updated 5/3/2005 2:43:07 PM ET 2005-05-03T18:43:07

Guest: Shannon Goesling, Carly Roney

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST:  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?

Desperate to avoid becoming housewives.  Jennifer Wilbanks was not abducted, was not attacked, and obviously was not sure.  But will she now be prosecuted?

The insurgent push continuing in Iraq. a car bomb in a shopping district, it sets an apartment building ablaze.

And back here, Lynndie England pleads guilty.

Steroids again.  The first regular baseball player is suspended for using them.  The commissioner wants to increase penalties fivefold, and the numbers don‘t lie.  We‘ll show you how home runs are not only down, but so are most of the guys who hit them a year ago.

And talk about a hit.  The first lady at the White House Correspondents Dinner.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LAURA BUSH:  I was a librarian who spent 12 hours a day in the library.  Yet somehow, I met George.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Next, she‘ll be doing six weeks at Caesar‘s Palace.

All that and more now on COUNTDOWN.

Good evening.

No one here would ever look at you and say, We told you so.  We just thought it would be instructive tonight, as we await the decision of Gwinnett County, Georgia, whether or not to prosecute Jennifer Wilbanks, to cite what was said on three of last Friday‘s 8:00 p.m. cable news hours as the, quote, “dramatic,” unquote, story unfolded.

On CNN Headline News, Nancy “None of you are innocent” Grace announced, “I just don‘t believe it‘s a case of cold feet.”

On Fox News Channel, the Big Giant Head, Bill O‘Reilly, was even more certain.  The epidemic of crimes against women and children in America continues with the disappearance of 32-year-old Jennifer Wilbanks from an Atlanta suburb.”  Moments later, still omniscient, he added, “It‘s got to be a crime.  A woman like that, with a long history of responsibility.  She had a steady job.  She just wouldn‘t bolt and not tell anybody.”

Meanwhile, here at MSNBC, a lone dissenting voice in the wilderness saw a clue others had missed and took the unusual step of verbalizing a hunch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Those photos of this woman, I don‘t know how recent they are, there‘s just a feeling about that—those shots, with her eyes sort of bugging out, that you look at that and say, Is she going to run, or do something?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Well, what do you know?  As the billboard suggests, the CSI team has come back with the explanation.  It was not a cold case, rather a case of cold feet.  It was not part of any epidemic, and it wasn‘t a crime.  Jennifer Wilbanks just needed some time to herself.

Whether or not she might get some of that time by herself in a jail, in a moment.

First, the fiance, John Mason, implies today he‘s ready to give her another chance, since there‘s no harm in a bus ride, especially since none of it was premeditated.  How she bought the bus ticket a week in a advance without premeditation, that, he doesn‘t say.

Of course, all this opens up an entirely new story about what proved to be more like a Julia Roberts movie than part of an epidemic of overwrought newscasting.  The news that Ms. Wilbanks was safe, if not entirely sound, was initially met in Duluth, Georgia, with tears of gratitude.  Initially.

Police Chief Randy Belcher of the Duluth department, the man who led the search, literally waving away a reporter‘s question about penalties for Wilbanks, saying only, quote, “No criminal charges.”

But just around the time the wayward bride boarded her flight back home under the cover of afghan—you have a rug on your face, miss --  authorities were uncovering information that made the site somewhat less inspiring of empathy.  Ms. Wilbanks apparently showing some measure of premeditation, cutting her hair, and, allegedly with cash she had set aside, buying her bus ticket a week in advance.

Gwinnett County district attorney Danny Porter repeating at a news conference at about 7:30 Eastern time that the decision whether or not to criminally charge Ms. Wilbanks is still pending.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DANNY PORTER, GWINNETT COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY:  The only decision today that‘s been made is that, based on our research, we believe that—well, we don‘t believe, we know, that Georgia law will permit a prosecution in this case if the evidence justifies it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  The police chief and the Georgia State Bureau of Investigation interviewed Wilbanks this afternoon.  The city of Duluth is, in the chief‘s words, “looking into its options” about recouping the money it spent searching for her, $40,000 to $60,000, he said.

As to Wilbanks today herself, the investigator, Carter Brank, described her as somewhat remorseful but having not made a full apology, and not feeling as if she had done anything wrong, and not having seen nor learned of any of the nationwide television or newspaper coverage of her staged disappearance.

Officials added only one detail, that Wilbanks bought her ticket bus ticket from Gainesville, Georgia, bound for Austin, Texas, on April 19, a full week before she disappeared, and the ticket was for the 26th, the day she did disappear.

Shannon Goessling is a former prosecutor for the state of Georgia with DeKalb, Cobb, and Fulton Counties specifically.  She‘s now the executive director for the Southeastern Legal Foundation based in Atlanta.

Ms. Goessling, good evening.  Thanks for your time.

SHANNON GOESSLING, FORMER GEORGIA PROSECUTOR:  Good evening.  Thank you for having me here.

OLBERMANN:  On your experience, and on what you know about this case, the DA now having said in the last half-hour, they‘re confident Georgia law was broken, and they could prosecute her, do you think they will?

GOESSLING:  I think that it‘s going to depend on her and the representations that she made.  The district attorney has the option to prosecute, either for the misdemeanor or the felony, as he said.  I think it‘s all going to fall down to what the expectations of the public are of the district attorney.  And we expect accountability.  We expect Ms.  Wilbanks to take responsibility for her actions.

And, of course, we, as a community, are going to expect restitution to be paid in full, and that can happen either as a result of the criminal case, or as a result of a civil case being brought by the city for the civil fraud.

OLBERMANN:  Is the key to that decision the timing of the purchase of the bus ticket?  In other words, if she had, while running on the 26th, suddenly said, I got to get out of here, and ran to a bus station and took $20 she happened to have in her pocket and boarded a bus somewhere, as opposed to buying a ticket, as we now learn, at least what investigators say, was a week in advance, does that degree, is there—are there degrees of premeditation here, and will that ultimately decide it for the DA?

GOESSLING:  No.  The degrees of meditation aren‘t required.  It is only that at a particular time that she reported to a law enforcement agency a crime that actually didn‘t occur.  It is actually her act in New Mexico of speaking to Chief Belcher here in Georgia that is the basis for the crime.

Her actions prior to that conduct are not criminal.  It isn‘t criminal to buy a ticket.  It isn‘t criminal to leave your fiance.  It isn‘t criminal to run out on your wedding.  It isn‘t criminal to do any of those things.  The things that she did that are allegedly a crime are, in fact, her 911 call in New Mexico, and that is up to them to make a decision.

And then also, it is only her conduct in speaking to Chief Belcher and claiming that she was, in fact, kidnapped from Duluth.  That is the sole conduct that rises to the level of a crime.

The mitigation that you‘re talking about, and that most people are considering, the emotional aspects of this case, those all come when it comes time for sentencing, if, in fact, the district attorney does prosecute.  But until the court actually has control over Ms. Wilbanks, there is nothing that can actually be demanded of her.  That‘s going to be behind-the-scenes negotiations as to restitution.

But I think what we definitely know from the nationwide outcry is that we‘re not going to tolerate Ms. Wilbanks buying her way out of this.

OLBERMANN:  Well, we‘ll see how much of an actual nationwide outcry there is.  Most of the outcry seems to have been on newscasts right now.  So New Mexico already says they‘re not planning to prosecute her for making the phone call there.

But on the issue of discretion within the DA‘s decision-making process, to what, what degree is he allowed to consider emotional stability here?  I mean, whether she was disturbed, or just in a period of crisis, it was not a rational act.  It was obviously not one that was consistent with her past.  Could a DA say, Hey, other than the money, let‘s forget this, suddenly this woman has a national reputation as a flight risk, and all this publicity.  She‘s got a lot of explaining to do inside of her family.

From a prosecutorial sense, if not a financial sense, she‘s suffered enough.  Can he say that?

GOESSLING:  The district attorney has 100 percent discretion on whether to prosecute a case.  He can actually bring the case to the grand jury without the assistance of the chief.  But the chief would actually be the one who would likely swear out the warrant.

The district attorney has 100 percent discretion in bringing this case at all.  He can consider all of those factors in mitigation, as to whether to bring the case or not.  But we do have to recognize that there is going to be an expectation that she take responsibility.  And I think you would expect that if the court does get involved, that there would be a psychological evaluation, and that if there is recommended treatment, that she follow that.

And that‘s because this, although is was a victimless crime, the city of Duluth and the citizens are in fact victims of the act, based on the financial loss.

OLBERMANN:  Shannon Goessling, former prosecutor in Fulton, DeKalb, and Cobb Counties in Georgia, great thanks for your time tonight.

GOESSLING:  Thank you very much.

OLBERMANN:  Prosecution, or at least getting a bill, only covers part of Jennifer Wilbanks‘ possible debt to society.  Perhaps equally as important, the etiquette deficit.  what about the fiancee?  What about the 600 guests?  What about the gifts?  Ten thousand dollars‘ worth of gifts had already been purchased by relatives and friends of Ms. Wilbanks and her intended, John Mason.

Through the miracle of the online registry, you and I can get a Peeping Tom-like look at somebody else‘s taste in wedding gifts.  Ms.  Wilbanks seems to have been pretty routine, except for one thing, something of a cheese fixation.

A cheese wire slicer, $9.99.  Two-piece cheese server set, that‘s one knife and one slicer, $29.  A cheese server, that would be a tray, not a person, $35.  A full cheese set, which is a marble serving board, cheese knife, cracker tray, the usual, $49.  A set of four cheese spreaders, $29.  And best of all, the mighty and essential cheese dome, $19.

That‘s what made her run right there, the power of cheese.

So what now?  Does the unknown, sincere, and surprised purchaser of that cheese dome for the Mason-Wilbanks nuptials get it back, get a refund?  Does it go into storage?  Can you just go ahead with the wedding and keep the gifts on ice?

Joining me to parse nuances and subtleties of a wedding delayed because the bride faked her own abduction is Carly Roney, founder and editor in chief of TheKnot.com, the online wedding resource site.

Ms. Roney, good evening.

CARLY RONEY, FOUNDER AND EDITOR IN CHIEF, THEKNOT.COM:  Good evening.

OLBERMANN:  Well, we‘ll get to the gifts in a moment.  But first, the wedding itself.  At this point, the fiance saying the wedding is on.  He‘s giving her the ring back.  She‘d left the ring at her house before she went running, and he‘s going to give it back to her anyway.  It‘s—everybody makes a mistake.

But based on this kind of—have you ever seen something this—a wedding postponed in this fashion, that eventually takes place?

RONEY:  Well, this was clearly extreme, I mean, this bride running off that way, says that there is a little bit more than cold feet going on here.

I have seen weddings called off at extremely late dates, I mean, as late as, you know, minutes before the wedding.  And it always wreaks emotional havoc on the family, friends, and the fiance.

He‘s being incredibly understanding, which, for some reason, bothers me, although I can‘t explain why.  I mean, there‘s clearly a lot going wrong here, and they have to clearly take some time and communicate.

But I personally can‘t see this wedding happening for another couple of years.  And to that end, you know, if she needs to get some help, or they need to clearly learn how to communicate.  And to that end, they should probably be returning the wedding gifts and really acting like this wedding has been called off until they can set another date.

And I think everyone would feel that if they suddenly set another date and rush into this, I think everyone would have their concerns as to whether that‘s really the appropriate course of behavior at this point.

OLBERMANN:  What‘s bothering you, I think, about his reaction is that he says, Well, it wasn‘t premeditated, and the police have determined that she bought the ticket a week before she left, which suggests, in fact, it was premeditated.  So he may be dealing with denial, or she‘s the best thing that ever happened to me anyway, disease.

But what do you do now regarding these gifts?  If you were a guest, and they don‘t—you don‘t get a notice in the next couple of days that you can pick up your gift, or the money‘s being credited to your card, what (INAUDIBLE), I mean, is it tacky to call up and say, What about my set of towels?

RONEY:  Yes, that would be tacky.  The best course of action for guests to take in this instance is to really lay low.  Do not call up the parents and say, What‘s going on with this?  Don‘t ask about your gift, the couple or their family, I mean, these are Southern people.  They clearly know the appropriate etiquette.  And I think that the guests will find that their gifts are either returned or credited to their account within the next couple of weeks.

And some guests probably would send a note to say, You know what? 

You‘ve clearly gone through enough.  You can keep the cheese dome.

But it is the right thing to do, to send those gifts back, unless they can set another date.

OLBERMANN:  But I‘m thinking the wedding vendors for Mason-Wilbanks were probably not going to say, You can keep the cheese dome for free, or what was in the dome.  They get none of that back, right, the family?

RONEY:  No.  I mean, the wedding called off at this late a date, the contract usually makes very clear that that late a date of cancellation, that the, the, the sums need to be paid in full, because that caterer or that photographer, they can‘t book another wedding with five days‘ notice.  So that business is fully lost to them.

OLBERMANN:  Yes, the police may be out of luck here, and the city might be out of luck, but the people who you pay at the wedding, they are never out of luck.

Carly Roney, editor in chief, co-founder of TheKnot.com, our great thanks for your time tonight.

RONEY:  Thank you so much.

OLBERMANN:  Also tonight, the most notorious abuser, Abu Ghraib prison, back in a courtroom, this time to plead guilty to most of the charges pending against her.

And doubtless the first lady does not know who Shecky Greene (ph) is.  But after her comedy routine Saturday night, Shecky Greene would be proud of her.  But who was it all meant to impress?  Probably not Shecky.

The answer is ahead.  You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  The numbers cascade down on you like the dust from the top shelf of the library.  As interparty conflicts get added to the awful recipe, the death toll from insurgent violence in Iraq just since last Thursday has crossed 140 dead, 23 more, at least, just today, including eight soldiers at a checkpoint south of Baghdad.

One of the car bombs at an upscale shopping area also set a nearby apartment building on fire.  Six Iraqi civilians dead there.

The insurgency behind them is believed to be made up of the disaffected Sunni Arab minority who were, for the most part, shut out of the partial cabinet announced on Thursday.  That new cabinet, set to be sworn in tomorrow with six of the seven previously open seats filled, the one post that remains, defense minister, is meant for a Sunni, but the incoming prime minister‘s initial choice for that seat has been rejected because he was suspected of having ties to Saddam Hussein‘s Ba‘ath Party.

Also tonight, two American F-18 jets have collided in midair over southern Iraq.  The Navy says they were off the aircraft carrier “Carl Vinson,” stationed in the Gulf.  No report yet about the casualties, but the officials say that there is no initial indication, at least, of hostile fire.

It is speculative to try to assess how much of the insurgency was fueled by the actions and imagery of the prison scandal in Iraq, but Lynndie England and her colleagues factored in somehow.  It has not gone well for the so-called face of Abu Ghraib, though the child to which she gave birth in October is believed to have been fathered by her fellow defendant, Charles Graner.  Graner wound up marrying yet a third prison guard there.

And today at Fort Hood in Texas, as our correspondent Jim Cummins reports, the former private had to deal with the realities of military justice.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JIM CUMMINS, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  She pleaded guilty to seven counts of abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib as part of a plea deal to get a lighter sentence.  Twenty-two-year-old Private First Class Lynndie England, by far the most recognizable figure in the notorious photos that exposed the scandal to the world a little more than a year ago, including this one that shows England holding a leash around the neck of a naked Iraqi detainee.

In open court, presiding judge Colonel James Poll (ph) questioned England about holding a naked inmate on a leash.  “I believe it was wrong,” she said.  “Then why did you do it?” the judge asked.  “Because he asked me to,” she replied.

CPL. CHARLES GRANER, JR.:  I‘m still smiling.

CUMMINS:  He is Corporal Charles Graner, Jr., England‘s boyfriend at the time, who later fathered her child.  In January, Graner was convicted of crimes at Abu Ghraib, sentenced to 10 years in prison, and busted to the rank of private.

At first, England told the judge she felt it was OK to follow Graner‘s orders, because he is a corrections officer.  But when Judge Poll questioned England about posing for the photographs, he asked, “Could you have walked away?”  “Yes, sir.”  “Did you choose not to?”  “Yes, sir.”

England admitted she had no reason to be in that part of the prison and could have said no.

But in the sentencing phase of the trial, her lawyers will argue England suffers from severe learning disabilities and mental problems.

EUGENE FIDELL, MILITARY LAW EXPERT:  What she‘s done with the pretrial agreement is reduce the maximum punishment that she‘s exposed to, but she can try to do even better.  And we‘re not going to know if she‘s going to do even better until the end of this trial.

CUMMINS (on camera):  The sentencing hearing begins tomorrow.  Prosecutors have dropped two charges as part of the plea bargain with England, reducing her maximum possible sentence from 16-and-a-half to 11 years.  One of those scheduled to testify on England‘s behalf, Private Graner himself.

Jim Cummins, NBC News, Fort Hood, Texas.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  And back to the murky origins of all this, the unconnected connection between Iraq and terror.  You will remember that on September 13, 2001, televangelist Jerry Falwell told televangelist Pat Robertson that 9/11 was in essence provoked by those with alternative lifestyles and the ACLU and pagans.  And that Robertson repeatedly agreed with him, with such pithy observations as, “Jerry, that‘s my feeling.”

Robertson did it again yesterday, only this time it was a solo act.  Appearing on ABC‘s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” Robertson was asked to expand upon a conclusion in his latest book, that American judges pose the greatest threat to America in American history, greater than the Nazis, the Civil War, al Qaeda.

Robertson replied, quote, “If you look over the course of 100 years, I think the gradual erosion of the consensus that‘s held our country together is probably more serious than a few bearded terrorists who fly into buildings.  I think we‘re going to control al Qaeda.  I think we‘re going to get Osama bin Laden.  We won in Afghanistan.  We won in Iraq.  And we can contain that.”

Thus far, no reply from any of the relatives of the 3,000 Americans killed by the “few bearded terrorists who fly into buildings.”

Moving from the very serious war on terror to a not-so-serious snowball fight of 2005, 3,000 Midwesterners duking it out to reclaim a world record.  By the way, it‘s May in that part of the country.  Yes?

And as baseball‘s biggies argue over bigger suspensions for steroid users, it‘s the lack of steroid use that‘s beginning to show up on the field.  Home runs are down how many percent?

Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Sometimes we wonder what people in other countries must think of our round-the-clock coverage of silly stories like the runaway bride, which is why this segment is so important.  It gives us all a chance to check out the stupid stuff they do over there.

Let‘s play Oddball.

We begin in Chios, Greece, where Orthodox Easter is our favorite event of the year, because the two rival churches on the island celebrate annually by firing 65,000 rockets at each other.  I want plenty of rockets!

It‘s a centuries-old tradition dating back to the Ottoman Empire, when they used real cannons with real rockets.  I could explain exactly why they do this, but it‘s a long, confusing story, when all we really want is to see the neato fireworks.  The objective is to strike the other church‘s steeple as many times as possible.

Safety precautions were taken for the battle this year.  In the past, there have been fires and injuries and people with punctured eardrums.  The city is now closed to traffic during this, this year.  And homes in the firing range have barbed wire and aluminum sheeting to protect their roofs.

And residents, if you must venture out of the house on Orthodox Easter, please make sure to bring an umbrella and your fire extinguisher.

From fire to ice, another epic battle, this one back home in Waconda (ph), Illinois.  I got Waconda right but couldn‘t say Illinois.

This actually took place in January, but the video is just coming to us now, since the “Guinness Book” has confirmed it to be the biggest snowball fight ever.  More than 3,000 Illinoisians—Illinoidians—

Illini—more than 3,000 people lined up, Revolutionary War-style, to break the record held by a smaller group in Switzerland.

When it was all said and done, the record was broken, along with several limbs, many facial bones.  Actually, the organizer says no one was hurt, but I think he‘s a big fat liar.

Speaking of people getting hurt, we take to you England to meet some of the brightest young people in the world, the students at Oxford University.  We‘ve always prided ourselves on the path of the amateur, Mr.  Abrahams, but not this amateur.  No one signed up again for Don‘t Jump into Shallow Water 101, I see.

More than 12,000 people showed up to watch the traditional May Day event, where dozens of England‘s best and brightest leapt from the Moblin (ph) Bridge.  At least 10 students were injured seriously enough to be hospitalized.

I weep for our future.

And if you thought any of that was funny, wait till you hear the first lady, the first lady of hilarity.

And it‘s not just a miraculous rescue, it‘s a miraculous rescue with intense product placement.  When you are eating jellyfish to stay alive, nothing hits the spot like a certain soft drink that these kids mentioned.

Those stories ahead.  Now, though, here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three newsmakers of this day.  Number three, Donna Benson, mayor of Timnath, Colorado.  She has proudly guided through a bill that bans smoking in bars and restaurants there.  One problem for the town of 223 residents near Fort Collins.  It doesn‘t have any bars or restaurants.  They‘re just planning ahead, the mayor says.

Number two, David Hasselhoff named International Star of the Year at India‘s version of the Oscars, which were held in Atlantic City and emceed in part by David Hasselhoff.  Explains everything.

Number one, Musgrove Park Hospital in Taunton in England.  Remember the guy who was bitten last week when he tried to pick up a deadly Brazilian wandering spider, then he picked it up again, and it bit him again?  And he was able to get a photo of it with his cell phone, so doctors at Musgrove Park Hospital knew that he needed anti-venom immediately.  Well, he and the spider went there.  He was treated, but it turns out, the deadly Brazilian wandering spider was released onto the hospital grounds.  Officials are confident that the spider would have died in the cold English spring—probably!

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  The last time I actually went to the White House correspondents dinner was in 1998.  It was the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and I was one of three guests of “The Washington Post.”  They sat me between Al Gore‘s best friend and Bill Clinton‘s secretary, Betty Curry.  Ah, to have been on the record.

But the night was highlighted by Clinton‘s stand-up routine.  He did one joke about a soon-to-be-unveiled magazine about journalism.  “I‘m told this is called ‘Content,‘” the president said.  “Why would anybody call a magazine about journalism ‘Content‘?”  After the thunderous laughter, Clinton pretended to be corrected by his press secretary, Mike McCurry.  “McCurry tells me I‘ve got it wrong.  It‘s called ‘Content.‘  Why would anybody call a magazine about journalism ‘Content‘?”

It was funny, it was vicious, and it was apparently the high water mark in the comedic history of the dinner.  Until, that is, Saturday night.  That‘s when a new comedic talent burst across the sky like the debut of Mary Tyler Moore on “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”  Well, something like that.  As our chief White House correspondent, David Gregory, reports, she was going out there a first lady, but she came back a star!

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID GREGORY, NBC CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): 

Saturday night, Washington, a who‘s who in the capital at the annual White House correspondents dinner.  It‘s the president getting toasted, and when the first lady steals the mike...

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LAURA BUSH, FIRST LADY:  Not that old joke.  Not again.

(LAUGHTER)

GREGORY:  Roasted!

BUSH:  I‘ve been attending these dinners for years and just quietly sitting there.  Well, I‘ve got a few things I want to say, for a change.

(LAUGHTER)

GREGORY:  And who knew?  Her husband, red-faced, looking on, the former librarian lets loose.

BUSH:  Here‘s our typical evening -- 9:00 o‘clock, Mr. Excitement here is sound asleep.

(LAUGHTER)

BUSH:  And I‘m watching “Desperate Housewives.”

(LAUGHTER)

BUSH:  With Lynne Cheney.

(LAUGHTER)

BUSH:  I am a desperate housewife.

(LAUGHTER)

BUSH:  One night, after George went to bed, Lynne Cheney, Condi Rice, Karen Hughes and I went to Chippendales.

(LAUGHTER)

BUSH:  I won‘t tell you what happened, but Lynne‘s Secret Service code name is now “Dollar Bill.”

(LAUGHTER)

GREGORY:  A cautious first lady on the campaign trail last year, Mrs.  Bush is now more popular than ever and taking chances—a recent solo trip to Afghanistan highlighting the progress of women after the Taliban, a new education push focusing on at-risk boys, and no-holds-barred appearances on late night TV.

JAY LENO, “TONIGHT” SHOW:  Do you ever just want to, like, punch comedians sometimes?

BUSH:  If I were you, I‘d look out for Barbara Bush.

GREGORY:  Nothing, however, matches up to Saturday night.

BUSH:  Speaking of prizes brings me to my mother-in-law.  People often wonder what my mother-in-law is really like.  People think she‘s a sweet, grandmotherly Aunt Bea type.  She‘s actually more like, oh, Don Corleone.

(LAUGHTER)

BUSH:  People ask me what it‘s like to be up there with the whole Bush clan.  Let me put it this way.  First prize, three-day vacation with the Bush family.  Second prize, 10 days.

(LAUGHTER)

GREGORY:  And of course, laying into the one she loves.

BUSH:  George didn‘t know much about ranches when we bought the place. 

Andover and Yale don‘t have a real strong ranching program.

(LAUGHTER)

BUSH:  But I‘m proud of George.  He‘s learned a lot about ranching since that first year, when he tried to milk the horse.

(LAUGHTER)

BUSH:  What‘s worse, it was a male horse.

(LAUGHTER)

BUSH:  But George and I are complete opposites.  I‘m quiet, he‘s talkative.  I‘m introverted, he‘s extroverted.  I can pronounce nuclear.

(LAUGHTER)

GREGORY:  Laura Bush, stealing the show and proving once again she may well be her husband‘s best weapon.  David Gregory, NBC News, the White House.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  The latent next career in stand-up comedy latent no more.  Mrs. Bush was back at the mike this morning, less than 36 hours later, using a Rose Garden ceremony for preservation projects across the country to once again poke a little fun at her husband‘s expense.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH:  This month is national preservation month.  It‘s a great month for Americans to visit Preserve America sites.  They‘re wonderful destinations for school field trips, for family adventure, or even for a romantic getaway.

GEORGE WALKER BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  A couple of funny lines one evening, and she gets carried away, you know?  Laura Leno Bush.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  But seriously, folks, take my husband.  Please.

I‘m joined now by Craig Crawford, White House columnist for “Congressional Quarterly” and, of course, an MSNBC analyst.  He was not in the Rose Garden this morning, but he was Mr. First Nighter at the correspondents dinner.  Good evening, Craig.

CRAIG CRAWFORD, “CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY”:  I‘ve never seen a Bush family member be that funny on purpose.

OLBERMANN:  Was all of that Saturday night for anything?  I mean, did it have a political purpose, or is there the slightest chance it was just for fun?

CRAWFORD:  It ought to be just for fun.  We ought to have that every now and then in Washington.  That‘s sort of what this dinner is supposed to be.  But there usually is a subtext, as always in Washington.  And there was one here.  The president‘s approval ratings have been down.  Things have been kind of nasty on Capitol Hill.  And they needed an icebreaker, and the first lady delivered it.

OLBERMANN:  The way, though, that the routine was videotaped, we didn‘t get to see a lot of reaction shots of the president, and some of those were real zingers.  Al Franken could not have hit with more precision against him, in particular.  What little I saw of the shots of Mr. Bush, in several of these shots, he looked like he was trying to laugh, but there was an element of uncomfortableness to this.  Was that representative, or did he laugh harder when the cameras were not on him?

CRAWFORD:  He definitely laughed several times.  And you know, there was some embarrassing looks, a little red-faced here and there, but it was very engaging.  And I don‘t imagine he was completely unaware of the text.  This was his idea, by the way, to have her replace him, substitute for him at this dinner, so he had to have known something was coming.

OLBERMANN:  But for instance, the Vito Corleone line about his mother

·         the off-record reputation of Barbara Bush is Vito Corleone.  And it was so close to home that you felt like this was material that was written for a—for one of the old Dean Martin roasts or something from the Friars‘ Club.

CRAWFORD:  Yes.

OLBERMANN:  I mean, it was—it was so pointed that—was there any sense that there was discomfort on the part of any of the targets?

CRAWFORD:  Well, I don‘t really think so.  I‘m hearing more from liberals today, Keith, saying that conservatives are upset about some of the lines.  But I haven‘t heard it as much from conservatives.  And I think this White House needed to show a little sense of humor about itself, which has been mostly lacking.  It was—and as far as his mother, you know, he makes—he likes to crack some jokes now and then himself about how tough she is and...

OLBERMANN:  He never called her Vito Corleone, though!

CRAWFORD:  That‘s going pretty far.  Yes, I‘ve heard that, you know, when the kids were growing up and they‘d go to Kennebunkport to vacation, they called it boot camp because she‘d get them up at 7:00 o‘clock in the morning and make them work around the house.  And Bush himself has talked about that.  But yes, she‘s a—she‘s a tough lady, Barbara Bush.  And I think, you know, maybe she got the joke.

OLBERMANN:  Yes.  And we‘ll see what happens, who winds up with a horse‘s head in their bed.  Even if the wonderful anonymous White House officials who would say this was just for fun, and even if we are, along with them, correct, have those same White House officials spent the last 36 hours writing, say, a bunch of Social Security reform jokes for Laura Bush?

CRAWFORD:  Well, that‘s the thing.  I think Laura Bush‘s performance was so engaging and fun that it has taken a little bit of edge off things in Washington and the White House image.  But I don‘t think it‘s going to make anybody suddenly support Social Security private accounts as a result of it.  So the president‘s got to carry that water himself.  But one thing the first lady did here, she did pave a path for first ladies that even Senator Hillary Clinton hadn‘t thought of, as late-night comics.

OLBERMANN:  But they‘re not going to trot her out every week now just because this was a big hit, are they?

CRAWFORD:  I think they‘re smart enough to know these things are best done sparingly.  I mean, after all, Laura Bush has not really done anything quite this public, or certainly not this entertaining, in the whole five, going on six—I guess five years they‘ve been there.  And she is the most popular member of the Bush administration or family in the White House, and so it made sense they‘d roll her out.  She‘s something of a cruise missile when they need her for better approval ratings.

OLBERMANN:  Just let that Vito Corleone joke in and the one about milking the horse.  That‘ll last a couple weeks, each of them.  Wow!

CRAWFORD:  Yes.  That one was a show-stopper.

OLBERMANN:  Wow!

CRAWFORD:  I mean, I got to say, I almost fell out of my chair.

OLBERMANN:  Wow!

CRAWFORD:  And the reference to “Desperate Housewives.”  That was good, too.  You know, I talked to Jamie Denton, the hunk plumber on “Desperate Housewives,” the next day, and he was in the room.  He was at the dinner, and he was quite thrilled that their show got a plug.

OLBERMANN:  Yes, but the horse-milking one is something out of “South Park.”  That‘s something else altogether.

CRAWFORD:  There you go!

OLBERMANN:  MSNBC analyst, “Congressional Quarterly” White House columnist, Craig Crawford, as always, sir, great.  Thanks for joining us.

CRAWFORD:  So long.

OLBERMANN:  Also tonight, another noted comedian, baseball commissioner Bud Selig.  He wants to ban some steroid users for life.  Has the steroid scandal already banned some home run hitters?  And the prosecution really scraping the bottom of the barrel in the Michael Jackson case.  They spent the day working on phone records.  These stories ahoy.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  It isn‘t exactly Roger Clemons, but baseball today suspended its first sorta name player for using steroids.  He‘s Juan Rincon, a proficient if not especially well-known relief pitcher of the Minnesota Twins.  he is the fifth player suspended under the new steroid and steroid precursor penalties.  Three of the other four I‘ve never even heard of.  He‘ll sit out 10 days without pay.

If the commissioner of baseball had his way, however, he would be suspended for 50 games.  Responding to the howls of laughter after the appearance of baseball players and executives before Congress on March 17, commissioner Bud Selig has written to the head of the players union, asking that the penalties for being juiced be drastically stiffened.  First positive test is now 10 days.  Selig wants it to be 50 games.  Second positive test, now 30 days.  Selig wants it to be 100 games.  Third positive test, now 60 days, fourth positive now a year, fifth positive, commissioner‘s decision.  All that would go away.  A third test would now bring a lifetime ban.

Don Fehr is the head of the players association and so effective at it that while pro football‘s unions agreed to a steroid policy in 1987, Fehr was able to forestall one until 2003.  Even with an upgrade over the winter, the current punishments do little more than slap the syringes away from the players.  Fehr today wrote back, insisting to the commissioner that the players understood the gravity of the situation and, quote, “We are willing to discuss the matter with you,” but insisting that a series of letters leaked to the media was a poor way to discuss it.

Even the lackluster threats of the current suspension schedule, though, may have impacted steroid use in the game.  Steroid users seem to be going through measurable withdrawal.  The easiest way of checking that, by using some of baseball‘s endless statistics, comparing how many home runs were hit through April 30 of this year, this past Saturday, to how many had been hit by April 30 of last year.  Raw numbers.  There have been 724 home runs hit in the major leagues in the first month of 2004, only 663 of them this April.  And there were more games played this April than last April.  So the average number of homers per game dropped from 2.17 to 1.89.  That‘s a fall-off of about 13 percent.

By April 30 of 2004, 40 different players had each hit five or more home runs.  Through last Saturday, only 29 players had hit that many.  And maybe more meaningful still, who‘s hitting the homers and who is not.  Barry Bonds had 10 in April last year.  This season, he‘s been on the disabled list and rumors—rumors he started—have raised questions about whether or not he‘ll ever play again.

But it‘s not just Bonds.  Of those 40 guys who were already at five or more homers this time last year, only nine of them are on this year‘s list.  It‘s not just fewer overall home runs, it‘s fewer overall home runs by different guys.

Stuffing his teenaged friends with steroids—this is just about the only thing of which Michael Jackson has not been accused.  He begins our nightly round-up of the celebrity and entertainment news, “Keeping Tabs.”  Yes, it is your tax and entertainment dollars in action, day 532 of the Michael Jackson investigations.

As the prosecution wraps up its case this week, it has evidently decided to try to put the jurors to sleep so they will snooze through entire defense argument.  This was phone records day, where the prosecution meticulously showed how, at the time of the Martin Bashir documentary about Jackson, Jackson‘s associates were so worried that they made dozens of phone calls to each other.

It was not quite as interesting as I‘ve just made it out to be.

Meanwhile, another Hollywood marriage about which you can start counting the days until another Hollywood divorce, Cameron Diaz and Justin Timberlake.  She‘s 31 and best known for basically having vanished after making “There‘s Something About Mary” in 1998.  He‘s 24 and best known for basically having vanished after coining the phrase “wardrobe malfunction.”  London‘s ultra-tab, “News of the World,” quotes sources inside the Osbourne family as saying the couple plans to get hitched this Saturday in France.  But of course, if it was Ozzy Osbourne talking, he might have actually been saying, They‘re getting stitches in their pants.

Also tonight, two teenagers stranded at sea, surrounded by sharks with nothing but wetsuits for warmth for a week, and living to tell about it.  Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  It was not just that after a week, the Coast Guard had given up hope, nor that the runs of the search-and-rescue teams had been discontinued, nor even that the families had begun to steel themselves from the inevitability that the bodies would be washing ashore by next Tuesday or Wednesday.  It was that Troy Driscoll and Josh Long themselves knew there was no way back.  Long, 18 years old, says at one point, miles off the South Carolina coastline, clinging to a capsized boat, he prayed to God, If it‘s your will that we not live, take us home.  If not, send us a boat.

Of course, all of what Driscoll and Long did or thought or prayed would have to be speculation right now, unless something or someone sent them that boat.  If you have not seen this story, prepare to watch your jaw drop, maybe even if you have.  Our correspondent is Don Teague.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DON TEAGUE, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Fifteen-year-old Troy Driscoll and eighteen-year-old Josh Long set out from Sullivan‘s Island on a 14-foot sailboat last Sunday.  But their boat was quickly overwhelmed by rough seas.

TROY DRISCOLL, 15-YEAR-OLD LOST AT SEA:  We had to start bailing it out, and that‘s when we got really, really cold, and we had to, like, to hug on each other.

TEAGUE:  Within hours, the two were pushed several miles off the coast.  Authorities launched an extensive search for the pair, but by Thursday had given up hope of finding them alive.

JUNE RYAN, CHARLESTON COAST GUARD COMMANDER:  The Coast Guard has suspended its active search efforts.

TEAGUE:  But the teens, who had lost their fishing gear, struggled to survive.

DRISCOLL:  Then we really knew that we were really in trouble.

TEAGUE:  Even drinking salt water, eating jellyfish.

DRISCOLL:  I was hungry and thirsty.  And I saw the fish, so I just tried one.  And then we kept touching them and, like, eating them.

TEAGUE:  And praying.

DRISCOLL:  Sang and prayed and cried because we knew our family was going to be upset.

TEAGUE:  They tried to stay cool under the sun by swimming, but sharks chased them back to the boat.  At night, they huddled under a single wetsuit.

DRISCOLL:  I was cold, tired and didn‘t know where I was at and just really confused.

TEAGUE:  But finally, Saturday afternoon, their prayers were answered.  A passing fishing boat rescued the two near Cape Fear, more than 100 miles from where their trip began.  They were sunburned, dehydrated and hungry, but amazingly, alive.  Today, the teens are recovering from a frightening ordeal, thankful to be back on solid ground.

DRISCOLL:  Oh, it was definitely a miracle.

TEAGUE:  Don Teague, NBC News, Atlanta.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Tonight, Josh Long is back home with his family.  He was released from the hospital this afternoon.  Troy Driscoll expected to be released in the next few days.  Before Long was let go, the two spoke with reporters and gave some insight as to what one does and dreams about while stranded at sea, and inadvertently, as it must have been, showing a little product placement savvy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOSH LONG, 18-YEAR-OLD LOST AT SEA:  I was always thirsty.  I mean, I dreamed about...

DRISCOLL:  Mountain Dew!

LONG:  ... Mountain Dew.

(LAUGHTER)

LONG:  But I never got hungry.

DRISCOLL:  Every night, he woke up screaming at me, Go get Casey (ph) at the truck because we got (INAUDIBLE) Mountain Dew.  And I‘m, like, Wake up!  We‘re out (INAUDIBLE)

(LAUGHTER)

DRISCOLL:  And he‘s like, Oh, I forgot.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  The Mountain Dew folks say they have something planned for the guys.  They won‘t say what.  They mean for it to be a surprise.  But a spokesman said he wanted to congratulate them on their bravery and their survival.

In fact, it turns out the odds against that survival were probably smaller than even they knew.  Josh Long and Troy Driscoll went down went down to the sea in jeans and T-shirts.  The older one, Josh, was wearing cowboy boots.  They had brought with them neither food nor water, and the boat they were in bore a name that is in retrospect an almost too obvious warning sign.  She was called “Under Construction.”

That‘s COUNTDOWN.  Thanks for being a part of it.  “THE ABRAMS REPORT” is next, with the latest update on a good, old runaway bride.  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.

Content and programming copyright 2005 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2005 Voxant, Inc. ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user‘s personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon MSNBC and Voxant, Inc.‘s copyright or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,