updated 9/22/2004 11:44:13 AM ET 2004-09-22T15:44:13

Guests Will Durst, Viveca Novak

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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

I may be a patsy.  The docudrama now has an explanation from source Bill Burkett.  A phantom source named Conn, as in con job, and a mysterious real source, a HARDBALL viewer named Lucy. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Are you mad at me, honey? 

OLBERMANN:  CBS and “USA Today” trying to untangle their self-inflicted roping.  The Republicans try to tie all this to the Democrats. 

The president at the United Nations, defending action in Iraq.  Calling for a U.N. democracy fund to help underwrite it.  And day two of Senator Kerry right on the president‘s heels.  Though not necessarily right on television news. 

REGIS PHILBIN, ABC:  I give you Senator John Kerry!

DR. PHIL MCGRAW, AUTHOR:  Are you all spankers?  Did you spank them? 

LAURA BUSH, FIRST LADY:  Not very often. 

OLBERMANN:  Campaign by talk show.  How Dave, Dr. Phil, Regis and Gelman may yack the vote. 

And you know about the online poker craze.  But are you sure that Gordy (ph) from Minnesota, the guy who keeps beating you, is a human being and not a poker-playing robot like on “The Jetsons?” 

All that and more now on COUNTDOWN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Good evening from New York.  This is Tuesday, September 21, 42 days until the 2004 presidential election. 

Just hearing the phrase can make the blood of any American over 40 and a lot under go cold.  I‘m a patsy.  And it only gets worse if the context is political and the venue is Texas. 

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, the saga of Bill Burkett and the Killian memos continuing to unfold like some exotic centennial flower, replete with his assertion to “USA Today,” that, quote, “I may have been a patsy.” 

In a series of interviews, one of which the newspaper reports, ended in mid-sentence when Burkett froze and suffered a physical collapse, the former Texas Air National Guard official gave far more detail of his story than CBS News did yesterday, in in essence retracting it.  Burkett said he originally claimed to the newspaper and CBS that his source for the Killian memos was another former air guardsman named George Conn, still with the U.S. military in Europe.  C-o-n-n.  Burkett says that was a dodge to keep his real source‘s identity a secret. 

One piece of advice on making up news sources, never choose a man with the last name Conn. 

The real source, Burkett now says, is a woman named Lucy Ramirez, who phoned in in March from Houston, saying she had access to the correspondence files of Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Killian, and, quote, “there is something I have that I want to make sure gets out.”

Who is Lucy Ramirez?  Burkett could give no information, except to say that she said—said she had decided to contact him after she‘d seen him on this network, on “HARDBALL,” with Chris Matthews.

For crying out loud, everything happens to Chris!

Burkett went on to tell “USA Today” that Ms. Ramirez offered to deliver Killian‘s documents relating to then Lieutenant George W. Bush when he went to Houston for a livestock show in March, but he never met her.  Burkett says instead he was approached by a man who thrust an envelope at him and took off. 

Still, following Ramirez‘s reported instructions, Burkett copied the documents, not at the now world famous Kinko‘s in Abelene, Texas, but at another Kinko‘s in Waco, Texas, and destroyed the originals because Ms.  Ramirez feared leaving forensic evidence on them. 

Burkett said he knew how this would look.  He told the paper, quote, “this is going to sound like some damn sci-fi movie.” 

Yeah, well, it‘s still better than the remake of “The Manchurian Candidate.”

The Burkett-Killian-CBS story may have at least another day to run.  Dan Rather told “The Chicago Tribune” for its editions today that he still doesn‘t believe the memos are actually forgeries.  A “New York Post” political columnist reported yesterday that quote, “The hot rumor in New York political circles has Roger Stone, the longtime GOP activist, as the source for Dan Rather‘s dubious Texas Air National Guard memos.”  “The Post” said it reached Mr. Stone at his Florida home, and he had no comment. 

And there are still some unanswered questions, even if Burkett made it all up himself, and about a million if he didn‘t.  In short, it seems as if Lucy Ramirez has some explaining to do. 

Joining me now to work on the loose ends, Viveca Novak, Washington correspondent for “Time” magazine.  Good evening.  Thanks for your time. 

VIVECA NOVAK, “TIME” MAGAZINE:  Good to be with you. 

OLBERMANN:  Firstly, deep in that “USA Today” article, Mr. Burkett insists that even though he can‘t vouch for Lucy Ramirez, he can prove the conversations happened, with phone records, but he hasn‘t produced those.  Is that the way that that stands right now? 

NOVAK:  As far as I know, that‘s the way that stands.  I mean, in some ways, I prefer the Roger Stone scenario, because he would be like the Zelig of politics.  He turns up in every scandal.  But no, Lucy Ramirez remains a mystery figure.  We have no idea who she is.  He seems to have no idea who she is.  And we haven‘t seen the phone records.

OLBERMANN:  There is also yet another woman in here.  She does not seem to be apocryphal.  The newspaper, “USA Today,” has spoken to her.  She is the woman who says she took papers from Burkett at the Houston livestock show in March for safekeeping.  But she‘s really just sort of circumstantial evidence, isn‘t she?  She could be—that could have been anything that she was handed, correct? 

NOVAK:  That‘s right.  I mean, she can attest to the fact that he was at the livestock show and that she was given some documents.  So there were some documents involved in his appearance at the livestock show. 

But we don‘t know what those documents were.  We don‘t know if this Lucy Ramirez was anybody who handed him documents.  So it doesn‘t go to the authenticity of the documents at all. 

OLBERMANN:  The “USA Today” article also cited Burkett‘s physical collapse during one interview and was conducting another one of the interviews lying down with a wet towel on his head, about him saying to his wife, we‘re finished, about his ill health.  Does it become less and less believable that CBS or “USA Today” or both of them took his word for all this?  That they didn‘t even contact the Army man that he attributed this to, the unfortunately named Mr. Conn? 

NOVAK:  Well, look, if he‘s having health problems, I‘m very sympathetic.  But I do think that CBS should at a minimum have contracted the person that he first said had given him these documents.  We don‘t know the full extent of CBS‘ evidence, that this was a story worth putting on the air.  Hopefully, that will come out more in the next few days.  But it is rather startling that they didn‘t try to contact this person. 

OLBERMANN:  Do you have any idea what the next few days are going to look like? 

NOVAK:  Well, I think CBS is going to be putting more out about what their internal investigation is showing.  But I don‘t see a happy thing—a happy face coming out of this for CBS.  I think it is going to be a big journalistic black mark, unfortunately, like several we‘ve seen in the past few years.  Hopefully, we get over it.  Mistakes are made.  But this is, this looks like a pretty bad one right now. 

OLBERMANN:  Viveca Novak, of “Time” magazine, many thanks for your time tonight. 

NOVAK:  Good to be with you. 

OLBERMANN:  Just as CBS tried hard to tie the questions about President Bush‘s Reserve service to Burkett and the Killian memos, so now have the Republicans tried hard to tie the memos, Burkett and the CBS story to the Democrats. 

Kerry adviser and former Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart called Burkett at the request of CBS.  All parties assert that was at least true.  And current White House communications director, Dan Bartlett, calls that “a stunning and deeply troubling revelation.” 

Burkett says he had asked the CBS producer for a favor.  Contact with Lockhart to advise the campaign how to respond to the Swift Boat ads.  We got those involved here, too.  Though CBS denies it was part of the deal by which Burkett became its source on the Killian memos.  Lockhart said he might have heard about those memos, but they never came up in his brief conversation with Burkett. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE LOCKHART, KERRY ADVISER:  The producer was saying, this guy wants to talk to you, here‘s his number.  Call him if you want.  If you want to call that arranging a call, that‘s fine, but it was up to me whether I was going to make the call or not.  And I made the call, talked to him.  We talked about three or four minutes.  He had some advice on how to hit back on the Swift Boat Veterans, who had been running this smear campaign against John Kerry.  You know, I thanked him for his interest and his advice.  Three or four minutes later, it was over. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Burkett also claimed he talked to another Kerry confidant, the former Georgia Senator Max Cleland.  Cleland says he referred him to the campaign itself.  And also former Governor Howard Dean.  “My interest,” Burkett told “USA Today,” “was to get the attention of the national campaign to defend against these Swift Boat attacks.  Neither the Democratic Party nor the Kerry campaign had anything to do with the documents.” 

Are the Republicans going to be able to pin this tale on that donkey?  Joining me now from Philadelphia, “Newsweek‘s” senior political correspondent and our own analyst, Howard Fineman.  Howard, good evening.

HOWARD FINEMAN, MSNBC ANALYST:  Good evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Well, let‘s start with the journalism here.  Every reporter has done a favor for a source—some even do quid pro quos.  If you thought Bill Burkett was on the level and he asked you to give Joe Lockhart a message to call him, and you do that, did you just violate a code?

FINEMAN:  Yes.  I think so.  Of course, that‘s a big assumption about Burkett being on the level.  But be that as it may, no, I think, listen, whenever we‘re doing a story on one candidate, we obviously talk to the opponents‘ camp, because they are full up of opposition research we would like to get our hands on, and they often comply. 

But that‘s different from saying, you know, I will put you in touch with the campaign and I will in essence become almost a sort of ad hoc adviser or talent scout for the campaign.  I think that‘s something that would raise a lot of alarm bells.  And I must say, especially in this situation, where you‘re talking about documents, purported documents, that really allege a court-martialable offense about George Bush as a young man, now that he is commander in chief, that‘s very heavy duty.  And you not only have the ethics within yourself, you have the ethics as they would look on the off chance, as happened here, that your actions were discovered. 

OLBERMANN:  The comments by Mr. Gillespie and Mr. Bartlett today, was the point of those to make those comments, just to postulate a straight line between Burkett and the Kerry campaign, or are they really going to go for the kill here and try to establish that? 

FINEMAN:  They just want to keep the story going as long as they can because it serves the White House‘s interests in several ways.  First of all, it is like a bad accident on a highway of journalism.  And every reporter I know who might otherwise be looking at the Iraq story or John Kerry‘s latest speech is busy looking on the web pages about the latest problem with CBS.  This is something that everybody in the media cares about to the extent it distracts from other issues. 

I think it is helpful to George Bush.  Also to some extent, it might insulate George Bush from further attacks either on his character either from the Kerry campaign or critical stories written by the so-called mainstream media which many conservatives and Bush supporters have labeled the enemy here.  This plays right into their hands. 

So naturally, Dan Bartlett and people at the campaign BC ‘04 are going to try to keep this thing tumbling, keep it stirring as long as they possibly can. 

OLBERMANN:  Do the Democrats try to do the reverse of that, to lie low right now or is there something actionable back in Mr. Burkett‘s rather ill chosen phrase, “I may have been a patsy” or this blind attribution in the “New York Post” about Roger Stone, the G.O.P. activist.  Is any of this starter material or do they just shut up? 

FINEMAN:  I think they‘re probably better off to shut up unless they know where those memos came from.  I mean, they‘re still sitting there.  We don‘t know who produced them, we don‘t know who forwarded them, we don‘t know how they were created.  Unless the Democrats to know that and think that helps their story, they‘re better off just keeping their mouth shut at this point and pointing to John Kerry‘s latest speech on Iraq. 

OLBERMANN:  So what do the next couple of days look like on this?

FINEMAN:  On the media side, everybody will be looking to see who is on that independent commission that CBS is setting up to examine things.  They‘ll look to see if anybody is disciplined at CBS.  Everybody will keep hunting for the source of those memos, who created them if they‘re fake indeed, and how they got into the bloodstream of journalism. 

On the political side, I think the White House will try to keep it going for another day or so.  But I can tell you there‘s another big story looming on the horizon and that is the run-up to the big debate a week from this coming Thursday. 

OLBERMANN:  And in the interim, we‘ll just keep checking in on the livestock convention‘s reports from Texas. 

FINEMAN:  That‘s a great detail.  Maybe patsy is the source of this. 

OLBERMANN:  “Newsweek‘s” Howard Fineman.  It‘s always great.  Thanks for your time and your insight, my friend.

The Burkett story has now even spilled into the area of the presidential debates.  Just sort of a (UNINTELLIGIBLE) there with what Howard was saying. 

A conservative website called BoycottCBS.com is now calling for the replacement of the scheduled moderator of the third of those debates, CBS newsman Bob Schieffer.  And here the blogosphere may have gotten ahead of their supply line.  Apart from Schieffer‘s impeccable credentials as a journalist and as a political neutral, the website evidently does not know he is one short step removed from being considered an FOW, friend of W. 

When the president owned the Texas Rangers baseball team in the eighties and nineties, the club president was his business associate, Jay Thomas Schieffer.  After taking office, Mr. Bush named Mr. Schieffer ambassador to Australia.  Tom Schieffer is Bob Shieffer‘s brother.  Bob Schieffer is a baseball fanatic.  Not only owned a Rotisserie League team and a CBS-related fans league, but he was the league‘s commissioner. 

Tom Schieffer laughingly used to acknowledge that his brother Bob was forever pestering the Bush-owned Rangers for inside baseball info.  And anybody who has ever known a Rotisserie League player understands all too well, blood is thicker than water but rotisserie baseball is more important than politics. 

Upcoming, the reemergence of Iraq in this campaign.  But first the Schieffer baseball story brings us neatly back to the CBS News coverage of this story and the apology for it that was issued by a man who once served as the stadium public address announcer for Houston‘s minor league baseball team.  COUNTDOWN maintains the official international apology hall of fame.  And we tonight induct a new member. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAN RATHER, CBS NEWS ANCHOR:  It was a mistake.  CBS News deeply regrets it.  Also, I want to say personally and directly—I‘m sorry. 

JANET JACKSON, SINGER:  Unfortunately, the whole thing went wrong in the end.  I am really sorry. 

BILL CLINTON, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I know that my public comments and my silence about this matter gave a false impression.  I misled people including even my wife. 

KOBE BRYANT, LOS ANGELES LAKERS:  I‘m so sorry.  I love my wife so much. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  In order to be a racist, you have to feel superior.   I don‘t feel superior to you at all.  I don‘t believe any man or any woman is superior to any other...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Did you always hold that view? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I think I did. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I feel really bad for (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and I feel really lucky that it wasn‘t me. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  What the hell were you thinking? 

HUGH GRANT, ACTOR:  I think you know in life, pretty much, what is a good thing to do and what is a bad thing.  And I did a bad thing.  There you have it. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Sweetheart, who do you want to be when you grow up? 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Just like my daddy. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Poor little thing.  And I want my I am sorry, Matt (ph).

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER ®, CALIFORNIA:  Yes.  That I have behaved badly sometimes.  Those people that I have offended, I want to say to them, I‘m deeply sorry about that and I apologize. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Nowhere in my part can I possibly express—the terrible pain and suffering. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  That is, some of my judgments were wrong.  And some were wrong.  They were made in what I believed at the time to be the best interests of the nation. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Please forgive me.  I have sinned against you, my Lord.  And I would ask that your precious...

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  COUNTDOWN opening with the continuing fallout from the CBS Document debacle.  Up next, number four story, the subtle showdown at the U.N.  President Bush defends the invasion.  The U.N.‘s top diplomat says the rule of law is in jeopardy around the world. 

And later, the situation on the ground in Iraq, a second American hostage in as many days is reported brutally beheaded at the hands of terrorists. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  It is the definition of a tough crowd.  President Bush speaking to the United Nations about Iraq the week after the head of the U.N. called the war in Iraq illegal. 

Our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN, Mr. Bush with his pick of poisons today, a speech to a world body that still sees Iraq as America gallivanting.  For the reaction of his presidential opponent who may have finally struck a resident chord of criticism.  Our White House correspondent is David Gregory. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID GREGORY, MSNBC WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Today the president returned to the international stage where two years ago, he declared Saddam Hussein‘s regime a grave and gathering danger.  Despite a cool reception in the General Assembly, Mr. Bush made no apologies for making good on the U.N. threat of serious consequences or war.  Saddam failed to come clean on his weapons program. 

BUSH:  When we say serious consequences for the sake of peace, there must be serious consequences. 

GREGORY:  Mr. Bush boasted that Iraq with its new prime minister who is looking on today, has rejoined the communicate of nations.  But he also acknowledged that a violent insurgency threatened Iraq‘s future.  As he appealed to his still divided international community for help.

BUSH:  The proper response to difficulty is not to retreat.  It is to prevail. 

GREGORY:  Later, during a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, the president used even tougher language as he condemned the beheadings of American hostages. 

BUSH:  We will not allow these thugs and terrorists to decide your fate and to decide our fate. 

GREGORY (on camera):  Mr. Bush may have been speaking to the world today, but his message was also squarely aimed at his rival, John Kerry has put the Iraq debate at the heart of the campaign.  Today the president said Kerry has taken so many positions on the war, he is no longer credible. 

The senator with David Letterman last night. 

DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST “LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN”:  If you had been elected the president in 2000, November 2 how the, would we be in Iraq now? 

KERRY:  No. 

BUSH:  The idea that somehow the world would be better off with Saddam in power is a—an absurd notion. 

GREGORY (voice-over):  Today Kerry faced campaign reporters for the first time in more than a month.  And attempted to answer Bush‘s attack. 

KERRY:  What I have always said is that the world is better off without Saddam Hussein.  The question is how you do it. 

GREGORY:  Kerry said it is the president‘s credibility that has suffered because he has failed to be honest about reality in Iraq. 

KERRY:  Iraq is in crisis.  The president needs to live in the world of reality.  Not in a world of fantasy spin. 

GREGORY:  At the U.N. today, Mr. Bush took the foreign policy debate beyond Iraq.  Mindful that any real progress requires a serious commitment to the raging Arab/Israeli dispute, the president pressured Israel to impose a freeze on settlements in occupied Palestinian land. 

BUSH:  The daily humiliation of the Palestinian people and avoid any actions that prejudice final negotiations. 

(on camera):  It is Iraq that define this administration‘s foreign policy and today, two years after arguing for confrontation with Saddam, the president is still struggling to persuade the world to see it through. 

David Gregory, NBC News at the United Nations. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Incidentally, that a Kerry news conference should be a news story by itself underscores the upcoming third story.  John Stewart, Regis, and Kelly live?  Letterman and Dr. Phil.  That is not the booking schedule for Paris Hilton‘s talk show appearances, it is Senator Kerry‘s.  Leaping completely over the TV main stream to talk to the talkers.  That‘s coming up on COUNTDOWN. 

And also ahead, a loose moose struck grief.  No hardly, this your headliner story and our look at the bizarre news of the day.  “Oddball” is next. 

And later, Austin Powers survived the fembots.  But can you, average Joe, at home survive the poker bots?  Are robots stealing you blind of your online gambling winners, breaking news? 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

We‘re back and we pause the COUNTDOWN to take our nightly opportunity to distract you from the day‘s important news and issues by using shiny object and cute furry animal.  Let‘s play “Oddball.”

We begin in Salt Lake City, Utah, moose abuse.  A drunken moose, just wanted to pay his respects to some of the dearly departed but the man had other ideas.  Actually, the moose was perfectly sober when he entered that cemetery.  But wildlife officials shot him with a tranquilizer dart and it was only a matter of time from there.  Hey, Rocky!

It is the onset of mating season.  It brings them into the city.  Apparently Salt Lake has a hoping moose single scene.  But to deter them from shooting this animal in the future, officials cut off most of it‘s his antlers and painted a big blue bulls eye on his side.  Good luck getting a date now, pal!  Blue moose, you saw me standing alone.

And if have you been looking for the perfect way to celebrate the recent expiration of the assault weapons ban?  Well, Mikhail Kalashnikov they navy answer of you can take a few shots of the Kalashnikov brand vodka.  The drink is only available in Russia and Britain right now.  But Kalashnikov is hoping that like his earlier invention, it can be smuggled into the and U.S. distributed among militia‘s street gangs, and sportsmen hunting brontosaurus.  Whether you want to take the edge off or your enemy‘s legs off, make mine a Kalashnikov. 

And ordinarily, you would not want to go into the record books for owning the worlds shortest wiener, but a happy family in Slovakia celebrate tonight.  Donka (ph) is not really a wiener dog but the long haired chihuahua is the smallest dog in the world, just 18 centimeters long, weighs just 27 ounces.  He eats but 2 ½ ounce of dog food a day.  Apparently Donka does not like dog food. 

“Oddball” now safely behind us. 

Up next our number three story, decision 2004.  Who do the candidates do first, Regis or Dr. Phil? 

And later, another gruesome day in Iraq.  A second American hostage reported brutally murder, and terrorists claim that a British hostage is next.  Those stories ahead. 

First here our COUNTDOWN top three news makers of this day.

No. 3 Max the goldfish from Mount Prospect, Illinois.  His owner won Max and 11 others gold fish at a school fair when the guy was 10-years-old, the others have all died, but Max is still alive and he‘s grown to nearly a foot.  That fair was in 1985, Max is nearly 20.  Surpassing COUNTDOWN‘s previous favorite, the dearly departed Dick the gold fish was 17.

No. 2, Walter F. Ratcliff of Indianapolis.  He tried to rob a local supermarket to get money to pay his rent.  Police say Ratcliff handed the gal at checkout a note that read—quote—“There is a bomb in the meat department.  Give me all your cash.”

And No. 1, Sha Na Na.  The ‘50s band showed up to play a charity event at the YWCA in Anderson, Indiana.  They hoped to draw 2,000 fans.  They got 289.  The YWCA actually lost $20,000 on this.  Board member Connie Smith wondered—quote—“Sha Na Na was at Woodstock, for Pete‘s stake.  Why wasn‘t anyone interested?”  Quick.  Destroy all records of Woodstock.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Hollywood predicted this day would come in the classic 1957 picture “A Face in a Crowd.”  A dyspeptic and chronically boring presidential wanna-be bypassed the usual media routes by appearing on an apocryphal show called “Lonesome Road‘s Cracker Barrel.”

Our third story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, we have yet to see Ralph Nader on Country Music Television‘s greatest tour buses show, but we‘ve had Richard Nixon on “Laugh-In,” Ronald Reagan on a Cubs broadcast, Bill Clinton on “Arsenio Hall” and John Kerry on “Jon Stewart.”

But in the last week, the mid-election talk show appearance has suddenly gone from cameo to campaign strategy, from a way to pick up four or five million nonnews viewers to, on a very special edition of “The Dr.  Phil Show.”

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “THE DR. PHIL SHOW”)

PHILLIP MCGRAW, HOST:  Were you all spankers?  Did you spank them?

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Not really. 

LAURA BUSH, FIRST LADY:  No very often.

G. BUSH:  Not really.  We were in-your-roomers.  Get to your room. 

MCGRAW:  Yes. 

G. BUSH:  I think I probably used a little harsher rhetoric at times than Laura would have, but not mean, not mean, but just kind of, you have crossed a red line.  And don‘t cross it again. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN”)

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Cheney can claim Bush as a dependent. 

(LAUGHTER)

KERRY:  One hundred dollar penalty if you pronounce nuclear instead of “nucular.” 

DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST:  Yes. 

(APPLAUSE)

KERRY:  And George W. Bush gets a deduction for mortgaging our entire future. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  In a moment, the thoughts of political satirist Will Durst. 

First, everybody is laughing until somebody gets hurt, like the reporters actually assigned to cover people like John Kerry who wind up having to say things like, as the senator told Kelly Ripa.

Our TV guide is our correspondent Carl Quintanilla. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CARL QUINTANILLA, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Back in the line of fire for the first time in six weeks...

KERRY:  Where you been? 

QUINTANILLA:  Even John Kerry today joked with reporters about his lack of access on the road. 

QUESTION:  Senator Kerry, do you have any response to the president‘s comments? 

QUESTION:  Senator Kerry, we have some questions for you. 

QUINTANILLA:  This year, the only thing more tightly controlled than the message is the messenger.  The president took three questions today, first time in a month.  Normally, they‘re from supporters and prescreened.  Those that aren‘t can get the silent treatment.   

QUESTION:  Mr. President, why allow the assault weapons ban to expire without a fight?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  All right, guys, thank you.

QUINTANILLA:  Candidates try to forge a bond with their traveling press.  But Kerry has been more distant since his last press conference in August when he was challenged and admitted he would still support the war, even knowing there were no weapons of mass destruction. 

KERRY:  Yes, I would have voted for the authority. 

QUINTANILLA:  The president has given fewer than half the number of campaign trail Q&As than his father because reporters‘ questions can be tough, even hostile, and throw candidates off message. 

MARTHA JOYNT KUMAR, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN:  In a campaign, you want to focus on the issues that are important to you.  And a press conference is not the way to get there. 

QUINTANILLA (on camera):  Of course, candidates do give interviews, maybe not always traveling press, but to others who can guarantee a more friendly audience. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN”)

ANNOUNCER:  Tonight, Senator John Kerry!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

QUINTANILLA (voice-over):  Like talk shows, where the issues are different. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “REGIS & KELLY”)

REGIS PHILBIN, CO-HOST:  How do you stay in shape?  Do you have a routine?  Do you work out in the morning?

KERRY:  No. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEPHANIE CUTTER, KERRY CAMPAIGN COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR:  He‘s having fun.  He‘s having fun doing these.  It‘s a way to break up the campaign and get your message out. 

QUINTANILLA:  Officials from both campaigns dismiss any complaints as cry baby journalism.  They say voters don‘t blame candidates for avoiding the media.  In fact, when told NBC News was working on this story, an unworried senior Kerry aide responded with just three words:  Go for it. 

Carl Quintanilla, NBC News Jacksonville, Florida.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  At this rate, television news could be out of business by Friday, not, given the way there week is going so far, that that would necessarily be a bad thing. 

Joining me now for perspective and sarcasm, political satirist and our political guest here, Will Durst. 

Good evening, Will.

WILL DURST, POLITICAL SATIRIST:  Morning.  How are you doing, Keith? 

OLBERMANN:  Has our nation sunk so low?  Has the need for power, has the desire for a empire grown so great, that to become president of this great land, a man must now subject himself to going on “Dr. Phil”? 

DURST:  Well, it‘s hard to figure out which is worse, Dr. Phil or “Regis & Kelly.”  How much more can you debase yourself?  Who is going to end up on Animal Planet?  Who is going to end up hawking Chia Pets on QVC?  That‘s the real question.

OLBERMANN:  I could bash all the talk shows.  But the only reason I‘m in the studios in New York tonight is that I was recording on a guest hit on a talk show, the Carson Daly program.

So, instead, given fact that 50 percent of the public isn‘t even thinking about voting, are these couch appearances, in some way, not just useful, but almost necessary just to get a huge percentage of citizens of this country just slightly involved in their own futures? 

DURST:  Well, I think that‘s what‘s happened. 

Everybody stopped watching the news.  You‘ve seen the stories that everything is watching Jon Stewart.  So, if nobody is watching the news, go to Jon Stewart.  You‘ve got Bush on “Dr. Phil.”  Everybody is watching it.  You have Kerry on the Letterman show.  I expect Nader is going to do a guest cameo on “CSI” pretty soon.  He‘ll show up as a corpse or something. 

(LAUGHTER)

OLBERMANN:  You got to it faster than I could have. 

(LAUGHTER)

OLBERMANN:  I was just taking, they pull the sheet off and it‘s like the episodes of “Police Squad,” where the star is killed like in the first 15 seconds.

DURST:  Remember that, Belushi rolling off the truck?

OLBERMANN:  The solution to everything in politics, good or bad, is obviously more.  So, today, we see John Kerry being booked on to talk shows, like he was Charo or George Siegel (ph). 

We‘ve already joked back and forth about the other possibilities of people on QVC selling Chia Pets perhaps in their own likeness.  What is the next kind of bypass-the-media thing?  Is there something else to do?  Is there some other way to get past journalists and reporters? 

DURST:  They could come directly into our homes.  Wouldn‘t that be a switch?  Just go door to door and shake people‘s hands, and, man, it would be like the turn of the century again and there would be flags and ice cream.  And it would be America. 

(CROSSTALK)

DURST:  No, let‘s not

(CROSSTALK)

OLBERMANN:  You could get Harry Truman‘s train, and, instead of just using it as a prop, you could actually get on board and go from city to city and make a big speech and talk to a bunch of people about what‘s interesting to them and then move on, something like that? 

DURST:  Yes.  That‘s a really good idea.  But I think it is totally unworkable.  I just don‘t—no, I don‘t see it happening. 

OLBERMANN:  If you brought Kelly and Regis with you, would it work then?  

(LAUGHTER)

OLBERMANN:  There you go.  OK.

Political satirist and friend of COUNTDOWN, Will Durst.

As always, Will, thanks for coming in.  We appreciate it. 

DURST:  Take it easy, Keith.  Thanks.

OLBERMANN:  Be well.

Speaking of being out on the edge and drawing laughs politically, there is Ralph Nader.  But the Democrats are not yucking it up tonight.  The third man in the ring is now on the ballot in 29 states.  Maryland‘s highest court has ordered its election board to accept 542 voter petition signatures it had previously rejected, which puts Nader over the minimum of 10,000 needed to qualify in Maryland. 

Nader will appear there as the candidate of the Populist Party, Populist, not to be confused with Popular.  That party designation did cost Nader a spot on the Arkansas ballot, a judge there saying that the supporters did not disclose rMDNM_Nader‘s affiliation with the Populists.  For similar reasons, Nader has been stricken from the vote in New Mexico as well. 

Coming up next on COUNTDOWN, unconfirmed claims that another American hostage has been brutally butchered in Iraq.  We‘re monitoring that situation from Baghdad next.  Then later, how a judge just helped Martha Stewart get home in time for the planting in the spring.  Look at it this way.  She might be wintering in Florida.  Martha behind bars. 

First, a special edition of COUNTDOWN‘s top three sound bites of this day, confessions of a Wookie on a publicity tour. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(GRUNTING)

(END VIDEO CLIP)  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  For the second time in 24 hours, reports of another American hostage dead, brutally murdered by Iraq‘s foremost terrorist.  Now his British co-worker facing a deadline of his own. 

Stand by for that.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  It was widely speculated by the international press that if his abductors were going to kill American hostage Jack Hensley in Iraq, they would do so at or about the same time President Bush was speaking at the United Nations today. 

Our No. 2 story on the COUNTDOWN, grim but still inconclusive evidence that they may have done exactly that. 

Our correspondent in Iraq is Ned Colt. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NED COLT, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  The report tonight on an Islamic Web site claiming Jack Hensley, a contractor from Georgia, has been executed, the second American hostage killed in as many days.  Tonight, a family friend spoke about their loss. 

JAKE HALEY, HENSLEY FAMILY SPOKESMAN:  Jack is the friend that everybody wants to have.  The world has lost a great human being. 

COLT:  Last night, it was Eugene Armstrong who was killed, the video posted on another Web site.  The Michigan native‘s body was later found sprawled under a Baghdad overpass. 

The two Americans and a British colleague, Kenneth Bigley, all three contractors for a Gulf-based construction firm, were kidnapped from their home last Thursday in Baghdad.  CIA sources tell NBC News that an analysis of the execution video indicates that Armstrong‘s killer is Jordanian-born insurgent Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.  Iraq‘s most wanted insurgent is demanding the release of women held in American-run prisons here. 

The U.S. says there are only two, scientists in Saddam Hussein‘s weapons program.  Close to 150 foreigners have been taken hostage in Iraq, almost all this year.  At least 28 have been killed.  Beheading hostages has proven a shocking tactic. 

WALID PHARES, MSNBC TERRORISM ANALYST:  There‘s a big difference between shooting a soldier and beheading a civilian.  A terrorist knows very well that, in democratic societies, of course, beheading a civilian will have a greater impact. 

COLT (on camera):  The American and British governments say they won‘t negotiate.  Tonight, those holding Kenneth Bigley say he‘ll be killed, too, unless their demands are met. 

Ned Colt, NBC News, Baghdad. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  There has not been a loud whisper about terrorism in this country since the Republicans convened in New York.  But that quiet integral ended this morning in the pages of the newspaper “The Washington Times.”

According to one anonymous official cited by that paper, al Qaeda is still plotting a—quote—“spectacular attack,” despite the recent spate of arrests in Britain and Pakistan.  The purported motive is novel, even if the message is not.  Some al Qaeda leaders supposedly believe—quote—

“Their credibility is on the line because there has not been a major attack since 9/11.”

And word tonight of the government terror watch list working, although perhaps a bit later than anyone might like.  A plane en route to Washington, D.C., from there to London, was diverted to Bangor, Maine, tonight, diverted after it was discovered that someone on the watch list was already on board.  The plane landed in Maine without incident and federal agents met the plane at the gate. 

The difficult transition from the real world of terror to the fantasy world of show business is made no easier tonight simply because the top entertainment story is only slightly hopeful.

Rodney Dangerfield in a coma topping “Keeping Tabs” tonight.  His wife released that information about the 82-year-old comedian, that he‘s been in that condition since heart surgery on the 25th of last month.  But, Joan  Dangerfield says, he is listed stable and has been breathing on his own for more than 24 hours.  She says he‘s also shown some sign of awareness.  Mrs.  Dangerfield says the coma is a light one and that after recent family visits—quote—“We are all hopeful that he will regain full consciousness soon.”  Amen.

Be careful what you ask for, young lady.  You may just get it, a bromide not often applied to Martha Stewart.  But it is tonight.  She asked to be incarcerated as soon as possible.  And, today, a judge obliged.  Ms.  Stewart said she wanted to start her five-month stretch in time to be out for spring planting, even if that meant missing the holidays.  Today, a judge ordered the stay on her sentence vacated and directed they U.S.  Bureau of Prisons to admit her by October 8, just 18 days from now.

It also recommended that the bureau place her in either of the two facilities she asked for, either her first choice, Danbury, Connecticut, or another jail in Florida.  Shares of Martha Stewart Omnimedia rose 9 percent after news that its founder would finally be headed to the big house. 

Up next, tonight‘s top story.  And your hint, if your new online poker buddy goes by the nickname Hal, get out of the game.  That ahead. 

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Since you have cable, you have probably not escaped the televised poker phenomenon.  I believe every basic cable channel now has a poker show except us and The Weather Channel. 

But the fact that online poker is about to up its ante to revenues of $1 billion a year, that may be news to you.  And as our No. 1 story on the COUNTDOWN will tell you, even if it isn‘t, who you may be playing online poker against could be a robot.  Some online poker analysts claim to run 5,000 games at once serving 50,000 players at a time, but they may not all be human players.

There are bots, poker-playing computers who may right now be taking you to the cleaners without you so much as suspecting they aren‘t really named Blackjack from Amarillo.  Poker is a sophisticated game, but so is chess, and machines seem to do as well as chess as do the world‘s champions.  The layman and even the online player might think this is a development to be discouraged, or maybe just fraud. 

MSNBC.com‘s Mike Brunker has a terrific piece on the Web site about this.  And he joins us now.

Mike, good evening. 

MICHAEL BRUNKER, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Hi, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  So are these invincible poker playing machines from another galaxy?  Do we need to get Will Smith in here or what? 

BRUNKER:  That might be one approach to it. 

It‘s really right now a lot of speculation, you know, on poker sites and newsgroups that cater to online poker players.  We know they exist in academic circles.  There‘s an artificial intelligence poker bot that can play against the best players, you know, in a one-on-one situation.  But nobody really knows how sophisticated the ones that may or may not be playing online are. 

OLBERMANN:  Are there, shall we put it, legalities involved if an online poker site were to have a program in place and didn‘t tell the old clientele?  Would we get a Wild West kind of remedy there? 

BRUNKER:  You know, if the site was running it, you could probably try and go after them for fraud, although you‘re probably suing somebody who‘s operating out of Gibraltar or someplace in the Caribbean.

OLBERMANN:  Yes. 

BRUNKER:  So hard to know how far you could get with that. 

If it‘s being run by an outside player, which is the kind of main fear, you don‘t really have a lot of recourse.  It‘s probably not even against the law. 

OLBERMANN:  Is there any way to tell unless you have your own program that is designed to detect someone else‘s program?  Is there any way for somebody at home to tell? 

BRUNKER:  You know, most of the suspicions have been triggered by certain players who will be playing multiple tables at some of these sites and will play for 48 hours at one sitting, you know, which is—that would raise a few suspicions in my mind if I happened to be in that game. 

OLBERMANN:  Is it limited to poker or should this be a sort of buyer-beware notice for all online card games? 

BRUNKER:  Well, a little bit of both. 

It‘s pretty well-known that they use bots in some of the simpler card games, where it‘s calculation, blackjack, for instance, but, in that case, you‘re playing against the house, so that‘s the site‘s problem.  In poker, since you‘re playing against other players, it‘s your worry.  And short of something like that, where the guys has been online for 48 hours straight and is playing very mechanically, I don‘t think you have a lot to go by. 

OLBERMANN:  And if, like, as we said before, his name is Hal, you might want to step away from the machine at that point.

But the last thing is here, you referred to something called Vexbot.  Vexbot is the one that actually learns the habits of the other players in the game? 

BRUNKER:  Yes.  This is the state-of-the-art academic bot.  And it‘s developed by a team up at University of Alberta.  And they used artificial intelligence techniques and got this thing so it will actually model your behavior as it plays you. 

Right now, it can only do one-on-one games, but they‘re working to broaden that so you it will be able to play a five-, six-, 10-player hand. 

OLBERMANN:  If we could teach it to fill in on a newscast, I got a part-time gig for it over here. 

Mike Brunker of MSNBC.com on the menace of poker-playing robots stealing my money like it‘s a bad episode of “The Jetsons.”

We recommend everybody who is watching to read it.  Mike, many thanks for the piece and for your time tonight. 

BRUNKER:  Thank you, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  All right, that‘s it.  From New York, that‘s COUNTDOWN.  Thanks for being part of it.  I‘m Keith Olbermann.  Good night and good luck. 

This shouldn‘t be tough from here, huh? 

END   

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