updated 4/26/2004 10:41:24 AM ET 2004-04-26T14:41:24

Guests: Tim Layden, Senator John McCain, Harvey Levin, Michael Musto

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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

The football star who gave up home, who gave up fame, who gave up millions to serve in Iraq and then in Afghanistan, is killed in action.  Pat Tillman of Arizona State, of the Arizona Cardinals, of the 75th Rangers in Afghanistan is dead.  Senator John McCain of Arizona will join us. 

Another human face of war: The latest from Patrice Confer, hoping her son gets back home soon from Iraq before she dies of terminal cancer. 

Michael Jackson: Another arraignment.  Does that mean another public spectacle looms? 

Sure, “American Idol” is another public spectacle, but is it a rigged public spectacle?  Another year, another round of complaints that it is all fixed. 

And Louisiana‘s bid to legislate pants:  To cover this one, we‘ll meet our crack investigative unit. 

All that and more now on COUNTDOWN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Good evening.  There were 5,800 professional baseball players in this country on the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, by January 1, 1945, of those 5,800, 5,400 were serving in the United States military.  Once in America, the news of an athlete dying in some distant place was both sad and all too common.  Today, it is enough to merit comment from the White House.  Our fifth story in the COUNTDOWN, Patrick Tillman Jr. 27 years old, U.S. Army Ranger, 2nd Battalion, 75th Regiment killed in action last night 25 miles southwest of the military base at Khost in Afghanistan. 

Patrick Tillman Jr. was 27 years old of the U.S. Army Rangers, 2nd Battalion, 75th Regiment, and was killed in action last night, 25 miles southwest of the military base at Khost, Afghanistan.

Patrick Tillman, Jr., better known in the National Football League as Pat Tillman, safety of the Arizona Cardinals, who nearly two years ago had turned down a new  three year $3.6 million contract from that team to instead enlist in the Army, and now who is believed to be the first active or recently active professional athlete to be killed in battle since Bob Kalsu of football‘s Buffalo Bills was killed in Vietnam in July of 1960.

In a moment, how Tillman‘s death will bring the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not just to the front pages, but to the sports pages.  How it will put a face on the sacrifice of the troops and how its singularity contrasts to a time when “93 percent of baseball” went to war.  Senator McCain will join us. 

First our correspondent, George Lewis reports from the city in which Tillman played all of his collegiate and all of his professional sports.  Phoenix, Arizona. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GEORGE LEWIS, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  At 5‘11” and 200 pound, Pat Tillman was small for a defensive back in pro football.  But, today the Phoenix cardinal remembered him as a little guy with a big heart. 

DAVID MCGINNIS, FMR.  CARDINALS COACH:  The words, “honor, integrity, dignity, commitment,” they were not just adjectives with Pat Tillman, they were realities in his life and that came through very loud and clear. 

PETE KENDALL, CARDINALS PLAYER:  A lot of time in football, the analogies of war are kind of thrown around freely and on a day like today, you kind of see how all of those (UNINTELLIGIBLE). 

LEWIS:  Before turning pro, Tillman was a college linebacker at Arizona State.  Today the governor ordered flags at the campus lowered to half-staff in Tillman‘s honor. 

MARK BRAND, ASU ASST.  ATHLETIC DIRECTOR:  I always thought he was invincible and I never thought ever that it would happen to him, and I just couldn‘t believe it. 

LEWIS (on camera):  After college, Tillman played four years with the Cardinals, then surprised everyone by turning down a $3.6 million contract offer and joining the Army in 2002. 

MICHAEL BIDWELL, CARDINALS VP, GENERAL COUNSEL:  There are very few people that have the courage to do what he did, the courage to walk away from a professional sports career and to make the ultimate sacrifice. 

LEWIS (voice-over):  Friends said Pat Tillman was deeply affected by 9/11.  Then in May of 2002, after returning from his honeymoon with his wife Marie, Tillman enlisted in the Army, along with his brother Kevin, a minor league baseball player.  Pat Tillman was hounded for interviews, but did not want publicity.  Both brothers served in Iraq, they were selected for the Army‘s Elite Rangers, wound up in the same unit in Afghanistan where Pat Tillman was killed in a firefight, yesterday. 

This afternoon, an official U.S. Army delegation arrived at the home of Pat Tillman‘s wife to notify her of his death. 

Last year, the sports network ESPN honored the Tillman brothers for their courage.  A younger brother, Richard, accepting to a standing ovation. 

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN (D), ARIZONA:  I hope that all of us revere his memory, share the grief with his family, and recognize that this young man served the cause greater than his self-interests. 

LEWIS:  In football, the label “hero” gets used often.  Tonight, Pat Tillman‘s friends say he belonged in a special category of heroes. 

George Lewis, NBC News, Phoenix. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Pat Tillman shipped out to Iraq in March of last year, and his 75th Rangers were later transferred to Afghanistan for “Operation Mountain Storm,” the effort to stem the backlash of what‘s left of the Taliban.  But, only once in an interview conducted eight months before he enlisted did he even hint at his future decision.  This is from September 12, 2001. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PATRICK TILLMAN, KILLED IN AFGHANISTAN:  I bet—you know, it‘s like

anything, you kind of take it for granted, especially in the country we

live in.  We are such a free society and—you know, we look at that flag

·         and I—like I do, I‘ve also had a great deal of feeling for the flag, but even someone who considers themselves that way, you just don‘t think about it all the time, you don‘t realize what it gives, you don‘t realize what a great life we have over here. 

Even as athletes, we (EXPLETIVE DELETED) and moan every now and again about this or that, and if we ever just—you know, times like this you stop and think about just how good—not only how good we have it, but what kind of a system we live under, what freedoms were allowed, and that wasn‘t built overnight, and it is kind of—the flag is a symbol of all that a symbol of—you know, my great grandfather was at Pearl Harbor and a lot of my family has given up—you know, has gone and fought wars and I really haven‘t done a (EXPLETIVE DELETED) thing as far as laying myself on the line like that and so I have a great deal of respect for those that have and what the flag stands for. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  The interview that was one of the few times Tillman ever gave a hint about his own patriotism or would foreshadow his eventual enlistment.  As we‘ll discuss in a moment with Arizona Senator John McCain, Tillman‘s decision to fight was almost as noteworthy for the lack of attention he permitted of it.  From an overachieving undergraduate of Arizona State, Pat Tillman was profiled in the only place it matters to be profiled in sports, “Sports Illustrated” magazine.  Senior writer, Tim Layden was the author and he joins us now.

Tim, good evening.

TIM LAYDEN, “SPORTS ILLUSTRATED” SENIOR WRITER:  Hi Keith.

OLBERMANN:  I‘m wondering if you‘d agree with this description of him.  Andy Warhol said that in the future everybody would get 15 minutes of fame, Pat Tillman wanted to give his back. 

LAYDEN:  Yeah, I mean, I‘ve thought as this day has unfolded, Keith, that one of the great ironies that is coming out now is that I—I really think if Pat were with us, he‘d be appalled at the amount of ink and television that‘s being used in his honor, today.  It‘s not anything that he ever wanted.

OLBERMANN:  A big magazine story, a profile takes a long time to do, so you must have known him very well, at least very briefly.  In retrospect, did those interviews give you a sense of where this idea came from that he would eventually choose to give up professional football and fight for his country?

LAYDEN:  The thing that—in a way, yes, because he was a guy at an age, 21 years old, when he was utterly unmotivated by the things that usually motivated 21-year-old athletes.  One of the first days I spent with him, he was named—it seems trivial now but, the “Pack 10 Defensive of the Year.”  And, he was also honored for the some type of academic award because he had a 3.8 in his major in Arizona State, and he turned away from both of those honors as quickly as could I bring them up to him and said, “I can‘t be proud of myself for those things, because as soon as I become proud, then I become old news.  You have to keep moving forward.”  And those are thing that people live to hear about themselves and he had no use for them whatsoever.

OLBERMANN:  You‘ve already seen the obituaries; they‘re going to be entirely about:  He played pro football, he gave it up, he died in Afghanistan.  What is going to be left out that we should have known about Pat Tillman?

LAYDEN:  You know, I think that what‘ll be left out is that he was a unique spirit.  He did things for the kind of reasons that all of us would like to do things, but none of us really do.  And, he enjoyed them all, he wasn‘t motivated by the scoreboard or anything else.  There was an incident when he was a senior in high school, and again, we hate to come back to football because the story is so much larger, but that‘s what formed his personality at a young age, and his team was winning by a lot of points and he kept going back into the game even though he was told not to play anymore, and he kept scoring touchdowns, so eventually the coach hid Pat‘s helmet underneath the bench so that he couldn‘t it and couldn‘t play anymore that day.  And, the last time I talked to Pat, he still hadn‘t forgiven the coach for that. 

OLBERMANN:  Last question and I‘ll be asking John McCain this one too: 

Sometimes sports has been touched deeply by 9/11, by Afghanistan, by Iraq.  But most of it, to be honest, has just been people at the ballpark singing “God bless America” and then going right back to their self-absorption.  Do you think this news will force people, who pay attention only to sports, to realize what‘s actually going on in the rest of the world? 

LAYDEN:  You would hope so.  I wonder, Keith, how many people forgot about Pat as soon as the news passed in the 2002 that he was going over there, only to realize it again today?  Pat himself wouldn‘t have had the faith that his actions would turn people around.  His actions weren‘t motivated by what they did for other people, so I guess if that that question were posed to Pat, he‘d probably say “no.” 

OLBERMANN:  Tim Layden, senior writer for “Sports Illustrated” magazine.  Many, many thanks for your insights tonight, sir. 

LAYDEN:  Thanks, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  As suggest at the start of this program, military service by athletes, professional and amateur was once barely news worthy.  Neither, of course, was it always voluntary, but it says something about both American conflicts of the last 100 years.  That among the fatalities of war have been the greatest baseball pitcher of all time, the winner of the award honoring the top collegiate in football, and the man for whom the award for top collegiate in hockey is named.

Christy Mathewson of the New York Giants, as popular in his time as any other athlete of any other time—poisoned by muster gas while on active service in France in World War I.  Never again healthy, he died of tuberculosis seven years later. 

Nile Kinnick, the star in whose memory, the University of Iowa re-named its football stadium, Heisman Trophy winner in 1939, A 24-year-old U.S. Navy Ensign when his fighter crashed in 1943. 

And, Hobey Baker, another magical name in sports, who single-handedly put college hockey on the map while at Princeton, whose award honors the game‘s best each year.  He never played professionally; he instead went to France, as a flier with the famed Lafayette Escadrille—killed when his plane crashed shortly after the Armistice of 1918.

Each war has claimed at least one American professional athlete of note. 

Bob Kalsu, as we mentioned, an All-America at Oklahoma and a field artillery commander who died in Vietnam in July, 1970. 

Bob Neighbors, a shortstop with the 1939 Washington Senators, a veteran flier for World War II—shot down over North Korea in August, 1952, among 16 baseball professionals killed in that conflict.

Baseball‘s Elmer Gedeon, shot down over France in the Second World War.

And, Harry O‘Neill who died at Iwo Jima, and at least 55 minor league players who died in that war.

To say nothing of the Notre Dame football star, Motts Tonelli, who survived the Bataan Death March.

There was Eddie Grant the captain of the Harvard baseball team, third baseman of the New York Giants, killed in the Argonne Forest during World War I.

And Troy Bunn and Alex Burr of the Yankees, who where killed in the final month of that war.

We think of soldiers as one group and athletes as another.  These men and hundreds of others merged the two groups and gave the military losses indelibly recognizable faces. 

We‘re joined now by another individual who makes us think of the fighting men in another context.  John McCain, U.S. senator from Arizona, Pat Tillman‘s state, and himself a U.S. war hero from Vietnam. 

Senator McCain, good evening.  Thanks for your time. 

MCCAIN:  Good evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  I want to talk to you about the impact of Pat Tillman‘s death, but first I want to talk to you about Pat Tillman.  Give me your thoughts of him. 

MCCAIN:  Incredible young man, underweight walk-on at Arizona State University, performed magnificently, gained many honors, never was going to make it with the pro‘s, was a standout with the Arizona Cardinals and his whole story was overcoming the odds, and then he was on his honeymoon and 9/11 took place, and he decided to leave a multimillion-dollar contract and a great deal of fame to serve as a United States Army Ranger, had served one tour in Iraq, already.  But, you know, one of the more amazing thing about this incredible young man, and we‘re heart broken about him, is that he never had a press conference, Keith.  He never talked to a media person, because he did think its he was doing anything that any citizen wouldn‘t do. 

OLBERMANN:  We just read, to that point, and I know you didn‘t get to hear it, the list of the star American athletes who died in previous American conflicts:  Hobey Baker, the hockey player; Nile Kinnick the great college football player; Eddie Grant from Harvard and the New York Giants baseball team, and the idea that 5,400 out of 5,800 professional baseball players served in the second world war.  Those were different times, those were the eras before voluntary Army‘s and before millionaire athletes.  In that context though, is there a way to quantify Pat Tillman‘s sacrifice? 

MCCAIN:  First of all, I would like to mention my childhood hero was always Ted Williams, and one of that—reasons was that he not only served in World War II, but he was in the Marine Reserves and he served two additional seasons—years in Korea at the height of his—at the of his time.  In the case of Pat, I think that he‘s unique in that:  One, the obvious, professional athletes don‘t do that anymore.  But, the other unique aspect about him was that he did it with so little fanfare.  He didn‘t make an announcement, he didn‘t go on ESPN or an evening news, he just went to serve. 

OLBERMANN:  I was asked, this afternoon, in an interview about the impact of sports in this country and I said that there would be no better gauge than watching the reaction in the sports world to the death of this man.  Do you think that his loss, in Afghanistan, has just brought the real meaning of these conflicts in Afghanistan, in Iraq, to a sizable portion of the public with whom it had not previously registered? 

MCCAIN:  I think so.  I think we‘ll hear fewer of these professional athletes when they‘re in the playoffs say “we‘re in a war.”  But aside from that, I think that it will put into place the proper perspective about service and about fame and about serving causes that are greater than ourselves, and if there‘s anything that‘ll good—come good out of this, it‘ll be that it‘ll affirm that this nation produces young Americans who are willing to serve and sacrifice for somebody else‘s freedom, and there‘s nothing nobler. 

OLBERMANN:  Last thought, Senator.  This is obviously a tragedy for his family and for his friends, it‘s bad enough, I don‘t want to make it more than it is.  But, in a sense, has Pat Tillman just become the American face of these conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan? 

MCCAIN:  I think that‘s why many of us are so heartbroken.  We were heart broken when Lori Piestewa, a brave young Navajo was killed, and so many others, but this one puts the face on the sacrifice that these young people are undergoing as we speak.  And it puts also, a certain pride in us, that we have young Americans like Pat Tillman, and yes, we produced them in World War II and we‘re still capable of producing them, now. 

OLBERMANN:  Senator John McCain of Arizona.  Our great thanks again for your time tonight, sir. 

MCCAIN:  Thank you, Keith.  Thank you, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  A final thought.  How far the decision to quit the sport and enlist as an ordinary soldier varied from the modern athlete of today might be best registered by looking at football‘s other headline from the last 48 hour.  A warning from the father of a star college quarterback that the San Diego team had better not draft his son because they were not a good enough franchise and that he would not accept their 10‘s of millions of dollars. 

COUNTDOWN opening tonight with the death of Pat Tillman.  An ordinary grunt killed in action in Afghanistan. 

Coming up, tonight‘s No. 4 story:  The looming dangers in Iraq.  The shaky ceasefire in Fallujah is set to fall apart. 

And later, a mothers mission:  We‘ll update you on Patrice Confer‘s plea to the military to get her son back from Iraq before she dies of terminal cancer.  There is news on this, tonight.  Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Our No. 4 story is next, the Muslim cleric in Iraq, once again threatening attacks against American troops and now the United States is starting to reach out to former members of Saddam‘s Ba‘ath party.  The latest on the ground in Iraq after this break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  While the death of Pat Tillman may put a new recognizable face on the casualties of these current wars, this next story may be thoroughly unrecognizable to many Americans.  In this country, political participation is a matter of choice, but in Saddam Hussein‘s Iraq, political participation might best have been described as a matter of survival and while history will judge the motivations of those thousands of Iraqi who endorse Saddam‘s reign, the present does not wait for judgment. 

Our fourth story tonight, in a major reversal of U.S. policy: 

Ambassador Paul Bremer has lifted a ban on many former Ba‘ath party members.  And as Richard Engel reports from Iraq, that gamesmanship has been met by other Iraqis raising the stakes higher still. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RICHARD ENGEL, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  A Shiite militiaman showing off a coalition helmet today, like a trophy, after an ambush by Moqtada al-Sadr‘s men in Kabala killed a Bulgarian soldier.  The radical cleric, al-Sadr, was also back on the attack today in his Friday sermon, threatening suicide attacks if U.S. troops stormed the holy city of Najaf to arrest him and disband his militia.  In Fallujah, the ceasefire may be ending, Marines spend the day fortifying their positions and doing reconnaissance.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN, THE “WASHINGTON POST”:  They feel now that they‘re at sort of a stalemate and they worry that the insurgents inside the town are using this time to perhaps regroup and harden their positions. 

ENGEL:  And today, a political about-face.  The U.S. reaching out to some of the Saddam Hussein loyalists in Fallujah and across Iraq, overturning a controversial policy banning senior Ba‘ath party member from the new Iraqi Army, universities, and government.  The ban had left 10s of thousand of Ba‘athists unemployed and vengeful.

(on camera):  The U.S. Now admits its campaign to purge Ba‘athists went too far, removing generals and administrators the U.S. badly needs to have a successful transfer to Iraqi rule in 10 weeks. 

(voice-over):  Today in a TV address, U.S. administrator Paul Bremer welcomed Ba‘athists who don‘t have blood on their hands. 

PAUL BREMER, U.S. ADMINISTRATOR:  You could take the path which leads to a new Iraq, a peaceful, democratic Iraq. 

ENGEL:  There is little trust for Bremer‘s call at a camp going up today, in Baghdad for refugees who fled Fallujah. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator):  I didn‘t expect to be in a refugee camp after the war.  The Americans promised this freedom, but now I‘ve lost everything. 

ENGEL:  But the U.S. military says, it is safer for them to be refugees in Baghdad than in facing what could be coming again soon in Fallujah. 

Richard Engel, NBC News, Baghdad. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Back here, more on the human faces or human symbols of the war.  Tonight the Pentagon is calling the release of hundred of photographs of flag draped military coffins a mistake.  Using the Freedom of Information request a first amendment activist got the photos out this month, but perhaps more extraordinary, even than the dissemination of the Pentagon, by the pentagon of 361 photos of the dead in violation of its own policy was the taking of those 361 photos It had been, the Pentagon, explicitly directing the military bases not to allow media coverage of coffins being returned from the war theater.  That ban apparently did not apply to the military‘s own media.  Whatever the policy, the White House defended it, while Senator John Kerry defended the two military contractors who took and let the “Seattle Times” publish a similar photograph. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Those images are paired with a story about a husband wife who took photos to show the world the touching way that we honor our fallen.  They were fired for their openness and honesty.  I think truth is on the line in this election. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  And one small candle raised up in the darkness.  If you were with us last night, you know about Patrice Confer and her son, Private Joseph Wagner, serving in Iraq. 

Two weeks ago, Ms. Confer was diagnosed with late stage pancreatic cancer.  Her life is down to a matter of days.  According to the Pentagon, PFC Joseph Wagner is now on his way back home to Wisconsin.  The Red Cross reports, her son‘s first request for emergency leave had been turned down, but a Pentagon spokesman now says that decision has been reversed, no time frame revealed.  We will keep you posted and if we can do so without being too intrusive, we will show you some of their reunion when it takes place. 

Changing strategies in Iraq, changing perceptions here at home, our No. 4 story.  Coming up, we‘ll leave the COUNTDOWN for the news that will not make the front page but will still get you talking.  “Oddball” up next.  What‘s the connection between this little guy and “Star Wars?” 

And later, the decency debate moves from foul mouths to skimpy clothing.  One state is trying to ban low-rise jeans.  In other words, just say no to crack. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  We‘re back just in time to pause the COUNTDOWN for what is tonight especially a much-needed review of the strange stories that might be otherwise ignored, or, worse, treated as serious news by somebody else.  Let‘s play “Oddball.”

Ladies and gentlemen, Yoda is dead.  Not Yoda from “Star Wars.”  He‘ll live forever, though Yoda the mouse from the University of Michigan certainly gave him a run for his money.  Yoda has died in his cage at the UOM Medical School.  After having been genetically modified in 1999, he was 136 years old, which means what, we‘re living in the year 2135? 

No, 136 mouse years, which sounds like mouse ears, but means something entirely different.  Most mice manage to keep their mouse years for only two mouse years, which would be about 68 people years or 44 years Celsius.  Yoda will be posthumously awarded with the mousy lifetime achievement award and then ceremoniously flushed down toilet. 

And he may be evicted, he may be acquitted, but for the whole of his life, 18-year-old Billy G. Cates will be known as the man accused of annoying a squirrel.  Council Bluffs, Iowa, is not merely the birthplace of 1968 American League rookie of the year Stan Bahnsen.  It also has had on the books for nearly 70 years legislation making it illegal to—quote—

“annoy, worry, maim, injure or kill a black squirrel inside Council Bluffs city limits.”

Mr. Cates allegedly released an animal of some kind who apparently chased the squirrel.  Other than that, few details are available.  But the conclusion of the report is perhaps worth the $325 fine that Mr. Cates faces—quote—“The extent of the squirrel‘s injuries are unknown and there was no indication that medical treatment was sought for the animal.” 

And news from another rural area, Central Park in New York City.  As hundreds of passersby looked on, two lovers climbed up a three-story larch tree and made both whoopee and threats.  Police today charged 32-year-old William Rund and 17-year-old Christopher Montero with reckless endangerment, resisting arrest, criminal mischief, public lewdness, disorderly conduct, and embarrassing a tree. 

At one point, Mr. Rund—he is the one who looks like a woman—demanded that police get him a Vanilla Diet Pepsi.  When they got him a regular Diet Pepsi, he shouted: “Vanilla.  What I say goes!”  Mr. Rung, by the way, is a preoperative transsexual with female breasts, in other words, just another couple of nuts hanging from a tree. 

Next, COUNTDOWN picks up with your third story of the night, the Jackson indictments, the king of pop heading back to the court.  Can we expect the same entertaining debacle as last time?  Harvey Levin will join us from “Celebrity Justice.”  And another strange twist in the Laci Peterson murder case.  Someone says they know who really killed her.  This time, the claim is not coming from the defense.  These stories ahead. 

First, here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three newsmaker of this day, a special Friday edition, all dumb criminals. 

No. 3, Ronald Langdale of Los Angeles robs the Bank of America on Beach Boulevard in Huntington Beach, goes to count the wads of cash, does so in the bar directly across the parking lot from the bank he had just robbed.  They catch him. 

No. 2, Theodord Ceja stopped for speeding in Lafayette, Indiana.  He hands the trooper a fake license, a fake license bearing the name of an attempted murder suspect.  That‘s an alias. 

And, No. 1, Ellsworth Wilson of Seabrook, New Jersey, it was easy to nab as the shoplifting suspect shopped at the Family Dollar store, because just before he spend an hour filling two bags with merchandise, he had applied for a job there. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Two weeks nearly of secret meetings, judges sneaking out back doors, grand jurors before shuttled from place to place to elude the media, and it turns out the grand jurors were so ready to indict the man that they were reportedly thinking of not even meeting to discuss the charges. 

Our third story on the COUNTDOWN, it‘s your entertainment dollars in action, day 158 of the Michael Jackson investigations.  Jackson‘s spokesman Raymone Bain says Jackson is outraged, but in good spirits and looking forward to—quote—“vigorously defending himself in court.”  There are reports that Jackson‘s attorney, Mark Geragos, is expected to argue that the authorities intimidated witnesses and grand jurors by creating that cloak-and-dagger atmosphere. 

Exactly how they could have done that if the grand jurors were ready to indict as soon as they heard the evidence, as is reported by ABC News today, is an open question.  Jackson‘s next court appearance, April 30, a week from today.  The indictment is supposed to remain sealed until that time, which raises the question of the previous arraignment. 

Jackson, of course, moonwalked into court 21 minutes late, got chastised by the judge for doing so, then, afterwards, leaped atop an SUV, instructed his cameraman how to get the cheering throng, as if they were all in some kind of music video.  And next week?

Joining me now, the creator and executive producer of “Celebrity Justice,” Harvey Levin. 

Good evening again, Harvey.

HARVEY LEVIN, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, “CELEBRITY JUSTICE”:  Hi, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  So will we get another live outdoor ego concert courtesy of Mr. Jackson?   

(LAUGHTER)

LEVIN:  You know, I know that his peeps talked to him after that last incident and told him, you just can‘t do this, because it is like you‘re thumbing your nose at the legal system. 

Michael Jackson‘s problem is, he doesn‘t understand to his peeps.  He has not listened to his lawyers since the beginning of this.  And that is just not Jackson‘s world.  We‘ll see if it sinks in.  We know that the sheriffs, what they‘re going to do this time is, they‘re going to keep the fans further away.  And they‘re going to try and avert anything like this.  But with Michael Jackson, who knows?

OLBERMANN:  So, in theory, then, you can control the crowd, but you cannot control Michael Jackson. 

LEVIN:  Yes. 

OLBERMANN:  How far off course could this one get? 

Well, look, what I heard—and this information is only good up to around two months ago—but I heard that Geragos was having trouble getting an audience with Michael Jackson, that Jackson would talk to him in short spurts of time, but he couldn‘t really get his attention.  And that‘s the problem here, is that Michael Jackson really doesn‘t understand this world. 

He was in a courthouse in Santa Maria about a year ago.  And some of the things did he inside were just crazy.  And I don‘t think he really still understands the true seriousness of all of this.  But his lawyers clearly know that they have to take the reins and somehow figure out how to control this guy, because the judge is not going to tolerate it.

OLBERMANN:  And all this time, we thought he was trying to be Elizabeth Taylor.  It turns out he is trying to be Norma Desmond. 

(LAUGHTER)

OLBERMANN:  Harvey, last night when you were here, you broke the story that the family of the accuser had nearly backed out this thing during the grand jury process.  How does that jibe with this ABC report today that the grand jury barely waited for the judge to sit down before moving to indict? 

LEVIN:  Well, we know that the very day they indicted, the prosecution was still presenting evidence, so I can‘t confirm the ABC report.  But I know it was quick. 

In terms of how it jives with the report that they did it quickly, you know, the prosecution has to present evidence that tends to show Michael Jackson is innocent, if they have it.  And I‘m sure they raised the issue that this boy initially did not say exactly what happened.  And it was probably really difficult for the boy and the boy‘s mother to deal with this, even without cross-examination. 

So what you‘re dealing with here is fragile people, Keith.  And it‘s true.  I mean, they were just—they wanted to walk away from it once they had their first taste of it.  And Tom Sneddon couldn‘t convince them to come back on board again.  It was attorney Larry Feldman who pulled this out of the fire, who finally convinced these people, look, you have got to stay for the long haul.  And, as of today, they‘re committed to do that. 

OLBERMANN:  And the show goes on. 

Harvey Levin, the creator and executive producer of the syndicated TV series “Celebrity Justice...”

LEVIN:  And, Keith, real quick.

OLBERMANN:  Yes?

LEVIN:  That last segment was the most hilarious thing I‘ve seen on television in a year. 

OLBERMANN:  Well, thank you. 

(APPLAUSE)

OLBERMANN:  Thank you, Harvey.  Thank you, my old friend.  Have a nice weekend. 

LEVIN:  You, too. 

OLBERMANN:  Harvey will be back several times next week. 

While we‘re handling the heavy-duty tabloid cases, 30 seconds worth of update on the murder of Mrs. Laci Peterson.  The judge in the case says he has received an anonymous letter that claims someone other than her husband is responsible for the woman‘s death.  Judge Alfred A. Delucchi has sealed that letter.  An investigation is under way.  Mr. Peterson‘s attorney, Mark Geragos, refused to comment because of the gag order, but did say his office is also looking into those claims.

High-profile trials at No. 3 tonight.  Up next, the No. 2 story on the COUNTDOWN, the high road on low-rise jeans.  One Louisiana politico says enough is enough.  He is trying to get them outlawed, seriously. 

And, later, reality‘s TV democracy, the uproar over “American Idol.”  Is it rigged or is America just tired of the diva trio?  And I don‘t know what the meaning is of the words I‘m saying right here.

Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Tonight‘s No. 2 is up next, low-rise jeans, for some, slimming, torso-elongating clothes of wonder, for others, the epitome of tramp and trash.  The newest battleground in the decency wars.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Now to a piece of state legislation which if passed could result in the imprisonment or the fining of Britney Spears and her plumber. 

Our No. 2 on the COUNTDOWN, no ifs, ands, or butts.  A Louisiana representative wants people to know who wears the pants in his state as he attempts to crack down on waist-case scenario.  Representative Derrick Shepherd of Marrero, Louisiana, 100 miles south of the hometown of Ms.  Spears, Kentwood, says he is fed up with the hip-hugging, low-riding cuts of today‘s teens. 

But instead of averting his eyes from the unsightly chasms of teenage torsos, Mr. Shepherd is turning to the law for help.  He has proposed House Bill 1626, which would Impose fines of up to $500 and up to six months in jail for anyone caught wearing their pants too low.  By his definition, too low would include any pants that fasten below the waist. 

But aside from preventing Spears from ever visiting the kin folk, Representative Shepherd could also empty Louisiana of its most seasoned plumbers.  The vote will be next Tuesday.  Mr. shepherd did not comment on the fact that this is the fourth attempt in five years to pass some kind of legislation against low-riders in Louisiana, nor did he address relative morality, the unlikely spectacle of that state that brings us Mardi Gras being unhappy when its younger citizens are actually wearing pants of any kind. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DERRICK SHEPHERD (D), LOUISIANA STATE REPRESENTATIVE:  It is time in our community that we graduate from a level of do anything you want to do and it‘s all right with me, into, no, we shall be your brother‘s keeper, because it‘s time that we get not only our economic and our political house in order, but our moral house in order. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  The ACLU says it is probably not going to pass, the bill isn‘t, because the Supreme Court has been pretty clear about hitting the right to free dress below the belt, besides which, it notes Shepherd‘s bill does not define an unlawful outfit.  “It is sort of like nudity,” he said the newspaper “The New Orleans Times-Picayune.”  “You know it when you see it.”

From that crack in the edifice of modern society, we move on to our nightly roundup of the gossip, celebrity, and showbiz news, those stories we call “Keeping Tabs.”

And two trivia questions abortion movie “The Passion of the Christ.”  How many theaters in Israel are going to show it and it how many American television networks are going to show it?  The answer to each is, maybe one.  The Tel Aviv Cinematheque says it is about to close the deal to show Mel Gibson‘s movie once and once only in a few months from now. 

Now, about American TV, several reports tonight that ABC, CBS and NBC have all passed on the bidding for broadcast rights.  Fox has not, not officially, but supposedly will soon.  Why?  In something of an irony, because of, in the words of one analyst, baggage because of the violence. 

A television movie about a rare baseball card has created a rare baseball card.  TNT‘s flick “The Winning Season” stars Matthew Modine as the Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Famer Honus Wagner and tells the story of a boy who finds the rare Wagner baseball card and travels back in time to 1909 to get Wagner to autograph that card.  The real Wagner card is so scarce and hyped that one in off condition sold at auction last night for $109,638. 

But the card with Modine with Wagner will be even more valuable.  And I know this because a kid from the year 2090 traveled back in time last night to try to steal mine. 

Tonight‘s No. 1 story up next, the diva democracy dis.  How did a powerhouse voice get the boot on “American Idol”?  Is it a bigger scandal than decision 2000?  I‘ll pretend to care. 

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  The date was December 5, 1956.  The contestants were Charles Van Doren and Herb Stempel.  Stempel was the favorite, entering the contest with a commanding lead, and he lost.  It was the game show “21,” and it was rigged. 

Our No. 1 story on the COUNTDOWN, this will not inspire congressional hearings, but what happened this week on the “American Idol” program sure has inspired more water cooler chat than has a lackluster season on “The Sopranos.”  “American Idol,” was it rigged?  Was it racism?  Was it weather?  By anyone‘s measure, Fantasia Barrino, La Toya London, and Jennifer Hudson were the leading contenders to take this season‘s crown.

After Ms. Hudson‘s performance Tuesday evening, everybody‘s favorite curmudgeon, Simon Cowell, proclaimed the competition a—quote—“battle of the divas.”  Actually, it was a battle for last place.  Ms. Hudson won, or lost, being eliminated from competition.  Somebody, the voters or the unseen hands that manipulate the outcome, didn‘t like her or didn‘t like her rendition of Barry Manilow‘s “Weekend in New England,” or perhaps didn‘t like Manilow.

One wild card here: massive thunderstorms causing a power outage in the Midwest may have limited voting from Hudson‘s native Chicago area.  But lending credence to some kind of conspiracy theory, the fact that a small redheaded guy, apparently of small talent, named John Stevens made the cut, while one of the divas did not. 

In matters of such cultural import as this, we turn to “Village Voice” columnist and friend of COUNTDOWN Michael Musto. 

Michael, good evening.

MICHAEL MUSTO, “THE VILLAGE VOICE”:  Hi, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  OK, what do we have here, racism, backlash, more of the population is redheaded than we ever knew?  What? 

(LAUGHTER)

MUSTO:  I don‘t know if you could say the show‘s voting process is racist, because, remember, Ruben beat Clay, though Ruben is only marginally white-bread singing-wise than Clay.

(LAUGHTER)

MUSTO:  In this case, let‘s face it, it was Barry Manilow night.  A lot of African-Americans probably didn‘t tune into that.  You get a healthier black audience for a tribute to the late Barry White or even the late Barry Goldwater.

Also, a lot of the female voting audience votes for people they have crushes on, not necessarily people they think are great singers.  Some of them probably resent those three wonderful African-American singers, whose vibratos could shatter glass.  Jennifer Hudson was one of the best singers by far.  And, like you say, this redheaded guy, who doesn‘t have a name, he‘s just red, is still on.  And he‘s—I‘m glad he‘s still on, because he‘s the repository for all of Simon‘s anxiety.  He‘s the whipping boy this year.

Simon said he looked like Laurel from Laurel and Hardy.  Red didn‘t even know what that was. 

OLBERMANN:  Yes.  Well, he looked like some sort of 8-year-old who wandered out onto the stage. 

But let‘s look at a big picture here.  Viewers who call in to vote for who they want to keep, not who they want to kick to the curb, is that the inherent flaw in a sort of multiple candidate system like we have here? 

MUSTO:  No, I think, either way, you‘re voting for either who you love or you hate, and that should add up to the best process.  Let‘s institute that immediately for the presidential campaign.  Ralph Nader will win.  That will be fine with me.

But this red guy is an even worse singer than Clay Aiken, possibly worse than William Hung.  So I don‘t fully understand why he‘s still in there, except as the whipping boy.  I think we do need a total rehaul here. 

OLBERMANN:  Having been unable to watch these shows ever without finding myself barking at the moon, I‘m wondering, what does this say about us as a society that there seems to have been more hand-wringing over the various “American Idol” outcomes than over the Bush-Gore recount of 2000? 

MUSTO:  It‘s fine with me.  This is what really matters in the world.  And it says that these talent contests really appeal to people on different levels.  It‘s not just about who has the loudest voice, who can sing the best. 

If that were the case, Sam Harris from Solid Gold would still be winning this one.  It‘s about who people respond to.  And somehow people like this doof with the red hair.

OLBERMANN:  Well, all right, let‘s then cut to the chase on this.  It‘s hard to predict after the upset during the week, the big upset, how much money was wiped off the gambling boards, who knows?  But who do you see taking this?  Is it going to be the big red-headed doof? 

MUSTO:  I thought it was between La Toya, despite her name, and Fantasia.  She‘s named after a Disney movie.  But, obviously, they were in the bad bunch from the other night.  So, now, yes, let‘s go for the doof.  What the hell? 

OLBERMANN:  Last thing.  How bad does it turn out to be for Jennifer Hudson?  I suppose she walked right off the show into a recording studio somewhere to make an album.

MUSTO:  I‘m sure there was somebody waiting with a contract as she exited the building.  She has the entire world‘s sympathy.  Everybody wants her to come over and sing a song.  At this point, she‘s going to do very well.  Look at Frenchie Davis. 

OLBERMANN:  Look at William Hung, broke in at 34 on the charts.

MUSTO:  I‘ll look at William Hung, but I won‘t listen to William Hung. 

OLBERMANN:  Oh, all right.

Michael Musto of “The Village Voice,” as always, more interesting than the topic upon which he is commenting.

MUSTO:  True.

OLBERMANN:  Good night, Michael. 

MUSTO:  Good night.

OLBERMANN:  Before we leave our top story, a bit of consolation for Ms. Hudson in the form of a reminder.  There have been only two “American Idol” winners.  Both currently have albums.  But so, too, do five of the show‘s losers, Justin Guarini, R.J. Helton, Kimberly Loha—Locke—or, in English, Locke—and, of course, as we mentioned, William Hung still going strong. 

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

No. 5, the death of a soldier, Patrick Tillman Jr.  The former professional football player Pat Tillman, who gave up his sports career after September 11 to join the Army‘s 75th Rangers, killed in action yesterday while taking part in Operation Mountain Storm in Afghanistan, perhaps the first sports, if you will, casualty of war since Vietnam in 1970. 

Four, the war in Iraq, the Fallujah cease-fire in danger of falling apart, the Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr threatening suicide attacks again, now the coalition reaching out to former members of Saddam‘s Baath Party for cooperation.  Three, more on the Michael Jackson case.  With the indictments in hand, Jackson set to return to court next week, authorities making every effort to avoid the latest circus, Mr. Jackson making every effort to recreate it. 

No. 2, a new high in low in the decency debate.  This time, it‘s about low-rise jeans.  For the fourth time in five years, a state legislator in Louisiana has introduced a bill to outlaw revealing jeans, a crack crackdown of sorts.  And, No. 1, the “American Idol” voting uproar, some sort of voting issue.  People were upset.  And it‘s—it‘s a TV show! 

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

Good night and good luck. 

END   

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