updated 7/23/2007 11:28:40 AM ET 2007-07-23T15:28:40

Guests: Arthur Levine

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ALISON STEWART, GUEST HOST (voice-over):  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?  “Outrageous and dangerous.” That is Senator Hillary Clinton‘s response to the undersecretary of defense who asserted the senator is reinforcing enemy propaganda by asking about withdrawal plans for Iraq. 

Now Mrs. Clinton is going straight to that guy‘s boss, the top guy at the Pentagon, demanding an explanation for his underling‘s comments and answers to her months-old question. 

Dana Milbank on the politics of Iraq.  Analysis of candidate Clinton with Craig Crawford.

And what about the other candidates?  Chances are if you are a Republican running for office, you kind of sort of don‘t know whether or not to mention the person who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Sounds like we are keeping interesting company, you though? 

(LAUGHTER)

STEWART:  With the president‘s approval ratings so low, the GOP is feeling the pain while Democrats are making the most of it and the most money. 

JOHN EDWARDS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I have trouble believing America wants another four years of George Bush on steroids. 

STEWART:  When celebrities attack.  A “CSI” star caught on tape beating up a camera man.  Did the paparazzi cross a line or does Hollywood make you cuckoo?  We‘ll go inside the debate.

And our live coverage tonight on it of Mugglemania.  Keith Olbermann is at the epicenter of the excitement.  The COUNTDOWN party in New York City for the release of final Harry Potter book.  No spoilers here.  We are not ruining anything for book-lovers.  But Keith will share his theory on how the most successful book series of all time will finally come to an end.  All that and more now on COUNTDOWN. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  Good evening, everybody.  I‘m Alison Stewart.  Keith Olbermann will join us shortly. 

Until then, consider this, with the war in Iraq in its fifth year, perhaps here is evidence that these are toxic times.  A straightforward request from a United States senator on the Armed Services Committee to the Pentagon is met with a charge from the Pentagon that the senator may be aiding the enemy in Iraq. 

Now in our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, that senator, Hillary Clinton, says oh, yes?  And she wants to know if Defense Secretary Robert Gates agrees with his undersecretary who made the charge that discussing withdrawal for Iraq “reinforces enemy propaganda.” 

In a letter sent Friday morning, Senator Clinton against requested that Secretary Gates provide contingency plans on the future withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, and for an explanation if no such plans exists.  “Undersecretary Edelman‘s response did not address the issue raised and instead made spurious arguments to avoid addressing contingency plans. 

She also describes Edelman‘s criticism of her request as “outrageous and dangerous.” “I request that you describe whether Undersecretary Edelman‘s letter accurately characterizes your views as secretary of defense.”

And today, Senator John Kerry joined Senator Clinton in announcing legislation to require a report and briefing from the Pentagon on contingency planning for an Iraq withdrawal. 

All this because Defense Secretary Gates apparently passed off Senator Clinton‘s May request to Mr. Edelman, whose response noted that “premature and public discussion of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq reinforces enemy propaganda, that the United States will abandon its allies in Iraq much as we were perceived to have done in Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia.” 

Meanwhile, the number two commander in Iraq has told Congress that November would be a better month to assess progress, even though the progress report is due in September. 

And then late today, more from Defense Secretary Gates.  His spokesman said that based on procedure, the secretary certainly would have read Mr.  Edelman‘s letter, while Gates himself issued a statement reiterating that debate was constructive and he would reply to Senator Clinton‘s concerns next week. 

Let‘s call in The Washington Post national political reporter and MSNBC political analyst Dana Milbank. 

Hi, Dana.

DANA MILBANK, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Good evening, Alison. 

STEWART:  In calling for legislation today with Senator Kerry, Mrs.  Clinton said that she was “shocked by the timeworn tactic of once again impugning the patriotism of any of us who raise serious questions.” Has the undersecretary of defense handed Senator Clinton a newfound rallying cry for the war‘s opponents?  And do could you think she was really shocked? 

MILBANK:  No, I think she thought it was Christmas morning.  What a gift this was to Clinton.  I think the only thing the Pentagon could do that she would like any more is to get former Secretary Rumsfeld to endorse Barack Obama. 

(LAUGHTER)

MILBANK:  But this is—that has only upside for her.  It allows her to get out there and say, I‘m not going to be swiftboated the way that John Kerry was.  And it allows her to be tough and it allows her to look decisively anti-war.  And that is just where John Edwards and Barack Obama were trying to gain an advantage on her. 

So it is really only upside for her. 

STEWART:  Well, in her letter, Senator Clinton did credit Secretary Gates for not engaging in such rhetoric himself in the past when he said that congressional debate had been, quote, “helpful.”

Did Mrs. Clinton give the secretary an opening to defuse all of this? 

MILBANK:  I think she did and it is probably would be genuine in Gates‘ case.  He has been something of a truth-teller in this administration.  And he certainly has been more cordial.  It wouldn‘t be so hard for him to go out and speak against Mr. Edelman, who is a Cheney acolyte.  So he would get a two-fer there, sort of dissing Cheney. 

If I were Gates, I wouldn‘t do it tomorrow because the vice president will be actually the acting president while President Bush is getting his colonoscopy.  So probably wait until after that. 

STEWART:  You bring me to an interesting question.  I‘m going to ask you, what do you think about the vice president‘s taking over—what do you think a Cheney presidency is going to be like for those few hours? 

MILBANK:  Brief but very exciting.  I think, Alison, if you were planning a weekend visit to Tehran, you might put that off for a week or two.  But President Bush may have been a bit concerned about this himself.  He signed an executive order today barring the cruel and inhuman interrogation of prisoners just case the vice president was getting any ideas for what he may do with his Saturday presidency. 

STEWART:  Let‘s get back to the conversation about Iraq and what is actually happening on the ground.  The number two commander in Iraq, Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, said Thursday it would take “at least until November to judge whether the surge was working.” 

Now he clarified that a little bit today saying, “as we go beyond September, we will gain more understanding of trends.” So what does that tell you about the way the commanders on the ground view these reports? 

MILBANK:  Right.  I wouldn‘t‘ say that was a voluntary clarification.  He probably got a lot of heat because not only did the White House say, hey, that is not our position, but Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, really pounced on it and said no, September is a very firm date for us. 

Between that and what Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador in Iraq, had said about the benchmarks not being all that significant, clearly, there is a lot of interest in moving the goalposts away.  But I think that we are seeing that that September date is just not going to budge. 

STEWART:  Some Republican senators yesterday were claiming that September was a real deadline for making decisions on the future war.  The question is, is it—or is it opening for a discussion so that many Republicans can peel off, as some people think that will happen? 

MILBANK:  Well, it is hard to tell.  And a lot of it will be up to Harry Reid, the Democratic leader.  There were 52 votes just this week for the withdrawal.  If you want to be able to defy the president, you are going to have to get that number up to 66 votes.  Unlikely to have that kind of change in the next 60 days or so. 

What Harry Reid has to decide is how much he is going to soften and water down this Iraq legislation, make it more palatable to the Republicans.  It may also mean not having any sort of a hard withdrawal. 

STEWART:  Washington Post national political reporter and MSNBC political analyst Dana Milbank, thanks, Dana. 

MILBANK:  Thanks, Alison.

STEWART:  And if Undersecretary Edelman‘s charge was something of a political gift to Senator Clinton, it comes as a new poll shows her even better-positioned to capitalize on it. 

While the senator‘s image with the public has improved slightly since she began running for president, her inevitability ratings are big, big, big in The New York Times/CBS News poll, more than 80 percent of all respondents think Clinton will probably capture the Democratic nomination.

And more than 60 percent think she is likely to win the presidency.  Now on the flipside, her support is tentative, and including with the ladies, with older and married women less likely to vote for her than younger single gals. 

Despite that, most of those polled men and women thought Senator Clinton would be an effective commander-in-chief.  Joining us now, Congressional Quarterly columnist and MSNBC political analyst Craig Crawford. 

Good evening, Craig.

CRAIG CRAWFORD, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Good to see you, Alison. 

STEWART:  Let‘s go to this Pentagon flap first.  Undersecretary Edelman is the former aide to Vice President Cheney, as Dana mentioned.  Any chance Mr. Edelman saw an opportunity to take a swipe at the opposition‘s leading presidential candidate and how could he not see that this would backfire, maybe? 

CRAWFORD:  Well, maybe that‘s where he learned his social skills, back when he was working for Dick Cheney, I wonder if there is a strategy here.  You know, sometimes people in Washington do things and there is not actually a strategy, we shouldn‘t always assume there is a strategy. 

Many in the administration, like Edelman, going back to the early days of the war, just instinctively respond to questions, any kind of criticism, as, oh, you are aiding the enemy, I think may have just seeped out in his letter just as a little passion there that many in the administration hold. 

Secretary Gates‘ handling of just going forward, Alison, is going to be interesting.  Because I think he might have—there might be some pressure on him to admonish this particular official.  Because a lot of members on the Hill, Republican and Democrat, are, if not outraged, a bit upset with at this kind of language come back in these letters. 

This correspondence going back and forth between the Pentagon and Capitol Hill, I‘ve seen a lot of it that‘s public, even a little that is private.  And it is usually very polite and very vague and none of this kind of incendiary language. 

STEWART:  Let‘s talk about the two Democratic frontrunners both having to defend their honor today.  Senator Clinton getting in a tussle this week on defense issues.  We have been talking about that quite a bit. 

Senator Barack Obama having to respond to attacks about his stance on sex education.  Now in terms of political points, who got the better political opportunity here? 

CRAWFORD:  Well, I think Obama—it was unfortunate for Barack Obama that this all happened at the same time when Hillary Clinton is in a major league smackdown with the Pentagon own over the biggest issue of day, the war in Iraq.  He is in the kindergarten playing sandlot with some of the Republican candidates like Mitt Romney playing defense. 

You know, Democratic grassroots voters, Alison, are looking for something.  They‘re looking for a skill set in this campaign.  And that is, how do these candidates handle attacks on them from the Republican side? 

And I have to say, when you examine how the Clinton camp handled this business with the Pentagon letter versus how Obama got caught playing defense, explaining, trying to clarify his remarks, it was—his remarks were mischaracterized by the Republicans, but a lot of Democrats know that will happen in the general election. 

STEWART:  It is kind of a post-John Kerry, post-traumatic stress syndrome there. 

CRAWFORD:  You bet.  I mean, those cars run deep.  Democrats know that.  They expect Republicans to pull stunts against them.  And they are watching how these candidates handle that. 

And I think on balance, Senator Clinton has managed to play offense against this attack on her much better than Obama did in his case with the kindergarten.

STEWART:  Let‘s talk about Mrs. Clinton and this New York Times/CBS News poll.  Lots of numbers, but considering Mrs. Clinton is a mature married woman, what is the deal with her peers being tentative about her? 

CRAWFORD:  You know, it might take Oprah and a battalion of psychiatrists to figure this one out exactly, but I will take a shot.  One thing I remember is, you know, if you go back to the ‘92 campaign, when Hillary Clinton first came on scene, there was that day she slammed women who baked cookies.  So maybe some of the married women who still bake cookies still remember that.  The older married women do have a lot more history with Hillary.  Some of the baggage they might remember a little better. 

I have seen other polls showing that the older women are—actually the less receptive they are to a woman for president. 

STEWART:  What about the fellas?  What can Senator Clinton do to bring the fellas aboard?

CRAWFORD:  Well, I think getting into a tussle with the Pentagon, you know, talk about a woman in combat, that might help, showing that she can be as tough with the guys over there at the Pentagon as anyone else. 

That was one reason she got on the Armed Services Committee, by the way, when she first became senator, which was unusual for a freshman.  I think she knew she needed to get those national security credentials for the men. 

And I think that is one reason she has not been drawn fully to the left on the war as much as many Democrats might like because she is sensitive to the possibility that men would see her as too weak on defense. 

STEWART:  Craig Crawford of Congressional Quarterly and MSNBC.  Nice to see you, Craig. 

CRAWFORD:  Good to see you. 

STEWART:  With the president‘s approval rating at an all-time low, what should his fellow Grand Old Partiers seeking the Oval Office do about being seen as a friend of George?  David Gregory takes a look at the delicate a highwire act GOP candidates are facing. 

Just hours until the Harry Potter instant classic goes on sale in this country.  Keith will join us live from New York City from the Potter party.  You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  What to do when you are an opera-loving, cross-dressing thrice-married New York politician seeking support from America‘s most conservative voters?  In our fourth story tonight, if you are Rudy Giuliani, you show how tough you are by acting a little bit like a Democrat by calling out the president on his handling of the war on terror.  More on that in a moment. 

Three years ago, Senator John Kerry ran and lost, claiming that President Bush took his eye off the ball with al Qaeda to pursue Iraq.  And now some of the GOP candidates are sounding an awful lot like Mr. Kerry as they seek a little space from the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. 

NBC‘s David Gregory reports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BUSH:  Good morning, thank you all for coming.

DAVID GREGORY, NBC WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  At the White House, the president was digging in his heels on the war. 

BUSH:  I also ask Congress to give our troops time to carry out our strategy in Iraq.  Like all wars, the fight in Iraq has had frustrating setbacks, it has also had important successes. 

GREGORY:  In Iraq, a top U.S. commander insisted more time is essential.  Major General Rick Lynch, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, telling AP “it is going to take through the summer, into the fall to defeat the extremists in my battle space, and it‘s going to take me into next spring and summer to generate the sustained security presence.” 

That view promises to increase the political pain for Republicans seeking the White House. 

VIN WEBER, FMR. CONGRESSMAN:  I think that the Iraq issue is still holding everybody back a little bit from fully developing themselves as independent candidates. 

GREGORY:  GOP White House hopefuls have largely remained supportive of the Bush White House on Iraq, support that has cost Arizona Senator John McCain the most politically. 

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  One of life‘s great ironies for is that I was the most vociferous critic of the way the war was being conducted for three-and-a-half years. 

GREGORY:  Today the first sign of a break from the White House concerning the war on terror.  Frontrunner Rudy Giuliani said the White House failed to pressure Pakistan to clean up al Qaeda, telling The New York Times, “we should have organized ourselves so that we could accomplish in Iraq what we had to accomplish without taking anything away from accomplishing in Afghanistan and Pakistan what we had to accomplish.”

That‘s a far cry from the blanket support Giuliani and others gave the president earlier this year. 

RUDY GIULIANI ®, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I believe we had a president who made the right decision at the right time on September 20th, 2001, to put us on offense against terrorists. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GREGORY:  Republican White House hopefuls are looking for distance from the White House on Iraq for a simple reason, history.  Think Woodrow Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, Harry Truman.  When people are unhappy with an outgoing president and they want change, history shows they choose a leader from the other party—Alison. 

STEWART:  David Gregory at the White House.  Thanks, David. 

The love-hate relationship between the paparazzi and celebrities boiled over again this week.  How far can stars go when protecting their privacy? 

And the Tour de France gets hit with another dose of weird.  First a dog wanders on to the course, then a Borat wannabe decides to wander onto the course, lovely.  And then someone who really likes fire wanders onto the course, details next on COUNTDOWN.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  I‘m Alison Stewart, holding it down as Keith Olbermann gets ready to take over coverage from the Harry Potter book party, the release party. 

In the meantime, it was on this date 38 years ago that one of the most important events in American history occurred.  On this monumental date, July 20th, 1969, one giant leap for mankind was taken when Josh Holloway, the dreamy superhunk who plays Sawyer on “Lost” was born.  Also on this date, Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon. 

Let‘s play “Oddball.” We begin again in France, back to the Tour de France, where we here at “Oddball” only care about the race when sort of crazy junk happens.  First we brought you the stray dog hit by the biker.  Everybody was fine, just so you know.  Then it was the Borat bringing his Kazakh sexy-time magic to the tour to great success. 

And today news that the course had to be rerouted because someone torched a van.  The ride belonged to two Reuters photographers who aren‘t really sure how the blaze began, luckily neither were hurt.  The bikers were sent a kilometer out of the way to avoid the hazard which is kind of shame because they didn‘t get to see the most interesting that has happened in this race today. 

To Memphis, Tennessee.  The new thing is paying women in bikinis to mow the lawn, for a little more than you pay a sweaty guy sporting a bandana, the people from Tiger Time Lawn Care (ph) will send, rawr, over a woman wear a two-piece bathing suit to cut your grass. 

The lawn care lovelies, they like it, because it pays better than waitressing and the tanning opportunities are spectacular.  And the men like it because they are men.  This reporter doesn‘t care what these ladies wear when they cut the grass because they will never mow a lawn half as well as that runaway bride Jennifer Wilbanks. 

(FOOTAGE OF JENNIFER WILBANKS MOWING THE LAWN)

STEWART:  She had skills. 

Finally tonight, to the Internet, where sadly it is true that the old Diet Coke and Mentos craze has faded in recent months.  Well, get ready for a new phenomenon, I can‘t believe no one thought of this before, what happens when you drop Mentos into beer? 

Let‘s watch. 

(CARLSBERG BEER AD)

STEWART:  It‘s a beer ad, it‘s a beer ad everybody.  We have been had. 

Shut her down.  Shutting her down. 

This might look a little “Blair Witch,” but it is really a paparazzo running for his life from a ticked off celebrity.  Hollywood‘s daily battle between the stars and those persistent photographers takes a big turn for the ugly. 

And holy Hogwarts, Batman, about half the planet already has its hands on the final Harry Potter book.  The United States about to get its turn.  Keith Olbermann will be here.  COUNTDOWN‘s countdown to the book. 

But first, time for the top three newsmakers of this day. 

At number three, a company named Force Events Direct Marketing, hired by a Roswell, New Mexico, car dealership to send out about 50,000 of those scratch-off prize tickets in the mail with one lucky person getting a cool $1,000.  Only there was a printing error and all the tickets turned out to be $1,000 winners.  Stop the presses was the first response. 

But 30,000 tickets already went out.  Honda of Roswell is making its best efforts to make this go away.  They actually said “to investigate the mistake,” but that really means “make it go away.” 

And number two, an unnamed good Samaritan in Wupertal (ph), Germany, who sensed trouble when she spotted a masked criminal sitting in van in a parking garage, she called the cops who sent three cars filled with armed police to surround the perp.  After closer inspection, the police determined the shady individual was actually a stuffed animal, more specifically, a large stuffed beaver.  Somehow that makes it funnier. 

And number one, Courtney Lanahan and Shawn Gordon of Portland, Oregon, excited about the release of the big Harry Potter book, they will be the first ones in line when their local Barnes and Noble puts the book out at midnight tonight.  That‘s midnight tonight, about an hour after their wedding reception ends?

Yes, Courtney and Sean are getting married today.  And they will be spending the first moment of their honeymoon with the teenage wizard.  It will be magic. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  The number three story in our COUNTDOWN, if you think the paparazzi are the result of the multi-media, multi-platform over saturated market place, not true.  Way back in 1958, an Italian photographer snapped an enraged King Farouq of Egypt, overturning a table at a restaurant.  And the rest is tabloid history. 

The word paparazzi comes from a Felini film and is based on a particularly loud buzzing mosquito.  And you know what you do to mosquitoes; you swat them.  So it followed that is exactly what some celebrities are doing to the photographers who follow them everywhere.  The latest bloody example from NBC‘s Michael Okwu in L.A. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MICHAEL OKWU, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  CSI star Gary Dourdan this week leaving a Hollywood hot spot, spotting a photographer from TMZ.com. 

GARY DOURDAN, ACTOR:  Turn it off.  Turn it off.  Turn it off. 

OKWU:  And then with the actor off screen, but the camera still rolling, this. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Gary, Gary, Gary. 

OKWU:  The video fades to black for a moment, but someone else, a still photographer on the scene, snapped pictures of Dourdan straddling the prone paparazzi and pounding his head, TMZ claims, into the pavement. 

Even then it is not over.  The TMZ photographer believes his video camera is now broken, but it is still rolling when he make a run for it.  Dourdan, he says, is now pursuing him off camera on a motorcycle.  A few of his friend giving chase by car when the photographer flags a taxi. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Get me away from this (EXPLETIVE DELETED) guy. 

OKWU:  Dourdan‘s publicist didn‘t return our calls.  He‘s just the latest celebrity to tussle with paparazzi, including Justin Timberlake, Nicole Richie with a water bottle, an umbrella wielding Britney Spears, and unabashed Woody Harolson. 

WOODY HAROLSON, ACTOR:  I‘m asking you to turn it off. 

KIM SERAFIN, “IN TOUCH WEEKLY”:  I think there has always been a relationship that is beneficial between celebrities and photographers, but also there has been some tension. 

OKWU:  Could be because more than ever lenses are everywhere. 

BRANDY NAVARRE, EXPERT:  There are definitely more photographers on the street now than there were even a year ago.  You can make up to hundreds of thousand of dollars off of a photo or video in worldwide sales.  And that‘s why everyone wants to get in the game.  So perhaps certain celebrities are feeling threatened by the numbers. 

OKWU:  Who is to blame?  And when is striking back going too far? 

Michael Okwu, NBC News, Los Angeles.  

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  And why stop now with the star power?  It‘s on to Keeping Tabs, our nightly roundup of celebrity and entertainment news, beginning with Nike wants nothing to do with Atlanta Falcons Quarterback Michael Vick.  The sports wear company suspending the release of its latest signature shoe, the Air Zoom Vick, now that he faces charges of helping run a gruesome dog fight operation. 

Nike saying it considers cruelty to animals to be abhorrent and hinting they will cut him free if he is convicted.  The Humane Society is calling on Nike to stop selling anything already in the stores with Vick‘s name on it.  Now, loosing endorsements is one thing.  But getting dissed on the Senate floor by a nearly 90-year-old politician?  That‘s right, Vick bird dogged by America‘s senior senator, Robert Byrd.  Sick em, senator. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. ROBERT BYRD (D-WV), SENIOR STATESMAN:  Barbaric, let that word resound from hill to hill and from mountain to mountain, from valley to valley across this broad land.  Barbaric, barbaric.  May god help those poor souls.  Who would be so cruel, barbaric?  Hear me, barbaric. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  We hear you, senator.  If there is any good news in all this, the Humane Society says it‘s donations website crashed because of the heavy traffic after the Vick story broke. 

Now, one can only imagine the oratorical flourish the senator might have been moved to make over Lindsay Lohan‘s latest woes.  The word whipper snapper comes to mind.  The newly 21-year-old Lohan now facing an August 24th court date after turning herself in to Beverly Hills cops yesterday afternoon. 

She was fingerprinted, photographed and officially booked on suspicion of driving under the influence after her Mercedes convertible veered off Sunset Boulevard and into a hedge last Memorial Day, sending her to the hospital with minor injuries and into six weeks of additional rehab, her second try at beating substance abuse this year. 

It also won Lindsay a very stylish alcohol monitoring bracelet that she has been sporting.  Not exactly David Yermin (ph), you got to do what you got to do.

And finally Larry and Laurie David might have been tight in fighting against global warming, but their marriage has officially entered the ice age.  She, the producer of “An Inconvenient Truth,” officially filing divorce paper to dissolve her 14 yearly marriage to he, the creator of “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” 

The Davids made what they call an amicable separation in June.  She cites irreconcilable differences and asks for joint custody of their daughters, aged 13 and 11.  We‘re not sure who gets custody of Prius.  I doubt they will share. 

Muggles everywhere will soon have custody of their own copy of the “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” book.  After the break, Keith will be live from Scholastic headquarters, talking with one of the editors of the biggest book series of all time. 

And no spoiler alerts.  We are not giving anything away, but Keith will share his own take on how he thinks the big face off between Harry and Voldemort will end.  That is ahead on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  The stroke of 12 is traditionally the witching hour.  But tonight across the country in the world, midnight is the wizarding hour two.  Our second story on the COUNTDOWN, the seventh and final book in the Harry Potter series goes on sale. 

Now kids in the U.K., home of Hogwarts, Already have their little British faces buried in the book.  Midnight arrives five hours earlier across the pond.  And while those on the West Coast of America will have to wait three hours later than people on East Coast to get their hands on a copy, and why Keith Olbermann is back in New York City waiting to get his book along with everyone else at the Scholastic book party. 

Good evening, Keith. 

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC ANCHOR:  Good evening, Alison.  Check this out.  It‘s a block of downtown Manhattan completely blocked off.  And there isn‘t even any steam involved in the process.  Seventeen years after the idea first literally popped into J.K. Rawlings head and 10 years after she first published the first in the epic series of the Potter novels, the end has come, not literally the end of character—well, we are assuming that is the case.  We are not going to follow the lead of the spoilers and give you even hints of what is going to happen when that final book, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” comes out in about three hours and 17 -- no, three hours, 16.59. 

But by this time tomorrow, we and everyone around the world will know just how Miss Rawling chose to close out this extraordinary series.  Is it the Sherlock Holmes route or any of the other literary devices that people have used over the years?  The final book, “Harry Hotter and the Deathly Hallows,” has already broken all pre-order records.  It is on pace to beat the sixth book, “The Half Blood Prince,” in actual sales; 6.9 million copies of that had sold out in just 24 hours. 

The previous six books in total has sold more than 325 million worldwide. 

Joining us now, one of the co-editors of the final book, as well as every one of the Harry Potter series, Arthur Levine.  Arthur, thank for coming out tonight. 

ARTHUR LEVINE, HARRY POTTER EDITOR:  My pleasure. 

OLBERMANN:  So how does it turn out? 

LEVINE:  Well—

OLBERMANN:  Well? 

LEVINE:  Not promising that, actually. 

OLBERMANN:  How long have you known and how have you kept it a secret just in your own personal circle? 

LEVINE:  Well, I have known since the beginning of the year.  And, you know, it hasn‘t actually been hard to keep it tight, because mostly the people who are asking me, you know, give me hints—like you just said, tell me.  They really don‘t want to know.  And they would actually be mad at me if I were to come out and say oh, you know who dies or who gets together? 

So, really, it is a game that we are playing and people are mostly telling me that they‘re interested.  And I‘m kind of saying, well, I won‘t tell you.

OLBERMANN:  Well, another good answer, I suppose, would be how does it out, and the answer is, with the words the end?  That‘s probably the way that would end? 

LEVINE:  Maybe. 

OLBERMANN:  With this attempt to keep it completely sacrosanct and inviolable, do you think it was a success when it leaked out and gets reviewed in the “New York Times” and the “Baltimore Sun” and these supposed versions of it wind up on the Internet?   

LEVINE:  Yes, you know, it certainly was going to be a logistically complicated thing for a children‘s book publisher to keep under wraps.  But I think it was still a reasonable expectation to hope that nobody would come in and try to spoil a mystery for millions of readers, most of whom are kids, who just want to read a mystery and find out about it in their own time. 

So, you know, that was a reasonable expectation.  And I still think that, you know, you look around at all the people in the street, everybody is excited and happy and no one is the least bit bothered.  When anyone thinks they are going to hear a leak, they just go—there is nothing happening. 

OLBERMANN:  Did you feel—I used this analogy of Sherlock Holmes before, and what Conan Doyle did with that series.  He eventually killed off the lead character because he couldn‘t stand it any more.  I‘m not making any suggestions about Harry Potter.  But what is it like to be involved in the editorial process?  Do you feel like you‘re contributing, tampering?  You want to stay as hands off?  How do you go about editing a series like this? 

LEVINE:  You know, my role is to just be the first reader.  So I‘m not trying to tamper or to, you know, tell her what to do or even give her suggestions.  I‘m just trying to tell her this is how I reacted.  This part was really great.  And you know, this part maybe I was confused or—and let her—I trust her judgment and she really knows what she is doing. 

So all I have to do is be articulate about what it is that I‘m thinking and feeling and let her take care of the rest. 

OLBERMANN:  I guess people assume why it‘s—that it is obviously so beloved by kids and has engaged them in a way that few pieces of fiction have in the last 30, 40 years at least.  What about the adults?  I mean, those of us who say yes, you know what?  It‘s a good read.  It‘s informative.  It makes you think.  It‘s imaginative There are issues. 

Why do adults enjoy it? 

LEVINE:  Well, I think adults enjoy it because it is a great book.  I mean, it‘s really not a mystery.  It‘s like a wonderful piece of writing.  It‘s brilliantly plotted.  There are great characters and themes that we—that make us all think and involve us.  And I think that the thing that is unusual about this book is that it has been brought to the attention of adults. 

I think most adults don‘t pay attention to children‘s literature as a matter of course, and this is one of the first times that whole families are reading books together.  And adults are really given the opportunity to take a children‘s book seriously and enjoy it as they might. 

OLBERMANN:  Lastly, this really is the end?  We are not being set up for another Arthur Conan Doyle where Holmes didn‘t really die in the falls, and this series didn‘t really end and there‘s just a little door open somewhere.   

LEVINE:  I‘m pretty sure that this is the end of this story.  But, you know, J.K. Rawling is a living author, and she is young and if she changes her mind in 20 years, I‘m sure that nobody will stop her from returning to the land of Hogwarts. 

OLBERMANN:  A key point, Arthur Levine, co-editor of the series for Scholastic books.  Great thanks for coming out and congratulations on the night. 

LEVINE:  Thank you very much.

OLBERMANN:  All right, so how does it turn out?  Well, you may have already heard, I made a prediction.  I think I‘m right.  Very few other people seem to think I‘m right.  We will come back here to Harry Potter Place in downtown Manhattan as COUNTDOWN continues and give you maybe the final answer and maybe just a bunch of Hogwarts. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Back at the Harry Potter COUNTDOWN to release party.  I am feeling different for some reason.  I sense a presence of something, or just a headache.  I‘m not sure what it is.  No one here wants to have the fun spoiled, even though it may have been attempted in some quarters.  It is not going be attempted here, or any of the wonderful plot twists from the first six Potter books being somehow minimized by this the ultimate one. 

So, with that in mind, here is a spoiler alert.  I think I know how it turned out, but it is just my opinion.  But I think I‘m right.  I shared this with you earlier, about a month ago on this news hour.  It seems appropriate that this is the last time for me to get it really wildly wrong.  So if you would like to follow my reasoning, stay with us.  If not, I‘ll just say good night and good luck now. 

Anybody still there?  Let‘s start with the inescapable conclusions that we know about for sure from the first six books. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  There is this prophecy, see.  Harry Potter and his arch nemesis, the darkest wizard of them all, Lord Voldemort; one of them must kill the other.  The prophecy was the essence of the fifth novel and was repeated so often in the sixth that some readers were probably reciting it in their sleep.

Theoretically, Voldemort and Potter could kill one another, like those two boxers from the Golden Gloves 20 years ago, who connected simultaneously and knocked each other out.  But this would be too cheesy to fool even the most devoted Potterians.  And they would not like Harry‘s death much either.

Consider it from the marketing standpoint.  Book number seven, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows,” reaches sweaty palms on July 21st.  But the movie reaching theaters July 13th, “The Order of the Phoenix” is only the fifth film.  What is the box office going to be like for that one if eight days later Potter is killed off?

And the sixth movie and seventh?  Who is going to go see them if the world has already known for a couple of years that the hero has been offed via the Cruciatus curse?

What about the generations of buyers to come?  A Harry Potter emerging alive and well after seven books and 70,000 brushes with death and snakes and curses and stuff; he will become an immortal character of fiction.  And fictional immortality means sales of books, DVDs, even film remakes that‘s longer than Professor Dumbledore‘s beard.

Ask Sherlock Homes.  So suffice it to say, if Harry Potter dies in the “Deathly Hallows,” J.K. Rowling and her descendants will lose millions of dollars.  Since we already know either Potter or Voldemort will croak, it‘s got to be so long, Voldy.

But how?  Will the simple vanquishing of the evil foe be sufficient pay off for a decade of reading?  I mean, when Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Holmes‘ Voldemort, Professor Moriarty, he did it with panache.  He made the reader think Holmes and Moriarty went toppling arm and arm into the raging waters of the Reichenbach Falls.

So Rowling has to have something pretty spectacular for the end of her series.  So what could she do?  Kill off Harry‘s buddies Ron and Hermione?  That is what that hacker who claims to have accessed the novel, and who claims to be doing the work of the pope in destroying the suspense, has forecast.  But isn‘t that a little trite?

In book number six, “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince,” Rowling already killed off Dumbledore, the popular headmaster at the wizarding school Hogwarts, and got such a bad vibe and so many nightmares out of it that much of those Potty over Potter are almost demanding the headmaster be reincarnated for the finale.  So sacrificing more of Harry‘s pals and heroes would again seem to be just bad business.

But one hint, publicly offered in the advertising for the last book, asks the question whether the greasy Professor Snape, Dumbledore‘s murderer, was a friend to Harry or his worst enemy.  Snape has finally, after years of trying, ascended to his dream job, teaching Harry and the others Defense Against the Dark Arts.

In Snape, and in Defense Against the Dark Arts, may rest the explanation of how this series ends.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  That‘s not really your concern.  Is it, Potter?

OLBERMANN:  The most recent book went into excruciating detail about the concept of a horcrux, perhaps the darkest art in wizardry.  In “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince,” we are told that while in the act of murdering someone, a dark wizard can divide his soul so that he might live on in part, even if his corporeal body expires.  He can store the parts of the soul in objects, or, as seen in an earlier book, in a living thing, the big snake in the basement.

Dumbledore has painstakingly explained to Harry that Voldemort has divided his soul six times, rendering him with a lot less soul than, say, James Brown, but a lot longer shelf life than, say, Donald Trump‘s hair.

DONALD TRUMP, “THE APPRENTICE”:  You‘re fired.

OLBERMANN:  To kill Voldemort, Harry has to locate and destroy the remaining horcruxes, the places Voldemort packed himself away like so many boxes in a storage vault.

But what about that scar on Harry‘s face?  What is it really, the one seared into him in childhood when Voldemort tried to kill him and did kill his parents, the one that could register Voldemort‘s emotions, even sense when Voldemort is physically near.  It‘s got be a horcrux, no?  It‘s got to be a part of Voldemort carried on Harry Potter‘s very flesh?

Well, you could kill the last part of Voldemort by killing Harry Potter.  The British book makers William Hill have stopped taking wagers on the outcome of the series, in fact, because they report stacks of mail claiming that has to be how the series ends.  But that brings us back to our financial concerns and the peeved, if not down right angry revenge that fans, maybe riotous fans, would take against the sixth and seventh films if Harry Potter does not survive them.

So let‘s put this all together.  Harry or Voldemort must die.  There are pieces of Voldemort‘s soul scattered around on objects and living things.  Harry‘s scar has always acted like a Voldemort early warning detection system.  And the dubious Professor Snape, master of Protection Against the Dark Arts, is being advertised as the potential savior in the big wow finish to “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.”

So why not this ending?  Harry eliminates all but one of Voldemort‘s horcruxes.  The dark lord‘s life is now reduced to this undulating welt on Harry‘s own forehead.  To kill Voldemort, Harry must kill himself and is about to, as millions of readers recoil in horror and anger, when who steps out of the shadows but Snape to explain to Harry that there is another way, that the last horcrux, Harry‘s scar, can be removed, but at one dreadful price.

Harry can survive it, but his magical skills cannot. To finally vanquish Voldemort, save Hogwarts and Hermione and Ron, and, in fact the magical world, to say nothing of the J.K. Rowling franchise for decades and generations to come, Harry Potter must give up being a wizard.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Not bad, huh?  Not bad, huh?  The series ends up with self-sacrifice in an uplifting kind of way, but not with the commercially disastrous death of the hero.  So, anyway, that‘s my theory.  I‘m probably wrong.  Of course, if that theory is correct, Scholastic can keep printing and printing and printing until books become obsolete. 

But, of course, given recent entertainment history among popular series coming to an end, there another option for the final ending.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN (voice-over):  Harry, Ron and Hermione enter a diner. They order Butter Beer and onion rings.  Voldemort is sitting at the lunch counter, marking time.  Outside, Ron‘s sister, Ginny, is having a hell of a time parallel parking, even though she‘s using her wand.  And just then the door to the diner opens and Harry Potter looks up and—the last 11 pages of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” are freaking blank. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Of course, there is one of there possibility, I suppose.  Like that sort of fake Gorbachev ending.  It turns out there‘s no real scar.  He just wiped it off.  All right, well we‘ll find out soon enough.  I know you‘re going to say that you were wrong.  And I feel like I was.  Anyway, that‘s COUNTDOWN for this the 1,542nd day since the declaration of mission accomplished in Iraq.  From Potter Place in New York, I‘m Keith Olbermann, good night and good reading.

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

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