updated 3/29/2004 1:57:53 PM ET 2004-03-29T18:57:53

Guests: Ben Venzke, Marc Klaas

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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

Terror, freelance style: the head of the FBI says Madrid suggests to him that al-Qaeda may be recruiting locals to do their terror for them.  He worries about the summer‘s political conventions in Boston, in New York.  Then why is Homeland Security freezing hiring in its immigration and border protection divisions?

Speechify now or forever hold your peace:  Bill Clinton cleans John Kerry‘s clock at the democratic mega fundraiser, which would be fine for them, except Kerry is the candidate, not Clinton.  Speech making analysis and tips from Pat Buchanan.

William Hung?  He‘s back in cell phone ringer form.

WILLIAM HUNG, “AMERICAN IDOL” REJECT: She bang, she bang.  Oh, baby...

OLBERMANN:  And ain‘t this a kick in the Buddhist monk?  Martial art Zen masters from the East visit the California capitol and invite law makers to do this.  Monk-e see, monk-e do. 

All that and more now, on COUNTDOWN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Good evening.  A hiring freeze at the department of Homeland Security.  Hey, stuff happens.  Even a department that has only been on the cabinet level for a year can run into a sudden budget shortfall of $1.2 billion.  It‘s not necessary a cataclysm unless, at the same time, the head of the FBI announces he‘s worried about what amounts to freelance terrorists working for al-Qaeda and he confirms he‘s fearful about the Olympics and the democratic and republican conventions as targets. 

Our fifth story in the COUNTDOWN:  Is this anyway to run a counterterrorism outfit?  The hiring freeze, as laid out in this morning‘s “Wall Street Journal,” effects two of Homeland Security‘s top divisions: 

Customs and Border Protection, and Immigration and Custom Enforcement.  Customs and Border Protection alone accounts for more than one-third of Homeland‘s entire workforce.  The hiring freeze was put into effect Tuesday.  There was already one in effect in a third unit: Citizenship and Immigration.  That is pretty much the hat trick for the divisions that check people and stuff coming into the U.S.

All of which is a bad backdrop for when the head of the FBI says, “In the wake of what happened in Madrid, we have to be concerned about the possibility of terrorists attempting to influence elections in the United States by committing a terrorist act.”  Thus spoke William Muller in an interview with the “Associated Press.”  He mentioned, particularly, the prospect of attempts at the Democratic convention in Boston at the end of July, and at the Republican convention at Madison Square Garden in New York at the end of August.  To say nothing of the Olympics in Athens, Greece, sandwiched neatly between the two political confabs (ph).  Muller‘s view gets no brighter when he turns from the “where” to the “who.”  The FBI chief say the atrocities in Madrid and Casablanca, last May, suggest a new kind of terrorism, almost a subcontractor type of arrangements.  Muller looks at those attacks and suggests local Islamists—extremists were recruited by outsiders, probably linked to al-Qaeda. 

The freeze from Homeland Security and the chilling effect of Muller‘s words combining to create quite a disturbing reaction among laymen like us.  Well, what about the professionals?  We turn again to Ben Venzke, founder of IntelCenter and author of the “Al-Qaeda Threat.” 

Ben, good evening.

BEN VENZKE, TERRORISM EXPERT:  Good to be here, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  What worries you more:  Al-Qaeda contracting out or a hiring freeze at Homeland Security? 

VENZKE:  Well, you know, they‘re both examples of things that have gone—been going on a long time.  I mean, in terms of the hiring freeze, it is another example of the impossible barriers and, sort of, the intractable nature of bureaucracy.  Even when you‘re dealing with something that everyone, I think, pretty much now agrees is critical, you still keep hitting these snags, and I tell you, you get really good people in these departments.  They‘ve just become so cynical and burned out because they keep hitting these walls. 

In terms of al-Qaeda hiring out, al-Qaeda has always done that.  Al-Qaeda has looked to recruiting people that are local, people that can blend in, it is—written about it, it‘s part of their strategy. 

OLBERMANN:  Bill Muller did not put two things together, in any way.  But, what are the prospects of what he says he saw in Morocco and Madrid, and what you just mentioned has been one of their possibilities here?  Al-Qaeda looking for people already in a country to use as operatives. 

What‘s the potential of that in terms of this country?  Is the idea of Al-Qaeda finding people already here to go to the conventions this summer, a practical one? 

VENZKE:  Well, it very much—much is.  Now, I mean, it can become a little harder to execute, depending upon exactly what you‘re trying to do.  But—you know, if you look at—in the case of Madrid, where they were Moroccans or others that they used in the attack, at least from what we know so far—I mean, you can go a step further and there was actually an al-Qaeda member that wrote, last year, about the value of hiring—this was talking about Europe—hiring people that, sort of, do not fit the stereotypical mold of an al-Qaeda member.  In other words, i.e.  people that look like me, blond haired, blue eyes.  People that would not be—if you‘re going to follow the stereo type, who you would think would be an al-Qaeda person.  So, there are things they‘re trying to do.  We know they recognize the value of it.  It‘s really hard to say how far they are in doing it, though. 

OLBERMANN:  Ben, big picture question here.  This week we get televised hearings in which the key people in the last two presidential administrations kind of reveal themselves as bureaucrats first and counterterrorist‘s second.  Then we get news of a hiring freeze at Homeland Security and the cheery updates from the head of the FBI, basically on the same day.  Is there any evidence at all that this country‘s counterterrorist efforts are even slightly coordinated?  That the right hand even knows that there is a left hand? 

VENZKE:  Yeah well, you know, when you look at this, clearly there are some drama improvements that have been made post 9/11, and there‘re improvements.  You can‘t knock that, but at the same time, they‘re improvements when you‘re only speaking relatively to what existed before 9/11.  In terms of where we need to be, we‘re still light years away from there, and there‘s just tremendous hurdles we‘ve got to get through, and it‘s going to take a very long time to do it.  So, we‘ve improved, but only relatively speaking to where we were at before. 

OLBERMANN:  That‘s not going to be a lot of help if something else happen, as you well know.  Ben Venzke of IntelCenter, many thanks as always.  Have a good weekend.

VENZKE:  Thanks, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  Continuing the fifth story: ah, there‘s even more bad news, tonight.  That audiotape reported to be from al-Qaeda‘s No. 2 man is, in the opinion of the CIA, legit.  This, not a week after the Pakistanis had thought they might have had No. 2, Dr.  Ayman al-Zawahri, cornered above the tunnels and caves along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border.  And tonight, the counterterrorism focus is a long way from that border, or even from Madrid.  It is in a small North African nation where a small offshoot of the Muslim faith has embraced terrorism.  Our correspondent there is Dawna Friesen.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAWNA FRIESEN, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Fez, Morocco, the religious part of the country.  In it‘s old city, or medina, a maze of 10,000 alleyways.  People lived to the rhythm of the call of the prayer. 

This is a moderate Muslim country, tolerant, open to Westerner.  But now, a dangerous new extremist element is emerging. 

ABOUBAKR JAMAI, PUBLISHER “Le Journal”:  I have to recognize that basically we are producing terrorists in this society. 

FRIESEN:  Their first target, Casablanca last May.  Twelve suicide bombers hit five Western and Jewish targets killing 33.  And now, Madrid, at least 14 of the 18 suspects arrested in Spain are Moroccan.  And today in Morocco, more men were questioned about links to the Madrid bombing, much to the shame of most people here. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  No mercy with people like this. 

FRIESEN:  Moroccan officials suspect local radicals, members of the Islamic combatant group formed in 1998.  The group adheres to an extreme version of Islamic ideology called “Salafia Jihadia,” a belief that it‘s every Muslim‘s duty to wage holy war against his enemies.  What enemies?  The West and all Muslim leaders who cooperate with the West.  It is an ideology, says political scientist Mohammed Darieff (PH), that is spawning cells across the region. 

MOHAMMED DARIEFF, POLITICAL SCIENTIST (through translator):  We‘re facing countless organizations that are based on the same Salafist ideology.  They‘re loosely structured and can operate independently. 

FRIESEN:  Salafia Jihadia is taking hold in countries across North Africa and is expanding its field of battle.  Last fall, Algeria‘s Salafists pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda, and the Madrid bombers are suspected of links to Ansar al-Islam, the group behind attacks in Iraq.

(on camera):  What worries U.S. authorities is that radicals Salafists from North Africa, who used the operate independently from al-Qaeda, have now linked up with it, become subcontractors.  And as the larger high-profile al-Qaeda loses its members to arrests, the Salafists are rising, becoming more potent threats. 

(voice-over):  Fearing North Africa‘s vast un-policed deserts could become the next haven for al-Qaeda, U.S. forces in Mali have begun training local soldiers to fight terrorism.  But in slums like this one in Casablanca, where poverty is high, literally low, Salafist recruiters are finding new foot soldiers. 

DARIEFF:  The push these guys to believe the only way forward is to create an Islamic state and the only way do achieved that is through a jihad. 

FRIESEN:  The shadowy world of North Africa becoming both a source and a sanctuary for a new breed of terrorists. 

Dawna Friesen, NBC News, Fez Morocco.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  And, there is one last element to tonight‘s fifth story, a small element, but an important one, nonetheless.  How serious are we about remembering 9/11?  When a small group of New Yorker wanted to pay tribute in a small way, in a small place, they got stepped on by the city‘s leading chain of drug stores.  A remarkable story of remembrance and protests and giant blinding billboards, coming up from Monica Novotny later on COUNTDOWN.

COUNTDOWN opening tonight with terrorism, tactics new and old.  Up next, tonight‘s No. 4 story, it was dubbed the Laci and Connor Bill.  A new law to stiffen penalties if a fetus were to be harmed during a crime.

Coming up, why this bill did not pass for years until someone put Mrs. 

Mrs.  Peterson‘s face on it. 

And later, it was dubbed the Democratic Unity Dinner, but it seemed more like the Bill Clinton show.  Can Senator Kerry learn to rile up the party faithful like the former president?  Helpful hints perhaps, coming from Pat Buchanan. 

First, COUNTDOWN‘s opening numbers, the five figure that shaped this day‘s news.  And tonight‘s theme is: Who is in charge here? 

Forty point six million, the number American households with a at least one pet dog, according to a new study from the America Pet Products Association.  That‘s 39 percent of the country. 

Sixty-one?  Percentage of those dogs who are male. 

Forty-one, percentage of those dogs who sleep in their owner‘s beds. 

And 60 percent of owners, 24 million people, who follow their dogs around picking up their droppings. 

Did we lose a war to them or something?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Coming up, the new crime legislation that protects a fetus.  After years of road blocks, it‘s set to become law, but only after the murders of Laci Peterson and her unborn son, Conner humanize the issue.  The importance of name legislation, up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Since 1999, some in Congress have been trying to pass the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, and for years they had languished.  Last month, the house approved it.  Yesterday it cleared the Senate by 23 votes.  The intervening events?  The deaths and the publicizing of Mrs.  Laci Peterson and her unborn son, Connor. 

Our fourth story in the COUNTDOWN, tonight:  Megan‘s Law, Amber Alerts, now you can add Laci and Conner‘s Law.  Do names and faces facilitate legislation?  There were two people who washed up on the beach.  One was Laci, the other was her son, Connor.  Those comments made by Mrs.  Peterson‘s mother, Sharon Rocha, to reporters earlier in the week during a news conference on Capitol Hill.  The Rocha‘s have been actively lobbying for this bill‘s passage.  Is attaching the human face of tragedy to the otherwise detached and clinical rule of law a good thing or is it politics that could be potentially misused.  Marc Klaas is the president of beyondmissing.com, an organization created to aid in the recovery of abducted and missing children.  His own daughter, Polly, was kidnapped and murdered in 1993. 

Mr. Klaas, good evening.  Thanks for your time.

MARC KLAAS, BEYONDMISSING.COM:  Thank you, sir.  Hello. 

OLBERMANN:  Firstly, is our presumption correct here, in your opinion, this bill was going nowhere and the death of the Peterson‘s indirectly got it passed? 

KLAAS:  Well, you‘re exactly right in your analysis.  That‘s exactly what happened in the case of all three of the pieces of legislation that you just mentioned. 

OLBERMANN:  Is there the possibility that the controversy that was attached to this originally was erased by putting a name on the bill?  I mean, whether you call it the Unborn Victim‘s of Violence act or Laci and Conner‘s Law, it gives a fetus legal status and some of its critics are seeing it as a side door, perhaps to its lifting or eliminating or limiting or eliminating abortion all together.  Did that controversy get subsumed because nobody wanted to seem as if they were opposed to Laci Peterson.

KLAAS:  Well, there‘s a couple of things going on, obviously.  No. 1, in the minds of the Rocha family, it was about giving meaning to the death of their daughter and to her unborn, full-term baby, Conner, and they wanted to do something that would protect other people in a similar situation.  But on another kind of a level, what it does by putting the name on it is it‘s something that everybody on earth can understand.  We all know who Laci Peterson was, she was a beautiful young mother next door or down the block.  It touches primal fears, it‘s something that we don‘t want to see happen again, and we get behind the legislation simply because of that reason, subsuming the real motives behind it, or what‘s really going on, absolutely.  I don‘t think anybody wants what might be coming next, which is probably going to be a huge battle based on the fetus issue. 

OLBERMANN:  Unfortunately, you have an almost unique perspective for this next point.  Do the families of victim, when things get politicized, do they ever get to feeling exploited by lawmaker in situations like these? 

KLAAS:  Well, of course we do, I mean—you know, there is this whole subsection—or second wave of predators that pounces upon people like ourselves.  It could be anything from ambulance chasing attorneys to psychics to overly ambitious politicians that want to do something to take maybe a second rate piece of legislation or a piece of legislation that hasn‘t gotten the attention that they feel it deserves and use the victim to catapult that into national prominence or even statewide prominence so that they can get their agenda fulfilled.  The agenda of the family can be one thing entirely different from the agenda of the politicians that are pursuing the bill.  But they certainly know a good thing when they see it, sometimes. 

OLBERMANN:  How do we avoid it?  How do you avoid it eventually developing government based on a volume of tabloid coverage? 

KLAAS:  Well, I don‘t think there‘s anything we can do to totally

avoid it, but I think what we can do is amend some of these laws as they

come down the pike.  For instance, a Three Strikes law was totally on the

shoulders of my daughter‘s tragedy.  And it started out, I feel, being a

very bad piece of legislation simply because it cast too wide an umbrella

and it sucked in a lot of guys that probably didn‘t deserve to spend the

rest of their live in prison, but over the ensuing years, the prosecutors

and the judges have been given the discretion they need to be able to morph

·         to more evenly focus the three strikes law so that it does, in fact, target the individuals who should spend lifetimes in prison.  We‘ll never have a perfect justice system.  There are reasons we do these bills.  Sometime they‘re good, sometime they‘re bad, but there‘s always the ability to tweak the laws once they have been put on the books so that they do become more evenhanded. 

OLBERMANN:  Amen.  Marc Klaas.  The Web site is beyondmissing.com and we thank you for your time, sir. 

KLAAS:  Yes sir, thank you.

OLBERMANN:  Our No. 4 story in the COUNTDOWN:  Name legislation, a face to a bill.  A new way laws can get passed. 

Up next, those stories that did not make the front pages, but gets you talking anyway.  “Oddball” is just a hop, skip, and a dropkick away, as you saw. 

And later the William Hung phenomenon.  You think it is crazy here? 

In Singapore, that song is being heard in the restaurants, on the streets. 

Stand by, for news.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  We rejoin you with COUNTDOWN, and as always at this hour, we pause it to bring you the sugar substitutes of the day‘s news.  The weird stuff we envoke merely by saying:  “Let‘s play Oddball.

We all knew government in California would change under Governor Schwarzenegger, but this is ridiculous. 

Oh! A group of visiting Chinese Buddhist monk martial arts masters invited Assemblyman Herb Wesson to “raise taxes,” as you just saw.  Well, it‘s better than what the legislature usually does this to, the taxpayers.  The idea here, was to show how the well-trained Taoist could withstand any distraction physical or otherwise.  Check out the look on his face.  We haven‘t seen anybody that impassive in Sacramento since Gray Davis cleaned out his office. 

Some residents of West Virginia kind of felt a swift kick to the privates this week when a retailer marketed a tee-shirt with a crass message about their state, it reads:  “It‘s all relative in West Virginia.”  Silly typical anti-Southern bias, but with a nice dash of arsenic thrown in, namely, implied incest.  Now, two entrepreneurs in Hunting have answered, they have produced a pro West Virginia shirt, “Almost Heaven,” it begins, touching on the lyrics of the John Denver song, “Where would Jesus live?” 

Kind of mixing your metaphors there boys, but we get the message. 

But sorry, it turns out the correct answer is 75 miles southeast of Shreveport, Louisiana.  There, in the town of Natchitoches, Clyde Jackson says the image of Jesus can be seen clearly enough in the pecan tree of his backyard.  Clyde says he first noticed Jesus up a tree while barbecuing.  Clyde says folks come from miles around to see his tree and that optimum viewing hours are about 6:00 Central time. 

Mean time, I don‘t know about you, but on this tree, I think I can see the outline of a saran wrapped moron frat boy.  That‘s Shawn Pierce placed there by his brothers at Phi Delta Theta, it‘s not a hazing, but a greeting.  The tree happens to be outside the sorority house of his girlfriend, who is clearly another woman of exquisite refinement and taste. 

And finally, the COUNTDOWN car chase of the week.  Houston, hello!  Checking the “Oddball” scoreboard this year, it‘s cop 37, guys who think they can escape the cops, zero.  Streak is alive in Houston today, as police rammed this truck at the intersection into a parked car bringing the end of the chase and then just as they instruct in the training manual, 10 cops at once smoothly remove the suspect from the vehicle.  Don‘t everybody grab at once, plenty of perp to go around. 

Now, in the replay, keep your eye on the man on the—coming down steps to the right of the screen, here. 

Dude! My mustang! Oh, man.  I just will the windows tinted!

No. 3 story straight ahead, your preview, a show of democratic unity, all the leaders on one stage backing Senator Kerry, but when the handholding came to an end, it was painfully obvious that not all democratic speakers are created equal.  Can the senator develop the Clinton effect? 

And later, one man‘s mission to pay tribute to the victims of September 11.  Is goodwill putting him in the middle of the biggest legal battle of his life?  He got sued.

These stories ahead, first here are COUNTDOWN “Top 3 Newsmakers” of this day:

No 3. “Togo” the parrot, still in custody at Canadian customs nearly a month after he was seized.  His owner was crossing into Ontario to get married and the rare American Gray with him, but he didn‘t have import/export papers with him and “Togo” has not been freed even though “Togo” can sing the “Star Spangled Banner.”

Question: Who brings their parrot with them to their own wedding?  And why?

No. 2: Rebecca Messier of Hartford, on trial for unsuccessfully attempting to bribe a prosecutor in another case, $8,500.  She has stunned the court by filing a motion asking for her money back.  Refund?  Refund?  Refund?

And No. 1: Juan Aponte, the former manager of the Hooters restaurant in West Covina, outside Los Angeles.  He was in charge of interviewing would-be waitresses.  He was also videotaping at least 82 of them as they changed into the Hooters uniform.  I‘m shocked.  In a high-class joint like that?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Tell-all books and 9/11 Commissions aside, the voters have spoken.  And what they‘re saying sounds awfully like one big yawn.  With a whopping 221 days to go until the elections, the majority of us are already saying, enough is enough, close to half saying it is downright boring. 

Our third story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, the long, long road to November.  We‘ll start with the numbers.  When asked to describe the presidential election so far, 48 percent told pollsters from the Pew Research Center the campaign was boring.  That flattering description lost to interesting by just one point. 

As to the unprecedented early start to the campaign, a majority says it‘s too long; 44 percent begged to differ.  And that‘s just three weeks after John Kerry clinched his nomination. 

But there is something of a silver lining.  Voters may be bored to tears and already counting the days to November, but they still care.  In fact, they seem to care more now than they did four years ago.  When asked if it really mattered who wins this election, six in 10 voters say yes.  Compare that to four months before the 2000 election.  Less than half of the voters said it mattered. 

The Pew folks also found out that 47 percent think the campaign has already been too negative; 33 percent say Bush has been too personally critical of Kerry; 48 percent say Kerry has been too personally critical of Bush.  So there are two warning signs for a challenger.  You‘re being too critical and you‘re not even interesting when you do it. 

That did not stop Senator Kerry from basking in the reflected glow of two Democratic greats last night.  But as Kerry grind for the perfect presidential photo-op, there was an implicit risk in the staging, the risk that while he stood in the in the shadows of two former occupants of the White House, he might very well be overshadowed.  After all, it is not easy measuring up to a man who has practically perfected the fine art of Freudian political humor. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAM J. CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  They‘re the mature party.  They‘re the daddy party.  They remind me of teenagers that got their inheritance too soon and couldn‘t wait to blow it. 

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  And speaking of blowing it, here‘s John Kerry‘s attempt at the mandatory Bush joke. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I thought I would start just by saying something nice about President Bush.  Of all the presidents that we‘ve had with the last name of Bush, his economic plan ranks in the top two.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Rim shot, please.

And just when you thought it could not get any worse, the senator waves a big help sign to the crowd. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KERRY:  I missed President Clinton as he came out.  And I wanted to ask both President Clinton and President Carter, what are you doing every night for the next eight months? 

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Not even many of his supporters think any of George Bush‘s speeches are going to wind end up carved in stone somewhere, but even many of his detractors would agree he can give the right kind of address really well.

On the other hand, Senator Kerry has yet in this campaign to give a get-up-and-cheer stump speech.  And if last night was any indication, he may be, as the athletes say, backing up.  Technology has changed a million times since the first campaign speech, but the importance of the technique has not.  What is John Kerry to do? 

I‘m joined now by former presidential candidate, former presidential speechwriter, now MSNBC‘s own Pat Buchanan. 

Pat, good evening. 

PAT BUCHANAN, NBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Hey, Keith.  How are you? 

OLBERMANN:  Not too bad. 

Give me the scouting report from the stands, old pro.  Is John Kerry a bad speaker who needs some coaching or is he a good speaker who needs better speechwriters? 

BUCHANAN:  Well, first, let me say about Bill Clinton, he gave a really bell-ringer of a speech.  He had humor in it.  He smiled all the way through.  He was gracious.  The back-and-forth refrain on, send me on Kerry was just terrific.

And Kerry was flat as a pancake.  You‘re right, Keith.  I have yet to see Kerry give a really stirring, stimulating, passionate speech you really wanted to listen to.  He is platitudinous.  He‘s flat.  He‘s boring, full of cliches.  I think he has got a very serious problem.  But he has got in his entourage Bob Shrum, who is one of the great speechwriters of the Democratic Party who wrote the masterpiece for Teddy Kennedy in 1980 at the convention, which was terrific.  Kerry has got to really go to work. 

OLBERMANN:  Every time I‘ve heard him speak—and I was living in Boston when he first ran for the Senate, so it‘s 20 years now—I‘ve thought of the great comedians Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding and a character that Ray Goulding used to do called Ralph Moody Lancaster. 

And Ralph Moody Lancaster was the candidate in all their bits.  And he always made the same speech:  When you good people go to the polls on Tuesday next—and it was always in the same sing-song, textbook political orator‘s voice.  Is John Kerry the speaker like a throwback to this guy, the old-fashioned politician who would get up on the Fourth of July and read the Declaration of Independence? 

BUCHANAN:  It looks like it to me. 

I remember, when I was young, I was told that every speaker tends to adopt the style of his time.  Gene McCarthy I thought was terrific.  Nixon had the ‘40s, early ‘50s style.  And Kerry seems to have, if you will, this boring, platitudinous liberalism of the late ‘60s, early ‘70s.  And he can‘t get out of it.  He is not a storyteller like Kennedy or Reagan or Clinton is.  He doesn‘t do anecdotes well. 

And I think the rhetoric in there is not of much account.  But his great moment is going to come, Keith, at that convention.  He‘s going to have 100 million people watching him up there.  And what I would recommend is, he work on that speech a month beforehand, get it broken down into blocks, get it on that prompter, work with Shrum and work on that thing, because that is his great moment, other than the debates, where he is not too bad. 

OLBERMANN:  Indeed.  We‘ve interviewed him here and he is exceptionally glib and quick-thinking.  It is not about that.  It‘s about the set pieces. 

But the final point about this, Pat, is this man is now 60 years old.  He is not a rookie politician.  Can he still improve as a speaker at this point?  And, if he asked you, what one thing would you tell him to work on just in terms of speaking, just his part of it?

BUCHANAN:  First, he can change. 

George Bush was terrible at the Iowa straw poll in 1999.  He was excellent after 9/11.  I would tell Kerry, he has got to work on humor.  He has got to work on discipline.  He has to get his lines down and he has got to get good lines and he has got to stay with it. 

And then I would go through it again and again and again.  But his problem is, he came off a vacation fresh.  He should have been sharp as a tack last night and he just wasn‘t. 

OLBERMANN:  It occurs to me—before we go, the old Rodney Dangerfield joke occurs to me, too.  If you want to look thin, hang around with a bunch of fat guys.  If you want to sound like an orator, don‘t stand next to Bill Clinton for two hours on a platform, right?  That‘s the other thing he can‘t do. 

BUCHANAN:  Especially when Clinton was in the rare form he was last night. 

Clinton did a disaster at ‘98 convention—or the ‘88 convention.  He spoke endlessly.  Remember, they all cheered when he said, in conclusion. 

OLBERMANN:  Yes. 

BUCHANAN:  He got to discipline himself.  And last night was a masterpiece. 

OLBERMANN:  Less is more. 

Pat Buchanan, as always, thanks for your insights.  Thanks for saying late with us on a Friday night. 

BUCHANAN:  Well, thank you, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  Always a pleasure, sir.

And if you thought John Kerry might have the market on lameness cornered, you obviously have not met Reggie the registration rig.  That‘s the name of it, 56 feet of pure GOP genius, portable soundstage, Xbox consoles and plasma TV screens, all of it on wheels, all designed to get three million new young Americans registered to vote, preferably as Republicans. 

But just when Reggie thought he was ready to be hit, he tried to play big town a little too soon.  Even though he was stationed in the middle of Times Square with a cameo on MTV, Reggie still failed to attract more than a handful of new voters.  And one of the few he did get to register explained that he was doing to it—quote—“to get Bush out of office.” 

Meantime, Ralph Nader‘s fight for office got a big fat disendorsement from President Carter last night, the former president of course.  To the man who once umpired his own grandkids‘ softball games, Carter had what were either very unkind words about Nader‘s candidacy or very kind words about his officiating. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JIMMY CARTER, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  When I was president, he gave me a lot of advice.  And tonight, I want to return the favor by giving him some advice. 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

CARTER:  Ralph, go back to umpiring softball games or examining the rear end of automobiles and don‘t risk crossing costing the Democrats the White House this year, as did you four years ago. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  All that with seven months still to go, our No. 3 story, tick, tick, tick, tick, decision and derision 2004. 

Ahead, No. 2, just when we thought he could not do anything bigger, William Hung has vaulted into two new media.  That‘s a video.  That‘s right.  Then a different kind of reality TV, the search for the next purveyor of helpful household hints.

But, first, here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three sound bites of this day. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FREDDIE PRINZE JR., ACTOR:  It was a good opportunity for us to get back together and sort of appreciate what we had accomplished the first time, because it was a really big deal.  And people haven‘t really recognized it as that, but we did. 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Today, when I landed, I met a fellow named Irving Hall.  Where are you, Irving?  Right there.  Stand up.  Now you can sit down.

(LAUGHTER)

AL GORE, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Do you remember what you felt when the Supreme Court handed down its decision in the case called Bush vs. Gore?  I remember. 

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Up next, singing in America, ringing in Singapore, the continuing sex—success story—possibly the other as well—of America‘s favorite rejected idol.  Plus, the architect of “You‘re fired” gets a response from New York City building inspectors: “You‘re fined”—coming up on COUNTDOWN.

No more voices this week.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  We cannot claim credit for him here.  It was man‘s inhumanity to man as represented early in this 21st century by the judges on “American Idol” which actually thrust William Hung into the spotlight. 

Our No. 2 story on the COUNTDOWN, like the other entertainment juggernauts before him, the ones with more momentum than talent, the Tiny Tims, the Anna Nicole Smiths, the Sonny Tufts (ph) and the Cherry Sisters, you can‘t stop William Hung.  You can only hope to contain him. 

Production is under way on his first music video to be timed with the release of his first C.D. 10 days hence. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAM HUNG, SINGER (singing):  Talk to me, tell me your name.  I‘m just a link in your daisy chain.  Your rap sounds like a diamond map to the stars.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Of course there is much else on our friend‘s plate.  He will be singing tomorrow at the chili championship cook-offs in Richmond, Virginia, going on the Ellen DeGeneres show and then, on the 8th of April, in an event you will remember in the years to come, he goes on “The Tonight Show.” 

But if you can‘t wait that long, you can move to Singapore, buy a cell phone and download their No. 1 specialty ring tone.  You guessed it.  She bangs, she bangs.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HUNG (singing):  She bangs, she bangs, oh, baby.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Excuse me.  Hello? 

Actually, it sounds a little better that way, doesn‘t it? 

The Channel News Asia Service reports Hung‘s “She Bangs” has been the most frequently song among 450 offered by the cell provider since the beginning of this month.  The Singapore company says it will offer its caller even more of Hung‘s songs once the new C.D. comes out.  Noooooo! 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HUNG (singing):  She bangs, she bangs, oh, baby.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Can you download William Hung on your cell phone?  If not, you and your provider had damn well better watch tonight‘s “Tech Summit” here on MSNBC, co-hosted by those folks right there, Lisa Ling and Lester Holt.  Next year, it will be William Hung -- 9:00 Eastern, 6:00 Pacific.  Be there.  Aloha.

All of which provides us the perfect segue into our nightly roundup of the doings of the unwashed and the occasionally anything but unloved, the celebrity news as warped by the prism that we call “Keeping rMDNM_Tabs.”

And the age is closed for the high doyen of household hints.  Not only are the Martha Stewart‘s TV shows on the rocks, but today the trade paper “Variety” reports that the effort to replace her will itself be turned into a reality TV show.  CBS has ordered 10 episodes of a competition that is supposed to weed out the losers and produce a—quote—“Martha-like superstar.” 

One of the producers is quoted as saying: “We‘re going to have 12 people who have ability in the lifestyle arena and look for one who can become this country‘s next domestic icon.”  No title for the series yet.  May we suggest, “Martha Stewart Leaving”?

He moved on, which apparently what the great character actor Jerry Orbach is doing.  “The Hollywood Reporter” says Orbach will be leaving the series “Law & Order” the end of this, his 12th season, its 14th.  Orbach and his slightly ruffled character, Lennie Briscoe, will continue apparently on the new fourth element of the “Law & Order” franchise, “Law & Order: Trial By Jury.”

And after that, stay tuned for him in “Law & Order: Bankruptcy Court,” “Law & Order: Courtney Love Unit,” and, of course, “Tarter Control Law & Order.” 

It wasn‘t Briscoe‘s real-life detective counterparts, but rather New York City building inspectors who came to visit Donald Trump.  The Trumpster hung a 13-foot-high-by-25-foot-wide sign on his Trump Tower Building reading “You‘re fired,” the catchphrase for his series “The Apprentice,” a catchphrase he incidentally is seeking to trademark.  The sign on Fifth Avenue, says the city, is illegal. 

Trump received four summonses.  Trump is not happy, issuing this veiled threat in response to the city of New York.  “The big complaint about the city,” he says, “is that it is an unfriendly place to do business.  They should wise up.”

While we rebuild the studios, still ahead, tonight‘s top story.  If this drug story is Goliath, David has just approached a cash register. 

But, first, here are COUNTDOWN‘s top two photos of this day. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  The name Duane Reade probably doesn‘t mean anything to you unless you‘re from New York or New Jersey.  It is a chain of drugstores named for the two streets that surrounded the first one.

Its advertising slogan is, “Everywhere you go, Duane Reade.”  In New York City, this is almost literally true.  There are 128 of them in Manhattan alone.  But it is one of the stores a little ways off the beaten track in far Rockaway, New York, that has put this company in the middle of tonight‘s No. 1 story, a matter of a small memorial in the making to 9/11 and a large advertising billboard. 

COUNTDOWN‘s Monica Novotny is here to report it.  Monica, good evening.

MONICA NOVOTNY, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Good evening, Keith. 

Patrick Clark is a stained-glass artist in New York chosen by members of his community to create a permanent September 11 monument for his lost neighbors and for one good friend.  It is the kind of memorial you can‘t put a price on, but one that almost cost Mr. Clark everything after he crossed paths with the new neighbor drugstore. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The cotton ball mercenaries without a soul. 

NOVOTNY (voice-over):  Those words landed artist Patrick Clark in a courtroom clash with a corporate giant. 

CHRISTOPHER DUNN, NYCLU:  There‘s no question this is David and Goliath.  He had the great misfortune of criticizing a large corporation that had a very thin skin and apparently a lot of money to spend on lawyers. 

PATRICK CLARK, ARTIST:  It was frightening, because I‘m an artist.  This is a corporation with unlimited resources and there‘s no way I would ever be able to defend myself against that. 

NOVOTNY:  The battleground called Tribute Park.  A small corner of this New York City suburb. 

CLARK:  I consider it like sacred ground.  And on September 11, when the buildings started smoking, people started gathering in the park.  A lot of people watched the whole process right from here. 

NOVOTNY:  For Clark, it was personal. 

CLARK:  The owner of my shop was a firefighter who was killed in tower one.  And we were friend for 17 years. 

NOVOTNY:  Eric Allen from Squad 18, whose friendship helped inspire Clark‘s big dreams for this tiny plot of land, to turn the darkest of memories into a glowing memorial. 

CLARK:  We want it to be a joyful remembrance of all that‘s good that they did for us. 

NOVOTNY:  But just a few hundred feet away, a drugstore chain‘s advertising billboard. 

CLARK:  The ideas of the dome is that we have halogen spotlights inside.  And they send up rays of clear and blue light into the sky.  And when we heard that there was going to be a big billboard lit up at night, it kind of hurt the effect we were striving for. 

NOVOTNY:  Clark placed his own ad in the local paper. 

HOWARD SCHWACH, MANAGING EDITOR, “THE WAVE”:  It was one man‘s opinion.  And it said, “Paid for by Patrick Clark.”

NOVOTNY (on camera):  Was it obnoxious? 

CLARK:  Well, in a creative way, yes, it is sort of obnoxious. 

NOVOTNY (voice-over):  The drugstore sued Clark for defamation. 

DUNN:  They hired some big fancy law firm and they filed a big lawsuit against him. 

NOVOTNY:  The managing editor of the local paper, also named in the suit, says he made an offer to the corporate CEO.

SCHWACH:  The first thing we said was, we‘ll give him a page.  Let him give his side of the story.  They turned that down.

NOVOTNY:  After almost a year, David met Goliath in court.  And with the help of the New York chapter of the ACLU, the power of one won. 

DUNN:  The judge did two thing.  She dismissed the lawsuit brought by Duane Reade.  At the same time, she ruled that Patrick Clark could recover damages. 

SCHWACH:  It‘s a victory.  It‘s a victory for the First Amendment.  It is a victory for us having a right to let people have their say about issues that are important to the community. 

NOVOTNY:  As for the sign that started it all? 

CLARK:  If they guaranteed that they wouldn‘t light it, that would be outstanding, because I‘m not speaking on my behalf as much as I think I‘m speaking on behalf of the families of 9/11 and the community at large. 

NOVOTNY:  No one from Duane Reade would speak on camera.  However, in a statement issued to MSNBC, the company said—quote—“Duane Reade is the single largest contributor to the Rockaway Tribute Park.  Having made donations worth approximately $100,000 in construction and materials.  Duane Reade does not go after anyone and has no desire to inhibit free speech, including opposition to its business, but takes umbrage with any suggestions characterizing its associates as greedy or insensitive.”

(on camera):  Will that have all been worth it? 

CLARK:  Oh, yes, especially if you‘re standing with your back to the store, facing the bay with a memorial on the right.  Certainly, it‘s worth it. 

NOVOTNY:  What do you think that your friend Eric would think of this? 

CLARK:  Well, I think he would be real happy about it. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

NOVOTNY:  The judge dismissed this case as a SLAPP suit, that is, a strategic lawsuit against public participation, one aimed at silencing someone who speaks out against a corporate entity.  SLAPP statutes exist so that people like Mr. Clark, who are challenged by corporations, have some legal recourse to protect themselves.  Duane Reade disagreed with the court‘s ruling and the company says it will appeal. 

OLBERMANN:  What happens long term?  Are we going to see the sign lit up?  Are we going to see the protests continue?  Is there any indication of where that‘s going? 

NOVOTNY:  That is the question right now.  The sign is up.  It just went up a few days ago, but there are no lights.  Originally, all the plans were for electric lighting.  So, at this point, people aren‘t sure.  They‘re hoping that the drugstore has decided to be a great neighbor and keep the lights off. 

OLBERMANN:  So, and that‘s all that Clark wants in this situation.  An unlit light—an unlit sign, rather?

NOVOTNY:  He said he would love to have the sign go away because it is large and it is kind of imposing over what will be that memorial.  But he said, if there were just no lights to impede on their lights for their memorial, then they would be happy. 

OLBERMANN:  I get the feeling we‘re going to be seeing this again and again in the near future, especially in the area that we‘re broadcasting from, in New York and New Jersey.

Any place that‘s line of sight to where the World Trade Center was, we‘re going to be seeing the conflict between commerce and people wanting to put together small community memorials, because that was a very hard-hit area, Rockaway.

NOVOTNY:  That‘s right.  And, in fact, they lost about 60 people. 

Originally, the number was 70, but now they‘ve done some added research.  And they say 60 people.  And 60 names will go into stars at the top of that dome. 

OLBERMANN:  There is another—communities with almost, what, 2,800 others around the New York area, they may be doing things similar.  We‘ll keep an eye on it.  COUNTDOWN‘s Monica Novotny, many thanks. 

NOVOTNY:  Thanks.

OLBERMANN:  Before we wrap up tonight‘s No. 1 story, there‘s one other thing you need to know about it.  If Duane Reade vs. Patrick Clark sounds familiar, maybe it should.  In ‘96, Oprah Winfrey reported on mad cow disease.  The Texas Cattlemen‘s Association claimed he show cost them lost $11 million.  It sued.  She won.  It was ruled another one of those SLAPP cases. 

Let‘s recap the five COUNTDOWN stories, the ones we think you‘ll be talking about tomorrow.

No. 5, terror protection, a hiring freeze in the Department of Homeland Security at the same time the FBI director is warning about what amounts to subcontracting by al Qaeda and his fears for the political conventions in Boston and New York this summer.  Story No. 4, name-recognition leading to name legislation, Congress passing the Laci and Conner Bill, making it a separate crime to hurt a fetus during a violent crime against a pregnant mother, putting people‘s faces on legislation, a new trend in our democracy. 

Story No. 3, Kerry upstaged, speech-wise, anyway, by the former President Bill Clinton during a show of Democratic unity last night.  And former President Carter at the same event lit into presidential hopeful Ralph Nader.  Two, a double William Hung delight, a new music video and word that his signature tune, “She Bangs,” is the most popular ring tone for cell phone users in Singapore.  And No. 1, the 9/11 memorial and the giant drugstore billboard.  One of the memorial designers complains.  The drugstore sues him.  And he wins.

That‘s COUNTDOWN.  Thanks for being part of it.  I‘m Keith Olbermann. 

Have a good weekend.  Good night and good luck.

END   

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