updated 2/2/2005 2:45:15 PM ET 2005-02-02T19:45:15

Guest: Carl Bernstein, Brady Miller, Evan Kohlmann, Katie Hawker

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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

No cause for alarm, says the Vatican.  Just the flu, says the Vatican.  Gone to the hospital as a precaution, says the Vatican.  Thus is the alarm raised about the health and life of Pope John Paul II. 

The kidnapping of American soldier John Adam by terrorists in Iraq. 

Something look wrong here?  That‘s not John Adam, but it might be G.I. Joe. 

It‘s either a fraud or insurgents have been reduced to taking toys hostage. 

The tsunami.  Far too real.  At this late date, new extraordinary images of December‘s calamity and of the earthquake that precipitated all of it. 

Back to pineapple under the sea.  The Missouri pastor counteracts what she called bullying and name calling in the anti tolerance controversy.  She brings Spongebob Squarepants to her pulpit.  The pastor will join us. 

And those generic faces in advertising.  Ever thought one of them looked like you?  The California man who said Taster‘s Choice chose his face without giving him a taste.  And the jury that just awarded him $15 million. 

All that and more now on COUNTDOWN. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Good evening. 

They have taken him to the same Roman hospital to which he was taken on May 13, 1981, when an anxious world, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, waited for news of whether the vicar of Christ would die at an assassin‘s hands. 

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, Karol Wojtyla, since 1978 Pope John Paul II, the first non-Italian Pope in nearly five centuries, is suffering what the Vatican calls a breathing crisis tonight.  But an unidentified U.S. State Department official is telling NBC News this evening that there is no indication that the Pope is gravely ill. 

The Pope was rushed to Gemelli Polyclinic Hospital at 10:50 p.m.  prevailing local time, about 4:50 p.m. Eastern.  It was announced Sunday that the Pope had been afflicted by the flu, part of a near epidemic that has spread through the Rome area since early December. 

Earlier today, the Vatican had canceled John Paul‘s engagements for tomorrow, including his weekly gathering with the faithful who pack St.  Peter‘s Square each Wednesday. 

But the hospitalization appeared to have been a sudden and shocking development.  American Archbishop James Harvey, a member of the papal staff, told reporters he had not even known that John Paul had been taken to Gemelli, only that he had been suffering from bronchial congestion and a slight fever early in the day. 

The official statement from the Vatican, released about 7 Eastern Time, reads in part, “The flue which the Holy Father was suffering for three days this evening became complicated by an acute laryngeal tracheitis and larynx spasm crisis.” 

In a moment, I‘ll be joined by the Carl Bernstein, author of one of the definitive biographies of Pope John Paul III.  First for the latest from Rome, I‘m joined by our NBC correspondent in Vatican City, Stephen Weeke. 

Stephen, good evening. 

STEPHEN WEEKE, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Good evening, Keith. 

Yes, as you mentioned, just about three hours ago, Pope John Paul was rushed to Gemelli Hospital.  Right now it‘s 2 a.m. in the morning, and the concern has deepened. 

It was indeed a respiratory situation of an acute nature, they say.  They described some sort of spasms of the larynx.  And this was something that obviously could not be dealt with in the papal apartments, despite the fact that we know that they do have a crash cart situation in the papal apartment.  There is always a doctor standing by.  They felt that he had to be taken to the hospital. 

He‘s very familiar with that hospital, as you mentioned.  He was taken there after he was shot in 1981.  Since then, he had surgery five more times, and so he actually has his own private papal apartment on the top floor of Gemelli Hospital, where they‘re treating him right now. 

Now, in a sign of what may be a lessening of concern or at least an attempt, maybe, on the part of the papal household to send a signal of tranquility, I‘m told that—from the hospital, his chief bodyguard, Camillo Chabin (ph), the man who actually held him in his arms when he was shot 25 years ago, and his personal doctor, Dr. Busemetti (ph), have just left the hospital about 20 minutes ago to return here to Vatican City behind me. 

And they are saying that there will be—the first medical bulletin on the John Paul‘s condition will be issued at 9 a.m. seven hours from now.  So the signals that we‘re getting is that things might be under control at this point.  But it certainly was a great scare when about three hours ago, it was reported that he had to go to the Gemelli Hospital in a big hurry—

Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  Stephen, as you said, the Vatican is a hospital unto itself almost, so much so that the last time the pope was actually hospitalized was for his appendectomy, and that‘s nearly nine years ago.

Do we know what resources they would not have but that they would at Gemelli?  Are we talking, perhaps, given the terminology that‘s been used, are we talking a tracheotomy or a breathing tube?  Are those the kind of things that might not be available to the Pope inside the papal apartments?

WEEKE:  Well, there‘s—they‘ve never made it quite—quite public what they do or do not have in there.  But it is—it is supposed to be sophisticated equipment.  There is one person in there who is a trained doctor.  Then there is his personal doctor, Busemetti (ph) on call. 

So I think it must have reached a point where they felt that the next step after that would go beyond anything that they would be able to do internally, even with—with what they‘re equipped with because of his situation and because of his Parkinson‘s that has affected his health over a long period of time, Keith. 

So I think they wanted to protect themselves so if it got any worse than what they were, they would be in a position to have ICU level of care accessible to him immediately.  And that would be at the Gemelli Hospital and not here at the Vatican, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  Anybody who was aware of the world in 1978, the year that two popes died, remembers the secrecy, the reading of nuance in the statements.  You mentioned that the chief bodyguard and personal doctor have left the hospital to go back to the Vatican. 

Are we seeing, do we suppose, a new kind of forthrightness out of the Vatican tonight, as opposed to 1978 or the previous many times when this crisis, this kind of crisis has been faced?  A forthrightness in terms of media coverage?  Or should we still be parsing the language?

WEEKE:  Well, there‘s still a certain amount of parsing that has to be done.  But because the pope‘s condition of ill health and frailty has been on such public display with continual live appearances.  Part of the reason why this is so alarming, because he never calls in sick, no matter how sick he is, which he is all time.  Because of that, they have had to sort of be a little bit more forthcoming.  So they are telling us more than they would have 20 years ago, Keith, but it still has to be watched closely—Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  Stephen Weeke in Rome where the pope has been hospitalized tonight, great work, sir.  And great thanks. 

As I mentioned earlier, Carl Bernstein‘s book, “His Holiness, John Paul II: The Hidden History of Our Time,” is considered one of, if not the authoritative biography of the pope.  Carl joins us tonight from New York.

Thank you, as always, for your time, sir.

CARL BERNSTEIN, AUTHOR, “HIS HOLINESS”:  Good to be here.

OLBERMANN:  Let me start with pretty much the same question I asked Stephen Weeke.  He has for nearly a quarter century off and on been a patient, recovering from the assassination to dealing with the Parkinson‘s or just being an octogenarian.  What would be—would it necessarily be something very bad that they could not treat inside that extensive medical set-up in the Vatican?

BERNSTEIN:  Obviously, we have to be speculative.  But you‘re talking about an 84-year-old man who‘s been shot, who‘s frail and has Parkinson‘s, and they want to take all the precautions necessary. 

They said that he‘s had problems breathing.  And there are extraordinary measures that can be taken in a hospital that you can‘t take in a clinic at the Vatican.  There are machines, CAT scans, all kinds of things.  So they obviously wanted to get him there in a hurry. 

OLBERMANN:  The decision to hospitalize him, as you say, in a hurry, done so quickly that, as we mentioned, the Archbishop Harvey did not even know about it.  Would the Pope himself have made that ultimate decision or would he have deferred to others?

BERNSTEIN:  I doubt that he would have made it.  He could have overruled it, assuming that he was totally conscious, et cetera, and not asleep or something.  But he—you know, he follows the advice of his doctors and particularly of his secretary, and also, of Joaquin Navarro Valls, who was the press spokesman in the Vatican and a hugely important figure in the Vatican apparatus. 

OLBERMANN:  This is the longest serving Pope since Pius IX, who died in 1878.  John Paul I lasted only a few months, and his predecessor, Paul VI, was there for 15 years.  Whether it‘s imminent or it‘s a decade hence or even longer, this church has to face the reality of eventual change.  Do you think it‘s ready for it?  Or has this Pope been so influential that the seamless traditions of hundreds of years may not turn out to be so seamless this time?

BERNSTEIN:  He is a huge figure in the history of the church.  And it is doubtful that his successor will be an equally huge figure. 

But they‘re ready.  They know the procedure.  They‘ve been thinking about this for a long time, the cardinals.  We don‘t know who it‘s going to be.  One is almost never right about guessing who it‘s going to be. 

The one thing that—that they might be looking for, that there‘s a lot of talk about it, is perhaps a Pope who can bring a little peace and quiet to a church that has been the subject of bombshells one after another for the past 24 years. 

OLBERMANN:  To that point, to some degree, assess this pope for me so far on one issue that‘s always confused me and I guess a lot of other people as well.  Would he—would his work and his legacy in this—in this position, would he be considered a liberal pope, opening up the church to new things?  Or a conservative one who emphasized orthodoxy?

BERNSTEIN:  I think—I think that the word liberal and conservative do not work in his case particularly. 

I think he‘s a radical pope.  He is a radical in that he has searched the perennial theology with absolutely no deviation.  He does not believe in modernity, in moral relativism.  He has allowed the church to move away from a Eurocentric institution and see the future in the third world. 

And obviously, he is a geopolitical genius.  He is probably the most important figure, with Gorbachev and Reagan, in the fall of communism, the denouement of communism.  He really did liberate Poland.  The Soviets and the—and the Polish communists didn‘t know how to deal with him. 

And at the same time, the church is in turmoil over many of the issues that he is insistent that it not move into what many people consider the modern world.  And so that‘s a big problem for a lot of people in his church. 

OLBERMANN:  Carl Bernstein, the author of “His Holiness, Pope John Paul II, and the Hidden History of Our Time.”  As always and on so many different subjects, Carl, great thanks. 

BERNSTEIN:  Good to be here. 

OLBERMANN:  Let‘s recap what we know about the pope‘s health tonight.  Hospitalized tonight about 5 p.m. Eastern to the apparent surprise of many members of his own staff.

Various details released by the Vatican, saying he has the flu, that there were complications from a spasm of the larynx, that there is an acute infection of the respiratory tract.  But that his chief bodyguard and personal doctor have gone back from the hospital to the Vatican within the hour. 

And despite all this, Pope John Paul II, 84 years old, nearly 24 years removed from the four bullets from an assassin‘s gun, suffering from Parkinson‘s Disease.  Despite all that, the pope is not in intensive care, nor is there any evidence, according to State Department officials in this country, that he is gravely ill. 

We will update you as to the pope‘s health as developments require. 

Also tonight, the eve of a rare day in the history of this country.  Tomorrow we‘ll see a State of the Union address and the coming out of Punxsutawney Phil.  The implications of this confluence. 

And more than a month later, yet more images from the Christmas tsunami.  And perhaps the first images of the actual earthquake. 

You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Tomorrow night, the topic, in politics anyway, will be President Bush‘s fifth State of the Union address. 

Our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN, while others worry about how much

time will he spend on Social Security overhaul, given that a prominent

Republican congressman says there will not an Social Security overhaul,

something about the speech that may yet have—not yet dawned on you.  The

date:      February 2.  It‘s State of the Union day and Groundhog Day. 

This has not happened since 1973, when a much younger and fitter Punxsutawney Phil split the media focus with a much younger and fitter Richard Nixon.  And oh, by the way, five days after that harmonic convergence, the Senate voted to establish the Urban Committee to investigate Watergate.  Evidently, Phil the Groundhog does not like to share the spotlight. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Mr. Speaker, the president of the United States. 

OLBERMANN (voice-over):  The State of the Union address.  Washington and Adams read their own to Congress, but the Constitution only requires that a report be made.  Not actually recited.  So until the days of William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson, presidents just sent it over by messenger and had some clerk read it. 

There is no constitutional schedule, either.  This is all just tradition. 

And once again, we hit the rarest of traditions, the State of the Union being delivered on February 2, Groundhogs Day.  It is also prescribed by the Constitution.  It‘s on the back next to the treasure map.  Not a lot of people know that. 

Anyway, we are thus in a publicity conflict between a furry mammal and a not very furry mammal.  Both the speeches of Punxsutawney and Crawford George are written and rewritten, practiced and repracticed. 

Dignitaries dress up stuffily for each presentation.  The president supported by the V.P. and the speaker.  The groundhog literally supported by a guy in a hat. 

And do not forget another similarity.  Each of these speeches have built in applause lines. 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  And the people of Iraq are free.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Too many clouds above.  There is no shadow around. 

OLBERMANN:  But perhaps most astoundingly, both February 2 appearances require prognostication.  Phil‘s fortuneteller is predicated on whether or not he sees his shadow.  The president‘s is based on which shadow he sees. 

A few years back, it was that of Saddam Hussein an...

BUSH:  Axis of evil arming to threaten the peace of the world. 

OLBERMANN:  Last year, it was steroids threatening the peace of professional sports. 

This year, analysts expect it will be Social Security reform, “American Idol” voting fraud, or this whole Spongebob thing. 

And one last parallel.  After each speech, the opposition gets to reply.  In Washington, the Democrats will respond to a grim world forecast by trying to make a political meal out of the president.  In Punxsutawney, the Pennsylvanians will often respond to a grim weather forecast by making a literal meal out of the groundhog. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  He‘s only the messenger!

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Not really.  That‘s just a gag from the old Bill Murray movie. 

News tonight on the man who used to give the speech.  The United Nations naming President Clinton as its envoy for tsunami relief, in the hope that his appointment will keep international attention focused on the crisis.  One would think that the discovery of new bodies and new images more than a month after the disaster would do that by itself. 

Today, Indonesia adding another 1,000 victims to the death toll.  In that country alone, 109,297 have perished and another 128,000 are still classified as missing. 

And then there is the latest video. 

It captures not just that starting quality to the disaster, that feeling best expressed by the rhetorical thought, where did this come from, but it also captures the answer to that rhetorical question: the earthquake itself. 

Our correspondent in Banda Aceh is John Irvine of our affiliated British network, ITN.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) 

JOHN IRVINE, ITN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  This is a nine on the Richter scale looks and sounds like. 

The amateur cameraman was recording nature pulling the trigger. 

People here sat down before they fell down. 

This mother recited the Quran.  These were bricks neatly stacked in the yard. 

Banda Aceh is used to earthquakes, and people did seem remarkably calm.  Several buildings collapsed, but there was time to hunt for survivors.  They did manage to free this woman before the second, even more destructive phase of this catastrophe. 

Patients taken outside this hospital, may well have thought their ordeal was over.  But soon people got wind of something terrible heading their way.  They ran for their lives. 

The massive surge of water carried everything before it, and this is about three miles inland.  Trees, fencing, wooden planking from wrecked homes.  The swollen river swept up so much debris, it actually formed an island, a lifesaver for those who could teeter on top.  They had to duck under the bridge.  Some were able to scramble onto the riverbank. 

The amateur cameraman finished by recording heartbreaking images of survivors and some of the drowned.  For 37 days now, their number has been rising steadily. 

John Irvine, ITV News. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  High seas of a different kind creating havoc for a group of college students.  Stand by for that. 

And an unusual tribute on late night television.  David Letterman says thanks, ahead on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  We‘re back, and we pause the COUNTDOWN now for our nightly segment of stories that the mainstream media is either unwilling, unable or just too terrified to report.  Let‘s play “Oddball.”

Wee!  Sled racing.  We‘re in Gosach (ph), Germany, where this race is an annual tradition going back to 1928.  Two-man teams on traditional wooden sleighs navigating steep, icy, rocky courses at speeds just fast enough to ensure that the many crashes will involve injuries. 

None were serious this year.  But organizers wanted to be sure everybody left with a little something, so just in case the teams do make it to the end of the run, there‘s one final obstacle.  All you can do is lean back, fly through the air and prepare for decades of searing back pain. 

To the mighty Pacific, 600 miles off the coast of Alaska.  Nearly 1,000 college students were taking advantage of a program called Semester at Sea aboard the S.S. Explorer.  A noble craft but somehow most melancholy. 

Pop quiz, kids.  Rough seas ahead.  The 60-foot ship got caught in heavy waves late last week, including at least one 50-footer.  It smashed windows.  It slammed against the hull.  It tossed the ship around. 

Good grief, how often do you think your college is going to sink? 

Nobody was seriously hurt. 

This video was shot inside the ship by student Gunner Larson (ph), who happens to be a former NBC intern.  He didn‘t learn that fancy camera work here. 

Today the explorer is docked in Honolulu, where repair crews are tending to damages.  The poor kids, they were originally headed for South Korea.  Now they‘re stuck in Hawaii. 

The insurgents in Iraq say they have one of our soldiers.  A toy store owner tells us, no, they have one of our dolls. 

And chances are, this guy‘s picture may be somewhere in your kitchen cabinet.  But the coffee maker did not pay to use it until today: $15 million.  The inflation is killing us!

Those stories ahead.  Now here‘s COUNTDOWN‘s top three newsmakers of this day. 

No. 3, the Emergency Broadcasting System in the state of Connecticut.  They meant to press the test button today.  Instead, they pressed the “this is not a drill” button.  So all TV and radio stations in Connecticut announced that residents had to evacuate the state. 

An apology was later issued by the governor.  Bad enough but worse still, think about this.  Nobody evacuated. 

No. 2, an unnamed, unemployed waitress and information technology pro in Berlin, Germany.  The law there is if you turn down a job offer, you lose your unemployment benefits.  Sounds reasonable, except that Germany just legalized prostitution.  The job she was offered and refused was in a brothel.

And no, the German politicians are not looking into this problem.

No. 1, Elaine Edwards.  She‘s one of the first people to get one in one of the last places in the country that did not have them: a phone in her home in Mink, Louisiana.  Fifteen minutes after she heard her first dial tone, that phone rang, and it was a telemarketer!

(MUSIC: “HANGING ON THE TELEPHONE”)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  One of our G.I. Joe dolls is missing.  Captured in Iraq and portrayed as a kidnapped American serviceman, for another one of those self-proclaimed terrorist videos, either by very bad terrorists or very small ones. 

Our No. 3 story on the COUNTDOWN, do what we say or the plastic soldier gets melted in mom‘s new stove.  A group calling itself Mujahadeen Brigades posted this photo of a purported American hostage on a Web site that has frequently carried the statements of Iraqi militants and insurgents.  Along with the image was this claim, quoting here: “Our mujahadeen heroes of Iraq‘s Jihadi Battalion were able to capture American military man John Adam after killing a number of his comrades and capturing the rest.”  It threatened to behead the soldier within 72 hours unless the Iraqi prisoners were released.  The Associated Press devoted 10 paragraphs to this story, including a quote from a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad who said, “we are currently looking into it,” but who added that the Army had no information on the claim and that no units had reported any men missing. 

That might be because that, barring one of the most amazing coincidences in world history, that isn‘t a soldier.  It is a doll.  This is the military action figure called Cody, produced by a company called Dragon Models USA, of Hong Kong and City of Industry, California.  This is Cody.  This is soldier John Adam.  And here‘s the side by side look, which suggests that unless militants captured the guy who modeled for the Cody doll, they‘re threatening to behead a toy. 

Who figured this out?  The U.S. military intelligence?  The vast network of terrorism experts?  No.  Brady Miller.  He is the owner and general manager of Monkey Depot, a hobby shop in Mesa, Arizona, that specializes in military stuff.  Mr. Miller joins us now.  Good evening to you, sir. 

BRADY MILLER, MILITARY TOY SHOP OWNER:  Good evening, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  When and how did you first see the picture of this supposed kidnapped soldier?  And how quickly did you figure out it was actually an action figure that you used to sell at your store? 

MILLER:  Actually fairly quickly.  I have family over in Iraq right now.  I tend to monitor the feeds from the AP and Reuters and the other agencies on my home page, on the computer.  And right when I saw the picture, something didn‘t quite look right, and then started to look familiar.  The vest was one that was to my knowledge, phased out a while ago.  And especially the rifle pointing at his head didn‘t look right and also looked familiar. 

So I went back and searched through some of the products that we were carrying last year when Dragon Models came out with the high-detailed line of figures for the Iraqi freedom conflict.  And sure enough, it was the Cody figure that we were selling last year.  So I placed a couple of calls into the AP to try to get them to pull the story, or at least let everybody know that everything was OK and that U.S. forces wouldn‘t waste any resources trying to track somebody down that wasn‘t missing. 

OLBERMANN:  Do you know, have you sold any of those to customers in the Middle East, or could anybody else have sold them to anybody in the Middle East by any chance? 

MILLER:  Potentially.  I mean, we ship all over the world.  Any packages to Arab countries are, you know, rarer.  We have shipped a few packages to the United Arab Emirates.  We weren‘t able to search our database adequately enough to confirm whether one of those had actually gone over there.  That particular figure was released in fairly limited numbers.  So it wasn‘t a widely distributed figure.  So anything is possible, but it‘s hard to say definitively. 

OLBERMANN:  The last question is about the size of this.  How big is the Cody doll?  And how big would the gun—you pointed the gun—you know that the gun is being pointed at him, it was kind of an odd angle.  You would think anybody holding it that way would tip forward.  How big would the model be and how big would the gun be? 

MILLER:  Well, actually, yeah, that was the other thing, too.  It was a U.S. gun. 

OLBERMANN:  And the connection to Brady Miller of Monkey Depot in Mesa, Arizona was lost just at the operative moment, but as you saw, rather conclusively, he came up with the information that that is a doll, that‘s not a U.S. serviceman, thank goodness.  And to his credit, NBC News terrorism analyst and founder of GlobalTerrorAlert.com, Evan Kohlmann, started questioning the authenticity of the photo at 1:30 this afternoon.  He joins us now from Washington.  Evan, good evening.

EVAN KOHLMANN, NBC NEWS TERRORISM ANALYST:  Thanks for having me. 

OLBERMANN:  Is there any doubt now that this is a fraud? 

KOHLMANN:  No.  There‘s really no doubt.  A close analysis of the photo itself revealed that the photo had been edited, sloppily.  And you could actually see the pixels that had been added.  And unless this guy has a perpendicular slab of skin hanging off his face, he‘s not real. 

And I think really what really hit the mark here was that looking at the banner that was behind him—that banner was supposed to be the banner of Zarqawi‘s group, Tawheed wal-Jihad, al Qaeda in Iraq.  Yet the writing on it appeared to most of us that actually know Arabic, it appeared to have been written by someone or traced by someone with no knowledge of the Arabic language.  So in terms of your earlier question, I think the answer is we look like we may have another Benjamin Vanderford style hoax here.  A hoax that may have come right actually from inside the United States. 

OLBERMANN:  I was just going to ask that.  Is there any suggestion that, besides what you just referred to, that it is not necessarily from the Middle East?  Because it does—it seems far-fetched that some would-be terrorist in Iraq would really think that no one would notice that they had photographed a toy as a hostage. 

KOHLMANN:  Yes.  There is some reason to believe that.  The person that posted this communique was no representative of a terrorist group.  He had not been recognized by anyone.  He was quote/unquote a new member, someone who had never posted before.  He used the name Abu Jihad, which is about as generic as you can come, and he called the name of the group the Mujahadeen Brigade, which again, is as generic as you come. 

This was the work of someone who really did not know Arabic very well, who is not familiar with insurgent groups, and surprisingly, they were able to pull a fast one on the AP and Reuters.  It is still amazing to me that no one did a closer analysis of this before publishing it. 

OLBERMANN:  How did it gain any authenticity in the first place? 

KOHLMANN:  Unfortunately right now there‘s kind of an arms race between various media organizations to report terrorism news first, especially terrorism news that comes over the Internet.  And you know, sometimes when you get it out first, you don‘t get it out right.  And I think the perspective thus far has been, put it out there, we‘ll fix it later.  I don‘t know if that‘s necessarily the right strategy. 

OLBERMANN:  Evan Kohlmann of GlobalTerrorAlert.com and an NBC News analyst.  Great thanks. 

KOHLMANN:  Thank you. 

OLBERMANN:  Dragon Models does not make a Saddam Hussein doll, but if the company did, it would have to come in two forms—the voting and non-voting Saddams.  Another debate in Iraq today, could the disposed dictator have voted on Sunday or not?  The answer its seems both yes and not really.  Election officials in Iraq saying early today, that the former dictator had been eligible to vote.  Later they noted a catch, there‘s always a catch, that he would have had to have gone to a polling station in person to do so.  That prospect given his imprisonment making the exercising of his right to vote all but impossible. 

As for the ballot coming to him, there was no system for absentee voting in Iraq and election officials, say they have neither the time nor the means to set up polling stations in his prison.  U.S. Military officials confirming the obvious today, Saddam Hussein did not vote. 

The election over, the embryonic democracy in Iraq in no hurry to see the U.S. military leave.  Iraq‘s president Ghazi Al-Yawer, saying today that an immediate pull out would be foolish.  “It‘s only complete nonsense to ask the troops to leaves in this chaos and this vacuum of power.  Adding that things may be different by year‘s end when some troops may be able to leave.” 

Whenever that day comes, it will prove too late for the 1,415 American service personnel already killed there.  Today, news that some small and cold comfort may be coming the way of their widows, parents and orphans.  The Pentagon finally got around to announcing plans to increase the so-called benefit compensation.  In total, it would effectively double most death benefits from about $250,000 to about $500,000.  That would be accomplished, said the Department of Defense, by raising the poorly named Death Gratuity, from $12,000 to about 100,000.  And raising the life insurance limit for service members in war zones to 250,000 to 400,000.  The plan requires Congressional approval, but considering it‘s been member of Congress pushing for it, that is considered likely. 

The gay, not gay delirium over SpongeBob continues, even though as you viewer kindly pointed out by e-mail, real sponges, the animals, they‘re hermaphrodites, they don‘t have sex. 

Then an unexpected tribute to a TV legend. 

Right now, though, here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three sound bites of this day. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  At Knoxville Pediatric‘s fitness isn‘t the only thing that‘s contagious.  Apparently, so is pregnancy. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  You would think you‘d practice birth control here being around all these screaming kids, but unfortunately not. 

JAY LENO, HOST “THE TONIGHT SHOW”:  And you know what I notice, how much their candidates were influenced by our American style politics.  Did you see that one guy that was campaigning in Fallujah, show the footage. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We‘re going to go to Fallujah, and Mosul, and Baghdad, and Basra, and KING:, and Sadr City, YEARRH!

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  It‘s kind of a mix of the you “Rock my World” video, and then you know then his Fedora look. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Who‘s that standing up there next to the ministers, why that‘s the cartoon sponge at the center of the greatest religious controversy since Martin Luther.  Well, at least since Tinky-Winky.  Standby.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Now back to “SpongeBob SquarePants” already in progress. 

Our number two story on the COUNTDOWN, I‘ll be joined in a moment by the Missouri pastor who invited the cartoon character to her sermon Sunday to try to counter effect what she had described as “bullying and name calling.”  First the latest on the bullying and name calling.  I don‘t want to go back to the beginning on this, but Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family evoked SpongeBob‘s name while decrying the producers of a tolerance video for elementary school kids.  He said the producers had a “pro-homosexual” agenda. 

When we reported this and showed the video, Dr. Dobson‘s minions created an e-mail generator on their Web site, so members who did not see our report or did not accept tolerance in public schools could spam me and four other reporters.  I‘ve gotten about 2,000 them so far.  I‘m happy to report though, that a lot of people outside that organization have now accessed the Focus on the Family Web site and begun to send e-mail of support.  So, they‘re running about 50/50. 

More importantly, a peck of religious leaders have rallied to the defense of SpongeBob or more accurately to protest Dr. Dobson.  A minister in Rochester, New York has asked his congregation to buy the SpongeBob dolls and stickers and bring them into to church next Sunday to promote tolerance.  He said he‘ll put them up in the church windows.  The United Church of Christ with 6,000 churches around the country went further.  It‘s leader, John H. Thomas, said that the Dobson criticism “Is one more concrete example of how religion is misused over and over to promote intolerance over inclusion.  Jesus didn‘t turn people away, neither do we.” 

And outside St. Louis, Pastor Katie Hawker already has gone a little further.  She had SpongeBob over for a welcome during her sermon this past Sunday at the Evangelical United Church of Christ in Webster Grove, Missouri.  The Pastor Hawker Joins us now.  Great thanks for you time tonight. 

REV. KATHERINE HAWKER, EVANGELICAL UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST:  Hi. 

OLBERMANN:  What was your SpongeBob Sunday all about? 

HAWKER:  Our SpongeBob Sunday was about an opportunity to celebrate diversity and to speak about the importance of tolerance and the danger of labeling and name calling.  And simply to have fun. 

OLBERMANN:  Dr. Dobson has been hammering home that he said SpongeBob is gay.  That he didn‘t complain about the video that was being distributed.  Instead, he said, he finds that the agenda behind it is sinister and everything that this organization has said is predicated that there‘s some sort of huge difference between those two points of view. 

Do you see any difference in them? 

HAWKER:  Well, they seem pretty remarkably similar to me.  Obviously, SpongeBob doesn‘t have an orientation.  He‘s a toy.  And we agree with Dr.  Dobson on that score.  Dr. Dobson, that some how the teaching tolerance is going to teach our children to be something we don‘t want them to be.  We feel very differently.  We think teaching tolerance is a first step to celebrating diversity.  And we believe that celebrating diversity is very central to our faith. 

OLBERMANN:  So Pastor Hawker, give me some guidance here on the point

that a lot of the people who have e-mailed me have raised.  For those

parents whose beliefs are really cut that fine, they believe they tolerate

·         and they tolerate gays and love them even if they don‘t go along with the idea of it, but their religion says, they do not want their kids being told that being gay is OK.  What should they do about teaching materials in public schools that do not say being gay is wrong? 

HAWKER:  Well, that‘s the point.  This video doesn‘t say that being gay is right or being gay is right or wrong.  It doesn‘t talk about being gay.  This video just talks about the wonder of our diversity.  It‘s really a delightful video.  I saw it on your Web site.  It was very delightful.  So what we celebrate in our church is that our children don‘t know those labels.  What they know is that Jonathan has two mommies, and Marie has a mommy and daddy, and Harley has a mommy.  And they‘re all happy together. 

OLBERMANN:  What do you do, though, if somebody says to that, well, I don‘t want my kids believing that? 

HAWKER:  Well, they don‘t—it‘s not a matter of believing.  We are in a delightful, wonderful world where there‘s all kinds of diversity.  It is not a matter of believing it.  It is a matter of how we respond to it.  And we as parents, and particularly as religious leaders, have a very important role to play in helping our children to embrace those differences, rather than to be fearful of them. 

OLBERMANN:  Pastor Katie Hawker, of the Evangelical United Church of Christ in Webster Groves, Missouri.  Beautifully spoken, and great thanks for your time tonight. 

HAWKER:  Thank you. 

OLBERMANN:  One more note on the Focus on the Family e-mails: Please keep sending them.  Besides those that express an appreciation of the complexity of this situation, some of the others are richly entertaining.  Two more to share with you tonight. 

From Illinois: “It came up a long time ago that SpongeBob was gay.  It‘s a theory, not a fact.  It‘s a general belief among society that SpongeBob is gay.” 

And this from a correspondent in Denver, North Carolina who described the makers of the tolerance video as “ranking right up there with child molesters,” and added, quote, “P.S.: I think Jesus said it best when he said, get behind the Satan.”

See, there‘s your problem right there.  It‘s sort of a typo in the Bible somewhere. 

As to intentional entertainment, we bring you as always our nightly edition of celebrity and gossip news, “Keeping Tabs,” and we begin with an on-air salute from a television legend to his television hero.  Back from vacation, David Letterman delivered his traditional monologue last night.  The joke about scientists working on a plane that flew 50 miles above the Earth and how from that distance only two man-made objects were visible.  One is the Great Wall of China, and the other is Donald Trump‘s hair.  And joking that since John Kerry had been criticized for throwing away some of his military service records, not to be outdone President Bush threw away his National Guards spotty attendance records. 

Only after the monologue was complete did Letterman reveal that each joke in it had been written by the late Johnny Carson.  Receiving a phone call and material from him in the last few months was, according to Letterman, “like Christmas morning, for God‘s sake.” 

Next: Is this guy on the Taster‘s Choice coffee label look familiar to you?  It did to him.  Why this particular jar wound up costing $15 million.  Next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Many years ago at ESPN, I got a strange letter from a viewer.  I get a lot of those.  But this one was different.  Inside the envelope was a torn-off portion of a bag of Kingsford Charcoal.  The correspondent wanted to point out to me that the guy—that the drawing of the guy on the charcoal bag looked exactly like my on-air partner, Dan Patrick.  Well, sure enough it did.  I told Dan that he had a heck of a legal case on his hands.  But he never followed up, and for many years, we‘d joke about it. 

Russell Christoff did follow up.  Our No. 1 story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, Mr. Christoff, a retired model, was in line at a store three years ago when, as “The Los Angeles Times” reported today, the woman in front of him leaned and over said, “you look like the guy on my coffee jar.”  Nearly three years and a lot of lawyering later, Mr. Christoff has been awarded $15,600.000 by a jury in Glendale, California, because it turned out he was the guy on the lady‘s coffee jar. 

Mr. Christoff has just completed a news conference in San Francisco. 

More now from our correspondent James Hattori. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JAMES HATTORI, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  This is Russell Christoff today, after learning a jury had awarded him $15.6 million to be paid by the giant Swiss foodmaker Nestle. 

RUSSELL CHRISTOFF, RETIRED MODEL:  I‘ll tell you what, I have a lot of faith in the judicial system. 

HATTORI:  This was Christoff 19 years ago, sipping coffee for a photographer hired by Nestle.  A photo the company eventually used for the label of its Taster‘s Choice instant coffee in the U.S. and abroad.  On this jar shipped to Mexico, they even darkened his hair and gave him sideburns. 

Christoff says he was paid $250 modeling fee, but never gave permission for the photo to be distributed. 

CHRISTOFF:  Our image is our product.  Whether it be our face, our talent.  And I—they took it, unjustly. 

HATTORI:  After a two-year legal battle last week, a jury ordered Nestle to pay Christoff $330,000 for the use of his likeness, plus damages equal to 5 percent of the profit from Taster‘s Choice over six years, or $15.3 million. 

The company today issued a statement saying “Nestle USA obtained this photograph from a sister company, and believed we had permission to use the photograph.  We believe the award is excessive and are cooperating with our legal council in investigating our options to reverse this verdict.” 

But for Christoff, at least for now, it‘s a full, rich victory worth savoring. 

James Hattori, NBC News, San Francisco. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Which just goes to prove that old cliche, you pays your money and you tastes your‘s choice. 

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

Good night and good luck.

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

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