updated 3/24/2009 9:49:09 AM ET 2009-03-24T13:49:09

Guest Host: David Shuster

Guest: Eugene Robinson, Craig Crawford, Lawrence O‘Donnell, E.J. Dionne, Clarence Page

High: Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?

Spec: Politics; Government

DAVID SHUSTER, GUEST HOST (voice over):  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?

Team Obama announces a plan to tackle the toxic assets that cripple the economy.  Wall Street loves what it hears—stocks up almost 500 points.  But, is what‘s good for Wall Street also good for Main Street?

The bailout debacle gets a chuckle from President Obama on “60 Minutes.”

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PRES. BARACK OBAMA, UNITED STATES:  The only thing less popular than putting money in the bank is putting money in the auto industry (LAUGHTER).  So .

STEVE KROFT, CBS NEWS:  Eighteen percent are in favor, 76 percent against.

OBAMA:  It‘s not a high number.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Are some crossing the line in making more out of that moment that it was?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ELISABETH HASSELBECK, “THE VIEW” CO-HOST:  Nobody‘s laughing.  It‘s not funny.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Dick Cheney versus President Obama.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  I fundamentally disagree with Dick Cheney.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  The former V.P. says the new commander-in-chief is making the country less safe.  Obama can‘t believe Cheney is still cheerleading for a failed policy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  I‘m surprised that the vice president is eager to defend a legacy that was unsustainable.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Two investigations under way for fiery plane crashes over the weekend.  We‘ll have the very latest in the FedEx crash in Japan and what brought down a small plane in Montana killing 14 people.

And this past weekend, Barack Obama became the first sitting president in his first year to turn down an appearance of the Gridiron Dinner since 1885 and Grover Cleveland.  Why did he say no?  So, he could spend time with his kids.

All that and more—now on COUNTDOWN.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Boring.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER (on camera):  Good evening from New York.  I‘m David Shuster. 

Keith Olbermann has the night off.

It‘s the start of a new week for President Obama.  That means there is a new economic plan to sell, this time, the administration‘s effort to get private investors to help buy up $1 trillion of bad assets from the nation‘s banks.

But in our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN: What if this isn‘t a new plan?  What if the White House has merely recycled the Bush administration‘s so called “cash for trash” policy that it abandoned six months ago?

The president and his economic team rolled out the latest aspect of the bank rescue, a plan to cleanse those toxic assets from bank balance sheets.  Private investors will get to buy them by invitation-only under a 50/50 partnership and 85 percent financing from the government.

Wall Street apparently is in love with that kind of bottom line.  The Dow soared nearly 500 points.  The goal said President Obama is to get banks lending to families and small businesses again.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  We believe that this is one more element that is going to be absolutely critical in getting credit flowing again.  It‘s not going to happen overnight.  There‘s still great fragility in the financial systems, but we think that we are moving in the right direction.  And we are very confident that—in coordination with the Federal Reserve and the FDIC, other relevant institutions—that we are going to be able to not only start unlocking these credit markets but we‘re also going to be in a position to design the regulatory authorities that are necessary to prevent this kind of systemic crisis from happening again.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  House Republican whip, Eric Cantor, called the plan a shell game that hid the true cost and risk from American taxpayers.  In that criticism, Congressman Cantor sounds remarkably like liberal economist Paul Krugman of the “New York Times,” who wrote on his blog this morning, quote, “The only way to argue that the subsidy is small is to claim that there‘s very little chance that assets purchased under the scheme will lose as much as 15 percent of their purchase price.  Given what‘s happened over the past two years, is that a reasonable assertion?”

Announcing this plan today, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner said American taxpayers could lose money on the deal but said there was no fixing the system without risk.  At “NBC Nightly News” tonight, Mr.  Geithner added, “The effort to fix the economy must continue despite public anger and outrage over corporate greed and mistakes.”

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TIMOTHY GEITHNER, U.S. TREASURY SECRETARY:  People who are careful and responsible in their personal decisions are being terribly damaged by the actions of people who are terribly irresponsible.  And they are frustrated and angry.

And we have a deep obligation to make sure that everything we‘re doing is designed to get, again, get recovery back on track, end this recession as quickly as we can, and get the financial system back to doing what it needs to do.  And that‘s going to require we put strong conditions on taxpayer money to make sure we‘re not rewarding failure, and that our assistance is going to help generate more lending, not reward executives got in this mess.  But we also need to make sure again that we get credit flowing again.  That‘s our core obligation.

But the American people are right to be frustrated and angry.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  We‘ll talk about it with our own political analyst, Eugene Robinson, associate editor and columnist for the “Washington Post.”

And, Gene, great to see you, as always.

EUGENE ROBINSON, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Good to see you, David.

SHUSTER:  Gene, politics makes for strange bedfellows, but what should it tell us when Eric Cantor and Paul Krugman seem to be on the side of this issue?

ROBINSON:  David, I‘m pretty sure it‘s the end of the world as we know it.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON:  You can imagine—you can imagine, you know, if you uses the “bedfellows” metaphor, you can imagine each of them waking up and going kind of “ew,” you know, what‘s this about.  Eric Cantor‘s critique that this is a shell game doesn‘t sound terribly specific to me.

I think since Paul did win the Nobel Prize for economics, it‘s difficult just to blow off his criticism which is that the plan, whatever else you think of it, won‘t work.  And he lays out the reasons why he doesn‘t think it‘s going to work.  There are other esteemed economists who do believe it has a chance of working.  But it‘s something that certainly deserves a look.

SHUSTER:  If this plan does not work, how much political capital will President Obama have left for Plan B, nationalizing the bank perhaps, which was always going to be a hard sell?

ROBINSON:  I think if this plan were manifestly not to work, if we were to—a certain amount of time were to elapse and we were to be in the same situation with the banks not lending and credit still frozen and nothing getting better, I don‘t think the problem would be getting together the political will to try a Plan B.  I think everyone will agree that something had to be done.

I think the problem is with the rest of the president‘s agenda—which is ambitious.  I think, at that point, he would have difficulty sustaining momentum for the idea that we can—we can address the crisis and also do the many other things that he argues are necessary for us to do right now.  He‘s ahead on that argument right now.  He‘s in control of that agenda.  It would be difficult for him to maintain control of that agenda if he were seen to fail with this big plan.

SHUSTER:  By the very fact that the stock market loved this plan today and someone as esteemed as Dr. Krugman did not, might that tell us the stock market is wildly overused as an indicator of economic success?

ROBINSON:  It certainly is if you look at it day by day.  That certainly is no guarantee of which way the economy is heading.  There are economists who believe the stock market in a recession is kind of—kind of a leading indicator and that it would recover before the economy recovered.  But I don‘t—I don‘t think you can, you know, one really good day on Wall Street you can‘t really generalize from that.

I think what you can tell from this clear reaction to the Geithner

plan is—as much celebration as you might see, I think there is some

relief there because the plan in its essence doesn‘t challenge some

fundamental things about the way Wall Street does business.  The idea (ph)

is—we will be asking, you know, some of the same people who were

involved in the frenzy that led to the current mess to use some of the same

techniques and practices to get us out of that mess without kind of

challenging any of the fundamental ways that Wall Street works, and I think

including compensation.  Now, I know that the administration does plan to announce some initiatives on compensation, but for the moment, I think there is relief on Wall Street that it doesn‘t go further in terms of the culture of Wall Street—which is what a lot of people have been angry about.

SHUSTER:  Tomorrow night, President Obama will hold a primetime press conference to talk about his plans.  We already know Wall Street is buying.  Who is the president trying to sell?  Is it taxpayers?  Congress?

ROBINSON:  I think he‘s trying to sell the American public on this idea.  I mean—again, we are relying on Wall Street to get us out of the mess that Wall Street got us into.  And given what we saw last week over the AIG bonuses, it‘s pretty clear that there‘s not a lot of enthusiasm inside the administration for even going along with the House tax, the tax bill that the House was working on last week and that the Senate is going to be working on to get those back.

And so, I think he‘s going to try to calm down the anger and show people a way forward that, you know, they can look toward a better economic future, which a lot of people can‘t see right now.

SHUSTER:  Eugene Robinson of MSNBC and the “Washington Post”—and, Gene, thanks as always.  I appreciate it.

Paul Krugman‘s criticism of the Obama administration‘s bank rescue plan is not limited to its risk.  The Nobel Prize-winning economist also questions it on the grounds of originality.  He wrote in his column this morning, I quote, “Tim Geithner, the treasury secretary, has persuaded President Obama to recycle Bush administration policy—specifically, the ‘cash for trash‘ plan proposed and abandoned six months ago by then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.  This is more than disappointing.  In fact, it fills me with a sense of despair.”

Nor is criticism of President Obama in “The Times” limited to Dr. Paul Krugman.  Frank Rich asked in his latest column whether the economy is becoming President Obama‘s Hurricane Katrina, in large part because there‘s been so little transparency and so much evasiveness as well as public anger.

Nor is criticism of the Obama administration from the left limited to columnist from the “New York Times.”  At HuffingtonPost.com, Arianna Huffington joined many on the right in calling for Secretary Geithner‘s resignation or dismissal.

And Talking Points Memo blogger Josh Marshall wrote of the populist anger of yet another plan that forces taxpayers, quote, “To pay or underwrite purchasing these bad debts from the banks that inflated—perhaps wildly inflated prices.”  Atrios, aka Duncan Black, at Eschaton said, simply, quote, “We are so screwed.”

Let‘s turn to MSNBC political analyst, Craig Crawford, also, a columnist at CQPolitics.com.

And, Craig, good evening to you.

CRAIG CRAWFORD, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Hi, David.  He needs to get that dog real quick if he wants more friends in Washington.

(LAUGHTER)

SHUSTER:  Craig, it‘s one thing when Republicans attack President Obama daily, just because they can.  Is it entirely another when the liberal media and the left blogosphere begin questioning the economic priorities of this administration?

CRAWFORD:  Well, one way to look at it, it takes a little steam out of those Republican arguments that he‘s some kind of socialist.  If the liberals aka socialists think he is on the other side, I suppose that‘s one way to spin it.  But, you know, it‘s awfully early in this administration, I think, to be taking these kinds of shots.

And I‘m a little suspicious of anybody who pretends to think they‘ve or say they know so much about these problems that they know all the solutions and what are the solutions aren‘t.  They need to take Benjamin Franklin‘s advice and doubt a little of their own infallibility.

SHUSTER:  Well, between the bailouts, the bonuses, and now this bank rescue plan in which taxpayers will assume all of the risks—is it getting harder to see where Main Street fits into Obama‘s Main Street versus Wall Street ratio?  I mean, we already know from the closing bell today that Wall Street loves the bank rescue plan.

CRAWFORD:  Yes.  Well, you know, we basically have an economic system where at least the elites believe that what‘s good for Wall Street is good for Main Street.  A lot of people, a lot more people probably in the past don‘t think that anymore.  But I think Obama‘s on the side of basically fixing the status quo and not changing it right now.

Now, I think it‘s important to keep remembering and listening to what he says at the tail end of these remarks.  It was in your clip earlier.  The president‘s remarks is, when he says at the end, once we get these things stabilize then we‘re going to get to the regulations that ensure these things don‘t happen again.  And I think that‘s the important part of what he plans to do that everyone should remember.

SHUSTER:  If this plan though does not work, how much political capital will President Obama have left for a Plan B?  Maybe nationalizing the bank, something that, again, as we talked to Eugene, was always going to be difficult.

CRAWFORD:  Expectations are so low for most people about the economy over the next year.  I‘m not sure “what not working” is actually.  It maybe that he can move on even if things aren‘t a lot better, maybe if they just don‘t get a lot worse, that‘s enough for him to push his agenda.  I think, in general, though, what he‘s trying to do is stabilize the status quo, the economic and financial system, get it back on some sort of track, so that he can move on to those other agenda items that he campaigned on and cares most about like expanding health insurance.

SHUSTER:  And, of course, that‘s going to require a lot of help from the political left.  And so, I guess, a key political question on all of this is: Would it not have been easier to nationalize the banks, give that plan a different name, than to recycle the Bush administration‘s plan under a different name, which is essentially what the Obama administration has done here?

CRAWFORD:  Now, Obama was a change agent in this campaign.  But not a radical change agent.  I think that‘s a line he does not want to cross.  That isn‘t where he is, no matter where a lot of his supporters might be on a question like nationalizing the banks.  That‘s just not something I see him ever doing unless he absolutely had to do that.

He is going to be about change but not the kind of big change that some people want, particularly when it comes to basically changing the whole concept of our capitalist economy which, you know, nationalizing isn‘t that‘s what that‘s all about.

SHUSTER:  MSNBC political analyst Craig Crawford—Craig, thanks as always.  We appreciate it.

CRAWFORD:  You bet.

SHUSTER:  A minor moral victory to report tonight albeit one that may shed some light on how intractable the problems are on the front lines in the battle of AIG.  According to New York‘s attorney general, the AIG executives who received those bonuses, after AIG‘s bailout, have agreed to return the money, except for the ones who haven‘t.  New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo saying, nine out of the top 10 bonus recipients have agreed to return the bonuses; 15 out of the top 20 doing so, representing about $30 million.  The rest—Cuomo says some are outside his jurisdiction, specifically in London, ground zero for AIG‘s hedge fund operation and home to more than half of the bonus recipients.  Only 47 percent of the bonus money went to American executives.

The bonus outrage last night brought President Obama to laughter during his interview with “60 Minutes.”  Reporter Steve Kroft asked the president if his demeanor was sending the wrong message.  Next on COUNTDOWN: We‘ll examine the meaning behind the laughter and ask if too much is being made of the situation.

And later: Obama versus Cheney.  President Obama gets his chance to unleash after the former vice president accused him of putting Americans at risk.  That and David letterman drops a bombshell to his studio audience tonight.

All ahead—on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  President Obama picks apart Dick Cheney‘s arguments that Obama‘s new strategies in the war of terror are making us less safe—a stinging rebuke on “60 Minutes.”  But also, in that interview, laughter about the bailout bonuses.  Questions today about whether the laughing was appropriate and what was it that really sparked that reaction from the president.  That‘s next.

This is COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  Of course, the president‘s position in the global economic meltdown and on the past and future of the war on terror all pale in importance compare to the fact that the president laughed while talking about government bailouts.

Our fourth story tonight: Exactly what was the president laughing about?  His laughter made the top of the “Today Show.”  His laughter made the women of “The View” upset today.  OK, just one woman of “The View”—

OK, just Elisabeth Hasselbeck.  And, of course, his laughter made it to FOX News today.

But, in fact, the first person to question the president‘s laughter was the man interviewing him for “60 Minutes,” correspondent Steve Kroft.  Kroft literally questioning Mr. Obama about his laughter as you‘ll see in a moment asking, quote, “Are people going to look at this and say, I mean, he‘s just—he‘s sitting just there making jokes about money.  How do you explain the mood and your laughter?”

Exactly what joke—was Mr. Obama making about money?  Was he laughing at middle-class families on bread lines?  Was he laughing about kids losing their medical insurance when their parents get laid off?

Or was it the one where the priest, the donkey, and a hedge fund manager walk in to the employment office—no, the president was laughing as you‘ll hear on this clip at the absurdity of his own position, at the lack of political popularity for the steps the government is taking, at the catch-22 of his predicament.

And as he explained seconds after laughing, it was not insensitivity to this dilemma; it was gallows humor familiar to anyone in a dilemma.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  I just want to say that the only thing less popular than putting money in the banks is putting money into the auto industry (LAUGHTER).  So .

KROFT:  Eighteen percent are in favor, 76 percent against.

OBAMA:  It‘s not a high number.

KROFT:  You are sitting here and you‘re—you are laughing about some of these problems.  Are people going to look at this and say, “I mean, he‘s sitting there just making jokes about money”?

(LAUGHTER)

KROFT:  How do you deal with—I mean, explain your mood and your laughter.

OBAMA:  I mean, there‘s got to be .

KROFT:  Are you punch-drunk?

OBAMA:  No, no.  There‘s got to be a little gallows humor to get through the day (LAUGHTER).  You know, sometimes, my team talks about the fact that if you had said to us a year ago that the least of my problems would be Iraq—which is still a pretty serious problem—I don‘t think anybody would have believed it.  But we‘ve got a lot on our plate and a lot of difficult decisions that we are going to have to make.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Joining us tonight is E.J. Dionne, a columnist for the “Washington Post” and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

And, E.J., thanks for your time tonight, as always.  When Mr. Bush was

.

E.J. DIONNE, THE WASHINGTON POST:  Good to be with you.  I hope I can laugh at your questions, too.

(LAUGHTER)

SHUSTER:  OK.

When Mr. Bush was pushing privatization for Social Security, he told a woman he thought it was fantastic that she was working three jobs to make ends meet for her family.  But Obama laughing at his poll numbers, at the general poll numbers, that merits widespread discussion of economic insensitivity?  Help me out here.

DIONNE:  Well, are we shocked at double standards in politics?  Do we expect consistency on these things?

You know, I was reminded a line from the scripture I think in the Book of Proverbs, “A merry spirit doeth good like medicine.”  And that‘s what we need right now.  I‘d much rather have a president who laughs than a president who is mean or a president who‘s glum.

If he were laughing about sending troops to Afghanistan, men and women to fight in Afghanistan, I‘d say yes, there is a problem with that.  But he was deadly serious when he spoke about that.  If he were laughing about unemployed people, there‘d be a lot to criticize.  But he was deadly serious when he spoke about that.

I think, if you forgive me, it‘s laughable to get down on him for laughing.

SHUSTER:  I characterize the reasons for Obama‘s laughter earlier. 

But what was your take when you first saw the clip?

DIONNE:  You know what?  I was watching, I like people with a sense of irony about life and politics.  Politics is full of irony, things you don‘t expect.  And he specifically made the point that he surely did not expect to be dealing with these problems.  He thought Iraq would be the more serious problem.

I mean, one of Obama‘s big selling points, whether people agree or disagree with him, is that he seems like a likable human being.  And at least my reading of it was that the moments when he smiled and laughed made him more likable not less likable.

SHUSTER:  If the laughs in one interview are trivial, there is still the real political calculation of a president‘s tone, how he connects to people.  In that sense, were last night‘s laugh out, was it—was it out of step with our crisis or in step with the people‘s sense of the absurd?

DIONNE:  I think it was—yes, I think a lot of people have a sense

of the absurd.  It‘s why so many comedy shows are popular.  But the whole -

you know, I think it‘s wrong just to characterize that whole interview as one big laugh.  I mean, there were a lot of very serious moments.  And there were also the human moments where he was telling people what it‘s like to live in the White House and that it‘s pretty nice digs.

So, I think, you know, the laughter moment is being sort of blown out of proportion.

SHUSTER:  And doesn‘t it really matter, I mean, at the end of the day, at the end of the months or whatever, this—the bottom line is that the Obama economic plan is actually going to work or it‘s not going to work, right?

DIONNE:  Oh, I think that‘s exactly right.  I mean, I think, what happened today is far more important than whether he laughed on “69 Minutes” or not.  You know, there is—there are a lot of things you can take issue with the president on.  If you want to argue with him about health care or taxes or the budget, that‘s part of our democracy.

But you shouldn‘t be a grinch about laughter.  I think he should guffaw all he wants when the time is appropriate.

SHUSTER:  What does it say though about the politics of those who want to make a big deal about laughter?  Is it because they simply don‘t want to argue of the substance of the plan or argue about the direction that he‘s trying to take things economically, that they‘re just looking for something simple?

DIONNE:  Well, sure.  And there are moments when a gaffe, a small gaffe, can get you into trouble.  He shouldn‘t have made the comment he made about the Special Olympics.  And he knew that.  He apologized for it before it even went on the air.

And, sometimes, critics hope that something will take off as a story.  Sometimes, criticisms like that do take off.  I‘m not really sure this one will.

(LAUGHTER)

SHUSTER:  Yes.  E.J. Dionne of the “Washington Post” and the Brookings Institution, who makes the best jokes of all, E.J., thank you so much for your time.  We appreciate.

DIONNE:  Great to be with you.  Thank you.

SHUSTER:  You‘re welcome.

Obama did not reserve any laughter for former Vice President Dick Cheney.  The president dresses down Cheney over his criticism that Obama‘s moves in the war on terror are putting Americans at risk.

And, breaking news from talk show host David Letterman: He confesses some big developments about his relationship with his longtime girlfriend.  Details ahead—on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER: On this day in history, actually today, will be a day to go down in history.  David Letterman confirmed that he married his longtime girlfriend.

On his show tonight, Mr. Letterman will, quote, “On Thursday at 3:00 p.m., March 19th, 2009, at the Teton County courthouse in Choteau, Montana, I was married to Regina Lasko.”  Letterman will joke that since the two had been dating since 1986, he thought things were going pretty good.

Letterman and Ms. Lasko have a 5-year-old son, Harry.  Letterman will describe how on the way to the courthouse he and his bride-to-be got stuck in the mud.  But he got married anyway.  On that note, let‘s play Oddball.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  We begin in China, at the Beijing Zoo, where eight young giant pandas are about to get sprung.  The Olympic pandas have been living in Beijing since that devastating Szechuan earthquake that occurred just before the Olympics last summer. 

This weekend, it was time for the pandas to go home.  These animals are literally climbing all over each other to get a good seat on the bus.  Dozens of tourists gathered to see the Olympic pandas off as they were loaded into the flat bed of a pick up truck, and shipped back to Szechuan Province Beverly Hillbillies style. 

Let‘s head over to Mumbai, India, where India‘s Tata Motors today unveiled what they have dubbed the world‘s cheapest car.  Tata is now taking deposits for the Nano, which will begin hitting Indian streets this July at the low price of 2,000 dollars.  The car is about ten feet long, has no power steering or air bags.  The hazard lights are always on.  Maybe that‘s just for the demo.

The car has one windshield wiper.  It is believed Nano‘s name is derived from the American sitcom “Mork and Mindy.”  Nano Nano.  

Finally, to Wells County, Colorado, where the Elseworth family‘s dream home turned into a nightmare when they found out their house‘s water supply was contaminated with natural gas.  The couple was forced to buy bottled water, take showers with the lights off to avoid a spark blowing up the house.  It‘s a terrible situation that would be a complete disaster if Mr.  Elseworth hadn‘t figured out how to spark up the kitchen sink. 

The gas company says they will fix the problem.  So get a good look at this.  The water‘s on fire!  The water‘s on fire!  It is almost as impressive as Howard Stern‘s fart machine. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Coming up, President Obama doesn‘t hold any punches when he is asked to respond to criticisms from former Vice President Cheney that his new policies are making the country less safe.  What unfolds is a calm, Obama style tongue-lashing. 

And poking fun at the commander in chief; Obama may have skipped the big Gridiron Dinner, but the punch lines did not skip him.  We will talk to someone who was there, ahead on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  A week ago yesterday, the former vice president of the United States was lecturing the current president on national television, and declaring that Mr. Obama‘s policies were making this country less safe.  If the absurdity of the administration that let down its guard on 9/11 lecturing anyone about safety was not enough for you, in our number two story tonight, Mr. Obama hits back. 

In a “60 Minutes” interview last night, Mr. Obama was asked about the lingering war in Afghanistan, the first war Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney failed to finish.  In that context, Mr. Obama was asked about Mr. Cheney‘s remarks last Sunday, in which Mr. Cheney said that shutting down Guantanamo Bay and ending US practices of torturing detainees weaken the U.S., because they are essential to preventing another attack. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  I fundamentally disagree with Dick Cheney, not surprisingly.  I think that Vice President Cheney has been at the head of a movement whose notion is somehow that we can‘t reconcile our core values, our Constitution, our belief that we don‘t torture, with our national security interests. 

I think he is drawing the wrong lesson from history.  The facts don‘t bear him out.  I think he is—that attitude, that philosophy has done incredible damage to our image and position in the world. 

I mean, the fact of the matter is, after all these years, how many convictions came out of Guantanamo?  How many—how many terrorists have actually been brought to justice under the philosophy that is being promoted by Vice President Cheney? 

It hasn‘t made us safer.  What it has been is a great advertisement for anti-American sentiment, which means that there is constant effective recruitment of Arab fighters and Muslim fighters against U.S. interests all around the world. 

This is the legacy that‘s been left behind.  And, you know, I‘m surprised that the vice president is eager to defend a legacy that was unsustainable. 

Let‘s assume we didn‘t change these practices; how long are we going to go?  Are we going to just keep on going until, you know, the entire Muslim world and Arab world despises us?  Do we think that is really going to make us safer? 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Mr. Obama also saying the U.S. has, quote, not done a particularly effective job of sorting through Gitmo detainees to determine who was a threat and who was, quote, just swept up, apparently referring to last week‘s claim by Colin Powell‘s former chief of staff that U.S.  leadership, including Cheney, fought Powell to keep people they knew were innocent detained for years at Gitmo. 

I‘m joined now by MSNBC political analyst Lawrence O‘Donnell, also a contributor to HuffingtonPost.com, and former chief of staff to the Senate Finance Committee.  Lawrence, thanks for your time tonight. 

LAWRENCE O‘DONNELL, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Good to be here, David. 

SHUSTER:  CBS raised the Cheney remarks, but Mr. Obama clearly decided to take them remarks on strong.  How come? 

O‘DONNELL:  He clearly decided he wanted to push back very hard on this thing.  It looks like—it was very clear that this really engages the president as a politician, as commander in chief, and as a constitutional scholar.  He knows that politically this argument has to be countered, that he can‘t leave it out there, that the vice president is saying we are less safe. 

He knows as commander in chief that it is his job to guarantee that safety now.  And so he‘s willing to discuss publicly exactly what the under-pinnings are of his strategy in this territory.  And he also, as we saw in the clips, takes a wider view that the Bush/Cheney team never, ever allowed a discussion of, which is, if you use this particular tactic at Guantanamo, for example, what does it do to al Qaeda recruitment around the world?  What does it do to promoting the al Qaeda cause? 

And the balancing of cause and effect is something that Cheney has never recognized to be even relevant to the conversation. 

SHUSTER:  Mr. Obama said Cheney leads a movement that asserts America cannot, quote, reconcile our core values with being safe.  Basically, Obama is saying Cheney claims the founding fathers and American that were principles forged during wartime are failures.  Is the president flirting here with calling Cheney un-American? 

O‘DONNELL:  Well, I think we know that this president is not the type of politician who would use language like that.  He went in the most gentle direction possible with that, when he said he thought the vice president was drawing the wrong lessons from history. 

But he pushed back very forcefully in saying that, in fact, the Cheney position has done real damage to us worldwide.  And, you know, he didn‘t even get into issues like, oh, by the way, this Guantanamo Bay operation was supposed to keep us so safe.  They actually released some people from there who immediately went to work against us as terrorists. 

And so the Cheney formulation collapses from any angle you look at it.  I actually think President Obama was careful not to personalize it, not to use the word Cheney whenever possible, in the way he approached this, but to hit back at the concepts very hard. 

SHUSTER:  As careful as President Obama is or was, suppose Cheney‘s cohorts keep pushing this stuff about making us weaker.  At what point does President Obama say, OK, you want to debate your tactics?  I‘ll send my attorney general over with a subpoena. 

O‘DONNELL:  Well, that‘s a good point.  Much about these tactics we do not know.  Much of it remains secret.  Who authorized what at what time?  What did Cheney know?  When did he know it?  What did the president know? 

When did he know it? 

This is not something they want to get into.  It certainly isn‘t something they ever want to get into under oath.  So what the president knows is that Cheney is allowed to take these pot shots in television cameras, while avoiding ever having to do a real accounting of what went on when, and what kind of legal liabilities might be involved in decisions that the vice president and president made. 

SHUSTER:  Next year, the same amount of time will have elapsed since 9/11 as elapsed after the first World Trade Center bombing until 9/11.  If there is another attack, who gets blamed?  Obama for failing to stop it or Bush/Cheney for failing to stop al Qaeda? 

O‘DONNELL:  We know who Dick Cheney is going blame.  We would see a real blame fight this time around.  You‘ve got to recognize that before Obama gets there, there was a seven-year period of an administration that, as far as we can tell, was doing nothing to drive down al Qaeda recruitment and al Qaeda cultural success, if not particularly tactical success in that region. 

And so, I mean, if there was another attack, one thing we‘d want to know is when did these attackers join al Qaeda, if that‘s who does it?  What inspired them to do this to the United States?  But I don‘t think the blame discussion would ever get that sophisticated.  Immediately, the Republican side would be saying it is Obama‘s fault and who knows what the Obama side would be saying about it. 

I think President Obama would be the type who would step forward and take that responsibility for anything that happens on his watch.  Let‘s hope we never see that particular argument break out. 

SHUSTER:  Lawrence O‘Donnell, contributor to the “Huffington Post,” thanks as always.  We appreciate it. 

O‘DONNELL:  Thanks, David. 

SHUSTER:  Coming up, presidential punch lines.  President Obama skips the Gridiron Dinner with members of the media, but he was still the brunt of several jokes.  We‘ll take you inside the festivities.

Coming up at the top of the hour, Bill Richardson is Rachel‘s special guest. 

But up next, the personal toll in the small plane crash in Montana, 14 people dead, half of them children, many of them member of the same extended family.  We explain why the crash investigation will be so challenging next on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  In one instance, the problem may have been unusually strong wind.  In another, the private plane may have had too many people on board.  In our number two story in the COUNTDOWN, two different plane crashes, both fatal, but the search for causes just beginning.  A Fedex cargo plane crashed at Tokyo‘s Narita International Airport Monday at 6:49 am local time.  Both the pilot and the co-pilot were killed. 

Flight 80 from China was trying to land when it crashed and wind shear will be examined as a possible cause.  The airport was experiencing wind gusts of up to 43 miles per hour at the time.  The crash of the Boeing MD-11 jet was the first fatal accident in the history of Fedex.  The pilots, both Americans, have been identified as Kevin Kyle Mosely and Anthony Stephenpino (ph). 

Even more tragic consequences for a private plane that crashed in Butte, Montana on Sunday.  All 14 people perished, including seven children on their way to a ski vacation.  Nearly all the victims came from a single extended family.  Here is NBC‘s Lee Cowan. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LEE COWAN, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Holy Cross Cemetery in Butte, Montana, the eerie spot where the single engine turbo prop came down.  It‘s fiery end captured by a witness with a camera. 

STEVE GUIDONI, WITNESS:  I looked around for wherever I could find this.  Didn‘t see nothing but wreckage. 

COWAN:  The plane, a Swiss made Pilates PC-12, a single engine alternative to a private jet, was headed to a ski resort in Bozeman, Montana.  Nine of the 14 victims are from a single extended family. 

LOUIS PULLEN, FATHER OF THE VICTIM:  He was a good father, my only son.  Had a wonderful wife, wonderful family.  That was everything. 

COWAN:  Flight records show the trip started Sunday in Redlands, California, with stops in Vacaville, where it refueled, and Oroville, picking up family members along the way.  On the last leg of the 700 mile flight to Bozeman, the NTSB says the experienced pilot calmly diverted to Butte, where witnesses say the plane pitched to the left, then nose dived less than a mile west of the runway. 

MARK ROSENKER, NTSB:  We will be looking more carefully at anything we can possibly find out which would give us a hint on why he decided to divert to Butte. 

COWAN:  Complicating the investigation, because it is a private plane, there is no flight data recorder and no cockpit voice recorder either.  NTSB investigators say, among the host of things they will be looking at is the plane‘s weight. 

(on camera):  NTSB officials say the Pilates PC-12 was configured with ten seats for ten adults.  On this flight, there were seven adults plus seven children. 

ROSENKER:  We have to get the weights of all of the passengers.  We have to get the weight of the fuel.  We have to get the weights of all of the luggage. 

COWAN (voice-over):  The youngest victim was just one year old, who, along with the others, is remembered tonight with new crosses outside the cemetery fence. 

Lee Cowan, NBC News, Los Angeles. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SHUSTER:  The top of the COUNTDOWN and President Obama‘s weekend.  He‘s the first new president in 114 years to turn down an invitation to D.C.‘s Gridiron Dinner.  Instead, he goes to Camp David for some quality time with the kids, leaving the jokes to Vice President Biden, next on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  Even though independent reports have shown the media was more critical of Barack Obama than John McCain during the presidential contest, there is still a fantasy that the press is ga-ga over now President Obama.  But the so-called honeymoon may be over, since, in our number one story in the COUNTDOWN, the president skipped the annual event where journalists and commander in chief happily co-mingle, the beloved Gridiron Dinner.  That‘s the first time a president has missed the dinner in his first year in office it since President Grover Cleveland in 1885. 

Instead, President Obama spent time with his family at Camp David.   Though he not seated at the head of the table, as he might have been, he was still the focus of the annual bash in Washington, D.C. on Saturday night.  The dinner hosts journalists and politicians.  Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger teased the crowd about the most conspicuous no show.  “You did such lovely work for Obama.  You put your lives on hold to put him in the White House.  Now you get all dressed up.  The champagne is on ice.  You find out he is just not that into you.” 

And this, “here you were expecting, yes, we can.  Instead, what do you get?  Hasta la vista, baby.”

Vice President Joe Biden was there too, with a different explanation, quoting, “President Obama sends his greetings.  He can‘t be here tonight because he is getting ready for Easter.  He thinks it‘s all about him.” 

Let‘s bring in Pulitzer Prize winning syndicated columnist for the “Chicago Tribune,” Clarence Page, who attended the Gridiron Dinner and performed, as is tradition, along with many other journalists.  Good evening, Clarence. 

CLARENCE PAGE, “THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE”:  Good evening, David. 

SHUSTER:  Obviously, there was much levity about the president‘s absence.  But were some people there truly shocked and maybe a little bit miffed that the president missed the big event? 

PAGE:  I think by the time the evening came along, we had gotten over it.  Boy, it was only a couple of weeks or so before the night of the big event that we found out he wasn‘t coming.  That, as you mentioned, has never happened in the first Gridiron of a new president‘s administration since Grover Cleveland.  Very seldom has any president missed.  Bill Clinton missed one when he had knee surgery, you remember.  George Bush missed one year when he was meeting with the Mexican president.

We were just kind of wondering, especially, this is a newspaper club, really, the charm of it all is we‘ve been keeping this tradition alive for over a century.  It is a partisanship-free night, you might say, where that old spirit of comity that we had before politics got so polarized lives anew.  Republicans, Democrats, independents together and make fun of each other. 

And Obama had been, I must say in fairness—before he became president, he was our Winter Dinner speaker and our Spring Dinner speaker here in recent years.  So we were just really shocked that he suddenly wasn‘t coming to this dinner.  The reason was family. 

SHUSTER:  Do you think that the president, other than wanting to simply spend time with his family, may have been thinking he just did not think it would be appropriate to be whooping it up there amidst the current economic crisis? 

PAGE:  We thought about that.  But, you know, it was just a few weeks ago that he appeared at the Alfalfa Club Dinner, which is like ours, only they are newer.  They only go back to 1912.  And they don‘t have any music and satire.  They do have the roast, and the same kind of VIP crowd of administration folks and Republican, Democratic leaders.  They have a lot more CEOs in their group, like we have journalists. 

I don‘t think that was the reason.  Of course their official reason is that they had planned this weekend at Camp David, because this is the spring break for the private school that the two Obama daughters attend.  We were kind of miffed that it is only like a 20-minute helicopter ride away.  He could have flown in.  We promised to get him back by midnight. 

SHUSTER:  Whatever his specific motives regarding this event, do you think the president is quickly developing a reputation, quite naturally to, as being basically a family guy? 

PAGE:  He certainly is a family guy.  And you can‘t begrudge him that.  Me and my fellow Gridiron members are thinking about the times we had to be away from our families for professional reasons.  You never get that time back. 

And besides, we‘re only a media group.  It is hard to find anybody outside the media who sympathizes with us on anything.  But this is an old tradition.  And newspapers are going through a tough time right now.  We are not just a newspaper group now.  We have some broadcasters and some magazine people as well.  But, you know, media have been going through a tough time, especially newspapers. 

We have been losing a lot of our colleagues in recent weeks, bureaus shutting down, that kind of thing.  So having this occur at this time, having the president not show up at this time was just kind of another morale blow.  We‘ll get over it. 

SHUSTER:  Certainly, there is a lot of fascination with the entire Obama family.  There has been a lot of attention on Michelle Obama, rumors that she was pregnant.  When she was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey was asked about that.  Then, of course, there was the new vegetable garden, which got plenty of attention.  As does everything else Michelle Obama takes on, is it pretty clear that Michelle Obama so far is a huge asset to this administration? 

PAGE:  Oh, certainly, she is.  I think she has done a great job of that and being a first lady, a role model.  Arnold Schwarzenegger did get off a good line Saturday night about her having bigger arms than he does.  And he was funnier saying that than I just was.  But no question everybody has a real heart warming feeling about Michelle Obama. 

SHUSTER:  Clarence Page, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the “Chicago Tribune, thanks as always for your time.  We appreciate it. 

That will do it for this Monday edition of COUNTDOWN.  A couple of programming notes; Keith returns tomorrow for the presidential news conference, live at 8:00 Eastern.  Then it‘s a super-sized COUNTDOWN.  Keith will remain on the air immediately following the news, with a live edition at 9:00 p.m. 

I‘m David Shuster, sitting in for Keith.  You can catch me weeknights on “1600 PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE” at 6:00 pm Eastern.  Thanks for watching, everybody.  Our coverage continues now with “THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW.”  Hey, Rachel. 

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

END   

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