Kelley, who‘s so good at dishing the dirt on pretty much everybody, is going to be writing about Oprah, but she talks about how much she admires Oprah and how Oprah is just such a wonderful human being.  But it‘s very interesting how suddenly Kitty becomes nice when you‘re talking about Oprah, but...

(CROSSTALK)

SZISH:  You don‘t want to cross Oprah.

SCARBOROUGH:  But, Ted, she doesn‘t make her money writing nice biographies. 

(CROSSTALK)

CASABLANCA:  Yes, I have to say that‘s bull.  You know, can I say “bull” on MSNBC?  I think that, you know, what this book is going to do, if Kitty really does her work well, as she‘s capable of doing, is, you know, no more word of Oprah running for president, I mean, because she‘s going to uncover things that a lot of her viewers and potential voters wouldn‘t like. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Oprah‘s been pretty Teflon, hasn‘t she?  Hasn‘t she been the Teflon queen of TV? 

CASABLANCA:  That‘s a great point, because she actually is.  And you know there‘s stuff out there on her.  And will Kitty be able to get those women and some men to talk about it or not?  That‘s the big question. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Katrina, will they or will they be scared to?  This woman can sell a book like nobody. 

SZISH:  I agree.  I think Kitty might start to go in that direction, and I‘m sure—I almost sense that she‘s going to get cut off in a way, so if she‘s not going to go as far as she could go.  So I think the book will be a disappointment, and we‘re not going to get as much Oprah dirt as we would all love to hear. 

CASABLANCA:  I completely disagree.  I think it will be huge.  Anything you touch with Oprah is going to be enormous, and I think it‘ll be a big seller. 

SZISH:  A big seller, but not a big scandal. 

SCARBOROUGH:  And, of course, Katrina and Ted, you both know, when it comes to Kitty Kelley, she will put things in a book that don‘t have a whole lot of sources.  So, again, we‘ll see what happens. 

SZISH:  Well, if she does that, then actually it could be anything. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Yes, all the time and does sell books.  Hey, Katrina, thank you.  Ted Casablanca, thank you so much. 

CASABLANCA:  Thanks for having me. 

SCARBOROUGH:  And here we are with Ted in front of the White House.  Thanks for being with us.  We‘ll see you tomorrow night in SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY.

END

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

END   

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