updated 12/18/2006 11:15:10 AM ET 2006-12-18T16:15:10

Guests: Dana Milbank, Craig Crawford, Margaret Carlson

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

How can we miss you if you won‘t go away?  Donald Rumsfeld‘s last day at the Pentagon, and we are finally told what he actually accomplished as secretary of defense.  He chose “TIME” magazine‘s Man of the Year in 2003.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:   Without hesitation, Don Rumsfeld told them, Don‘t give it to me, give it to our men and women in uniform.  And that‘s exactly what “TIME” magazine did.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Yes, great, no armor for your Humvee, but you can wrap yourself in this souvenir collector‘s edition of “TIME” magazine.

The health of Senator Tim Johnson of South Dakota, opening his eyes as requested, no sign further brain surgery will be necessary.

What was this a sign of?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  I want to apologize and tell you I‘m sorry for it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  What does the right wing say after Tony Snow says he‘s sorry for calling David Gregory partisan, after they all parroted him calling David Gregory partisan?

Who thinks Condoleezza Rice couldn‘t become president?  And not because she‘s a woman, nor African-American, nor anything political.  The first lady, that‘s who.

The American pilots detained in Brazil after a deadly midair crash, they speak out for the first time.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We were doing what we were supposed to be doing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  And do parents of newborns know what they‘re doing?  The first list of favorite baby names 2006.  In 2024, we‘re going to hear a lot of this from a lot of college freshman.  And these are my friends, Caitlin, Kaylee, Keira, Kayla, Makayla, and Layla.

All that and more, now on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

Good evening from New York.

Even the average American can recall the names of many former presidents.  It is a guess how nonaverage an American you‘d have to be to be able to remember as many secretaries of defense, or, before the 1947 change of terminology, secretaries of war.  Robert McNamara, Edwin M.  Stanton, Henry Stimson, Abraham Lincoln‘s son Robert, perhaps?

Thus, in our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, on this, the last of his many controversial days at the Pentagon, how soon before Donald H. Rumsfeld is forgotten?  His entire departure ceremony might as well have been taking place in an alternate universe, the fog of war seemingly having descended over the Pentagon itself, if not over the entire administration, the president concluding that America is better off for the time that Mr.  Rumsfeld spent at the helm of the U.S. military and that his leadership skills are, well, skillful.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH:  I‘m pleased to join you as we pay tribute to one of America‘s most skilled, energetic, and dedicated public servants, the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld.

Every decision Don Rumsfeld made over the past six years, he always put the troops first.  And the troops in the field knew it.

A few years ago, the editors of “TIME” magazine came to his Pentagon office, and Don correctly suspected they were thinking of naming him Person of the Year.  Without hesitation, Don Rumsfeld told them, Don‘t give it to me, give it to our men and women in uniform.  And that‘s exactly what “TIME” magazine did.

This man knows how to lead, and he did, and the country is better off for it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Vice President Cheney, who began his career in politics as an intern for Mr. Rumsfeld in 1969, praising him as a man with, quote, “near-perfect recall who apparently does not sleep.”  Not so, as it proves, the commander in chief, wartime or not, Mr. Bush telling “People” magazine that he is, quote, “sleeping a lot better than people would assume,” that being just about the only thing folks would not assume about the president, Mr.  Cheney these days seemingly applying that old rule about children being seen and not heard to himself, the vice president, if not front and center, then at least front and to the side at a number of public events recently, but always silent, “U.S. News and World Report” writing this week that Mr. Cheney is trying to distance himself now from the president because, says a former associate, quote, “Iraq is now Bush‘s baby, and Cheney doesn‘t want to be tarred with it in the eyes of historians.”

On that note, let‘s call in our own Dana Milbank, national political reporter of “The Washington Post.”

Dana, good evening.

DANA MILBANK, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, “THE WASHINGTON POST”: 

Good evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  With the nation at war, giving every indication that the nation will stay at war for some time to come, in which universe does it help Mr. Bush politically to say that he is not losing any sleep at night?

MILBANK:  You don‘t think he is preparing the Ambien defense to justify Iraq, do you?

Well, in fairness, this was to “People” magazine, and they asked if he ever uses sleeping pills.  And he says, No, I don‘t have a whole lot of trouble sleeping.  I don‘t think he was trying to say—sound as if he‘s heartless, but this is man who obviously takes sleep seriously, goes to bet early, and, indeed, travels with his own pillow.  So I think, although we can have a little fun with it, it probably was a little more innocent than that.

OLBERMANN:  Yes, there‘s always pretzels to turn to in a sleep emergency.

Now, as to the events here at the Pentagon with Mr. Rumsfeld, it‘s customary, when an executive is leaving a company, to send him off with a watch, a couple kind words.  But did this departure ceremony seem to be far more than that?  I mean, the word “coronation” seemed to be in the back of the mind, at leased, in watching some of these highlights.

MILBANK:  I was thinking more of a state funeral.  But it certainly had all the pageantry.  In fact, it was called a parade, a farewell parade.  And, you know, there‘s really no harm doing that.  In fact, I think if a majority of the United States Senate knew that all that was required to get Donald Rumsfeld to leave was a parade, they themselves would have been marching right over there to Arlington.

But it‘s a small gesture to pay, and I think Rumsfeld did leave on one classy note today.  He sent his last snowflake, those memos that he—annoying memos he sent to the staff, and he said, The blizzard is over.

OLBERMANN:  That was apparently like number 30,000, however.  It‘s maybe a little too little, too late.

“TIME” magazine told us tonight that it had already been considering the American soldier at its Person of the Year in 2003, before Mr. Rumsfeld made that pitch unsolicited to “TIME”‘s editors.  But in the president‘s telling of the story today, Rumsfeld not only made the decision for “TIME” magazine, he may have sacrificed at being the honor of being Man of the Year himself in the process.  Even if that version of it was true, does that not ring of a White House grasping at straws to come up with something positive to say about him at the end of his tenure?

MILBANK:  Well, there may be a certain bit of that.  I mean, they didn‘t want to exactly bring up “old Europe,” they didn‘t want to bring up “Stuff happens,” they didn‘t want to bring up “a few dead-enders,” they don‘t want to bring up “You go to the war with the army you have.”

So there are a few great moments that Don Rumsfeld had.  One of them was on September 11, when he ran towards the wreckage of the Pentagon.  And, as we‘ve learned today, another one was when he did whatever he did to selflessly sacrifice himself for the men in uniform.

OLBERMANN:  In terms of magazine coverage.

Does—this other story here from “U.S. News,” that the idea that the vice president is trying to distance himself from the president about Iraq, does that sound, under any construction, possible, plausible to you?  I mean, even oxygen depravation?  And if it is plausible, would it have any chance of working?  I mean, for most of the past six years, it‘s been widely seen in this country, on both sides of the political divide, that it‘s been Mr. Cheney driving this part of the bus, at the very least.

MILBANK:  Yes, no, I think that‘s right, and for good reason.  It does

strike me as preposterous.  It has been Cheney who‘s always been more

aggressive, more out there in saying what weapons Iraq had, or making the

case for war, or going after the Democrats.  Very hard to see it.  I would

I think the first lady would put some distance between her and the president before the vice president would actually attempt that.

OLBERMANN:  Or Barney would resign.  Dana Milbank of MSNBC and, of course, “The Washington Post.”  Great thanks.  Good weekend.  Have a good holiday season.

MILBANK:  Thanks, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Speaking of distancing one‘s self, you have no doubt heard by now, probably many times, in fact, that last week, the president‘s press secretary, Tony Snow, accused our own and NBC White House news correspondent David Gregory of being partisan, for merely having quoted the Iraq Study Group in one of his questions.

What you may not have heard is that yesterday, a full week later, Tony Snow apologized for that remark.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SNOW:  You and I had a conversation last week that got a whole lot of play in a lot of places, where I used the term “partisan” in describing one of your questions.  And I‘ve thought a lot about that, and I was wrong.

So I want to apologize and tell you I‘m sorry for it.  And the reason I do that is not only because it‘s the right thing to do, because I want people in this room, and also people who watch these, to understand that the relations in this room are professional and collegial, and if I expect you to do right by us, you have every right to expect that I‘ll do right by you.

So at any event, I just want to say I‘m sorry for that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Coverage of that apology thus far paling in comparison to the beating Mr. Gregory took in the right-wing media in the wake of the press secretary‘s original comment.

For more on the possible reasons why, let‘s call in our own Craig Crawford, columnist for “Congressional Quarterly,” author of the noted book, “Attack the Messenger.”

Craig, good evening to you.

CRAIG CRAWFORD, “CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY”:  Hi.  I guess they‘re ready to talk to Iran, now that they‘re apologizing to the media.  (INAUDIBLE).

OLBERMANN:  (INAUDIBLE).  David Gregory can be welcomed back, then so could Ahmadinejad.  Where are his conservative allies now that Tony Snow has apologized?  I mean, mentions of this have popped up here and there in the last 24 hours, but by no means is it burning up the blogosphere or the airwaves.  What happened here?

CRAWFORD:  Well, I saw one effort on one of the sites to talk about how gracious Tony Snow was, and you‘d never expect the media to ever be so gracious.  But actually, David Gregory himself apologized to the last press secretary about a year ago over a similar incident they had had.

You know, I was stunned by this, Keith, because this is not the modus operandi of this White House.  They have used these briefings a long time, before Tony Snow came along, as a platform to show themselves as martyrs getting beat up by the press.  So, I mean, maybe Tony Snow just doesn‘t want to be part of that.

OLBERMANN:  But what happened?  Because it was—it‘s not like this was something he (INAUDIBLE) he slept on for a week.  There was an abrupt change of heart in this over the weekend.  He had been defending his treatment of David Gregory, he‘d been standing by that accusation of partisanship.  I mean, did he just wake up in the middle of the night and go, No, I meant it was silly?

CRAWFORD:  Well, who knows?  Maybe they‘ve realized something I‘m still not sure about, that the public‘s getting onto this game of blaming the messenger, attacking the messenger, to try to change the subject, which is what has become such a pattern for Democrats and Republicans, really.

But this White House has been especially good at it, and I have begun to wonder if the public‘s begun to see that.  I can‘t credit my book, but that‘s what I tried to show in my book, and I think a lot of other sources have too.  And so I—maybe it‘s starting to catch up with them.  They‘re realizing that this is getting to be an old saw.

OLBERMANN:  One would hope, and we‘ll give Mr. Credit—Mr. Credit—

Mr. Snow full credit for doing this as the right thing.  I mean, we don‘t

have any problem with that.  But is it—could this—could the

traditional cynical answer appear here to be more valid?  I mean, the

change of heart took a full week, in the full week, all of the conservative

allies of this White House defended him, attacked Gregory, attacked NBC,

virtually called for the dismantling of this news organization, called for

there was a poll calling for Gregory to be fired.  Is it possible that this reversal occurred simply because none of it worked?

CRAWFORD:  Exactly.  I think that‘s the possibility here, is that the environment‘s changed, that they‘ve run this game so long, it just doesn‘t hunt anymore.  And I do think there was some genuine—I really do think Tony Snow was probably pretty genuine about this.  You know, he is new to this administration, and although he came from Fox, he‘s never been one of the attack dogs, and is a very popular guy among the media in Washington.

And I think maybe he realized it had gone too far once he saw the reaction, and how the right-wing blogs and so on had taken up this as some sort of cause.  And I doubt he ever really meant for that to happen.

Also, the White House has been trying to show a more gentle face lately.  They‘re on this listening offensive to show that they‘re listening to critics and they‘re not just being bombastic and stubborn, and also there was an implicit attack on the Baker-Hamilton commission when he called those quotes partisan, when he called Gregory partisan.

So maybe they realized it was time to step back from the breach a bit.

OLBERMANN:  Well, sure, I‘m—again, we‘ll give them the benefit of the doubt entirely and say, OK, there‘s been an epiphany there, and it‘s a welcome one, and everybody gets a round of applause.

But obviously, the—to the degree that the right wing, you know,  follows what the White House does, they did not follow Tony Snow down this path of kumbaya.  How is it that they‘re going to make this look like David Gregory‘s fault, or the media‘s fault, or the left wing‘s fault?  And obviously they will.  Do we have any clue yet on the how?

CRAWFORD:  Well, I guess I‘ve seen signs that they‘re talking about how gracious that Tony Snow was and how ungracious the media is, you never see them apologize for anything they say or do.  And there‘ll be some of that.

But, you know, I would hope this whole construct of, you know, politicians just turning the media—turning the tables on the media every time they get in trouble or have something they don‘t want to talk about does change, because it has made it very difficult to get information out, and for, you know, voters to—and Americans to get the information they need, when there‘s this white noise in the middle of the conversation from politicians attacking the press.  So maybe this‘ll be a sign of good things to come.  It‘s the holiday spirit.

OLBERMANN:  Right.  And if it happens, then, of course, your book becomes a historical textbook and reference for a time that has been closed (INAUDIBLE).

CRAWFORD:  I‘d be happy for my book to officially become obsolete and have this problem fixed, but (INAUDIBLE)...

OLBERMANN:  You are a, you are a generous man, Craig Crawford.

CRAWFORD:  All right.

OLBERMANN:  Columnist for “Congressional Quarterly,” MSNBC analyst. 

As always, sir, great thanks for joining us.

CRAWFORD:  Good to be here.

OLBERMANN:  And lastly in this topic, good news tonight from George Washington University Hospital, where Senator Tim Johnson of South Dakota is showing marked signs of improvement.  Family spokesperson says he has opened his eyes when asked to, in fact, and neurosurgeons say the pressure in his brain has normalized.

Senator Johnson will need to be hospitalized until the swelling in the brain subsides, then he‘ll need physical therapy to restrengthen the right side of his body.  But right now, his fellow Democrats are hopeful that he will be able to eventually, in fact, perhaps shortly, return to the Senate.

Also tonight, a little bit more on that “People” magazine interview, the other half of it, with the first lady.  Why Laura Bush thinks Condoleezza Rice won‘t run for president.  It is a reason that is certain to infuriate about half the adult population, the unmarried half.

And clueless about Seattle.  Bill-O slanders that city and the Toys for Tots campaign, and the Marines.  It‘ll be Worst Person time before you know it.

You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  If you‘ve ever wondered why Condoleezza Rice will never, ever, ever run for president, wonder no more.  The answer is simple, she has not got a man.  You‘ll forgive me if I don‘t do the whole finger-snap neck-move thing.

In our number four story on the COUNTDOWN, First Lady Laura Bush‘s theories on why Rice won‘t run, the president and Mrs. Bush recently doing that hard-hitting interview with “People” magazine, but Laura Bush was asked about Secretary Rice and said while she would make an excellent candidate, she won‘t run, quote, “probably because she is single, her parents are no longer living, she‘s an only child.”

In case anyone missed the point, the first lady elaborated, these factors are relevant because, quote, “You need a very supportive family and supportive friends to have this job,” unlike that of secretary of state, which is considered more of a hobby.

And who would know better that Rice has a lack of supportive friends than her supportive friend, Mrs. Bush?  Ironically, Mrs. Rice is one of the few relatively popular members of the Bush administration, one of the few whose presidential aspirations are a subject of serious discussion.

Joining us now, thanks to the support of her family and friends, is Margaret Carlson, political columnist for Bloomberg News.

Margaret, thanks for some of your time tonight.

MARGARET CARLSON, BLOOMBERG NEWS:  Right, this is a job I couldn‘t have without the support of my friends and family.

OLBERMANN:  I‘m telling you.

I‘m really confused by this quote.  I mean, I know the first lady is a lot sharper politically than she would like us to think, but this is almost inscrutable.  Is she intending to compliment the secretary of state here, or is she actually taking a big bite out of her leg?

CARLSON:  Well, it may be what‘s inside Mrs. Bush, which is that to be single would be a terrible thing.  She married three months after meeting George Bush, and obviously wanted to be married.

But these were—when you read it, it—I—you know, we don‘t know Mrs. Bush‘s demeanor, but it makes it sound as if these are really pathetic things to be.  Now, you know, it‘s interesting that on the Democratic side, having a man is a problem for Senator Clinton, not having a man on the right is a problem for Secretary of State Condi Rice.

OLBERMANN:  Not to get overly psychoanalytical on it, but another question on that area.  Is there something—could there something—be something in here of the revenge of the real wife against the office wife?

CARLSON:  Well, everyone does have office spouses, I think, on both sides.  But in addition to being an office spouse, perhaps, Condi Rice is the daughter that Bush doesn‘t have.  The twins never go to Camp David and barely come home for holidays.

And Condi Rice, Secretary of State Rice, goes most weekends to Camp David.  She watches the football games.  Remember, her ideal job is to be commissioner of football.  She bowls, she does all the things at Camp David that, you know, a daughter might do.  And she is around, so, all the time, not just at the—at work, but she‘s around on the weekends.  And she‘s a great pal.  I mean, Secretary Rice is great company.  And she plays Brahms.

OLBERMANN:  But the NFL job just opened up and closed again, so she‘s missed that wagon.  She might have to settle to running for president.

Did Mrs. Bush inadvertently raise an issue that would not seem to matter to the average voter?  But if there is the possibility of a Rice candidacy, that there might have been a red flag raised here to the proverbial conservative base, OK, she‘s a woman, she‘s an African-American, this is the 21st century, fine and dandy, but, hey, you know what, the first lady‘s right, she‘s not married, we can‘t even take her seriously as a prospective candidate?

CARLSON:  Well, in the family values party, it‘s a problem to be of a certain age and not be married.  It—you—it makes you odd, and they don‘t know where to place you.  And who knows what you‘re doing with your time if you‘re not married and not home?  You know, I have two out of three of Condi Rice‘s problems, so I took this very hard myself.

OLBERMANN:  Well...

CARLSON:  I‘m not going to tell you which two.

OLBERMANN:  This story, to some degree, seems to have flown under everybody‘s radar.  But let me read this quote again, and then ask you a hypothetical about it and close with that.  Condi Rice is a really good candidate for president, but she won‘t run, quote, “probably because she is single, her parents are no longer living, she‘s an only child.  You need a very supportive family and supportive friends to have the job,” unquote.

What if that had been said, not by Laura Bush, but by Hillary Clinton, or by any other Democrat?  Would the right wing media be going nuts over this as a scouting report?

CARLSON:  Well, you know, Mrs. Bush—I mean, I guess the answer is yes.  But Mrs. Bush is not an acerbic person.  You know, her mother-in-law is.  So maybe she‘s picked up something there.  But it makes you think she blurted it out, and that it has some truth to it about what she thinks about women, not so much about candidates, but about women.

You know, I also think—and Keith, I don‘t have the information here, but I think maybe First Lady Laura Bush is an only child.

OLBERMANN:  Yes, I think you‘re right.

Margaret Carlson, political columnist for Bloomberg News.  Great thanks for your time tonight (INAUDIBLE)...

CARLSON:  Good night, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  ... we‘ll keep that one secret quiet.  Many thanks.

CARLSON:  Thanks.

OLBERMANN:  Also tonight --  Sir, sir, there‘s a train coming.  It‘s probably --  Sir, there‘s a train coming.  Probably not the best place to take a nap.  Sir?

How about the best name to pick for your kid?  Sophia, Ava?  How about Keith?  Well, not if she looks like that.  A look at the top picks of 2006, ahead on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  On this date in 1832, Alexandre Gustav Eiffel was born.  He grew up, of course, to build the Eiffel Tower, along with his partner, Stewy Tower.

Let‘s play Oddball.

There was no Stewy Tower.  I made him up.

We begin in Gwalior (ph), India, where dust clouds and thundering hooves signal the annual celebration of the end of the harvest season.  That is the big chariot race out by the highway.  Oh, look at them run.  Just like the race in the “Star Wars” movie, except they use cows instead of jet engines, and no one has The Force, evidently.

More than 50 farmers took part in the race at the Family Fair in the central Indian province.  Many have been training their bulls for weeks leading up to the event, and the winner took home more than 3,000 -- no, more than $300.

To Epsom (ph), Surrey, in the United Kingdom for a story that should make every guy who ever got too drunk and woke up in a strange place feel a little bit better about himself.  Hey, at least nobody videotaped me from a circling helicopter as he lay passed out on the busy train tracks.  That‘s Kevin Crasswell lying there.  He was a company director before he lost his job.

But he‘ll be keeping busy now at the community service to which he was sentenced today for this incident, which cost more than $16,000 in delays.  Police say it took more than an half hour just to wake Mr. Crasswell up, that he had consumed a potentially lethal amount of alcohol.  Yes, that‘s the only thing that could have killed him.  I dare you to try that in India, pal.  I double-dare you.

Finally, to Samiamish (ph), Washington, where a raging apartment fire leads to an amazing act of heroism by a good Samaritan caught on tape.  A cat has leapt from an upper bore—floor of the burning building into a tree.  Petrified, it clings to the branch until a man, without regard to his own safety, climbs the tree and delicately eases the cat down to a lower branch, where it is able to escape unharmed.

Who is this anonymous hero, this tree shaker of Samiamish?  Whoever you are, sir, Oddball salutes you.  Not only did you save the kitty, you did it in the most hilarious manner possible, and on camera to boot.  It‘s everyday heroes like you that make this ridiculous segment possible.  Thank you, Samiamish Samaritan, thank you, indeed.

No wonder he was holding on.  Also tonight, the American pilots blamed in Brazil for a mid-air collision that killed 154 on a passenger jet, they give their first interview.  And it is the worst storm to hit the Seattle area in 13 years.  It has left a million people without power.  It has suspended efforts to find three lost climbers in Oregon.  Those stories ahead, but now here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three newsmakers of the day. 

Number three, Josefina Campos arrested in Eagle Pass, along the Texas/Mexico border with a kilo of cocaine in her underwear.  The really bad news, Mrs. Campos is 81. 

Number two, Mr. S. Pachiapan, truck driver in Kuala Lumpur, in Malaysia, he lost control of his vehicle, he flipped it and spilled 16 ½ tons on Hydrochloric Acid all over the highway.  Witnesses described it as, quote, very smelly.  And why did Mr. Pachiapan lose control of his 16 1/tons of very smelly Hydrochloric Acid?  Because he got stung by a hornet.  Killer bees are here. 

And number one, the unnamed failed robbery suspect in Des Moines.  He tried to hold up the Get and Go Convenience store, but the clerk, Terry Cook, knew the guy did not have a gun in his pocket but just a finger.  How?  I could see his thumb, Cook says, sticking out of his coat pocket.  When Cook told him so, the suspect fled and then paused in the parking lot, presumably realizing only then that when making the hand gesture associated with playing cops and robber, that is probably not a good idea to do it during an actual holdup? 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  The American pilots say they never saw the other plane coming, that they were flying at the altitude assigned them by air traffic controllers, that it was not until they landed their private jet safely that they realized they had collided with a Boeing 737, carrying 154 passengers and crew. 

In our third story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, all those on that Brazilian airliner perished after it crashed into the Amazon Rain Forest.  And for more than two months, the American pilots were kept in Brazil, while authorities there investigated.  Brazilian police now say the pilots of the private jet should have noticed that their plane‘s transponder was turned off.  Having it on might have prevented the collision.  The pilots‘ first interview in a moment.  First, as Matt Lauer reports, the issue of responsibility for the crash is far from clear, even as the Brazilian authorities draw closer to formal criminal charges. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MATT LAUER, NBC NEWS ANCHOR (voice-over):  It was the worst aviation disaster in Brazilian history.  Just before 5:00 p.m. on September 29th, an executive jet, piloted by Americans Joseph Lepore and Jan Paledino, and a commercial Brazilian airliner clipped wings.  The larger Boeing 737 spun out of control, falling from an altitude of 37,000 feet into the dense Amazon Forest, killing all 154 people on board.  But in a heroic effort, Lepore and Paledino were able to bring their damaged jet, with seven on board, to a safe landing at a nearby Air Force base.  Their passports were immediately seized by Brazilian authorities, preventing Lepore and Paledino from leaving the country. 

After months of investigation and legal wrangling, the pilots were finally allowed to return to the U.S., where a cheering crowd in Long Island, New York welcomed them home. 

BOB SHERRY, PRESIDENT, EXCELCEAR:  While we are all grateful for the safe return of Joe and Fan, and everyone aboard the Legacy, we are all saddened by this tragedy which took many innocent lives. 

LAUER:  Before they left Brazil, however, Lepore and Paledino were charged criminally with unintentionally endangering an aircraft by exhibiting a, quote, lack of necessary diligence that is expected and required.  If convicted, they face up to a dozen years in prison, according to Brazilian police. 

The charges were filed despite the fact both aircraft appear to have been assigned to the same altitude by Brazilian air traffic controllers, putting the planes on a collision course with disaster. 

REP. PETER KING (D), NEW YORK:  If there was any crime it all, it would have been by the Brazilian air traffic controllers.  The American pilots are 100 percent innocent.  They did everything they were told to do, everything they were instructed to do.  They acted professionally at all times. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  While the pilots have been charged by police in Brazil, that does not yet equal the American equivalent of formal criminal charges.  Under Brazilian law, a judge will decide whether to actually indict the pilots and send them to trial.  Meanwhile, the Americans and their lawyer, Robert Torcella, spoke with Matt today in an NBC exclusive.  At the risk of putting too fine a point on this, it should be noted that the pilots were confined to a hotel in Rio de Janeiro, not jail, during the Brazilian investigation. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JAN PALADINO, PILOT:  We were just basically level at our cruising altitude, according to what air traffic control—our clearance was, and it was uneventful flight, and all of a sudden, we experienced a horrific jolt, followed by the auto pilot disconnecting automatically.  And the aircraft began to roll to the right.  At that point we immediately grabbed the controls and stabilized the aircraft. 

LAUER:  How much damage was done to your plane? 

PALADINO:  We weren‘t sure at the time, exactly at that moment.  But we were receiving reports from the passengers in the back as to what kind of damage we had.  We had the wing tip—

JOE LEPORE, PILOT:  The wing had come off and part of the—a little bit of part of the tail had been clipped also. 

LAUER:  You guys struggled, not only to keep this plane in the air, but find a suitable landing spot for this plane, and you managed to get it down at a military base.  When you landed, how long after you landed did you finally get the word about exactly what had occurred in mid air? 

LEPORE:  It was probably a couple of hours later that we had found out that another airplane was missing. 

LAUER:  The 737.

PALADINO:  We made it also.  We did ask the controller at the air base, did you hear of any other distress calls from any other aircraft, and he said no.  So we just assumed that the other aircraft, if there was some damage, that they landed safely somewhere. 

LAUER:  You find out it is a 737.  Eventually you find out 154 people on board that plane were killed.  You had to start thinking, my gosh, if we had been one foot to the right, or one foot to the left, either we wouldn‘t have hit this plane at all, or if we had been a couple of feet to the other side, we would have never known what hit us.  We would have been annihilated in mid-air.  Instead of being treated as survivors, and some would say heroes for getting your plane and your passengers on the ground safely, you were treated very differently by Brazilian authorities weren‘t you? 

LEPORE:  Yes. 

PALADINO:  We were basically accused of wrong-doing. 

ROBERT TORCELLA, LAWYER FOR PILOTS:  And you know, Matt, the important thing here is that these two guys really don‘t view themselves as heroes.  They think they were doing their job as pilots and safely landing their aircraft and saving the passengers on their plane. 

LAUER:  Basically though, the Brazilian authorities, guys, they allege that you allowed, for some reason, your plane to stray into this altitude, this 37,000 foot altitude, which is reserved for flights going in the opposite direction.  Why were you at 37,000 feet? 

PALADINO:  That was our clearance that we received on the ground, also in the air, by the air traffic controllers.  And we were basically having an uneventful flight.  We can not leave without instructions. 

LAUER:  This is your clearance.  In other words, you were told by Brazilian air traffic control to fly at that 37,000 feet? 

PALADINO:  Correct.   

LAUER:  Did you have any idea that that altitude was reserved on coming flights. 

TORCELLA:  It is a misnomer, Matte, to suggest that it is reserved for oncoming flights.  Air traffic control has complete discretion over the sky. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Also here tonight, no discretion in the sky here.  The northeast enjoying unseasonably warm winter weather, but the northwest hounded by extraordinary storms. 

And shunned by the Baseball Hall of Fame in life, Buck O‘Neal finally gets a small portion of what he truly deserves, a posthumous honor from the government. 

Those stories ahead, but first here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three sound bytes. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States and Mrs. Laura Bush. 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:   Thank you.  Please be seated.  Thanks for inviting me to what sounded like a festive occasion. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Tonight‘s unveiling took the holiday in a very different direction. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  They are Nazis. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  It is called the Secret Lives of Gingerbread Men. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The empty store front is now home to a recreation of Nazi Germany, complete with Swastikas and Hitler and the notorious hand motion. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Why would you do something like that to ruin Christmas? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  These are a kinder, gentler Nazi. 

DAVID LETTERMAN, TALK SHOW HOST:  Take a look at this public service announcement I saw last night. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Recently Nicole Ritchie was busted for driving the wrong way down the street after smoking weed.  Remember, if you‘re not sober, let your kid drive.  A message from Britney Spears. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  A 41-year-old woman has died in Seattle, trapped in her basement, screaming for help, as a deluge outside flooded her home with water.  That freezing, frightening and fatal storm our number two story on the COUNTDOWN tonight.  It has claimed four lives so far, and dramatically slowed efforts to rescue the lives of three others, the three mountain climbers lost somewhere on Oregon‘s Mount Hood.  Search teams were forced back after facing wind gusts up to 130 miles an hour.  There was new hope today, with the discover of notes that might indicate their whereabouts.  But the missing climbers will still have had to have survive one of the worst storms the northwest has seen in recent history.  Our correspondent, Peter Alexander, has been in that storm and reports on its toll so far.  Good evening Peter.

PETER ALEXANDER, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Good evening Keith.  It was a fast moving storm and tonight it is mostly gone.  All major bridges in this area have reopened, and Seattle‘s airport is back to normal operations.  But after so much damage here, more than one million people are still without power. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ALEXANDER (voice-over):  It was a deadly combination, record rains and fierce wind gusts, topping 100 miles per hour, bombarded western Washington and Oregon overnight. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  This is a potentially deadly storm. 

ALEXANDER:  Daylight revealed it was the worst storm to hit this region in more than a decade, ripping the docks of a marina, grounding travelers at Sea-Tac Airport, and leaving more than a million and a half residents without power across the Pacific Northwest.  At least four people were killed. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I had a very, very long winter, before winter has begun. 

ALEXANDER:  Christina Wabb (ph) barely escaped when this 130 foot tree collapsed on her home. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I ran out of the room, screaming into the kids‘ room, and there was this huge loud noise, and the tree went literally right through the house where I was sleeping. 

ALEXANDER:  This is what her bedroom looks like now. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  If I hadn‘t gone in to check on them, I don‘t think I‘d be standing here talking to you right now. 

ALEXANDER:  With emergency managers warning residents to be ready for an entire weekend without power, employees at this hardware store are helping blacked out Widbey (ph) Island residents find essentials. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  If we had a 100,000 generators, we‘d probably sell them all. 

ALEXANDER:  As crews begin the cleanup, clearing roads and separating cars from trees, forecasters say clear skies should give this region a badly needed break. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ALEXANDER:  Late today that storm crossed the Cascades and slammed eastern Washington, and northern Idaho, shutting down some schools and ski resorts, Keith.   

OLBERMANN:  Peter Alexander at Mercer Island, in Washington, thanks. 

It‘s a welcome occasion to move from such a grim story to a positive one, and rare indeed when such as story as that tops our nightly roundup of celebrity news, Keeping Tabs.  Buck O‘Neal, long time friend of baseball and of this show, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, posthumously, two months after his death at the age of 94.  He was both a pioneer and ambassador, a veteran of the Negro League, the first African American to work in Major League baseball as a coach, a living historian, who got more than two dozen of his long ago colleagues into the Hall of Fame, even if he himself was ignored by it.  President Bush today said O‘Neil helped change baseball in America for the better.  Buck O‘Neil was a legend, Mr. Bush said, and he was a beautiful human being. 

Oprah Winfrey is expanding her empire into the world of prime time TV. 

“Variety” reporting that Winfrey has sold two shows to ABC, reality shows.  One of them called, “Oprah Winfrey is the Big Give,” pitting 10 people against each other in the task of helping others, a heart warming celebration of altruism will end with the winner getting whatever they want most in life.  Yes Oprah, thank you.  I would like immortality please.  The other reality show tentatively called “Your Money or Your Life.”  Winfrey action teams will swoop in on a family crisis, totally overhaul the family‘s life and monetary problems.  Yes, Oprah, thank you.  I would like you to get all these people out of my home, please. 

Remember it is not just for a month, it is for your life.  Why there are more 29-year-old Farrahs than one-year-old Farrahs. 

That is ahead, but first time for COUNTDOWN‘s latest list of nominees for Worst Person in the World.  The bronze to defensive tackle Terry “Tank” Johnson of the Chicago bears.  Police raided his Illinois home and there found unregistered guns and assault rifles, while Bears coach Lubby Smith was worried about a possible distraction for his team‘s preparations for the games Sunday against Tampa.  Because of Tank Johnson‘s arrest, I‘d prefer to think of this way, Tank Johnson, a cache of high powered weaponry in his house, it is nice to see an athlete trying to live up to his nick name. 

The runner up, Fred Barnes of the “Weekly Standard” and Fox News, and that‘s Weekly with two E‘s and not an E and A.  Responding to the positive news about Senator Johnson‘s health, Barnes saying on Fox, there is a long history of the doctor‘s reports about the politician, from the president on down, about doctors reports being untrue.  You really have to be wary of them.  Gee Fred, sorry about the good news.  Maybe you should send Tim Johnson a get sicker soon card. 

Our winner, Bill-O, just flat out lying again.  He said the city of Seattle was keeping the Marines from staging their annual Toys for Tots drive there.  Other than the 300,000 toys the Marines say they collected and distributed in Seattle, before they ran out, and went back and asked the people of Seattle for thousands of more donations, and got them.  So Bill lied, which might explain, in part, why last night‘s rating were what they were.  Among viewers 25 to 54, “O‘Reilly Factor,” 286,000, COUNTDOWN, 283,000.  Bill O‘Reilly, today‘s Worst Person in the World.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  It‘s not the official list.  That will come from the U.S.  Department of the Census sometime in the new year.  But BabyCenter.com has now released its list of the most popular names for our newest citizens, based on a database of 370,000 members. 

Our number one story on the COUNTDOWN, this list is a doozy, Brooklyn meet Layla.  Layla meet Brooklyn.  And for the second year in a row the top names are Aiden and Emma. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN (voice-over):  Though they say her you‘ll be able to distinguish your 2006 class of Aidens from your 2005 class of Aidans by the spelling, AIDAN was the choice last year, AIDEN this.  Emma continues her roller coaster history.  In the days of the poetess (sic), whose words are inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus, the U.S.  Census Department says Emma was the third most popular name for girls in this country each year from 1880 through 1886. 

But by 1966, Emma was down to 364th and was still only the 177th most popular as late as 1987.  The rest of the top ten, for each gender from this year, is a mix of pop culture influences and old timey favorites.  Madison, Ava, Emily, Isabella, Kaitlyn, Sophia, Olivia, Abigail and Hailey, among the girls.  And oh, how that Isabella sighting is going to make our executive producer Izzie Povitch happy.  Isabelle, no (INAUDIBLE), is 34th for girls, meaning there will be a lot Izzies among the college freshwomen of 2024. 

Back to the boys, two through ten are Jacob, Ethan, Ryan, Matthew, Jack, Noah, Nicholas, Joshua and Logan.  Joshua Logan?  The director of South Pacific and Paint Your Wagon.  There is another one like that in here.  Sixteenth tops among the boys, Connor, 17th, Jackson.  No doubt a delight to the first baseman of baseball‘s Arizona Diamondbacks, Connor Jackson. 

A befuddlement as old as names themselves will continue.  Jordan is the 49th most popular name among girls and the 51st most popular name among boys.  Same for Riley, 17th favorite for the girls, 73rd for the boys.  And then there are the Alex variations.  Alexander, 20th, Alexis, 25th, Alex, for boys, 50th, Alexandra, 62nd, Alexa 80th.  And we have the sound alikes, Kaitlin, 6th, Kaily, 21st, Makayla, 38th, Kayla, 39th, Kylie, 47st, and Keira, 50th

Some old favorites have not stood the test of time.  The Census Bureau says John was the top name for boys every year from 1880 through 1939.  He‘s just 42nd now, though Jack is 7th and Jonathan is 60th.  But Mary has fallen even further from grace.  She was number one all but six years from 1880 through 1961.  Not even in the top 100 this year.  Oh and Grace is 20th.  Some standards endure, Katherine is still 44th.  Katie, 61st, Kate, 65th, Katharine, with two A‘s, 859th last year.  And OK, we plugged Katie, Charlie is 79th.  Sorry Brian, you‘re 86th

Then you‘ve got your novelty names, Brooklyn, 54th.  The Census Department says it has no record of anyone being named Brooklyn before 1990.  Trinity, 85th, Faith, 86th, Neveah, 89th, Destiny, 93rd.  Neveah?  Heaven spelled backwards.  Angelina is 95th.  Sorry, no Brad in the top 100.  And be careful in this area, parents, Farah was unheard of before “Charlie‘s Angels.”  Then it became the 277th most popular name in 1976, the 177th the next year.  It petered out after 1988, but this still means there are a lot of Farah‘s running around. 

No doubt, by now you‘re wondering about Keith, having been number 1032 for baby boys in the year 1895, it zoomed to 39th the year I was born.  It peeked at number 33 in 1963.  Last year, 287th.  I assume full responsibility. 

And lastly, the last to make the cut, the 100th favorite boy name on the Baby Center list, Ben.  One hundredth for the girls, Layla.  Layla, a lot of Eric Clapton fans out there? 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  And if you want to have fun with the history of baby names, Social Security has a searchable website with all of the data going back to 1880.  It‘s about 30 characters long, so we‘ve saved you the bother and just linked it off of our website, at COUNTDOWN@MSNBC.com.  There you can find arcane information like last year, 63 sets of twins were slapped with the name Faith and Hope, but not since 1907 has any of the top thousand most popular boys names in this country been Newt. 

One name has just dropped a notch tonight.  News just in that book editor Judith Regan has been fired by Harper Collins publishers, not a month after her O.J. Simpson book project, If I Did It, actually made that company, and its parent, Rupert Murdoch‘s News Corp, look bad.  Regan‘s newest project was a controversial historical novel, portraying Mickey Mantle, the baseball star, as a semi-pornographic character.  Judith Regan terminated tonight by Harper Collins in the wake of the O.J. Simpson, If I Did It, book project.  That is COUNTDOWN for this the 1,322nd since the declaration of mission accomplished in Iraq.  I‘m Keith Olbermann, good night and good luck.

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

END   

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