updated 3/17/2008 12:33:13 PM ET 2008-03-17T16:33:13

Guests: Paul Rieckhoff

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST:  Breaking news at this hour after a day of headlines about the controversial remarks by Pastor Jeremiah Wright of the Trinity United Church of Christ.  Pastor Wright is, quote, “no longer on the Obama presidential campaign committee.”

(voice over):  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?  Our special guest: Senator Barack Obama, his response tonight to the McCain campaign‘s firestorm of criticism over previous remarks made by Obama‘s pastor, Jeremiah Wright.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JEREMIAH WRIGHT, CHURCH PASTOR:  Barack knows what it means to be a black man living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich people.  Hillary can never know that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:   Obama condemns the statement, says he should be judged by his words, not someone else‘s.  Senator Obama joins us.

The Clinton health care controversy: Did she play a pivotal role in creating children‘s health insurance or did she not?  We‘ll (ph) truth squad with Jonathan Alter.

Isn‘t it romantic?  No, in fact it probably is not.  President Bush with tone deafness, shocking even for him, is telling our forces who are serving in Afghanistan that putting themselves in harms way is, quote, “in some ways romantic and a fantastic experience.”  Yes, maybe for him.

The bloom is off the rose in Iraq even for General Petraeus.  Even he says Iraqi leaders aren‘t making sufficient progress on the political front.

And: It may look like new video from the Eliot Spitzer saga, or a new video from the Eliot Spitzer saga, or a new video from the Eliot Spitzer saga.  It‘s actually just the Oddball plays of the month.

And: Senator Barack Obama: Now on COUNTDOWN.

(on camera):  Good evening, this is Friday, March 14th, 235 days until the 2008 presidential election.  This week, in the presidential race started with debate over race and religion and it will end with that same debate.

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN: Senator Obama finding himself under fire today and tonight for the controversial sermons of one of his now former spiritual advisor.  Breaking news that Obama has just announced that the spiritual adviser in question, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright is no longer associated with the Obama campaign.

The Illinois Democrat having already condemned and rejected those statements in question today, outright vehemently, categorically, joins us in a moment, so he can address them further.

But first: The details.  The Reverend Wright who recently gave his last sermon as pastor of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago and who officiated at the marriage of Obama and his wife Michelle in 1992, is tonight no longer serving on the Obama campaign‘s African-American religious leadership committee because of the renewed scrutiny he‘s under tonight, for some of his more fiery pronouncements from the pulpit that are burning up the Internet, such as this one from Christmas of last year.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WRIGHT:  It just came to me within the past few weeks, y‘all, why so many folks are hating on Barack Obama.  He doesn‘t fit the model, he ain‘t white, he ain‘t rich, and he ain‘t privileged.

Hillary fits the mold.  Barack knows what it means to be a black man living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich white people.  Hillary can never know that.  Hillary ain‘t never been called a (BEEP).

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  In the week following the September 11th attacks, Reverend Wright recounting something he saw an ambassador say on television, stated that American‘s chickens are coming home to roost.  Even elaborated on the theme.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WRIGHT:  We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon and we never batted an eye: kids playing in the playground, mothers picking up children after school, civilians not soldiers, people just trying to make it day by day.  We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black south Africans and now we are indignant because of stuff we have done overseas and now brought right back into our own front yard.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  And finally: In 2003, a comment made by Reverend Wright on the plight of African-Americans in this country.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WRIGHT:  The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing “God bless America.”  No, no, no.  Not God bless America.  God damn America.  That‘s in the Bible for killing innocent people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  As promised, we will have Senator Barack Obama for you in just a few moments.  In the interim, Jonathan Alter of “Newsweek” and MSNBC has been good enough to join us to try to assess where this stands.

All right, we do not have Jonathan Alter and we do have Senator Obama, is that correct?  Now, here comes Jon.

The controversy of this has been building over several weeks, but of course, before the announcement of the campaign of Barack Obama, in the beginning of 2007, he had distanced himself from the church that Reverend Wright was involved with and in fact, dis-invited (ph) Wright to his introductory, the announcement of his campaign which seemed to have stem to some degree the controversy surrounding the story, and yet, it has come back in full force with us now.

And, as promised again, here‘s Jonathan Alter of “Newsweek” and MSNBC, he rush off for all of us here tonight.

Give us your assessment here.  We know that he‘s no longer with the campaign committee.  What plate tectonics moved today?  What happened that cause this to occur?

JONATHAN ALTER, NEWSWEEK:  One word: Video.  And when you hear about Reverend Wright, it‘s very different than when you see him of getting a little bit hysterical in some cases in these sermons on TV.  And I think that correctly realized that this is damaging video for the campaign.

OLBERMANN:  Obviously, this didn‘t happen in secret, whether there was video or not.  There was always the prospect of their being video tape.  Is there explanation as to why Senator Obama did not to any degree more greatly distance himself from Pastor Wright up until this point?  Was there a reason, I mean, he must have known some of this stuff was out there?

ALTER:  This has been one of the great sort of subterranean issues in this campaign because this is not just another political supporter, this is the pastor who married Barack and Michelle Obama, who brought Obama to Christianity and who inspired the title of his book, “The Audacity of Hope” and somebody who was quite close to Senator Obama.

So, when they started to distance themselves from him more than a year ago, when Obama announced his campaign, that was difficult.  And they knew that this would come up again in some form.  I think what they‘re banking on is that the way the public responds to this can be determined by their response to one question, which is: Do you believe in guilt by association?  In other words, are individuals responsible, if they‘re close to other individuals for those individual‘s stupid or offensive remarks.

And I think what Obama is going to try to say and is already started to try to explain is that he doesn‘t believe everything that comes out of Jeremiah Wright‘s mouth.  If he did or if he in any way was, he was being connected to those views, he‘d be in some trouble.

His problem is he‘s not well enough known yet in the United States because we‘ve only really been, you know, covering him in great detail for a year that some people are prepared to believe the worst about him.

And I think he‘s going to need some character references.  In this matter, from, say, people in Chicago, the Jewish community who would always been supportive of Barack Obama.  They‘d never felt like he was soft on Farrakhan or soft on hate speech.  And believe me, they know.

You know, they‘ve been working in his campaign for several years now.  So, he‘s going to need some people who‘ve known him for awhile to try to explain that Reverend Wright‘s views do not reflect his own.

OLBERMANN:  Did he preemptively protect himself to some degree?

Is the impact of this is going to be less than it would have been had he not, as we know in the weeks before the campaign announcement in Springfield, Illinois in January 2007, that basically said to Pastor Wright, you know, I‘m still your guy but you cannot be there, you cannot be part of the actual process, that there was indication at that point that he knew that he had to make some kind of statement about him?

Does that help this situation now?

ALTER:  It helps some but not a lot of people noticed that at the time there was an article in “The New York Times.”  It didn‘t get a tremendous amount of attention.  So, I assume that‘s some of what he‘ll do here tonight with you is to, you know, reemphasize the point.  He‘s already done that through some statements throughout (ph) today.

So, they know they‘ve got a problem.  Is it a nuclear problem for their campaign?  I don‘t think so.

But sometimes, these things can get a little bit out of control.  And I do think people have to go to the threshold question of, you know, who is Obama?  What are his views?  Did he say anything, even in, you know, 10 years ago that would suggest that he would endorse any of these views.

And so far, in his record, contrary to what the Clinton campaign says, his record has been very thoroughly scrubbed.  So far, there have not been such inflammatory and damaging statements by Senator Obama that have surfaced even from the time before he went to politics.

OLBERMANN:  Having said that, those are the rules that we expect the media to follow and probably, the Democrats, even in the most dire (ph) of circumstances, expect the Senator Clinton‘s campaign, certainly, through the rest of the primary season.

What happens if Senator Obama is the nominee and there‘s a 527 group out there that wants to play that tape and play it again and again?  Is this the material with which the swiftboat in essence, Barack Obama?

ALTER:  Well, I guess they‘ll probably try because everybody tries everything in politics.  I don‘t see it as a swiftboat story.  First of all, there‘s a lot more time for it to play out.  You know, this is erupting now with, you know, more than a month to go before the Pennsylvania primaries, this is going to sort of play out over time.

The swiftboat story was in August of 2004 and Kerry didn‘t really have time to respond properly to.  But I think, the example of that is part of the reason why you are seeing Obama today, you know, on shows like yours, out with various sorts of statements that he doesn‘t endorse these views, in fact condemns them, strongly.

And I do think it is, you know, a bit much for Obama to be held responsible for everything that was said at his church.  I‘m not sure that any of us would want to be responsible for everything that people we‘re associated with, even closely associated, have said.

OLBERMANN:  All right, Jon, stand by.

As promised, joining us now from Chicago with his first interview on this subject: Senator Barack Obama of Illinois.

Good evening, senator.  Thank you for your time.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Thanks, Keith. 

Sorry we‘re a little bit late.  I hope we don‘t mess up the COUNTDOWN.

OLBERMANN:  No problem, we‘ll stretch it out here for this.

Your campaign saying this afternoon, it had no plans to ask Reverend Wright to step down.  Obviously, that has changed.  Did he step down tonight or did you ask him to leave?

OBAMA:  You know, I think, there was a recognition that he‘s on the verge of retirement, he‘s taking a sabbatical and it was important for him to step out of the spotlight in this situation.

OLBERMANN:  There‘s an awful lot of strong material that is now on videotape.  We have played it.  I see no reason to play it again, but a phrase that suggests that—God damn America is a better phrase to use than God bless America.  Can you characterize your own reactions to this?  Did you know that he made these statements before the videotape appeared?

OBAMA:  You know, frankly, I didn‘t.  I wasn‘t in church during the time when the statements were made.  Now, I think it‘s, Keith, important to point out that he‘s been preaching for 30 years.

He is a man who was a former marine who served this country, a biblical scholar, somebody who‘s spoken at theological schools all across the country, and is widely regarded as a preacher.  That‘s the man I know.  That‘s the person who was the pastor of this church.

I did not hear such incendiary language myself, personally, either in conversations with him or when I was in the pew.  He always preached the social gospel and was sometimes controversial in the same way that many people who‘d speak out on social issues are controversial.

But these particular statements that had been gathered are ones that I strongly objected to and strongly condemned.  Had I heard them in church, I would have expressed that concern directly to Reverend Wright.  So, I didn‘t familiar with these until recently.

OLBERMANN:  How do you characterize given your long association with him, given the fact that he officiated at the marriage of you and your wife, how do balance this line of what you have to do at this point from a political point of view and from what you have to do from personal point of view relative to these comments and your long history with him?  Do you repudiate the man, do you repudiate the comments, do you repudiate both?

OBAMA:  No, I would do not repudiate the man.  As I said, this is somebody who I have known for 17 years.  He helped bring me to Jesus and helped bring me to church.  And, you know, he and I have a relationship, he‘s like an uncle who has talked to me, not about political things and not about social views, as much as about faith and God and family.

And he‘s somebody who is widely respected throughout Chicago and around the country for many of the things that he‘s done not only as a pastor but also as a preacher.  But I have to say that the comments that have been played are ones that are contrary to what I believe, what I think of this country, the love that I have for this country and, you know, are ones that anger and distress me.

So, you know, I would describe it as a member of your family who does, says something that you really disagree with.  They don‘t stop being a member of your family, but you have to speak out forcefully on the issue.

OLBERMANN:  Do you expect whether it‘s now or if you are the nominee later on, do you expect to be addressing commercials from 527 groups or commercials from other candidates using the tapes of Pastor Wright?  And how would you do so?

OBAMA:  Yes, I think there‘s no doubt that, you know, this will be used as political fodder as it has been in the past.  You know, these kinds of things.  And, you know, what I hope is the American people will trust that what I believe, my values, my I deals, what I‘ve spoken about in terms of bringing the country together, that all those things override guilt by association, and, you know, that‘s going to be one of the things that we talk about throughout this campaign.

And frankly, that‘s something that every candidate has to deal with.  So, you know, I‘m confident in the American people that they will hold me accountable for what I say, what I do and what I believe.  Now, one thing that I do hope to do is to use some of these issues to talk more fully about the question of race in our society, because part of what we‘re seeing here is Reverend Wright represents a generation that came of age in the 60s.

He‘s an African-American man, who, you know, because of his life experience continues to have a lot of anger and frustration, and will express that in ways that are very different from me and my generation, partly because I benefited from the struggles of that early generation.  And so, part of what we‘re seeing here is a transition from the past to the future.  And I hope that our politics represents the future.

OLBERMANN:  There is a second story, senator, involving your campaign tonight.  We‘re told, “The Chicago Tribune” today, the story was on their Web site that the Chicago businessman Antoine “Tony” Rezko was a more significant contributor to your previous campaigns that had been previously publicly known, raised about a $250,000 for your first three campaigns.  Why are we only hearing about this today?

OBAMA:  Well, that‘s not actually accurate.  I mean, I think that what we did was we went to “The Tribune” to try to disgorge any additional information that they wanted.  And the story about my relationship with Mr.  Rezko has been consistent throughout.

What we did was we talked about the fundraising that he had done for my State Senate race, my two State Senate races, a Congressional race as well as my United States Senate race, and the total amount is what, is the figure that they put forward.  That‘s not actually something that is particularly new or different, as I‘ve said before.

He‘s somebody who raised money for my campaign during the course of 10 years.  But the more important part of the story was to confirm and reiterate with full documentation that there‘s nothing in my relationship with Mr. Rezko that any way relates to the corruption trial that he‘s involved with right now, that there‘s no allegations that I was involved in anything wrong, and that is something we have been consistent about throughout this campaign.

OLBERMANN:  Senator Barack Obama of Illinois on two very controversial and important stories breaking today.  Great thanks for your time, senator.

OBAMA:  Thank you so much for taking the time.  I appreciate it.

OLBERMANN:  Senator Obama‘s controversies.  Back with Jonathan Alter now.

What did you hear in there?  Is that we‘re going to hear that he‘s not going to repudiate the man, but he‘s going to specifically repudiate each of those statements, those greatly controversial statements?

ALTER:  Yes, that‘s kind of the Biblical spirit of, you know, condemn the sin, but not the sinner.  That might play for him some, but he hasn‘t heard the end of this.

OLBERMANN:  Well, he acknowledged that.  I mean, there was no colligation.  He expects to see those tapes in commercials at some point from some other politician.

ALTER:  The one thing that he said that could conceivably come back to bite him is that he didn‘t recall being in the pews and hearing anything offensive.  Well, he was in the pew many, many times, you know, over the years.  He has been a pretty religious churchgoer.

And there have to have been some other sermons in all those 17 years that were a bit inflammatory and I think the question will arise, did he protest those at the time?  Did he say anything to Reverend Wright at the time?  And if he didn‘t, did he wrestle with it and why not?

OLBERMANN:  And of course, but to be fair, now, we are assuming something which is that if there‘s no camera rolling, that you‘re going to get the same both opinions and fervor and over the top rhetoric which would be the same as to say that you writing a note to a milkman would be the same as—one of your columns or me appearing off-camera would be the same as I do here, is a more intense experience, it‘s very possible that you would have that sort of situation where nothing approaching that was said in the privacy of those church sermons (INAUDIBLE)?

ALTER:  Well, I‘m not sure.  I mean, I spoke to another African-American minister, very prominent, a week or so ago and he said that there are audiotapes of a lot of these sermons that, you know, and they‘re world (ph) the minister‘s tapes (ph), they tend to share and see each other, you know, how they preach.

And this minister was saying that, you know, Wright has a reputation in that world of being a especially fiery preacher, also as an intellectual preacher which, I think, is probably part of his appeal initially to Obama.  He is a very erudite man even if he‘s said some awfully foolish things.

OLBERMANN:  The Rezko story throughout has seemed to have been, in his words, a lapse of judgment.  He‘s called himself boneheaded for even associating himself with somebody who he was associated with politically in a financial sense which is always combustible.  Ask Eliot Spitzer about that.

That seems to be if it is relevant to the campaign, it seems to be relevant in terms of that phrase, lapse of judgment, and not that it sounds (ph), too much like Steven Colbert, but he‘s made a lapse of judgment in the past and admits.  How do we know he isn‘t going to make a lapse of judgment in the future?  If that‘s the focus on that, how does he combat that?

ALTER:  Well, I think that‘s a problem for him because he is using, you know, judgment as his calling card.  But it‘s also a little bit of a problem for the Clinton campaign because Rezko is a real estate guy.  It‘s a little bit tough for them to go to town on say, on this real estate deal that he did with him.

As far as Rezko being a contributor, Norman Hsu is in jail, one of Hillary‘s, you know, top contributors or at least he was convicted, he might not have start serving time yet.  And that‘s just the latest in a string of her contributors who run on legal difficulty.  So, sometimes, you know, you can be fortunate that your opponent is little bit conflicted on this issue.

So, I‘m not sure that Rezko is going to have the sting power that say, the Reverend Wright.

OLBERMANN:  Right.  Obviously, you were making reference in case anybody missed to the famous Whitewater investigation which began with real estate in Arkansas.

One last point here, a great point that you‘d just raised, that it‘s very difficult to cast stones on real estate issues if you‘ve had a real estate issue in your past.  What happens now in terms of, in the last two weeks or so, this Pastor Hagee who‘d called Catholicism a great whore, and now, Pastor Parsley says the United States was partially founded to destroy Islam?

These are people who endorsed John McCain.  Does the entire issue of religion, if it‘s Obama against McCain, can he touch those topics with regards to McCain or can McCain touch these of Wright with regard to Obama without igniting, you know, well, look, you got tapes of your guys saying this?

ALTER:  Well, Jerry Falwell, remember, McCain went down and appeared with Falwell and Falwell said with Pat Robertson after 9/11, you know, this was God‘s revenge, for AIDS, and the sins of Americans.  That was just reprehensible comments actually well beyond what Reverend Wright said.

Now, McCain can accurately argue, well, hey, I trashed those guys, I called them agents of intolerance.  They didn‘t marry me and Cindy, the way Reverend Wright did with, you know, you and Michelle.  But I don‘t think the McCain campaign wants to take it down to that level.

So, they‘re may be, that they neutralize each other on some of those things.  I think both of these men, if Obama is the nominee, they do want to fight it on the issues.  They really do.  And not personally get down into this, even if provoke by anchors.  But the 527s, the 527s are a whole another story and Obama indicated, we‘ll realize that there‘s going to be a lot coming in from left field in his campaign.

OLBERMANN:  Now, you‘re saying, it‘s going to be three-dimensional chess at that point because then, you maybe called on, you, Mr. candidate, whichever one you are, to denounce a 527 ad either made on your behalf or speaking on your behalf because it‘s just so over the top.

ALTER:  Tons of that.

OLBERMANN:  It‘s literally layer upon layer.  My favorite political analogy, the MCS (ph) are drawing (ph) where the staircase goes up and down at the same time.  But enough (ph) of that. 

Jonathan Alter of “Newsweek,” before and after our interview with Barack Obama.  Great thanks, great insight.  Have a great weekend.

ALTER:  You too.

OLBERMANN:  Senator Clinton tonight, facing questions about her health care claims on the campaign trail.  Did she really play a prominent role in creating S-CHIP, the health care legislation for kids or is there less there than meets the eye?

And: President Bush tells troops in Afghanistan it‘s exciting and romantic on the frontlines.  Somebody who actually fought on the frontlines in Afghanistan has few words to the president on our show tonight.

You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Not to trouble you with my personal schedule, but this is what passes as a day off for me around here.  I‘m required elsewhere.  I hope you‘ll stay here with my friend Alison Stewart who takes COUNTDOWN the rest of the way.  It‘s good to see you and your friend.

ALISON STEWART, SUBSTITUTE HOST:  And soon to be.  Feel better, thanks a lot, Keith.

Our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN: It looked as if Senator Clinton had put any doubts of health care far behind her.  With just a week after her claims of leadership and a variety of foreign policy incidence, came in for criticism from people who were their, a “Boston Globe” story suggest that her claims of playing a crucial role in crafting the popular federal health insurance plan for kids known as S-CHIP did not holdup to scrutiny either.

Her S-CHIP experience, part of a portfolio she uses to promote the

credibility of her presidential plan to cover all Americans, a plan she

continued to push today.  The “Boston Globe” examined Senator Clinton‘s

role -

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Quality and affordable for everyone.  My opponent doesn‘t have a plan that would cover everyone.  If you believe as I do, you want a president and a candidate who will stand up for the principle of universal health care, come out and vote for me on April 22nd in the Pennsylvania primary.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  Got ahead of myself there.  The “Boston Globe” is examining Senator Clinton‘s role as first lady in passing S-CHIP spoke to legislatures of both parties involved with the bill.  “The Globe” reporting that privately, quote, “some lawmakers and staff members are fuming over what they see as Clinton‘s exaggeration of her role in developing S-CHIP.  Including her campaign ads claiming she helped create the program.” Republican Senator Orin Hatch, among several current and former lawmakers and staff, telling “The Globe” that Senator Clinton had no role in helping to write the Congressional legislation, which grew out of a similar program in Massachusetts in 1996. 

Quoting from Senator Hatch from this article, quote, “the White House wasn‘t ready for it.  We really roughed them up in trying to get it approved over the Clinton administration‘s objections.  She may have done some advocacy privately over at the White House, but I‘m not aware of it.”

Senator Hatch adding, on a personal level, about the woman who is now his colleague in the chamber; “I do like her.  We all care about children, but does she deserve credit for S-CHIP?  No.”

Time to bring in the hardest working man at MSNBC this evening, Jonathan Alter.  Jonathan, thanks for sticking around.  So, is this Globe report just great news for her detractors who say, OK, your exposure as first lady in the White House certainly doesn‘t equal experience. 

ALTER:  It‘s an interesting story.  It confirms what I‘ve been hearing from some Democratic senators privately, who were annoyed, because they felt like she had over stepped by saying she helped create this, when the Clinton White House had been resistant to their efforts on the Hill to push children‘s health.  So this been kind of a sore spot for some Democrats, not just Orin Hatch, for several months now, and is now emerging more into public view. 

I‘m not sure the details of the legislation from ten years ago is going to be a big potent political issue, the way, say, Reverend Wright is right now, or something like that.  For those who like to keep score at home, and pay close attention, it‘s quite interesting and it does suggest that she has been exaggerating her role.  She does mention S-CHIP in almost every stump speech. 

STEWART:  I‘m so glad you‘re here tonight, because I‘m so curious about her juggling of the health care issue.  In 1993, it was just this huge failure.  Yet, she seems to want to embrace it and bring that in as part of her experience on the campaign trail now.  Is that wise, in your opinion? 

ALTER:  It‘s kind of the only card she has to play; I have the scar tissue to show for it and to really focus on this as being a big part of her legacy.  Otherwise, she doesn‘t have a lot to talk about, in terms of accomplishments, because she wasn‘t very involved in domestic issues, particularly after the collapse in health care initiative. 

STEWART:  One of the things I thought was interesting, as we were listening to you and Keith after Senator Obama was I‘m wondering, the Clinton campaign has said nothing.  Is this just too nuclear at this point, this subject for her to touch? 

ALTER:  Yes, you don‘t interrupt a story like this that is hurting your opponent.  That‘s one of the first rules of politics.  If your opponent is blowing up, don‘t step in. 

STEWART:  Just step back. 

ALTER:  Right. 

STEWART:  Jonathan Alter, thanks for sticking around.  We appreciate it. 

ALTER:  Thanks, Alison.

STEWART:  From the campaign trail to the current commander in chief.  President Bush, did he add insult to the injuries of fighting men and women who are suffering in Afghanistan by calling the assignment, quote, romantic?  One soldier weighs in. 

Don‘t worry.  With all the breaking news, you‘re not missing out on Oddball.  It‘s actually Oddball-palooza night.  Plays of the month from February. 

These stories ahead, but first time for COUNTDOWN‘s top three best persons in the world.  Number three, best wedding proposal, surprise, Lefkos Hajji of North London surprised his girlfriend Lian with a 12,000 dollar engagement ring.  He had it hidden inside of a helium balloon.  As he popped the question, he would pop the balloon.

The surprise was on him.  London weather, a gust blew the balloon away.  Hajji had to chase for—by car for two hours, no luck.  Now Lian‘s not talking to him until she gets a new ring. 

Number two, best place for E.T. to call home, special features of the frisbee shaped, listed for sale in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  Includes directional lights, landing gear, legs and a retractable staircase entryway.  Tom Cruise is yet to place an offer, so hurry on up.  The house of the future awaits you. 

Number one, best use of current events to bolster ticket sales, the geniuses with the Macon Music Minor League Baseball Team.  June 13th is now Eliot Spitzer night.  You get a break on your ticket price if your name is Eliot, or Spitzer or Kristin.  Some lucky couple will win a trip to New York, including a stay at the Mayflower hotel.  Not the same Mayflower Hotel, same name though.

The ninth fan through the gates gets a prize pack.  No word if the disgraced governor of New York will serve as the game‘s official scorer.  He does have time on his hands.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  Maybe the president likes Ela Fitzgerald.  A classic, “Isn‘t It Romantic.”  You know how it goes, isn‘t romantic, music in the night, a dream that can be her, fighting the Taliban in sub-zero rugged terrain.  It‘s about the only explanation we can come up with to understand the president‘s view of the six and a half year struggle in Afghanistan as romantic.  A view he expressed in a video conference with U.S. military personnel who are fighting there.  Details in a minute. 

In our third story, General David Petraeus speaks frankly about conditions in Iraq, saying that Iraqi leaders are not making the requisite progress.  General Petraeus, in an interview with the “Washington Post,” said that, quote, no one in the U.S. and Iraqi government feel that there has been sufficient progress by any means in the area of national reconciliation.” 

Petraeus said the United States would temporarily freeze any further reductions in its troop levels to allow for a, quote, period of consolidation and evaluation.  General Petraeus also acknowledged that overall reduction in violence over the past year owe in part to a cease-fire by Shiite cleric and militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr.  The military payment of some locals to fight insurgents as well. 

Today, members of al-Sadr‘s militia ignored the continuing cease-fire and clashed with Iraqi police in the city of Kute (ph).  As the war in Iraq approaches the fifth year mark, President Bush waxes romantic about the war in Afghanistan.  Bush listened to U.S. military and civilian personnel voice their concern over continuing problems in Afghanistan. 

U.S. forces still number 29,000, about half of them part of the NATO presence there.  Deadly fighting with the Taliban drags on.  Convincing local governments to spurn the poppy drug trade is difficult.  President Bush, in the video conference said, quote, “I must say, I‘m a little envious.  If I were slightly younger and not employed here, I think it would be a fantastic experience to be on the front lines of helping this young democracy succeed.  It must be exciting for you, in some ways romantic, in some ways, you know, confronting danger.  You are really making history, thanks,” end quote. 

Veterans of the Afghan war swiftly responded.  Vote Vets.org collecting reactions like this one, quote, “I didn‘t feel like there was anything romantic in not seeing my daughter grow up and watching Afghan children starve to death and explaining repeated deployment extensions to my soldiers.  No, Mr. President, there‘s nothing romantic about being sent on an important mission and not being given the tools to accomplish it.” 

Let‘s call in the executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, as well as the author of “Chasing Ghosts,” Paul Rieckhoff. 

Paul, nice to see you in person. 

PAUL RIECKHOFF, AUTHOR, “CHASING GHOSTS”:  Good to be with you.

STEWART:  First of all, I have to get your reactions to the president‘s comments. 

RIECKHOFF:  They are absurd.  Serving in a combat zone can be exciting.  It‘s dangerous.  It‘s terrifying.  Romantic is not the word I would use.  I don‘t think anybody whose actually been there would use the word romantic.  That‘s the type of language you hear from someone who‘s never been in combat. 

So I think the president is continuing to show how he really doesn‘t understand the human component of this war.  A combat veteran understands that people are serving 15 month tours.  We have over 500,000 people who have deployed more than once.  It‘s a tremendous toll on our folks.  Romantic is a terrible choice of words. 

STEWARD:  Let‘s talk about someone who is fighting right now.  General Petraeus is prepared to testify in front of Congress next month.  Could you interpret his remarks for us?  I‘m confused by them.   

RIECKHOFF:  He‘s downgrading expectations.  I think he‘s recognizing that we have had some security gains.  Violence has gone down.  But that‘s not going to make the Iraqis get along.  You still have these tremendously deep divisions and you have other factors.  I don‘t think we can alone credit the surge with the reduction of violence.  Moqtada al Sadr is on a big pause right now.  If he decides to take his finger off that pause button and reignite the violence, we‘re going to see a dramatic increase in what‘s happening inside Iraq.  It‘s a cauldron.  It‘s incredibly fragile and it can tip in either direction at any point. 

STEWARD:  Is there an argument to be made for the extension of the surge? 

RIECKHOFF:  I think there is.  You could say, OK, let‘s see it out for another couple of months.  We have to be honest with the American people and tell them how far we‘re going to extend it.  We keep pushing back the goal post over and over again.  At some point, we have to think about what we‘re doing to the military.  If we continue to have 20 brigades in Iraq for the next five years, President Bush might get his chance.  He might have to fight on the front lines. 

Maybe he saw the images of Prince Harry and it caused him to was romantic.  If we keep running our military into the ground, we‘re going to need a lot of folks on the front line. 

STEWART:  We saw Admiral Fallon step down this week.  He spoke to “Esquire Magazine.”  I want to get his words right.  I‘m going to read them here.  He said, a war with Iran would be, quote, ill advised action.  He spoke out, stepped down and resigned.  General Petraeus is going to have to testify in front of Congress.  Can he deliver stark remarks if they‘re perhaps not friendly to the administration‘s view of how things are going?

RIECKHOFF:  I think he has an obligation to do that.  He has an obligation to the troops serving in Iraq, to the American people and to his position.  He has to be frank.  He has to be candid and tell us exactly what‘s happening on the ground. 

At the same time, we have to pay attention to what Ambassador Crocker is going to say.  That‘s the other side of this equation that never gets any attention and that‘s the political progress.  It‘s not just one component that‘s going to achieve or fail to achieve peace in Iraq.  It‘s going to be the military, complemented by diplomatic, economic and political options. 

STEWART:  Before we let you go, I know there‘s something very important to you, the status of the latest GI Bill. 

RIECKHOFF:  Yes, the GI Bill is moving forward.  Right now, we only have 44 co-sponsor in the Senate.  We need a new GI Bill.  The GI Bill right now covers only about 40 percent of the cost of education in America.  It‘s not what our grandfathers had after World War II.  We need a new GI Bill.  We need it now.

One of the presidential candidates, Senator McCain, has not yet signed on.  We need pressure on him.  Get him on board.  Let‘s get this down in 2008. 

STEWART:  Paul Rieckhoff of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, thanks for coming by the studio. 

RIECKHOFF:  Thank you, Alison. 

STEWART:  If President Bush really believes the FISA bill is absolutely necessary to protect America from terrorists, he might have to engage in one of those a compromises, you know, that we hear so much about.  The House approved the terrorist surveillance legislation today, but it does not include retroactive immunity for Telecom companies.  The bill would also restore the power of federal courts to approve wire-tapping warrants and it would authorize federal inspectors to investigate the administration‘s warrantless wire-tapping. 

President Bush has been pushing most adamantly for a bill that would protect the Telecom giants. 

Please, someone protect us against this.  Paris Hilton is looking for a new best friend.  Keep walking, it‘s not happening here. 

COUNTDOWN‘s quad-weekly tribute to all that‘s weird and wonderful, including the world of wide sports.  Oddball‘s plays of the month, February edition, ahead on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK):

STEWART:  In our number two story, a brief look now at the world of celebrity, where the fabulously rich and famous yearn for the simple joys of friendship and maybe even make a buck off of it.  MTV tapping Paris Hilton for a new ten episode reality series called “Paris Hilton, My New BFF.”  The series will force 20 potential best friends to live together and compete for her loyalty.  Only one will become Paris‘ best friend and accompany her to parties and business functions and getting her Vitamin Water. 

MTV says the show is bound to be a hit because it‘s undeniable the world is always talking bout Paris.  OK. 

Then we have the celebrity formerly known as Sean John Puff D P-Diddy and now just plane Diddy.  I think he had more names.  Did he?  Not sure.  Sean Puff Daddy P Diddy Colmes has seen an unexploited market and he wants in.  “US Magazine” reporting that he‘s planning to launch a car service for celebrities who get just too sloppy to drive. 

US says it‘s part of Diddy‘s deal with a Vodka company.  His rep is quoted as saying he wants to make sure that everyone has a good time and no celebrity is accused of driving under the influence.  Do we really need anymore of the mug shots?  No. 

Michael Jackson has moon walked his way from Santa Barbara to Bahrain to Las Vegas.  He‘s seen more places than a roaming gnome.  His next move may be to England.  The British tabloid “the Sun: says Jackson‘s older brother Tito—I always liked Tito—is hunting for a multi-million dollar home for him in the English country side.  The paper also says he‘s looking for a place to jump start his career, not to mention his finances. 

TMZ.com reports Jackson narrowly dodged next week‘s foreclosure bullet on his Neverland Ranch after he defaulted on a 23 million dollar loan.  He‘s been given a reprieve until May 14th.  The abandoned 2,500 acre ranch is said to be worth 17 million dollars, train, bumper cars, carnival ride and garden gnomes included. 

Beware the Ides of March.  How do we do that?  By reviving the best video shenanigans of February.  Oddball‘s plays of the month, ahead on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  Tomorrow, the 15th is the dreaded Ides of March.  It was on that day in the year 44 B.C. when Roman Emperor Julius Caesar was betrayed and murdered by a group of nobles.  Just before he kicked it, Caesar famously delivered those words of shock and astonishment, et tu, Brutis? 

Ironically, tomorrow is the birthday of another famous Italian also known for a famous line of wonder and surprise; the date was March 15th, 1959.  The man, Fabio and the line, I cannot believe it‘s not butter. 

With that, let‘s throw it in reverse and head back to the last month, to the Oddball plays of February. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN (voice-over):  We begin in a dark place where disgusting spineless, bottom feeders roam. 

We begin at the Tokyo Zoo, where a fake zebra just fake kicked that guy.

We begin in Kilapur (ph), India, where the Olympics are underway, the rural Olympics they call them.  Events includes the men‘s freestyle, apparently just freestyle. 

We begin in Avandale, Arizona and the home of Chris Gallagher, who was not home when the Fedex containing the two 900 dollar Super Bowl tickets was dropped off at his house.  Luckily his dug Buddy was there to sign for them, tear them to shreds and eat them. 

To Abu Dabi in the United Arab Emirates, where a guy just paid 14 million dollars for a license plate.  You think your DMV is a pain in the ass. 

We begin in Moscow, where presidential debates are a little bit more free-form than ours. 

We begin on Valentines Day with a little pork.  In Gloucester, England, this is the farm of pig breeder Eric Freeman and this little sucker is the heart piggy.  Yay, heart piggy.

We begin in Ibraya (ph), Italy, where hundreds of people gather to reenact the overthrow an evil 12th century nobleman who didn‘t like oranges. 

We begin at President‘s Day Festivities with two guys playing the bagpipes.  Hey, it looks like somebody stole your bagpipes. 

The department is either under-funded or they‘re big fans of Jonesy (ph), the noise making virtuoso played by Michael Winslow in the Police Academy Movies.

Paris, France, hello.  Hello to you too.  This is not just French kissing.  It‘s French French kissing, or as we call it here in the states, freedom freedom kissing. 

Two Hydederbad, India, where they take their love in light and sweet this new Valentine‘s Day coffee mug car.  How romantic. 

We begin in Weeling (ph), West Virginia, where yesterday, Kevin Felder was sentenced to five to eighteen years for robbery.  It wasn‘t all bad news for him.  Right after the judge handed down his sentence, he then performed a wedding ceremony for Felder and his fiance right in front of the bench.  You may now kiss the convict.

To London, where this guy, Raymond Green, was just found guilty of stealing nearly half a million dollars from his 97 year old mother.  He spent it on himself and his wife, Simone.  Simone was found not guilty, but she bolted from the court house anyway.  When literally hiding from the cameras failed, she resorted to the head on approach. 

Up close and personal. 

Finally, to Germany.  It‘s time for our daily polar bear affirmation, because, you‘re good enough, you‘re smart enough and dog gone it, people like you. 

Instead of another presidential debate, they‘ve decided to run for it.  No, it‘s tryouts.  The Washington Nationals baseball team racing presidential mascots and or second basemen.  Steroids have such side effects. 

Down goes Jefferson. 

The race already in progress.  Number eight in yellow charging hard.  Down the stretch they come.  Wait a minute, what‘s this?  It‘s naked drunk guy.  Naked drunk guy making his move, diving for the finish line.  It‘s all over.  Naked drunk guy pulling up the rear. 

Then to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where a bat is attacking city commissioners at their meeting.  No one is sure how that bat got in.  No one is too interested to do anything about it. 

Will the bat continue to hold the town leaders hostage?  Will the commission continue to protect their heads with paper?  Tune in tomorrow, same bat time, same bat channel. 

Never mind.  That guy killed it. 

Let‘s go to Texas, where zombies with TVs on their heads have invaded the streets of Dallas.  No, it‘s not a convention of Fox News viewers, it‘s an environmental protest.  Portland, Oregon, the Jefferson Street Rail Line, is having a few problems this morning with the 4:30 am train.  First off, it‘s not a train.  Second, the conductor on it appears to be drunk. 

Security video, 54-year-old Steven Stine (ph) driving a Pontiac sedan down the tracks. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  That does it for COUNTDOWN.  I‘m Alison Stewart, in for Keith Olbermann.  Until next time, join me on my show on NPR.  It‘s called “The Bryant Park Project.”  Thanks for watching.

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 other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.

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