updated 2/4/2005 6:31:45 PM ET 2005-02-04T23:31:45

Guest: Michael Duffy

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC HOST:  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?  The president and security.  Social Security.  He hits the stump to sell reform.  But it turns out, this isn‘t the first time he‘s predicted its collapse.  And he‘s changed the date.  By 54 years.  Iraq.  The insurgents are back with deadly consequences and a marine general is back from the region with a controversial message.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  So it‘s a whole lot of fun to shoot ‘em?

OLBERMANN:  And symbolically shooting yourself on Canadian television and—Ann Coulter adds to her infamy.

And remarkable images.  The wearying commute turns nightmare.  Turns into a poignant moment of presumed farewell.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I wrote I heart Leslie.

OLBERMANN:  All that and more now on COUNTDOWN.

Good evening.  The quote about Social Security from George W. Bush read as follows:  I think it will be bust in 10 years unless there are some changes.  The ideal solution would be for Social Security to be made sound and people given the chance to invest the money the way they feel.  Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, after his ringing state of the union address last 90, the president embarked on a two-day five state swing to sell Americans on reforming Social Security but that boat and that forecast within followed it.

It was from his Congressional campaign in 1978.  Unless you and I did not get the memo, Social Security did not go bust in 1988.  Today the president giving as the year 2042.  That is the new estimate for the collapse of Social Security.  Staving that off, requiring massive changes now.  His audience, a friendly crowd in Fargo, North Dakota.  It did not seem to need much convincing but he was not really addressing its member.  He was addressing their U.S. Senators.  Both of them Democrats.  Not so much trying to sell the opposition on his proposal as he was challenging them to come one something better.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, U.S. PRESIDENT:  I expect Congress, when they see a problem, to then come up with solutions.  If you have a good idea, comforted with your idea.  Because now is the time to put partisanship aside and focus on saving Social Security for young workers.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Altering Social Security, whether saving it or screwing it up, means altering one of the legacies and lynch pins of FDR‘s New Deal.  No accident that said democrats chose to issue their response from the Roosevelt Memorial in Washington.  And what is perhaps DC‘s most underappreciated locale, Democratic lawmakers less concerned with what the president is saying about his Social Security plan than what they had he is intentionally leaving out.  Specifically, benefit cuts, debt, and how private savings accounts don‘t really fix the solvency problem, or so they say.  Where the president wants to tear down and rebuild, the democrats say we merely want to tinker.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER, (D) NEW YORK:  We believe that Social Security should be mended.  We believe that the future generations should get it.  But we want to keep it close to what it is as possible.  And not come up with a scheme that results in retirement roulette and greater social insecurity.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBRMANN:  Let‘s do a quick reality check on the outlines of the president‘s latest Social Security hopes.  A pleasure to be joined by Tyler Mathisen of our sister network CNBC.  He is co-anchor with Maria Bartaromo of CLOSING BELL.  Tyler, thanks for coming in.  Good evening.

TYLER MATHISEN, CNBC:  Great to be with you, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Thanks for being here.  Fact check the premises.  Social Security is in trouble, it will hit an iceberg in 2018, it will hit bankruptcy in 2042, and privatizing part of it now this will fix this.

MATHISEN:  Well, fact and fiction in that, I think, Keith.  Number one, fact is that the system operates pretty much the way it has been until 2018.  At which point, the annual benefits paid out will exceed the money that comes in to the system.  By 2042, whether the fund will be bankrupt or not, I would hate to go Clintonian on you, but it sort of depends on what your definition of the word is is, depends on your definition of bankrupt.  At that point under the most widely believed scenarios, will no longer be able to pay the full benefits promised under the current system.

It may only be able to pay 70 cents on the dollar of those promised benefits.  A lot of companies operating under those circumstances.  You would describe it as bankrupt.  If what you believe to be bankrupt means that there will be no money left in the system at 2042, that is not the case.  So the system is maybe cruising toward an iceberg but it is likely to be able to avoid it if some moves are made.

OLBERMANN:  How would privatizing part of everybody‘s contribution to it or result from it?

MATHISEN:  That‘s a very interesting point.  The privatization plan really doesn‘t fix any of the underlying issues about Social Security solvency.  Because that will take, according to just about everyone, and I think the president believes it, too, some increase in the revenues that go into Social Security and some decrease in the benefits that go out of it.  If you go with the private accounts, what you do is those people who opt for the private accounts will reduce the amount of their guaranteed benefit and hope to make that up by investing wisely.  Under the system.  But it really doesn‘t address the long term financial viability of the system.  The private accounts in and of themselves don‘t do that.

OLBERMANN:  I believe the president‘s father once used a term to describe something similar to this as voodoo economics.  But the will he me ask you this, the big cynical response to any idea of privatizing any part of Social Security.  The only people guaranteed not to lose money on this aren‘t Social Security pensioners but the people who handle the transactions.  The brokers and the proverbial Wall Street types.  Is that true or false?

MATHISEN:  Well, Keith, I think you hit on an interesting point.  I think you hit on an interesting point.  Most of the time, it is better to touch the money—those people who touch it always make the money.  People who own it only sometimes do.  The plan with these private accounts would be to set up stock and bond funds like mutual funds.  Like index funds specifically.  That would be heavily government supervised.  And they would operate at a very low cost of let‘s say 1/3 of 1% of assets per year.  But there‘s a lot of money in 1/3 of 1% of those assets per year.  They would be heavily, heavily monitored by the government.  Just the way the current federal employees‘ savings or thift savings plans—thrift savings plans are.  And those are operated by two big so-called index fund companies, State Street Research and Barkley‘s.  You‘re right there.  Anybody who touches money generally get, when it goes through your fingers, it is sticky.  It sticks to your fingers.

OLBERMANN:  Last question, 20 years ago Great Britain allowed the equivalent of Social Security there to go private to some great degree.  And thousands of those accounts have been wiped out in the interim.  Largely people now retiring, having lost all or most at least of their money.  Why would a variation of that not happen here?

MATHISEN:  I think the theory here is that if you opt for a private account, you would not be forced to do so.  If you opt for the private account, only the portion in the private account would be at risk in the public stock or bond market.  There would be another portion of the Social Security account that would be guaranteed.  Just the way the current account is.  It would be very, very unusual, it seems to me, if you put money into a regular index stock fund, for all of that account to be wiped out.  That would mean basically the entire stock market, the value of the country would be wiped out.  If that happens, we have a lot more to worry about than private Social Security cuts.  But what is indisputably true, it seems, is if you put money in to a private account as part of the Social Security system, you could, you could end up with less money in that account than you put in.

OLBERMANN:  CNBC‘s Tyler Mathisen.  Again, great thanks for coming in.

MATHISEN:  Thank you, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  As to the public reaction, the good news for President Bush.  Last night‘s speech convinced at least some voters to hop aboard the Social Security bandwagon.  The bad news for him, most of them were probably Republican.  In a Gallup poll conduct for “USA Today” before the state of the union, little more than half the voter surveyed believed the president‘s Social Security proposal would move the country in the so-called right direction.  After the speech, that number jumped 15 points to 66%.  But before we read too much into that, those interviewed by Gallup last night overwhelmingly republican.  A majority of the sample, 52% Republican.  Just one in four responded as a Democrat.  Another 22% identifying themselves as independent.  The old presidential exit poll effect.  Regardless of the partisan taint, history will probably judge these two weeks ago having been pivotal to Mr. Bush‘s second term, possibly to his entire presidency.  From the inaugurate will address to the Iraq elections and now to the state of the union.  He has had what right now would have to be declared two years in a row.

Given that since 2002, this president has clearly teetered on the edge of losing widespread support on the country.  Is three win in a row a decisive streak?  For some thoughts, I‘m joined by Michael Duffy, Washington bureau chief of “Time” magazine.  Michael, good evening.

MICHAEL DUFFY, “TIME MAGAZINE”:  Good evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Does the White House view this juncture in those terms, pivotal?

DUFFY:  I think they know this is their moment.  If this were one of those basketball movies, the coach would be saying this is our time.  And Bush knows if he will get any of his big things done, he likes to do big things, he has to do it now.  He would say they only have about 16 months to do this.  This is a very short window before we devolve into another round of campaigns and elections.  So you can see it in his body.  He is an impatient guy normally.  And he looked last night like he really wanted to get up and get this done quickly.  So they know this is the time.  The wind is at their backs.  If they‘re going to do it, they have to do it this year.

OLBERMANN:  To continue with the sport analogy, and I‘m not always that good at sports analogies.

DUFFY:  That was a sports movie analogy.

OLBERMANN:  Can the president still cough the ball up over Social Security?  If there are other Republicans, the Ways and Means Chairman, Mr.  Thomas comes to mine.  They come out and repeat their criticisms of their plan.  Can the momentum get torpedoed without the Democrats even getting involved in this?

DUFFY:  That‘s the key thing.  They don‘t expect the Democrats to lend a hand.  You can see last night, they weren‘t exactly happy with it.  They booed him at places, they didn‘t stand up.  They have to do this with an entirely Republican vote.  The war room is set up which works everyday and is after not just with the Republican congressmen and Republican business people is aimed squarely at getting the Republican House and Republican senators to get behind this thing.  Don‘t forget, today they went to red states.  They went to places where they get Republican votes for this.  This is a very targeted, focused effort by the president and his political allies to put the votes on the table for Social Security reform this year.  And they were talking Republican votes.

OLBERMANN:  And Iraq.  What happens to Mr. Bush if the elections that were such a feather in his cap become irrelevant because the insurgency gets worse, as it shows signs of doing so today, or if next December, it end up with the government in place that‘s a theocracy or says to bolster its own credibility with its own people, we want America out immediately.  If something goes desperately wrong, what happens to the entire momentum in Iraq?

DUFFY:  Well, I think one thing we saw last night.  That surprised me a little bit.  In the election, Bush was saying, things are going great in Iraq.  Freedom is on the march.  You hear that and you watch the pictures and sort of think, huh?  And last night, he added a different tone that I think was important.  He said, look, I don‘t know when these troops are coming home.  I don‘t know where the bar is and what the threshold is going to be.  That was a much more transparent and honest assessment that he is leveling with the public more directly there.  And so he is in a way lowering the expectations for any kind of quick return.

And the answer to your question, he‘s saying, I may not have Iraq to run on in the midterm elections.  Let‘s be sure that we get Social Security done.  Let be sure we have that to run on.  The real strategic goal, Karl Rove is thinking about this, both these topics.  He wants something to go into the mid-term elections so that Bush can be the first president in 100 years to win not only re-election but mid-terms both in his first term and second.  It‘s never been done before.  Bush is poised to do it.  That‘s the goal.

OLBERMANN:  And if he doesn‘t succeed 2007, 2008 are not going to be particularly pleasant years in the White House anyway.  It‘s not just some sort of legacy thing.  It‘s a practical issue, obviously.

DUFFY:  They have a clear strategic goal.

OLBERMANN:  “Time” magazine‘s Washington bureau chief, Michael Duffy. 

As always Michael, our great thanks.

DUFFY:  You bet.

OLBERMANN:  Much, if not most of the theater surrounding the state of the union last night and other nights was predictable.  The familiar introduction from the sergeant at arms.  President‘s since Kennedy pausing for applause with the subtlety of a tap dancer.  And of course, the special guests.  This year, two of those guests providing an emotional high point.  After the president introduced the parents of a U.S. marine killed in Fallujah, an Iraqi woman who voted in Sunday‘s election turn from her seat next to the first lady and hugged the fallen marine‘s mother.  Both women touched by death in Iraq.  That Iraqi woman‘s father was killed by Saddam Hussein‘s intelligence service 11 years ago.

Whether or not that might have been anticipated in some way?  This much is certain.  After today‘s big political event in Washington, there were no hugs of any kind.  Only a rush to swear the man in by sun down.  The Senate has confirmed the nomination of Judge Alberto Gonzales to succeed John Ashcroft as attorney general.  60 ayes to 36 nays.  All 36 from the Democratic side, but six Democrats including Lieberman from Connecticut and both Nelsons voted for him.  That despite the controversy on Gonzales‘s role in the so-called torture memos, he actually fared better in this vote than did his predecessor.  Mr. Ashcroft was approved by only 58-42.  And the vice president swore the new attorney general in at 5:35 Eastern time this evening.

Also tonight, it is every part of the tsunami nightmare symbolized by one tiny boy.  Nine women in Sri Lanka insist this is their child.  One man threatens to kill himself if he and his wife are not awarded custody.  It is nearly beyond belief.  And survive stories in the U.S.  A man who lived through the plane smashing into his car relates how it happened and how it felt.

This is COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  A story of hope from the tsunami that will end in agony

for many.  A baby with nine separate families claiming he is theirs.  Stand

by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  The overarching world news headline that was the Indian Ocean tsunami seems to have receded just like the awful wave itself.  But in our number four story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, we may have largely turned away but the nightmare just continues to unfold.  The confirm death toll has now passed 158,000.  Indonesia alone has another 100,000 missing.

There was a starting happy development from a remote island off the Indian coast.  Nine survivors were discovered 38 days after the disaster, having spent the interim subsisting in a forest.  But it is a story from Sri Lanka that will likely haunt you tonight.  It is perhaps a microcosm, an infant now without parents.  Parents now without infants.  And they meet up as our correspondent Ned Colt reports in the struggle over Baby 81.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NED COLT, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  This tiny baby is the source of endless tears and almost as many claims.  His name, Baby 81.  The 81st admission to this coastal Sri Lanka hospital the day the tsunami hit.  Somehow, he survived alone nine hours when almost 200,000 others were killed.  Now, nine women believe Baby 81 is their son.

One of them, 25-year-old Jenita (ph) stormed the hospital with family and friends Wednesday to take the baby.  Holding him briefly before nurses took him back.  Leaving her in anguish.  And her husband threatening suicide.  Any custody decision will likely take two weeks, a Sri Lanka boy representing the baby says the judge ordered DNA tests on all the women claiming maternity will be complete by then.

S. H. M. MANRUDEEN, ATTORNEY:  We have the order from the judge for the DNA profile to ascertain the real parents.

COLT:  Until then, Baby 81‘s home will remain in this hospital and doting nurses, his mothers.  Ned Colt, NBC News, Beijing (ph).

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Part of the reason the relief effort is losing its position in the daily consciousness of the West is that some governments there are telling to us get out.  Indonesia, for instance, suggesting foreign forces quit the region by March 26.  To that end, the USS Abraham Lincoln today left the water today following a ceremony held aboard the aircraft carrier.  Helicopter from the ship flying hundreds of relief missions over the last five weeks.  Initially that was the only way of getting food and water to victims in the remote villages along the ravaged coast of Sumatra.  Around 5,000 U.S. military personnel will remain aboard other ships in the area through the end of the month to help with rebuilding efforts.

Back in our make our own problems world.  Now pro basketball players are not role models, are they?  This is a high school hoops game.  A girls‘ high school hoops game.

And Donald Rumsfeld was reportedly ready to throw in not the chair but the towel.  He talked of quitting during the Iraq torture scandal.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  We‘re back and we pause the COUNTDOWN to briefly enter the bizarre world of strange news, wild video and Ann Coulter.  Let‘s play “Oddball.”

And we begin with the old “Oddball” sports desk.  They say it‘s a storied rivalry between the Prattville and Stanhope Elmore high schools in Alabama.  I‘m sure neither school has ever been prouder than they were last night when the Morons from Prattville played the Stanhope Elmore Morons and they began a riot in the stands of a girls‘ basketball game.  The fight began in the stands between two groups of students police say had been involved in an altercation two weeks ago and chose this place and time to get it on again.  Both teams of girls, able to safely retreat to the locker rooms before the brawl spread to the floor and chairs started flying.  Police had to use tasers to clear the gym.  They filed charges against at least nine people.  More to come.  This is not the Ann Coulter portion of the news hour.

Now from Florida, the latest ride installed to try to make Epcot center interesting.  Would you believe they‘re trying to find the fastest way to leave Florida?  How about a camera man who stood too close to a space shot?  Actually it was NASA attaching a camera to the side of the Atlas rocket that blasted off from Cape Canaveral early this morning.  The rocket contained a top secret government satellite.  I know what it is for.  I just can‘t tell you.

We do odd news in this segment.  So you ask, what is odd about Ann Coulter humiliating herself on national TV?  Well, not much.  Except this time it was on Canadian national TV.  Appearing on a CBC documentary called “The Fifth Estate,” Coulter was asked by our old friend, the host, Bob McKeown, to explain her harsh criticism of Canada and Canadians‘ lack of support for the war in Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BOB MCKEOWN, CBC:  Explain why you said that.

ANN COULTER, COMMENTATOR:  We were on “Hannity & Colmes” and we were discussing the anti war protestors.  Canada used to be one of our most loyal friends.  And vice-versa.  Canada sent troops to Vietnam.  Was Vietnam less containable and more of a threat?

MCKEOWN:  Actually, Canada did not send troops to Vietnam.

COULTER:  I don‘t think that‘s right.

MCKEOWN:  Canada did not send troops to Vietnam.

COULTER:  Indochina?

MCKEOWN:  Canada—Second World War, of course.  Korea, yes.

COULTER:  I think you‘re wrong.

MCKEOWN:  No.  Took a pass on Vietnam.

COULTER:  I think you‘re wrong.

MCKEOWN:  No.  Australia was there.  Not Canada.

COULTER:  I think Canada sent troops.

MCKEOWN:  No.

COULTER:  I‘ll get back to you on that.

MCKEOWN:  OK.

MCKEOWN:  Coulter never got back to us.  But for the record, like Iraq, Canada sent no troops to Vietnam.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  What did she do at Cornell?  Even I went to class.  Also tonight, the insurgency resurges in Iraq and a general just back from that region talks about how much fun it is to shoot people.  And after the terrible LA commuter train crash, a man who scrawled in his own blood what he thought was his final message to his family comes forward.  Now are COUNTDOWN‘s top three newsmakers of this day.

No. 3, soccer.  It‘s the world‘s game.  So much so that a special soccer world cup will be held this summer.  In Scotland, all the teams are made up of homeless people.  Obviously many were also former investors in professional soccer in this country.

No 2, Melanie Kanaka of the World Bank.  She‘s trying to coordinate goods donated to tsunami victims in Sri Lanka.  She advises today that people stop sending things like moisturizing gel, cologne, winter hats, ski jackets and Viagra.

And No. 1, Tammy Jean Warner, the Lake Jackson, Texas woman indicted for criminally negligent homicide.  Her husband Michael Warner died last May.  He had a throat ailment.  He could not drink his beloved sherry so she was kind enough to give him two large bottles of it via an enema.  It killed him.  A sherry enema.  Sheeerrryyyy Baaaabbbby.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  To our third story, Iraq.  In the immediate aftermath of the successful elections this past Sunday, a “New York Times” story summed up the vista neatly.

“United States officials were surprised and heartened today at the size of turnout in the election today is spite of a terrorist campaign to disrupt the voting.  A successful election has long been seen as the keystone,” the “Times” continued, “in the president‘s policy of encouraging the growth of constitutional processes.  That hope could have been dashed by small turnout, indicating widespread scorn or lack of interest in constitutional development or by disruption of the balloting.”

Unfortunately, those quotes are from an article of September 4, 1967.  The hardening vote was in South Vietnam.  The president for whom it was believed to be a key stone was Lyndon Johnson.  And the turnout by registered voters there was 83 percent.  With that preamble, insurgent violence has returned to battered landscape of another country called Iraq.  At least 30 people killed in attacks across the country.  The single most deadly assault today taking place in Kirkuk where militant pulled over a mini bus full of Iraqi army recruits.  They executed a dozen of them and left two men alive with orders to warn others against joining the army.

Just outside Baghdad, Iraqi police were the target and insurgent ambush leading two dead and 14 wounded.  36 policemen are missing.  In the south, gunmen took over a police station in Samala, killing one Iraqi police man.  Others attacks targeted coaltion forces.  In the west, two U.S. Marines were killed in action while fighting insurgents in unbar.  And a U.S. military convoy was targeted by a suicide bomber on the Baghdad airport road.  No word on any casualties in that attack.

Four days after the election, the first results are out and they show an overwhelm support for the Shiite clergy.  With 10 percent of polling precincts voting, the United Iraqi Alliance, led by Sistani is in the lead with 1.1 million votes.  The current prime minister‘s body is a distant second.  360,000.  But election officials caution, the numbers are too small to indicate any kind of national trend.  The vote came from Baghdad and five southern provinces with large Shia populations.

And there are new concerns about the low Sunni turnout on Sunday.  The Association of Muslim Scholars which represents some 3,000 Sunni mosques declared it illegitimate and they electoral commission investigating complaints from Mosul that some Sunni voters were disenfranchised when polling stations ran out of ballot papers or never opened at all.

By the way, Mosul does not yet have a secretary of state.  Back here, we almost did not have a secretary of defense.  Donald Rumsfeld twice submitted his resignation last year over the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal.  Obviously it was refused each time when the Abu Ghraib story broke last year, the call for his head were widespread.  The Kerry campaign started an online petition asking for his resignation, claimed that hundred of thousands of people signed it.  Even Rumsfeld‘s own apology for the abuse was interrupted when a protestor yelled out, fire him!  Tonight the Pentagon confirms that twice Rumsfeld submitted his resignation and asked the president to decide whether or not to accept it.

No calls for resignation, not yet anyway, after a Marine Corps lieutenant general said it is quote “fun to shoot some people.” the decorated combat vet who recently completed tours in Iraq and Afghanistan not only made the remarks but he made them with cameras present.  Our reporter is Anne State from our NBC station in San Diego.  KNSD.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

ANNE STATE, KNSD CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  The room was packed.  A couple hundred people, many of them military members, had gathered for a panel discussion.  But one speaker in particular caught our attention with comments like this.

LIEUTENANT GENERAL JAMES MATTIS, USMC:  Actually, it‘s fun to shoot some people.  I‘ll be right up with you.  I like brawling.

STATE:  The speaker, Lieutenant General James Mattis who is in charge of marine core combat development is based in Quantico, Virginia.  He also led the first marine division in Iraq.

MATTIS:  I said you have two line of operation.

STATE:  We were invited to listen in on the panel discussions.  The topic?  What are the real lesson of Operation Iraqi Freedom?

MATTIS:  Don‘t patronize this enemy.  They mean business.  They mean every word they say.  They‘re killing us now.  Their will is not broken.

STATE:  General Mattis said you cannot rationalize with the enemy. 

The enemy had to be destroyed and he added this.

MATTIS:  You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn‘t wear a veil.  Guys like that ain‘t got no manhood left anyway so it‘s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot ‘em.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Anne State reporting from San Diego.  The ensuing furor prompting the commandant of the Marine Corps to issue a statement which reads, quote, “Lt. Gen. Mattis often speaks with a great deal of candor.  I have counseled him concerning his remarks and he agrees he should have chosen his words more carefully.”

Coincidently, the marines are reporting they have missed their monthly recruitment goal.  They sought 3,270 new candidates for January, they only got 3,186.  That‘s still 97 percent of the target.  And senior personnel officers insisting one month‘s failure to meet the goal by just 3 percent is hardly a trend.  But Brigadier General Walter Gaskin, head of recruiting, asked and answered the rhetorical question of the “New York Times.”  “Do Iraq and Afghanistan have an impact?”

Yes.  The military historian at the University of North Carolina told the paper that the data may be significant.  Richard Cohn (ph) saying it is most troubling because “marines tend to attract people who are the most macho, seek the most danger, and are attracted by the service most likely to put them into combat.”

While new volunteers seem to be harder to find and even though old ones seem to find it harder to get out of the service, there are returning veterans.  And they are meeting much the same obstacles and post-traumatic stress that soldiers have experienced since a couple of Romans staggered home from Germany‘s Teutoburg forest in 9 A.D.  COUNTDOWN‘S Monica Novotny joins me now.  The story of one of them remarkable and typical all at the same time.  Good evening, Monica.

MONICA NOVOTNY, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Keith, good evening.  Many of the men and women serving in Iraq interrupted their college studies to do so.  For those able to return home and continue their education, they know they are among the fortunate.  But that doesn‘t make it any easier to return to an ordinary life.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NOVOTNY:  What was the hardest part of the readjustment for you when you first came back?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Trying to not always object guard.  You‘re more observant of everything.  So you have to just back off.  I‘m not there anymore.  Everything is safe.

NOVOTNY (voice-over):  From combat to the classroom.  Young war veterans are going back to school, facing the challenge of adjusting to a new normal after witnessing the harsh realities of war.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Loss of life.  That definitely is a big—it sets you back.

NOVOTNY:  22-year-old Kevin Wattenbarger (ph) first joined the National Guard to help pay for his college education at Florida State.  Anxious for a debt-free degree, he made his eight-year commitment on September 4, 2001.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The unit hadn‘t been deployed since World War II.

NOVOTNY:  But on December 26, 2003, the call came.  Kevin‘s unit would spend the next year in Baghdad.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  This is our compound over where we were living.

NOVOTNY:  Getting a very different education.  From leading convoys through city to guarding prisoners, one day narrowly escaping a suicide bombing.

TOM BROKAW, FORMER NBC ANCHOR:  In Iraq today, another suicide car bomb.  This time, the target was the Turkish embassy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Once we arrived on the scene, it was basically just trying to control the chaos at that point.

NOVOTNY (on camera):  Although there are no official national numbers on young people who traded textbooks for a tour of duty, here in Florida, almost 20 percent of the National Guard is made up of college students.

TIM MARTIN, FSU:  They‘ve seen the ugly side of reality and they have a yearning almost to get back into college life immediately, to back to something that‘s safe.

CHERYL GOODSON, VETERANS‘ AFFAIRS COORDINATOR:  It‘s very different now for them to return after having experienced things like being fired upon on a daily basis.  And never knowing where it will come from.  To come back and try to maintain some type of normalcy.  It is hard to fathom.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  What he‘s seen and, in Baghdad has really changed him.

NOVOTNY (voice-over):  Kevin‘s mother remembers what it was like when her son first returned.

UNIDETIFIED FEMALE:  When I stopped at a stop sign one time, he said mom, keep going.  He said you can‘t stop at a stop sign.

NOVOTNY:  The adjustment takes time but Kevin knows he is one of the lucky ones.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I‘m a lot more thankful for everything I have and thankful for the experiences that have made me realize that.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

NOVOTNY (on camera):  To give you a better idea of how comforting the normalcy of school is for these men and women, the people in the university registrar‘s office say they get emails all the time from students currently stationed in Iraq who want to know what they need to do in order to continue their education upon their return.  They are literally counting down the days.

OLBERMANN:  COUNTDOWN‘s Monica Novotny.  Good report.  Thanks.

Pope John Paul II could stay in the hospital longer than first thought.  Church officials say everything is ok.  He may go on the radio on Sunday.  We go to Vatican city for the latest.  And Martha Stewart has been busy behind bars.  A new daytime show, a prime time show, all lined up for when she‘s sprung from camp cupcake a month hence.  I hope she has learned her lesson.  Those stories ahead.  Now are COUNTDOWN‘s top three sound bites.

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SEN. HARRY REID, (D) NEVADA:  Democrats are all for giving Americans more to say and more choices when it comes to the retirement savings.  That doesn‘t mean taking Social Security‘s guarantee and gambling with it.  That‘s coming from a senator who represents Las Vegas.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  A hog is a dumb animal.  Calling hog, you‘ve got to call them sort of like you‘re calling your wife.

Hornk hornk hornk.

BUSH:  The way we‘ve proposed the plan is that you can put $1,000, up to 4% of your income, which is, whichever is less, in your account.  And over time, the $1,000 grows?  Is that right?  Up to a $1,000 or 4%, whichever is less?  I think that‘s right.  It better be right.

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OLBERMANN:  Next, the latest on the pope‘s health.  We‘ll go to the Vatican City.  The LA rail commuter.  He thought the accident had killed him.  He wrote a farewell to his family in his own blood.  We‘ll meet him, ahead on COUNTDOWN.

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OLBERMANN:  After literally centuries of having heard overly optimistic health reports about ailing popes, the world‘s 1.1 billion Catholics have more than one reason to be optimistic tonight.  Our number two story in the COUNTDOWN, Pope John Paul II doing well enough that his spokesman said he will almost certainly deliver his weekly address to the faithful Sunday, albeit from a hospital bed.  Moreover, it appears that everything the Vatican has said about the pope‘s health since his hospitalization late Tuesday has been scrupulously accurate and detailed.  No holy spinning done to soften an eventual blow to believers.  Our correspondent at Vatican City is NBC‘s Stephen Weeke.  Stephen, good evening.

STEPHEN WEEKE, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Good evening, Keith.  Yes, the spinning has been under control and yet the language that they use is still euphemistic particular.  They say the pope‘s medical condition is evolving positively.  That there have not been any recurrences so far of the spasms in the throat which led to the utter respiratory crisis that led to his being taken to the hospital in a big rush the other night.  They also let it be known today, that he had a few sips of water which means his throat is better.  And it also means that he must have been on an I.V. to keep him hydrated in the past two days.  So once again, we‘re getting some more information about him.  But they do say that he rested comfortably last night.  And they did say that it looks like he‘ll be in there for about a week.

Next week, he was supposed to meet with Condoleezza Rice who is coming here on her first trip as secretary of state.  Now that looks like it is not going to happen.  As you mentioned, he will perform what he does every Sunday from the window of his apartment here at the Vatican.  He will do that from his hospital bed and that is conduct the Angelis (ph), that‘s the noon blessing every sun for which the faithful gather here in St. Peter‘s Square.  They will do a radio hook up from the hospital so his voice will be played out live here in Saint Peter‘s and people will be able to hear him while they‘re here as well as on the radio and throughout the world.  So that‘s what is up right now, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Stephen Weeke reporting from Vatican City.  Great thanks.

Despite the improvement, the pope‘s health was raised again.  In the convenient of extreme ill health, requiring perhaps life support, being forced to abdicate.  This has been happened recently unless you consider the year 1415 recently.  However Pope John Paul II himself once threatened to resign when martial law was declared in his native Poland so could lead a political opposition.

None of the four confirmed abdications in papal history nor two other presumed ones was related to health in any way.  Two medieval popes quit because of scandal.  And that 1415 abdication by Pope Gregory XII was undertaken to resolve a crisis in which there were no fewer than three different men claiming to be the pope, each with different constituencies of support.

If the pope were to step down from his current position, we could probably find him a job here at NBC.  Heck, we just gave Martha Stewart a position.  That‘s our lead item in our nightly round up of celebrity and gossip news “Keeping Tabs.”  The rumors of several weeks back proving true.

The high doyen (ph) of household hints will be the grand diva of “You‘re fired.”  She‘ll get her own version of the “Apprentice.”  In fact, auditions start tomorrow.  One small problem.  Federal authorities frown on inmates conducting business while they are inmates.  The production company thus insists it made the deal with Martha before she went to the big house.

And it might be worth seeing the singer pull off his electoral long shot, if only so we can address him as Governor Hinky.  Kinky Friedman announcing on the Imus program this morning that he will run for governor of Texas as an independent the year after next.  He‘ll need 41,000 signatures to get on the ballot.  And by the way, he is not the man who sang the one hit wonder, “Ariel,”  That was Dean Friedman.  This is the now 61 offbeat  singer whose standards include titles like, “They Don‘t Make Jews Like Jesus Anymore.”

Also tonight, morning commutes turning into harrowing nightmares.  The man who was driving to work but did not make it to his job because he was hit by a plane.  And then a second story that will simply break your heart.

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OLBERMANN:  It was a byproduct of the invention of the train.  Subways, buses and finally cars only made it worse.  And what was once hailed as an extraordinary gift, the ability to live far from the grimy place you called work has over the decades deteriorated into a word that‘s usually spat out in disgust.  Commuting.

But in our number one story in the COUNTDOWN tonight, two more stories that remind us our commutes are only inconvenience, that there are real nightmares afflicting real commuters every day coast to coast.  In a moment, we‘ve been told who the man was who wrote what he thought were his dying words in his own blood on a wrecked Southern California commuter train.  First our correspondent Tom Costello introduces us to another man who survived a car crash yesterday, a car/plane crash.

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TOM COSTELLO, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  NTSB investigators today studying the charred wreckage of the 7,600 and asking what went wrong.  Why was the crew heard on the cockpit voice recorder trying to abort takeoff, leaving a skid mark on the runway?  The plane tore threw a fence and crossed six lanes of traffic before slamming into a warehouse.  A miracle that all 11 on board survived with minor injuries.  But on the highway ...

How did you survive?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I don‘t know.

COSTELLO:  The roof of Rohan Foster‘s car was—Foster‘s car was sheared off.  If his passenger James Dinnel had not told him to duck ...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Maybe I wouldn‘t be here.  I would have died.  My body would be in the car and my head would be somewhere else.

COSTELLO:  Foster‘s passenger remains on life support with head injuries.  Investigators are still examining the flight data recorder, an older version requiring extra time to decode.  But a preliminary check of the plane‘s engines and flaps showed everything was in the proper position for take off.  Investigators will look at whether icing was a factor, important because the same type of plane crashed in Colorado last November killing the son of NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol.  Ice build up is suspected.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I guess I‘m lucky.  I‘m here for some purpose, it seems.

COSTELLO:  A story of survival amidst a terrible crash with no obvious cause.  Tom Costello, NBC News, Teeterboro, New Jersey.

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OLBERMANN:  Then there‘s John.  That‘s all we‘d known about him.  All we‘d known since the Southern California Metrolink train in which he was commuting a week ago yesterday derailed in a horrible accident caused by a suicidal motorist.  He wrote his dying words of love to his family on a seat on that train.  He wrote them in his own blood and then he didn‘t die.  But he also didn‘t want people to know who he was until today.  George Lewis has our report from Los Angeles.

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GEORGE LEWIS, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  The firefighters of Los Angeles station 27 like to think of themselves as pretty tough guys, but this man, John Phipps, moved them to tears with a message he left for his family.

JOHN PHIPPS, TRAIN CRASH SURVIVOR:  I got to tell my wife and my kids what I thought were going to be my last words.  And God blessed me and made sure they weren‘t my last words.

LEWIS:  Phipps was one of 200 people injured in last week‘s train wreck that claimed 11 lives.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Fire department paramedics.  There‘s been a train accident with people hurt.

LEWIS (on camera):  Within 15 minutes of the crash, firefighters and rescuers from station 27 were on the scene.  Some of them said it was the worst disaster they‘d ever witnessed.  Under a pile of seats in the wreckage, they found John Phipps seriously injured.  On the bottom of one of the seats he had written a message in his own blood.

PHIPPS:  I wrote, “I ‘heart‘ Leslie.”

LEWIS (voice-over):  And then he wrote ...

PHIPPS:  “I ‘heart‘ my kids.”

ROBERT ROSARIO, LAFD:  It‘s pretty moving.  I‘ve been a firefighter for 27 years and it moved me.

LEWIS: Firefighters had trouble getting Phipps who is pretty heavy out of train, but they managed.

PHIPPS:  Some of them left to go onto look for other survivors.  For others who weren‘t as fortunate as I was.

LEWIS:  He says he‘s still working through the pain.  Emotional and physical.  What did Phipps‘ wife think of that message?

LESLIE PHIPPS, JOHN PHIPPS‘ WIFE:  Hallmark is never going top that.

LEWIS:  John Phipps says he‘s embarrassed by all the attention that the real heroes are the firefighters.  George Lewis, NBC News, Los Angeles.

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OLBERMANN:  John Phipps had been released from the hospital last Thursday.  When it turned out that he had survived, authorities say, they got over 700 phone calls and e-mails from ordinary people in the Southern California Los Angeles area.  They didn‘t want to contribute money.  They didn‘t want to know who he was.  They just wanted to know how he was doing.  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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