updated 4/24/2007 1:05:21 PM ET 2007-04-24T17:05:21

Guests: Richard Wolffe, Rachel Maddow, Dana Milbank, Dominic Chianese

ALISON STEWART, HOST:  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?

The war debate.  Who will blink first?  The president continues the veto talk, as the Senate majority leader doesn‘t want to hear it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER:  Despite the president‘s happy talk, no progress has been made.  The time for patience is long past.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  It is a critical week as the war of words will turn into real legislation.

Mr. Bush stands by his man.  Alberto Gonzales saying the testimony last week—wait for it—actually increased his confidence in the AG.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

ALBERTO GONZALES, ATTORNEY GENERAL:  Senator, I don‘t recall...

Senator, I can‘t recall...

I do not recall...

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  But he answered as honestly as he could.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  The White House Correspondents Dinner, Sanjaya was there, and he wasn‘t the only one who was suspected of not having talent.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICH LITTLE, COMEDIAN:  You thought Colbert was bad...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  The actual entertainment, provided by none other than MC Rove, getting in a heated debate over global warming.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  There was a big plume of smoke that came up, lot of crackling noise.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  A Blue Angels air show turns deadly when a jet drops out of formation and crashes.  Over the last 50 years, two dozen pilots killed in air shows.  So why must the show go on?

And “The Sopranos.”  Last night was a rough one for Uncle Junior. 

Tonight, not so much.  He joins us.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Who is this?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  All that and more, now on COUNTDOWN.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  What the hell did that mean?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  And good evening.  I‘m Alison Stewart, in for Keith Olbermann.

After weeks of threatening a veto in the war of words over the war of Iraq, it now looks like President Bush is only days away from actually having to do it.

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, the stakes getting even higher in Iraq today, nine more American soldiers killed, 20 wounded in a single attack, a suicide bomber driving into a patrol base northeast of Baghdad.

It is against that backdrop that the Democratically controlled Congress says it will finally pass legislation later this week that includes a phased troop withdrawal from Iraq that would begin in less than six months, the commander in chief going for the block, saying he will veto the Pentagon‘s budget bill in order to keep that legislation off the books.

Mr. Bush said he‘ll do it, but he certainly isn‘t happy about it and would rather that lawmakers just do exactly what he wants.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH:  I believe strongly that politicians in Washington shouldn‘t be telling generals how to do their job.  And I believe artificial timetables of withdrawal would be a mistake.  A artificial timetable of withdrawal would say to an enemy, just wait them out.  It would say to the Iraqis, don‘t do hard things necessary to achieve our objectives, and it would be discouraging for our troops.

And therefore, I will strongly reject a artificial timetable withdrawal, and/or Washington politicians are trying to tell those who wear the uniform how to do their job.  I will, of course, be willing to work with the Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, on a way forward. 

That‘s what I said during the cabinet room.  But I also made it clear that

that—no matter how tough it may look, that for the Congress to micromanage this progress is a, is a mistake.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  Things for Mr. Bush definitely a lot easier before the 2006 midterm election, where that‘s when Americans voted Democrats back into power on Capitol Hill.  That put Harry Reid of Nevada back in control of Senate.  Last week the senator said out loud, The president knows the war in Iraq is already lost.  Today, Mr. Reid got verbal again, alleging the commander in chief of overselling the progress that‘s being made there.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REID:  Back in December, the Iraq Study Group said that the situation‘s grave and deteriorating.  And that‘s the end of the quote.  Unfortunately, since then, nothing has changed.  And yet the president on Friday used the word “progress” no fewer than 10 times when he gave his Iraq update.

He said that while there were still horrific attacks in Baghdad, and I quote, “The direction of the fight is beginning to shift.”  And describing his escalation American troops, what he calls a surge, he further said, “So far, the operation is meeting expectations,” end of quote.

The White House transcript says the president made those remarks in the state of Michigan.  I believe he made them in the state of denial.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  Let‘s call in our own Richard Wolffe, senior White House correspondent for “Newsweek” magazine.

So Richard, if denial is the first stage of accepting loss, following bargaining, anger, despair, and acceptance, will Mr. Bush ever get to this bargaining stage?

RICHARD WOLFFE, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, “NEWSWEEK” MAGAZINE: 

Well, yes, he will, but I hate to say it, I think we‘ve got another month of this kind of nonsense.  You know, both sides are going to try and get more of an advantage, and rather like the Sunni and Shia, both sides think they have something worth fighting for and think they have the upper hand.

In fact, one senior Bush aide told me that the problem here, apart from the war, of course, is that both sides‘ arguments resonate with the American people.  And while that happens, they‘re just going to thrash this out, the White House is going to try the—try to hang defeat around the neck of the Democrats and the Democrats are going to try and hang the situation on the ground, the quagmire, around the neck of the White House.

STEWART:  Let‘s talk about that situation on the ground, that breaking news that we are reporting, that nine more American soldiers have been killed, 20 more wounded.  This as congressional Democrats and the White House are head for this showdown.  A former Clinton adviser calls it a dangerous game of chicken.  What is dangerous about it for each side?

WOLFFE:  What‘s dangerous about it is that the political pitfalls here.  I mean, in a sense, what‘s really dangerous here is that both sides look ridiculous, and there is that element of ridicule here in this game.  You have the president saying politicians shouldn‘t tell generals what to do.  Obviously, he doesn‘t count himself as a politician.  And you have Democrats who are saying they‘re shocked to find out that the president isn‘t listening to the will of people, that he‘s in fact the commander in chief.

All the while, of course, the situation in Baghdad and the rest of Iraq is just bogged down.  And the danger here is that, as one senior administration official told me just over the weekend, there is no sign that the Iraqi politicians are moving any faster to the kind of resolution that we need as a coalition for the troops to come home.

STEWART:  Does either side have an edge right now?

WOLFFE:  I don‘t think they do right now, although obviously the president is going to win, in the sense that he can veto this legislation, Harry Reid doesn‘t have the votes.  But the resolution of it is really what happens on the ground, and that‘s where the American people are focused.

STEWART:  You talk about the—how people are focused on the ground. 

It seemed that the midterm elections were about people fixing the war.  That‘s what people voted on, they wanted this war fixed, and the latest polling still backs that up.  Is this what the Democrats are counting on?

WOLFFE:  Well, they are.  But this is all about the battle of perceptions, it‘s a PR battle.  Here, both sides are fighting this as if it‘s a political campaign, and it‘s not.  The real question of perceptions is, what do people think the war is worth fighting about?  And right now, I think 60 percent or so of public opinion says it‘s not worth continuing with.

STEWART:  Let‘s talk about what‘s going on despite over the wall that the U.S. is constructing in the center of Baghdad, as long as we‘re talking about what‘s actually going on on the ground.  Prime Minister Maliki spoke out against it over the weekend, comparing it to the Berlin Wall, asking the U.S. to just stop.  Richard, if the U.S. doesn‘t stop, what does that do to the perception that the Iraqi government is going to ultimately get in control?

WOLFFE:  Ah, yes, well, there‘s this wonderful myth of the sovereignty of the Iraqi government, which, of course, was handed back to the Iraqis many years ago.  Look, there are many ironies here.  Prime Minister Maliki himself wanted to dig a trench around Baghdad as one of his first security plans.  You could build a giant—a Great Wall of China in the middle of Baghdad, and it wouldn‘t stop the security problems they have, until they come to a resolution.

As long as both sides, Sunni and Shia, want to fight this out, there really isn‘t many—much that a security wall or any other security device could do.

STEWART:  As we can see with our breaking news that the nine U.S.  soldiers killed in an IED attack.

Richard Wolffe of MSNBC and “Newsweek.”  Thanks a lot, Richard.

WOLFFE:  Any time.

STEWART:  If you thought president‘s enthusiasm for his attorney general might have waned a little bit over the weekend, what with the—well, the beating Alberto Gonzales took on the Sunday political talk shows, some of it from Republicans, like Arlen Specter, you ain‘t seen loyalty yet.  And Fredo, that is what Mr. Bush calls his attorney general, seems to be a particular favorite of W‘s, and even though the president did not watch Thursday‘s testimony before the Senate, at which Mr. Gonzales was underwhelming, to put it charitably, today Mr. Bush reiterated his support.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH:  As the investigation or the hearings went forward, it was clear that the attorney general broke no law, did no wrongdoing.  And some senators didn‘t like his explanation, but he answered as honestly as he could.  This is an honest, honorable man in whom I have confidence.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  OK, so this keeps going.  Before leaving work today, the White House issuing a written statement, praising the attorney general for his work on an obscure identity theft task force that really not too many people have ever even heard of, President Bush thanking Mr. Gonzales for, quote, “taking on this difficult and important assignment.”

COUNTDOWN thanking Air America‘s Rachel Maddow for taking an important assignment, setting us straight tonight.

So Rachel, the COUNTDOWN bullpen was really taken aback today by the president‘s use of the phrase “He answered as honestly as he could.”  Dana Perino, White House spokesperson, repeated it later on in a White House briefing.  We want to know, does honesty have degrees?  What does this really mean, “as honestly as he could”?

RACHEL MADDOW, AIR AMERICA RADIO:  Yes, if you‘re answering something as honestly as you can, that means you‘re not exactly being honest.  You‘re either being honest, or you‘re not.  This was—to—for somebody to look at his performance on Capitol Hill and say, God, my confidence for him is just swelling within me, it almost defies belief.

The attorney general said, “I don‘t recall” more than 70 times, and this is about stuff that‘s not ancient history.  One of the things he said he didn‘t recall was talking to the president about the U.S. attorneys.  That‘s something even the president says that he recalls.  But Alberto, it‘s just all just lost to the mists of time, sometime in the past few months, that‘s gone.

At this point, he‘s—you have to conclude that he‘s either lying, or he‘s not lying, but he ought to be accompanied by a minder every time he leaves the house, to make sure that he remembers to put his pants—he remembers to put his pants on.

STEWART:  You bring up an interesting point.  As you watched the president, did you get the president was saying, You know, Al‘s not really all that good at this, so he really did the best he could up there in front of those people?  Or, He answered as truthfully as he could, based on what he knows?

MADDOW:  Yes, it‘s a low bar, is what you‘re saying.  It‘s, He tried as hard as he could to tell the truth.  You don‘t want somebody to be an attorney general because you think that he‘s a, you know, a soft, fuzzy bunny kind of guy, and he tries really hard to tell the truth, even when he can‘t.

And part of the reason that people are really clamoring, I think, for Alberto Gonzales‘s resignation is not just the firing of these eight U.S.  attorneys and his inability to keep the stories straight about why that happened.  It‘s also all of the other things that have followed him around in the string of disasters that have trailed him in Washington.  He‘s the torture guy.  he‘s the Geneva Conventions are quaint guy.  He‘s the...

I mean, since Bush has been president, 80 percent of the prosecutions brought by federal prosecutors against candidates for office or elected officials have been against Democrats.  It‘s not just the prosecutors who got fired, it‘s the prosecutors who didn‘t get fired.

Alberto Gonzales has been a real failure in Washington.  And at this point, if this is something that brings him down, I think, good.  But if it wasn‘t going to be this, it was going to be something else.

STEWART:  Yet the president continues to stand by Alberto Gonzales.  His spokeswoman, Dana Perino, said, you know, the president didn‘t actually see any of the attorney general‘s testimony.  And I think maybe that adds to the president‘s confidence, because if you saw that attorney general in the headlights action going on last week, I‘m --  Can you explain the loyalty?

MADDOW:  Well, it‘s—you know, it‘s interesting, because he—the president didn‘t see the testimony, but yet it increased his confidence in the attorney general, radical leftists like Tom Coburn and Jeff Sessions and Arlen Specter and all of these other Republican senators...

STEWART:  She said with her tongue in her cheek.

MADDOW:  Yes, exactly.  I mean, those people looked at Alberto Gonzales at the hearings and thought that he ought to be canned.  It‘s—I think it‘s easy to conclude that the reason that Bush is standing by Alberto Gonzales is personal loyalty, and president‘s now-infamous ability to reject facts that he finds inconvenient.

I do have a political theory, though, about why he might be standing by him, at least in the meantime.  All Republican elected officials who are running for reelection are going to have to find some issue to put distance between themselves and the Bush-Cheney administration.  Anybody who doesn‘t put distance between themselves and Bush and Cheney is not going to be reelected.

Maybe they‘re going to leave Alberto Gonzales hanging out there for a few months for people to hit, basically, to be a hate sponge for Republican officials, so that there‘s some way that they can distance themselves from the administration.  It‘s the only thing I can come up with.

STEWART:  Rachel Maddow, host of “The Rachel Maddow Show” on Air America.  Thanks for being with us.

MADDOW:  Alison, thanks.

STEWART:  Last month, Karl Rove went to a correspondents‘ dinner and got to show his rapping skills.  At this month‘s party, he showed his fighting face, getting into a verbal scuffle with Sheryl Crow and Laurie David, all over global warming.  The highlights and the lowlights of DC‘s big night.

And the race to replace President Bush.  Obama and Clinton both fighting to earn the black vote, and the missus teasing yet again what role the mister might have if she gets to move into the Oval Office.

You‘re watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  Imagine people so cynical and demoralized that many don‘t even bother to vote.  That was France five years ago.  But this weekend, mon dieu!  An incredible 84 percent voter turnout in the French presidential race.  Some even bicycled to the polls, carrying baguettes.  Now, that is dedication.

So come on, America, get off your butt off the couch and drive your Prius to the precinct.

Campaign ‘08 is the number four story in our COUNTDOWN.  Today in Washington, Senator John McCain dusted off his Republican maverick credentials by claiming green is patriotic.  McCain says dependence on Middle East sheiks and foreign oil weakens our security, funds terrorism, and global warming is not a quote, “Hollywood invention.”  If you‘re keeping score, that would be Al Gore 1, Karl Rove 0.

In Chicago, Senator Barack Obama also talked foreign policy again, calling for a phased withdrawal from Iraq.  He also says President Bush may occupy the White House, but for the last six years, the job of leader has been vacant.  Nab (ph).

With more on campaign jabs and jousts, here‘s Kelly O‘Donnell.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

REV. AL SHARPTON:  Senator Barack Obama.

KELLY O‘DONNELL, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  First, the serious.  Senator Barack Obama in New York this weekend, trying to win over a group led by Al Sharpton, saying race itself is not a reason to vote for him.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I should not get the support of the African-American community simply because I‘m African American.  I don‘t believe in that.  That is not what America is about.

SHARPTON:  Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.

O‘DONNELL:  Senator Hillary Clinton spoke to the same group a day earlier, and wants to prove herself to black voters too.

CHARLIE COOK, NBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  It‘s a real contest, it‘s a, you know, tug of war between Senator Obama and Senator Clinton over who is going to get the majority of the African-American support.

O‘DONNELL:  Now, here‘s the lighter side.  Sharpton, who has run for president himself, has not said who he plans to support, leaving Obama to give Sharpton a playful jab.

OBAMA:  There‘s something humming down here.  Oh, that‘s somebody‘s Blackberry.  That‘s Sharpton‘s Blackberry.  Is that Hillary calling?

O‘DONNELL:  This weekend, Hillary Clinton was calling on Iowa voters.  Asked at an event about the role former president Clinton would play, the senator said she would put him to work.  “I believe in using former presidents,” she said, “to really get people around the world feeling better about our country,” adding, “Right now, they‘re rooting against us.”  The Clinton campaign says she would like to deploy her husband, but did not use the word “ambassador.”

COOK:  I think Senator Clinton understands that she‘s got to win this on her own.

O‘DONNELL:  South Carolina is key to winning the GOP nomination.

MITT ROMNEY ®, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  The source of America‘s strength is the American people, hard working.

O‘DONNELL:  The Republican field, minus McCain, was in Greenville this weekend.

RUDOLPH GIULIANI ®, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  We need people in Washington, including me, who make sense.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  NBC‘s Kelly O‘Donnell there.

And if you‘d like to make sense of the ‘08 campaign, you‘re in the right place for politics.  On Thursday, you can watch the first-in-the-nation debate of the Democratic candidates right here on MSNBC.  “NIGHTLY NEWS” anchor Brian Williams will moderate from South Carolina State University in Orangeburg.  It all starts at 7:00 p.m.  Eastern.  Pre- and post-game coverage anchored by Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews.

You can also hold the candidates‘ feet to the fire.  We are taking questions for the debate from you.  Just visit MSNBC.com.

The resolution to Decision ‘08 over your way.

The ending to “The Sopranos” mere weeks away.  We aren‘t sure if he took his meds, but Uncle Junior will be live on COUNTDOWN coming up.

And “American Idol” goes into charity mode this week.

And we‘ve got a potential spoiler alert.  The big rumors on the big celebrity singing duo.

That and a whole lot more, ahead on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  Keith usually starts this segment off with a historical

reference, and we thought we had a pretty good one for tonight.  Not only

is it Williams Shakespeare‘s birthday, it‘s the anniversary of his death.  He died on his birthday.  Except maybe he didn‘t.  You know, there‘s this whole group of people who say his birthday is April 23, then there‘s a whole bunch of other people who say it‘s the 26th.  And then all these people, they fight about it on the Internet.

So we‘re just going to stay out of it, instead say Happy birthday, Valerie Bertinelli.  Take it one day at a time, Barbara Cooper.

Let‘s play Oddball.

We begin in Spokane, Washington, for one of those life lessons that everyone just has to learn for themselves.  Bottom line, if you‘ve been hoarding cash over the years and then burying it in the backyard, then you finally go and you dig it up, and it‘s more than $14,000, but the bills are wet, and you need to dry them off, the worst place to dry out the cash is in the outside air vent of your co-worker‘s camper, just as he‘s about to leave for a trip.  Police pulled the trailer over after the blowing cash created chaos on I-90.  They were able to recover $7,000, the other $7,000 grabbed up or blown away.  Kids, if you‘re watching, stay in school, really.

To California, where once again we witness the annual Miracle of San Diego.  Not only can these kids walk on water, they can run on water.  Now they‘re racing, and racing, racing.  Teams of students use wood, Styrofoam, Fiberglas, and duct tape to construct fancy buoyancy shoes, then ran across the swimming pool for fun and prizes.  Participants were not allowed to attach outboard motors to their boat shoes or use dolphins with leashes to pull them, nor were they permitted to attack the other competitors with pirate weapons.  So what‘s the point, then?  I mean, really.

David Letterman‘s passes on the White House Correspondents‘ Dinner, but instead sent his top 10 list for favorite Bush blunders.  It‘s must-see TV, so stick around.  So we can also discuss the argument between Bush‘s brain over global warming.

And the latest on the Blue Angels crash.  Details on the investigation and a look at why these air shows are so important to the military.

But first, time for COUNTDOWN‘s top three newsmakers of this day.

At number three, that fellow, Kenney Lee Wollen of Raleigh, North Carolina, he was arrested in a drive-through of Pope‘s Dry Cleaners.  He must have been there to pick up his pants, because police say he wasn‘t wearing any at the time.

And number two, hot air balloon enthusiast Benoit Lambert, who finished building the most evil hot air balloon ever.  It‘s an 86-foot-high floating Darth Vader head.  Nerd, nerd.

And at number one, Dr. Chris Stanley, a mineralogist at London‘s Natural History Museum.  He announced today the discovery of a new mineral found by geologists in Serbia.  After analyzing the samples, Stanley says it is exact match with the chemical formula of kryptonite from the old Superman comic books.  Now, seriously, if he can just hop into that Darth Vader head and find Superman‘s house, his evil plan will be complete.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  And welcome back.  I‘m Alison Stewart, in tonight for Keith Olbermann.  Did you know Karl Rove works for the American people, but apparently being American doesn‘t qualify if you‘re a song writer or filmmaker.  Our third story on the COUNTDOWN, the throw down at the White House correspondents dinner.  In attendance, the producer of “An Inconvenient Truth,” Laurie David, and singer Sheryl Crow, both fresh off a global warming awareness tour. 

Also in attendance, Karl Rove, who the ladies tried unsuccessfully to persuade to their green cause.  According to them, Rove got angry and tried to walk away.  Then as Sheryl Crow reached out to grab his arm, he purportedly said, quote, “don‘t touch me.”  To which Crow responded, “you can‘t speak to us like that.  You work for us.”  Rove replied, “I don‘t work for you.  I work for the American people.” 

Crow pointing out, quote, “we are the American people.”  Both women telling Lester Holt on the “Today Show” the next morning the whole exchange was shocking. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LAURIE DAVID, “AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH”:  We were so excited.  I mean, I have never, all these years I‘ve been working, had an opportunity to talk to someone directly in the administration.  I mean, this was exciting for us.  So we walked over to engage him.  I mean, the first thing I said, I urge you to maybe take another look at what is happening with global warming and he immediately got kind of gruff and hostile with us.  And it kind of went downhill from there. 

So it was really just an attempt to engage him, to talk directly to the administration, to say look, we have to do something about this.  And he wasn‘t interested in talking to us. 

SHERYL CROW, SINGER:  It was very disappointing, because really, honestly, this is going to be the most important issue of our lifetime, and we need to stop arguing about it.  The science is already out there and we need to move forward.  It is irresponsible at this point not to be addressing this, because we have kids out here who are going to be leading this country and we need to really be addressing this. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  Now Karl Rove tells it differently, saying about Laurie David, quote, “she came over to insult me and she succeeded.”  The White House apparently concurring and taking it personally. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DANA PERINO, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  I think Karl Rove just wanted to have some fun on Saturday night and I think he wasn‘t the only one.  I think that it‘s unfortunate that people who have a (sic) impassioned view about a topic don‘t take the time and afford the president the same respect that they are asking for.  The president‘s record on climate change is very strong. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  I‘m joined now by our own Dana Milbank, who as the national political reporter for the “Washington Post,” was at the dinner Saturday night.  Dana, laying aside the fact that the fight was with Karl Rove and not the president, as Dana Perino sort of talked about there, what do you make of the White House reaction to all that? 

DANA MILBANK, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  I make of it that they seem to have too much time on their hands if they are wanting to mix it up with a couple of entertainers.  But look, this is an administration that can be talking about Alberto Gonzalez‘s waning days in office or his waning days of any legitimacy, or it can be talking about death in Iraq.  So, let‘s talk about the White House correspondents dinner.  You can hardly blame them for the whole thing. 

STEWART:  Well, the “National Review” claims another witness said that Crow and David were a lot more aggressive with Karl Rove than they let on.  Now, was it a good message and a bad choice of timing?  Isn‘t this thing supposed to be all hugs and air kisses and hey, you look fabulous, so do you? 

MILBANK:  Yes, that‘s exactly what it is supposed to be, which is why it should probably be discontinued all together.  But if we should give—if we can spare a moment of sympathy for Karl Rove; he‘s sitting there.  His president is on the stage with 33 percent popularity.  He‘s just lost both houses of Congress.  He‘s surrounded by literally hundreds, if not thousands, of journalists and he‘s about to have to sit through 20 minutes of Rich Little.  So I would be pretty ornery in that position as well. 

STEWART:  But Rove gave this response, which gave the story legs, by saying, I don‘t work for you.  I work for the American people.  Really smart answer?  Really dumb answer?  What do you think?

MILBANK:  Well, he was quick on his feet, particularly when you consider the amount of alcohol that almost certainly had been consumed.  The drinks started at 6:00 in the evening and go on well towards 2:00 in the morning.  But that is vintage Karl Rove.  He is very sharp and he doesn‘t mind mixing it up.  So I‘m sure he didn‘t really let this disrupt his digestion that night. 

MILBANK:  All right, Dana, we want you to stand by.  That rubber chicken might, because you know what that‘s like.  We want to take a look at some of the other highlights of the evening.  In stark contrast to the heated exchange between Karl Rove and Laurie David and Sheryl Crow, the stated entertainment of the night received an extremely chilly reception.  The appropriately named Rich Little, who performed at the same dinner in 1984, seeking to bring the audience back to that era with him, keeping the humor very middle of the road, doing impressions of such standbys as Johnny Carson and Ronald Reagan, and among the living, John McCain and the current President Bush. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICH LITTLE, COMEDIAN:  We will not tire, we will not falter.  We will not fail.  When this war-a-thon thing again stall extremenistic fraction is concludified—what the hell did that mean?  I don‘t know what that means.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  Oh, and there was singing, too. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(SINGING)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  Oh, and the president forewent his standard comedy skit, ostensibly because of the murder at the Virginia Tech campus last week.  The only vaguely amusing part of the evening actually came from David Letterman. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID LETTERMAN, COMEDIAN:  The category tonight, top 10 favorite George W. Bush moments.  Top ten favorite George W. Bush moments.

(APPLAUSE)

Here we go.  Number 10.  Oh!  Number nine. 

BUSH:  If it feels good, do it.  If you got a problem, blame somebody else. 

LETTERMAN:  Number eight. 

BUSH:  The issue of immigration stirs intense emotions.  And in recent weeks Americans have seen those emotions on display on the streets of major cities—

LETTERMAN:  Number seven.    Number six. 

BUSH:  That there be a stable Iran, an Iran that is capable of rejecting Iranian influence—I mean, Iraq. 

LETTERMAN:  Number five.   

BUSH:  I like to fish. 

LETTERMAN:  Number four.  Number three.  Number two.

BUSH:  Doing a better job of talking to each other.  The left hand now knows what the right hand is doing. 

LETTERMAN:  And the number one favorite George W. Bush moment. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  Wow!  The biggest splash, pardon the pun, of the night was made by none other than Sanjaya.  Fresh off his “American Idol” loss and so mobbed by the crowd that even the governor of New York asked for his autograph.  Got to bring Dana Milbank back in here.  What does it say to you about this events and about the press corps, frankly, that Sanjaya was the most mobbed person? 

MILBANK:  This, once again, proves the old adage that politics is show business for ugly people.  It was a bit awkward.  I did get to meet Sanjaya.  I wanted to touch the hair—

STEWART:  See, you are boasting about meeting Sanjaya. 

MILBANK:  I shook his hand and said, I love your work.  But I must say, I was more taken by Morgan Fairchild and that is largely because she said she is a big fan of COUNTDOWN.  

STEWART:  She has a lot of gold.  She came up and introduced herself to me at a party.  I couldn‘t believe it.  You know, I have to admit, Saturday night, I didn‘t get to go to the event because I had to work the next morning.  I was home watching a TIVO edition of “Ugly Betty,” like in my pajamas with a Bud Light, feeling a little sorry for myself.  And then I saw a little bit of the Rich Little performance.  I think I won. 

STEWART:  The president was asked this morning if he would pardon Rich Little.  I don‘t think he should, but I tell you what, I actually beat an early retreat over to the Bloomberg party, when Rich Little announced that he was going to impersonate six president.  And I had a feeling he was going to start with Calvin Coolidge.  We have it on good information that Henry Kissinger was in the hall and he was loving it. 

STEWART:  Can you explain to people why Rich Little was the entertainment. 

STEWART:  Well sure, you remember the whole Stephen Colbert flap from a year earlier.  And the president was offended.  The intention was to give no offense to the president.  And, in fact, no offense was given, and barely a laugh in the entire hall.  And I think people have more or less reached the conclusion that this sort event has run its course. 

STEWART:  I want to point out one serious thing.  The president had the decision not to do any humorous schtick because of the Virginia Tech tragedy.  And that‘s admirable.  But last year there‘s a whole war going on that claimed thousands of lives and the president—well, he did make some pretty funny jokes then, got up there, was quite jovial.  Why is it OK to make jokes then, but not now? 

MILBANK:  Well, I think the president was more or less flipping the bird at the press corps there.  He did have a humorous speech prepared.  He chose not to do it.  And in the past when he has wanted to say something about the serious events, he has actually made a serious speech.  In this case, he just wanted to get out of stage as quickly as possible, which only gave Rich Little that much more time to regale us. 

STEWART:  Ouch.  Dana Milbank of MSNBC and the “Washington Post,” nice to speak with you, Dana.  

MILBANK:  Thanks a lot. 

STEWART:  The Blue Angels lost one of their own in an air show crash over the weekend.  The latest on the investigation and why these air shows are so important to the military. 

And a big mystery at “American Idol.”  No, not Paula‘s prescriptions.  The show is taking a huge, huge, huge singing duo this week.  We have some inside scoop for you.  That and more ahead on COUNTDOWN. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  The Navy‘s Blue Angel squadron has canceled its practice tomorrow and its performances next weekend.  In our number two story tonight, the Blue Angels lost one of their own on Saturday.  In its 61 years, the Blue Angels Squadron has had 262 pilots.  Their primary mission has been the same over the years, recruiting.  And despite the dangers, Mark Potter reports on why these and other air shows will continue to go on and continue to draw huge crowds. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARK POTTER, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  At the crash scene today, investigators were trying to learn why the number six Blue Angel jet dropped away from the others in formation and hit the ground during an air show, killing the pilot.  He was 32-year-old Lieutenant Commander Kevin Davis from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, a decorated flyer with 2,500 hours and 200 carrier landings, who joined the Blue Angels two years ago. 

LT. CMDR. KEVIN DAVIS, DECEASED BLUE ANGELS PILOT:  Being a pilot is great.  Being a Navy and Marine Corps pilot is awesome.  And being a Blue Angel is an absolute dream. 

POTTER:  Yesterday, while performing with five other jets at the U.S.  Marine Air Station, Davis‘ plane crashed in a populated area, damaging some homes. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  There was a big plume of smoke that came up, a lot of crackling noise. 

POTTER:  Eight people were injured on the ground.  Emergency personnel and the other Blue Angel jets raced to the scene. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  They were there within the minute, circling over their fallen partner. 

POTTER:  Davis‘ own family had been attending the air show.  One of his fellow pilots eulogized him. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Our squadron and the entire U.S. Navy are grieving the loss of a great American, a great naval officer, and most of all, a great friend. 

POTTER:  The Blue Angels were formed in 1946 to promote military aviation, and have suffered 24 fatalities.  Last year they performed before 15 million people, which Kevin Davis loved. 

DAVIS:  I enjoy traveling around the country, representing the Navy and the Marine Corps with these jets and with the people that we travel with. 

POTTER:  A still unexplained loss of an enthusiastic flier. 

Mark Potter, NBC News, Miami. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  On to our nightly roundup of celebrity and entertainment news, Keeping Tabs, with more drama following Alec Baldwin‘s not so charming phone message for his daughter.  His ex-wife, Kim Basinger, has reportedly hired a really big thick-necked ripped babysitter?  A very large man was seen with Basinger and her daughter Ireland yesterday near their home in Los Angeles.  An assistant to Basinger says that the man was a bodyguard hired, quote, because of this thing with Alec.  Baldwin had left an angry, extremely nasty phone message for his 11-year-old daughter when she failed to answer her planned phone call. 

Baldwin has since apologized to his daughter, reportedly, and his lawyers say that Basinger shouldn‘t have allowed that recording to go public.  Meanwhile, Baldwin was 3,000 miles away from his ex and his kids.  He was seen in the Hamptons.  Baldwin is barred from seeing his daughter until the next court date in the couple‘s long-lasting custody battle. 

Now to one of my favorite topics in Tabs, “American Idol,” and not just because it means I get to go home in 10 minutes.  There is no end to the incredible new careers Idol has launched and deposited in our living rooms, sometimes for weeks and weeks and weeks at a time.  Now Idol is promising to deliver two of the biggest stars in music history at part of its special charity show. 

Titanic meets Tupelo.  This is our artist conception.  The website TMZ.com says Celine Dion will sing a virtual duet with Elvis Presley, not an impersonator, but the king himself on tape.  It will happen on the show.  And, as you know, Elvis withdrew from public decades ago.  He made his comeback in 1968, about the time Celine Dion was hitting a high C for her bottle. 

A big night for Uncle Junior last night on “Sopranos.”  Of course, every night is a big night as the series draws to a close.  Uncle Junior joins next to talk everything “Sopranos.”  This is COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  Sometimes gangsters get whacked.  Others just fade away.  Then there‘s the “Sopranos.”  In that world, an aging mobster might wind up sleeping with the fishes or he might oversleep because of his prescription meds or he might just be faking it all.  In the big finale, he‘s back being boss.  Our number one story on the COUNTDOWN, how will it end?  Honestly, who knows? 

But three episodes into the final season, the “Sopranos” is offering us plenty of possibilities.  And last night we got a good, long look at Uncle Junior, still in the psychiatric lock-up, but a little more at home, just a little.  He was telling jokes like Heny Youngman (ph), overstimulating his fellow mental patients with poker games, getting into fights and even drafting a letter to Vice President Dick Cheney. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DOMINIC CHIANESE, “THE SOPRANOS”:  Sincerely—no, respectfully, Corato Soprano.  Read it back.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Dear Vice President Cheney, as a powerful man, all too familiar with accidental gun play, I am writing in the hope that you will intervene in my case.  Like yourself, I was involved in an unfortunate incident when a gun I was handling misfired. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  And joining us in the studio is Dominic Chianese, who of course brings Uncle Junior to life on the “Sopranos.”  It is a pleasure to have you here. 

CHIANESE:  Thank you, Alison.

STEWART:  Do you watch the show at home? 

CHIANESE:  All the time.  We even watch the reruns. 

STEWART:  All right, so last night you were watching at home.  I was watching at home.  And we saw Uncle Junior, sometimes confused and muddled, sometimes scheming, planning those poker games.  Has this guy given up or does he have something up his sleeve? 

CHIANESE:  I can‘t tell you the ending, but I can tell you that when I was doing it, I realized, as an actor, the motivation I had was to—I‘m the boss here, you know.  And I really liked this kid that was I was—that was sort of protecting me.  And a wonderful actor, by the way, Ken Leon (ph).  What a wonderful actor he is. 

And then I realized that it was fun to do.  And then I saw it last night and I saw the sadness in it. 

STEWART:  There was a good deal of sadness in that episode.  But that‘s sort of the great thing about this show, it can make you highs and highs and lows and lows, and frightened and excited at the same time.  Did you have any idea it would be like this when you first signed on? 

CHIANESE:  I think I did because I‘m telling my sister-in-law, the great Nancy Marchand, who was playing Olivia, and I‘m asking her if we can knock off her son, which is kind of interesting.  I said either David Chase is writing something completely crazy or he‘s a genius.  But it‘s very classical stuff.  It‘s tragic and very powerful. 

STEWART:  Do you have a favorite story ark? 

CHIANESE:  I like the way it‘s going to end for me. 

STEWART:  Oh, you‘re a tease.  You can‘t tell me.

CHIANESE:  I can tell you that. 

STEWART:  OK, you like the way it‘s going to end for you, without giving anything away. 

CHIANESE:  I can‘t give anything away.  It will spoil it.  You know. 

STEWART:  Will we be surprised?  Or will be satisfied, as viewers, as long-term “Soprano” fans? 

CHIANESE:  I‘m satisfied.  I can‘t speak for you, Alison. 

STEWART:  All right, so your character famously shot Tony.  Was he confused?  Did he know what he was doing? 

CHIANESE:  When I shot Tony? 

STEWART:  Yes. 

CHIANESE:  No, I had to play that he was confused.  And he was.  He was confused.  He was—you know, it was an illusion to him.  He thought he was Pussy Molanga (ph).  He really thought that. 

STEWART:  Although we were always sort of led to believe that maybe he had some sort of an issue with Tony? 

CHIANESE:  An issue with Tony he definitely had, but not enough.  I don‘t think—I don‘t think he would—I think the gun actually went of a little bit—he says it.  It almost went off by accident.  I think he meant to scare the person away.  Let me put it this way: he didn‘t think that was Tony. 

STEWART:  All right, fair enough.  You‘ve had such a long career in theater and in film. 

CHIANESE:  Yes. 

STEWART:  How has this experience, working on the “Sopranos,” been different from your previous work? 

CHIANESE:  Well, first of all, the length of the show and living with the character.  I think you almost—you give birth to a character like that and you stay with him.  So it‘s—it‘s as if I had read a novel and was going to play that character in a novel.  So it kept going.  And I always believed in the creative process.  And I always kept surprising myself, because I never looked ahead. 

I trusted David Chase‘s imagination, his wonderful creative process.  And that kept me going.  I was always looking forward to the script and I was looking forward to—because to me it was a three-dimensional character, four-dimensional.  The guy was an incredible character. 

STEWART:  One of the things that‘s interesting with you is you‘re also a singer. 

CHIANESE:  Yes, I started as a singer.  I started with Gilbert and Sullivan in 1952. 

STEWART:  Do people ever ask you to sing? 

CHIANESE:  All the time and that‘s my first love, singing.  I was thinking about bringing my guitar tonight but I—you know. 

STEWART:  Do you want to give me a couple of bars of something, you‘re favorite song? 

CHIANESE:  My favorite song?  My favorite song is “You Are My Sunshine.”  Do you want to sing with me?

STEWART:  I‘ll listen. 

CHIANESE:  Let‘s do it together. 

(SINGING) 

STEWART:  Keep singing.  Dominic Chianese, Uncle Junior from the “Sopranos.”  I love it.  That‘s going to do it for COUNTDOWN.  Thanks for being with us.  I‘m Alison Stewart, in for Keith Olbermann on a good night to be in for Keith.  Thanks for watching us.  Our MSNBC coverage continues with “SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY.”

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

END   

Copy: Content and programming copyright 2007 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2007 Voxant, Inc. ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user‘s personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon MSNBC and Voxant, Inc.‘s copyright or otherproprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.

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