updated 6/24/2009 10:57:57 AM ET 2009-06-24T14:57:57

Countdown

June 23, 2009

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT.

THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

Guests: Howard Fineman, Eugene Robinson, Hooman Majd, Lewis Black

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST (voice-over): Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?

As the Iranian government shoots a 19-year-old in the head then refuses to release the dead man's body until his family pays a $3,000 fee for the bullet that killed him; as a British think tank now says it thinks there was no vote count fraud because there was no vote count; as the opposition leader appears to call for nonviolent protests-including flooding the markets, the bazaars with people, but buying nothing-

President Obama seems to encourage dissent but not violence.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PRES. BARACK OBAMA, UNITED STATES: No iron fist is strong enough to shut off the world from bearing witness to peaceful protests of justice.

CHIP REID, CBS NEWS: Were you influenced at all by John McCain and Lindsey Graham accusing you of being timid and weak?

OBAMA: What do you think?

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN: The unexpected caution to the president: "We're not really in a position now to offer much concrete assistance, and I don't want America to be in a position where we urge people in the streets and then watch them die."

Who advises prudence? John Bolton.

The Twitter revolution 2.0: Now, anti-government voices in Tehran get a voice in an American presidential news conference.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NICO PITNEY, HUFFINGTONPOST.COM: I wanted to use this opportunity to ask you a question directly from an Iranian.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN: Richard Engel suggests the gung-ho tweets may not be what they seem. What is the mood on the streets of Iran? We'll ask the experts on the ayatollah, Hooman Majd; the mood on the streets of Washington, we'll ask Howard Fineman.

They found the missing governor. Mark Sanford went hiking-without telling the rest of the state government or his family over Father's Day weekend, on "national hike naked day." This better be the truth, because what could be so bad that this would be the cover story?

We'll ask Lewis Black: Does the governor hike in the woods?

And Worsts: Remember the Downing Street memo? There was a sequel.

All that and more-now on COUNTDOWN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN: Good evening from New York.

If there was any doubt that as President Obama feared what would happen, that the Iranian government is using the United States as a political football in its election crackdown-our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN: Iranian state TV today broadcasting the alleged confessions of demonstrators in which-among other things-they claimed to have been provoked by the broadcasts of Voice of America.

At a White House news conference this afternoon, the president rejecting any claims that he has encouraged the demonstrations while trying to explain to his Republican critics why his comments have not met their threshold for outrage.

In those alleged confessions (INAUDIBLE) crowds and riots and started to steal; also saying to have been provoked by networks, like the BBC and the Voice of America, to take such immoral actions.

The U.K. today ordering the expulsion of two Iranian diplomats after two British diplomats have been thrown out of Tehran yesterday.

Iran's self-called supreme leader today giving the Guardian Council five more days to review complaints about voting irregularities, even though the council has already issued its findings about the election.

One of the authors of a major British study of the Iranian election is questioning now whether any votes were even counted. Ali Ansari, a professor of Iranian studies at St. Andrews University in Scotland, part of the study released this week by Chatham House, telling "The New York Times," quote, "I don't think they actually counted the votes, though that is hard to prove."

Back in Tehran, with thousands of police on the streets, opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, appearing to shift protest strategies as predicted here last night by Richard Engel, a general strike, yet without actually for one.

On Twitter, Mousavi apparently asking his followers to stop all work at 9:00 a.m. Wednesday local time and every morning thereafter to go to the Tehran bazaar. "There is nothing to fear," he says. "If asked, you're only going shopping." But once there, he instructs them not to buy anything, also telling them not to wear green, the color of the protests, to avoid the appearance of an organized protest.

The newspaper in Iran closely affiliated with that supreme leader reporting that the government is apparently laying the groundwork for Mousavi's arrest. The Iranian government having set up a special court to try protesters, a senior judiciary official saying that, quote, "those arrested in recent events will be dealt with in a way that will teach them a lesson."

The family of Neda Soltan is getting its own harsh lesson, as if having had your daughter, sister, fiancee bleed to death on a sidewalk when she was an innocent bystander. If that were not enough, her relatives now ordered to take down posters mourning her death.

Iranian authorities are scrambling to stop the young woman from becoming the rallying point for protests, the video of her death having been already viewed all over the world, including-we learned this afternoon-by the president of the United States.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN: Over the weekend we saw a shocking video of this woman Neda, who had been shot in the chest and bled to death. Have you seen this video?

OBAMA: I have.

MALVEAUX: What's your reaction?

OBAMA: It's heartbreaking. It's heartbreaking. And I think that anybody who sees it knows that there's something fundamentally unjust about that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN: On the 15th of this month, only two days after the election results were released in Iran, President Obama having said about that nation, quote, "I am deeply troubled by the violence I have seen on television." That sentiment repeated by Obama since, none of it apparently having been heard by his Republican critics.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MAJOR GARRETT, FOX NEWS: In your opening remarks, sir, you were-you said about Iran that you were appalled and outraged. What took you so long to say those words?

OBAMA: I don't think that's accurate. Track what I have been saying. Right after the election, I said that we had profound concerns about the nature of the election, but that it was not up to us to determine what the outcome was. As soon as violence broke out-in fact, in anticipation of potential violence-we were very clear in saying that violence was unacceptable, that, that was not how governments operate.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN: As for the complaints of specific Republican lawmakers-

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REID: Some Republicans on Capitol Hill-John McCain and Lindsey Graham, for example-have said that up to this point your response on Iran has been timid and weak. Today, it sounded a lot stronger. It sounded like the kind of speech John McCain has been urging you to give, saying that those who stand up for justice is already on the right side of history, referring to an iron fist in Iran-"deplored," "appalled," "outraged." Were you influenced at all about John McCain and Lindsey Graham accusing you of being timid and week?

OBAMA: What do you think?

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: Look, the-you know, I think John McCain has genuine passion about many of these international issues, and, you know, I think that all of us share a belief that we want justice to prevail. But only I'm the president of the United States, and I've got responsibilities in making certain that we are continually advancing our national security interests and that we are not used as a tool to be exploited by other countries.

I mean, you guys must have seen the reports. They've got some of the comments that I've made being mistranslated in Iran, suggesting that I'm telling writ rioters to go out and riot some more. There are reports suggesting that the CIA is behind all this-all of which are patently false. But it gives you a sense of the narrative that the Iranian government would love to play into.

So the-members of Congress, they've got their constitutional duties, and I'm sure they will carry them out in the way that they think is appropriate. I'm president of the United States, and I'll carry out my duties as I think are appropriate.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN: Other Republicans, both praising and criticizing the president-John Bolton, among those in the GOP who had picked up the Republican talking point of calling the president timid and weak. However, the former Bush ambassador to the U.N. never approved, also saying that, quote, "During the Bush administration, we did not prepare adequately for this potential revolutionary movement. I don't want America to be in the position where we urge people in the streets and watch them die."

Back at today's news conference, the president is refusing to be forced into any corners on this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHUCK TODD, NBC NEWS: You have avoided twice spelling out consequences. You've hinted that there would be, from the international community, if they continue to violate-you said violate these norms. You seem to hinting that there are human rights violations taking place.

OBAMA: I'm not-I'm not hinting. I think that when a young woman gets shot on the street when she gets out of her car, that's a problem.

TODD: Then why won't you spell out the consequences that the Iranians.

OBAMA: Because, I think, Chuck, that we don't know how this thing is going to play out. I think everybody here is on a 24-hour news cycle. I'm not.

TODD: But shouldn't the-I mean, shouldn't the world and Iran .

OBAMA: Chuck, I answered .

TODD: . but shouldn't the Iranian regime know that there are consequences?

OBAMA: I answered the question, Chuck, which is that we don't know yet how this is going to play out.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN: For more on how we think this might possibly play out, let's turn now to our own political analyst, Howard Fineman, senior Washington correspondent for "Newsweek" magazine.

Howard, good evening.

HOWARD FINEMAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Good evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN: For all of our domestic cat-fighting about this, isn't-is it not really clear, if you listen to what's actually happening from Iran and you listen to what Obama said today, that Obama and Mousavi are on the same page?

I mean, clearly, the Iranians have changed there towards the strategy of trying to maintain some sort of longer term dissent rather than have some sort of quick, violent exchange at the barricades. And was that not precisely what Obama was advocating today? Was he not basically stepping in line with what the protesters who are actually on the streets rather than sitting in some Senate office actually want?

FINEMAN: Yes, I think that's right, Keith. I think the president's remarks were very carefully calibrated in the way you say. I think the president's remarks were very carefully calibrated in the way you say.

The key to what the president said here today, Keith, was not all the stuff about using his remarks out of context and mistranslating, as important as that is. It's what he said about national security.

The fact is, in talking to administration people, talking to people in town, talking to some prominent Iranian-Americans who know what's going on there, the key for the United States is to prevent Iraq from getting-excuse me-Iran from getting nuclear weapons. It's to get Iran's assistance, or at least forbearance, in what we're doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's to make Iran a player in Mideast peace.

And to accomplish those three things you have to be slow, skillful and careful-because, in fact, you need the rural religious conservative supporters of Ahmadinejad as well as the Mousavi people in the streets of Tehran. You need the whole country to come as one. That's the real reason why the president's being careful here.

OLBERMANN: The confession videos, they seem to present a pretty straightforward cause and effect here, too. American politicians speak out and Iranian protesters suffer for it, and they are essentially indicted for supposedly listening to the Voice of America. Yet, Mr. McCain today said, "I'm on the side of the Iranian people and I'm on the right side of history. And I'm not going to walk on the other side of the street while people are being killed and beaten in the streets of Iran."

What does he want? Should he be invading? Should be repeating Iraq? Should we try to save Iran? And, oh, by the way, there will be 1 million Iranian civilian casualties? Or should we just, you know, yell, "Don't trend on me" and give more authenticity to the paranoia in the government there that, "Oh, the West is about to attack us"?

FINEMAN: Well, that's why Obama took the line he did today. And I think he's in the right spot now-I'm not convinced he was a few days ago, but he is now.

Look, what the Republicans are trying to do, in addition to expressing their legitimate outrage, is try to put Obama in the box that they put both Jimmy Carter and, in many ways, Bill Clinton in as well. That is the weak and timid on foreign policy and military affairs box.

But, in fact, Obama, in certain respects, ran to the right of both Hillary Clinton and John McCain in the 2008 election, with regard to Afghanistan. And, in case you haven't noticed, he's ordered 20,000 additional troops into Afghanistan. This is not a timid and weak president on military matters. This is a president who thinks he has a game plan that's military and strategic, and it includes trying somehow to rope all of Iran into behaving as a civilized country.

OLBERMANN: This will be an odd thing to hear come out of my mouth here, but it occurred to me that John Bolton may have had the most succinct observation on this-a presence of mind to remember, on top of everything else, you can't encourage people thousands of mile as way to go protest on streets thousands of miles away if you can't back them up in some material sense. Some people apparently learned that in Iraq 18 years ago and Kuwait 18 and 19 years ago.

Isn't that the essence of this?

FINEMAN: Well, that is sort of the essence of it. We have no ability militarily. As I said before or mentioned, implied, we have more than 50,000 troops in Afghanistan now. We have 130,000 or so still in Iraq.

There's no way the United States-even if it had the troops to do so

is about to put any in or around Iran. It's not going to happen. Nor is it like the old Soviet Union, which was collapsing of its own weight.

This is not the analogous situation where there's a whole other force on the border of the country. There is no western Europe here. There is no central Europe here. The analogy with the old Soviet Union doesn't hold. This is an entirely different situation, and you can't talk them into oblivion.

OLBERMANN: Howard Fineman of "Newsweek" and MSNBC-as always, Howard, great thanks.

FINEMAN: Thank you, Keith.

OLBERMANN: Presidential news conferences occasionally produce unexpected answers; rarely these days have they produced unexpected questions. Yet, there was a blogger asking the president of the United States a complicated geopolitical question tendered to him by a dissident reportedly inside Iran. The author of the "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ:

The Paradox of Modern Iran," next on whether it was the right question on what Iranians standing up to their government right now really need to know from an American leader.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN: The question, apparently, from around Iranian protester by a blogger with White House media credentials to the president of the United States: Under which conditions will you accept Ahmadinejad's re-election? That and a firsthand assessment on whether the online bravado matches the actual mood in Iran with Hooman Majd.

Later, the governor has been found, his explanation of where he's been has been found dubious at worst, goofy at best. Eugene Robinson and then Lewis Black on Governor Sanford.

You're watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC. Don't take a hike.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN: Somewhere across the ocean, in a nation controlled by unelected religious dictators, now racked by violence and the efforts of millions of people to make their voices heard. A single person wrote two questions on a computer or a smartphone and then hit "send." Electrons carried those two questions around the world, across the ocean, to the most powerful man in the world.

Our fourth story tonight: President Obama gives the world his answer to a question from an unknown, unnamed person facing an uncertain future in Iran-if we are to believe this story. "Huffington Post" revealing to COUNTDOWN tonight, some of the less sensitive details about the questioner, a professional male who works in his 30s, who works online.

At today's news conference, the president called on Nico Pitney, a reporter for that site, who had written that he was soliciting questions from Iranians for the president. The president said he was aware of this and then asked Pitney for a question.

It was not a request for help nor saber-rattling. It was a fairly sophisticated question about the delicate position which Obama finds himself wanting to aid Iranians without providing justification for crackdowns, about how he will engage with Iran if Ahmadinejad remains.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PITNEY: Under which conditions would you accept the election of Ahmadinejad? And if you do accept it without any significant changes in the conditions there, isn't that a betrayal of what the demonstrators there are working against?

OBAMA: Well, look, we didn't have international observers on the ground, we can't say definitively what exactly happened at polling places throughout the country. What we know is that a sizable percentage of the Iranian people themselves, spanning Iranian society, consider this election illegitimate. It's not an isolated instance, a little grumbling here or there. There is significant questions about the legitimacy of the election.

And so, ultimately, the most important thing for the Iranian government to consider is legitimacy in the eyes of its own people, not in the eyes of the United States. And that's why I've been very clear:

Ultimately, this is up to the Iranian people to decide who their leadership is going to be, and the structure of their government.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN: With us tonight: Hooman Majd, an Iranian-American and author of "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran."

Thank you for coming in, sir.

HOOMAN MAJD, AUTHOR, "THE AYATOLLAH BEGS TO DIFFER": Thank you. My pleasure.

OLBERMANN: Was the question any good or was the fact of the question of any good?

MAJD: I don't think so. I think it was kind of-I think Obama did a-gave a very good answer. I think the question was a little bit silly because it's really not up to the United States to decide whether a government is legitimate or not. It's much like asking the French, after the 2000 election here, what are you going to do if President Bush becomes the president, before the Supreme Court made him the president.

So, it's kind of like, you know, it's irrelevant almost. And I think the vast majority of Iranians, certainly the ones I talked to and that's not, obviously, the vast majority of Iranians I'm talking to.

OLBERMANN: Right.

MAJD: . but the people I talked to on the ground and I speak at least once or twice a day in Tehran. This is not a question that's in their mind. It's an Iranian issue. They're trying to sort it out themselves. The protesters are out there very bravely. They're being brutalized by their government in some instances and it's an internal issue.

It's not up to-it's an arrogant position to take to say, for America, we are going to agree that you're legitimate or not legitimate. By the way, it's also a silly question because, right now, as it stands, the United States doesn't have diplomatic relations with Iran, and therefore, doesn't recognize the legitimacy of the Iranian government.

OLBERMANN: So, would-have-been questions. What are the question that's would be on that-in those protests on those streets right now that could be asked and provide some insight from an American leader?

MAJD: Well, I think that the questions are-for most Iranians who are on the streets right now, that we know who are on the streets, and obviously, the numbers are dwindling every day that goes by-but for a lot of those people who are still on the streets and the people who shout "Allahu Akbar" every night on the rooftops or even on the streets now, as well as the rooftops at night where they have some anonymity, for those people it's just for the rest of the world to be aware. It's not so much they want help. They certainly don't want America to send in the troops. They certainly don't want any interference.

For starters, the Iranian government is already very paranoid about this being a velvet revolution being instigated by the CIA, the $75 million that the United States has for regime change. There are CIA agents around Iran and Afghanistan and Iraq-are they crossing the border? Are they paying Iranians off? Are there agents inside Iran?

All these questions and with a very bad and long history of relations between the United States and Iran .

OLBERMANN: Yes.

MAJD: . it's certainly not helpful for the United States to add fuel to the fire and allow the Iranian government to make those charges stick with the Iranian people.

OLBERMANN: The way they tried to make that charge stick or this sort of textbook Orwell stuff, these televised confessions that implicate .

MAJD: Absolutely.

OLBERAMNN: . broadcast from the United States.

MAJD: Right.

OLBERMANN: Do you have a sense how that would be reacted to? Would it be-would it be-is there a way to gauge the percentages of people who would believe this and would think simply it's farcical and self-supporting of the state?

MAJD: A lot of people don't believe the state television. Absolutely. They're-the Iranians are very sophisticated. They don't necessarily-but there will be some people who do. Every piece of evidence that they can provide-and they don't really believe a televised confession-but every other piece of evidence they can provide will be accepted by a portion.

We have to remember, as you pointed out, these demonstrations were-as Obama pointed out as well-these demonstrations were across the socioeconomic scale. Everybody was demonstrating in the initial days after the election. They weren't demonstrating to overthrow the government. They were demonstrating to protest what they thought was a fraudulent vote.

It's legitimate.

And Mousavi, the opposition candidate, wasn't asking for the government to be overthrown. He was just asking for the vote to be a real vote. And therefore, he was asking for a revote.

And to get that scale of protest, to get that many people, to get women in chadors, men-bearded men, men who are western-looking, students, old people, all of those people to come out on the streets, if there's any idea-if there's any notion that this was being manipulated by the West, they won't get those people. A lot of those people would start being peeled off.

OLBERMANN: You said that the numbers are certainly declining. Richard Engel had postulated this was-and the evidence suggested-that this was morphing into some attempt to keep a semi-permanent protest or dissent form viable without getting people killed on the streets. Is that where-is that where it's going now?

MAJD: Well, I think, as long as Mousavi keeps up the fight-and he's been silent today-but as long as he is saying that he is not accepting what the Guardian Council is saying, at least-well, they haven't actually made a definitive decision yet and they've actually extended now, the period they were going to, tomorrow or Wednesday, they extend it to Monday, when they are going to give their final decision. Depending on what that final decision is, if that final decision is to certify the election with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president, it depends on what Mousavi says.

The leader of this movement has to come out one way or another. Either he has to accept it or not. And if he doesn't accept it, and continues the protest and continues to ask his supporters to protest peacefully, however they can, I think it will continue for a long time, yes. But I think they won't go out on the streets the way they have been going because the government has been very good at dispersing those protests.

OLBERMANN: Indeed, it has. Hooman Majd, the author of "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran"-great thanks for your time. A pleasure to meet you, sir.

MAJD: Thank you very much.

OLBERMANN: If it is not Iran but Iraq that provides the meat for tonight's edition of Worst Persons and with the news of a kind of Downing Street memo junior, that would make the gentleman on the right the meathead.

And the tears of a robot may have built one that could get all emotional. Klaatu Barada Nikto.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN: Bests in a moment. And there may be a bullet jammed in this shotgun. Let me just look down the barrel to check.

First, on this date 1963, noted individualist Jimmy Piersall hit the 100th home run of his Major League Baseball career ball and celebrated by milestone by running backwards around the bases. A month later, he was fired by the New York Mets, whose manager, Casey Stengel, supposedly noted that the team had room for only one clown and he, Stengel, was it.

Let's play Oddball.

We begin in Tokyo, where the latest in artificial intelligence now comes with feelings. Whoa, whoa, whoa, feelings. Meet Kobian, the emotional humanoid robot. Kobian can emote seven different ways, ranging from delight to disgust to boo-yah. It's just enough to thoroughly creep you out. Equipped with a bundle of motors, Kobian can move his eyebrows, his lips and assume different postures. Kobian is here experiencing inner sadness or he smells onions. Probably because of all of the other more stoic robots have been making fun of him. I surrender.

And an Oddball update about the Belgian teen who fell asleep at the old tattoo parlor. You know this story. She asked for three start tattoos and woke up with 56 of them, then threatened to sue the tattoo artist who did the terrible thing. She lied! She's now admitting to having been awake the entire time. She told a Dutch TV crew, I asked for 56 stars. Initially, I adored them, but when my father saw them, he was furious, so I said I fell asleep and that the tattooist had made a mistake. The girl's confession is not particularly Earth shattering, since her original story seemed so suspicious. We really just wanted another excuse to show you the tattoo artist, an honest, alert and uniformed employee, if I ever saw one.

So, first Governor Mark Sanford was missing. Then he was out of touch hiking. Then he was seen boarding a flight in Atlanta. Lewis Black is here on that. And on the pants-less senator, Mr. Ensign, and the other fun of just another day in politics.

These stories ahead, but first time for COUNTDOWN's top three best persons in the world.

Number three, dateline, Harrison, Michigan, an irresponsible gun owner, unidentified 40-year-old man there. His 22 caliber rifle was jammed, so naturally, he held it up to look inside, then stuck a screw driver into the barrel to try to dislodge the bullet. Fortunately, he only shot himself in the shoulder.

Dateline, Tasmania, Australia, number two, best dumb criminal John Maxwell Newall, who tried to rob a gas station there. "I want the money," he told the attendant. "You need a weapon," the attendant scoffed. "I have to fear for my life. You can't just have the money." Mr. Newall has now been convicted of reaching in and taking 400 dollars Australian anyway.

And dateline Washington, number one, best political foot shooting, Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, which today sent reporters an email highlighting and linking to a "USA Today" article which notes that a lot of stimulus construction money is to be spent in the districts and states of those fat-cat politicians with the connections. "Where are the jobs," the email asks. "Where is the money? Why all of the pork?"

This is where the RNC link takes you, to a big picture of Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi. And in the article next to the big picture, the report that 213 million in stimulus construction money will be spent in Mississippi, the second most in any state. Senator Cochran is a Republican. The Republican National Committee just attacked a Republican senator. Nice work, fellows. Now maybe you can find an article that cuts up this here Michael Steele guy.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN: Every politician analogizes his career to a journey, but in Governor Mark Sanford's case, this is ridiculous. Whereabouts unknown to his state or his family for more than four days. Then the revelation that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. His wife said he needed to get away from the kids on Father's Day weekend.

Unclear who might have known that Sunday was also National Hike Naked Day. And incidentally, he's now been reported seen boarding a flight in Atlanta. His office flat-out denies that. Our third story, this is the best story you could come up with? This morning, the governor finally called his chief of staff, after which his office issued this prepared statement, "it would be fair to says the governor was somewhat taken aback by all of the interest this trip has gotten. Given the circumstances and the attention this trip has garnered, the governor communicated to us that he plans on returning to the office tomorrow."

Governor Sanford's trek began after the South Carolina legislative session ended on Thursday. He reportedly left the governor's mansion, jumped in a black SUV, and took off, unaccompanied by security. Nobody seemed to know where he went. He did not even tell the lieutenant governor, fellow Republican Andre Bauer.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANDRE BAUER, LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR OF SOUTH CAROLINA: The real concern with state government is just making sure that our CEO of our state can be contacted should there be a problem or anything like a prison outbreak, something where immediately somebody had to make a definitive decision on the course of action at hand. That would be our governor.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN: Just to ratchet this up a notch; Governor Sanford infamously made a big show this year refusing the stimulus money for his state. He was then forced to take it by the state's Supreme Court, stimulus money that includes money to fix up the Appalachian Trail.

Time to call in MSNBC political analyst, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the "Washington Post," Eugene Robinson. Gene, good evening.

EUGENE ROBINSON, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN: Do we have any idea yet which this is? Is this a famous disappearing governor like Earl Long, who would turn up later on in an asylum or with a stripper? Or is just a governor who somehow does not get that the governor can take time off, but he's not supposed to vanish without telling anybody where they could find him?

ROBINSON: Well, we don't know yet. We don't know if it's one or the other or both or neither. It's weird. It's very unusual. Hiking-a five-day hike on the Appalachian Trail is usually not something you do on a whim, you know. Shall I go to Starbucks or shall I hike the Appalachian Trail for five days?

You need equipment. You have to kind of organize it. You have to plot out a route and know where you're going. It's a logistical exercise that people around you, it seems to me, couldn't help but notice. Like, dear, why are you packing that bed roll? Oh, what are you doing with the camp stove?

And apparently, nobody saw any of that. So I just don't think we know this whole story yet. I hope we find out more soon.

OLBERMANN: Do we need to know? I assume there's some wild card third option, like he was negotiating with the Ayatollahs in Iran. But if it's not something like that, regardless of what the two extremes might be, the actual truth, did the governor just sort of blow a hole in his not-too-secret presidential aspirations?

ROBINSON: I think he did. You can't say at this early date that any damage is irreparable. But one thing you cannot seem to be, if you want to be president, is flaky and erratic. And this seems to have been arguably a pretty flaky and erratic thing to do. Or at least the way he-the way he seems to have done it.

The other thing is haven't we been lectured by Republicans about, you know, the realities of the post-9/11 world and the need for constant vigilance an and-and so here he has just pretended that it's, I guess, September 10th, and just kind of flips off, the chief executive of a state. That just doesn't mesh with the message the party is trying to send.

OLBERMANN: Additionally, you have no idea whether or not there are terrorist cells along the Appalachian Jail.

ROBINSON: We don't know.

OLBERMANN: They could have picked him up and held him for upwards of 10,000 dollars ransom right there.

OLBERMANN: They could have. I think they made a movie, "Deliverance." But never mind.

OLBERMANN: All right, all right. This is your home state. Are all of the politicians like this?

ROBINSON: No. You know, as a journalist, one could wish. But, no, they're not all like this. Although, you know, politics in South Carolina have always been kind of peculiar, and we've had interesting, you know, some larger-than-life characters. Obviously, Strom Thurmond is one example. South Carolina's big Revolutionary War hero was a man named Francis Marion, whose nickname was the Swamp Fox. That kind of gives you the sense of-he was a guerrilla warrior, actually, ahead of his time.

It's just an odd place. I have to say, this is the oddest governor South Carolina has had in some time.

OLBERMANN: Last odd part about this, maybe ultimately this might be the oddest, the statement. Well, the governor was taken aback by the interest in this trip. The governor-nobody knew where he was. He was, for all intents and purposes, missing. Is there a certain political tone deafness to issuing a statement that says, well, I don't know what you're making such a big deal about?

ROBINSON: Well, that's not just political tone-deafness. I mean,

there's reality and then there's wherever that statement came from, because

because, in fact, you know, anybody is missing for five days, you know, people want to know what happened. They get worried. Where were you? Why didn't you call? Why didn't you write? So that, again-look, maybe we'll learn more about the story. I don't think we got the whole story yet.

OLBERMANN: Governor, when we said take a hike, we didn't mean it literally. Eugene Robinson, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the "Washington Post," from South Carolina, but it's not his fault either. Great thanks, Gene.

ROBINSON: Good to be here, Keith.

OLBERMANN: Lewis Black has a few thoughts on the prospect of the governor taking what might have been a naked hike. He'll be here a in a moment. Lewis, that is, clothed.

Hey, another Downing Street Memo? More confirmation this guy shot first and asked questions later. Worst persons head.

And when Rachel joins you at the top of the hour, her special guest, topic Iran, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN: The governor was unavailable; the governor was missing; the governor was hiking; the governor was hiking on National Hike Naked Day. Only Lewis Black could do the evolution of the Mark Sanford story justice, and he will do it next.

But first, time for COUNTDOWN's number two story, tonight's worst persons in the world.

The bronze to Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire. He has proposed legislation which he has somewhat cumbersomely named the Ax the Stimulus Plax Act (ph). He said he doesn't want projects funded by the stim to have signs that reveal that they have been funded by the stim. Stimulus construction signs, quote, are simply for political self-interest, says Senator Judd Gregg, who had no comment about his half million dollar earmark that led to the Judd Gregg Meteorology Institute at Plymouth State University, or the Judd Gregg Library, established by the National Police Athletic League, after he got it 150 grand, or Gregg Hall at the University of New Hampshire, which followed Gregg getting it 266 million in federal funds for the whole school.

Our runner-up, Newt Gingrich, who has inadvertently outed himself America's least intelligent super-genius politician. He has launched a series of ads against Waxman-Markey, the clean energy reform bill in the House, claiming that the bill will push the economy to its breaking point. The ads are being produced by Gingrich's 527 group, American's Solutions for Winning the Future. The problem is records show that the Gingrich 527 group received more than 250,000 dollars in contributions last year from Peabody Energy, a giant coal company which would have to clean up its pollution if Waxman-Markey is passed. That's Newt Gingrich in the pocket of big coal.

But our winner, former President George W. Bush. Unlike, say, us, the British Parliament is beginning an investigation into how the nation it serves got conned into the phony war in Iraq. And one of the discoveries in the preliminary stages another Manning memo, another document from Sir David Manning, who had been then Prime Minister Tony Blair's foreign policy adviser, and whose notes constituted the infamous Downing Street Memo.

Not much to Downing Street, the sequel, except that on January 31, 2003, Blair and Bush met, acknowledged that it was increasingly clear that U.N. inspectors were not going to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and that would require a whole new rational for the charade because, as Manning wrote in the second memo, Bush told Blair, "the start date for the military campaign was now pencilled in for 10 March. This was when the bombing would begin."

This is when bush proposed to, quote, fly U2 reconnaissance aircraft painted in U.N. colors over Iraq with fighter cover in hopes that Saddam Hussein would have his military shoot them down, giving the U.S. an excuse to invade. Failing that, Manning, wrote, "Bush hoped to the Iraqi defectors, one of them at least might be brought out to give a show and tell on Saddam's WMD, and then we would have to go in because Saddam was still in charge. Or worse came to worse, maybe somebody would assassinate Saddam, and then we would have to go in because Saddam wasn't still in charge."

The bottom line here, ever more certain, ever more certainly to become this president's legacy: he wanted war in Iraq, and then he went excuse shopping. President George Walker Bush, today's worst persons in the world.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN: No one could have predicted that Governor Mark Sanford's disappearance, supposedly to recharge, would have converged, as we mentioned earlier, with Naked Hiking Day. But in our number one story on the COUNTDOWN, it sure did. Therein is contained the power and the glory of our American political system.

Lewis Black is here to discuss it in a moment. First, again, the details. Governor Sanford, whose wife at one point said he was writing something, turns out, by his staff's account, to have been walking somewhere, without telling his own family over Father's Day weekend, specifically along the Appalachian Trail, which, it turns out, is tied to a tradition of hiking enthusiasts in their birthday suits, arriving each year on the occasion of the Summer Solstice, which was, as you know, Sunday of this past weekend.

Meantime, there's Senator John Ensign, who recently admitted to having had a marital affair, apologized to his Republican colleagues today at the GOP Senate luncheon, the same gathering which had been previously used by Senator Larry Craig and Senator David Vitter when they addressed their own news stories. Senator Ensign's colleagues gave him a round of applause. We assume that's for the apology.

Joining us now as promised-all right, you get the rest of the laughs. I just get the one in there. Lewis Black, the author of the "New York Times" best seller, "Me of Little Faith," which is now in paperback. Pleasure to have you here.

LEWIS BLACK, COMEDIAN: Nice to be here.

OLBERMANN: Governor Sanford and the hiking excuse, the possibility of the naked hiking excuse-

BLACK: Who goes hiking naked?

OLBERMANN: Apparently some people do.

BLACK: No, I just-

OLBERMANN: Very careful people.

BLACK: Very careful. I mean, Poison Ivy, Poison Sumac. Seriously, what could you be thinking? What joy did you get?

OLBERMANN: Gosh, I love the breeze, something like that. As I postulated earlier, had this better be the truth? Because if this is a cover story, my god, what did he actually do?

BLACK: If this is the cover story, it's spectacular. Like you said, the imagination runs wild. I just-I think he simply attacks it as he didn't want to get those Father's Day gifts, and have to put that expression on his face of, like, oh, yes, this is great, Tommy, an ash tray. Nice. And you made this?

OLBERMANN: His face broke last year during the frozen smile.

BLACK: Exactly, that sitting there and they bring in the garbage, and you go, oh, that's wonderful.

OLBERMANN: Did they give away the fact, though, that it's an excuse because if you say, all right, how do we explain he was away all of this time? He's on-he's hiking. Oh, OK, he's hiking. That's two, three hours-the Appalachian Trail. He's out of touch. There's no cell phones. Nobody would know where he was, all the rest of it. And then somebody says, yes, Sunday was, in fact, National Hike Naked Day. That's just going to get thrown in here. Come up with a different excuse. It's got to be an excuse, because they didn't check that.

BLACK: They would have had to not check it. It would seem-he went alone. You don't go hiking alone. I don't think-

OLBERMANN: Hikers don't go hiking alone.

BLACK: I know. Really, it's not normally what people do. Five days of hiking, too. That whole concept is more than I can bear.

OLBERMANN: That isn't hiking anymore, is it? That's like a death march, right? That's-you're doing a bridge on the river-

OLBERMANN: And you're doing a lot of whistling, especially if you're naked. The thing that he insisted-the thing I would like to check is I believe just his leaving the state, that the economy in that state improved.

OLBERMANN: And then the irony is, of course, this is again how-what are they throwing together, at what sort of preparation, if they're invoking the Appalachian Trail, for which money from the stimulus package that he tried to reject goes to? It's like let's see, let's come up with the thing that has the most bad side effects for the governor. Appalachian Trail, right. He wanted some mental stimulus. That's the only thing they left out here.

BLACK: The thing I like, too, is that whenever these stories come up

the main question I was asked after Bush left office is what is a comic

am I going to do? And I said, just because he left office doesn't mean that stupidity left the country. They really will continue to top themselves.

OLBERMANN: I was asked this, what are you going to talk about? I said, these people did not move away. And they're going to be angry now. So they're likely to have been thinking these things through. It is going to be down to this, from here to here.

BLACK: Oh, yes.

OLBERMANN: It's not as if this is the only wonderful story out there.

BLACK: Oh, yes.

OLBERMANN: Senator Ensign-

BLACK: Perfect.

OLBERMANN: And Senator Ensign must be sending new hiking boots to Governor Sanford. Thanks a lot, buddy. Got me off the hook.

BLACK: He did kind of cover his tracks, didn't he? It's a step forward for the Republicans, because it's a woman. So we're moving maybe in the right direction for them again. They're back to family values. That whole thing, how do you-look-and he's putting out feelers that he wants to be the president at the same time.

OLBERMANN: That's why he's putting out feelers.

BLACK: Yes.

OLBERMANN: Thank you, I'm here all week. Let's be fair and balanced. There's-the Democrat in the equation, the Democrat of Democrats, the bad habit of the president of the United States referred to again in the last couple of days, cigarette smoking. The president says he still sometimes falls off the wagon. Where does this place on the list of recent presidential vices, you know, among sort of duplicitous war starting and interns? Where does smoking rank against those two?

BLACK: I think it would be great at some point, because they love to just go nuts over him. What he should do-if something, you know-something should happen, you know, like the-some major event occurs and what they-what his response should be is to just be walking in front of the White House smoking, smoking his brains out, just going through butt after butt. I will be with you in a minute.

OLBERMANN: That will shut McCain up. This guy isn't worried enough about this. Here is the camera shot. You can have a camera. He would just have his own little backdoor alley behind the White House, where he could sit out and have a butt.

BLACK: That would be it. He would sit there, what do you have to say? And just puffing away.

OLBERMANN: And you would give a good kind of presidential-it would work well. I'm not trying to encourage anybody to smoke. But I think you're on to something.

BLACK: I'm serious. It certainly helped Murrow.

OLBERMANN: Comedian Lewis Black, the author of "Me of Little Faith."

I've heard-in the short term-

BLACK: In the short term.

OLBERMANN: In the long term, not so much. It's now available in paperback, "Me of Little Faith." It's always a pleasure to see you.

BLACK: It's always a pleasure.

OLBERMANN: Thank you. That's COUNTDOWN for this the 2,245th day since the previous president declared mission declared in Iraq. I'm Keith Olbermann, good night and good luck.

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

END

Transcription Copyright 2009 CQ Transcriptions, LLC 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 CQ Transcriptions, LLC's copyright or

other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal

transcript for purposes of litigation.>

Watch Countdown with Keith Olbermann each weeknight at 8 p.m. ET

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,