updated 5/25/2005 2:34:11 PM ET 2005-05-25T18:34:11

Guest: Rick Francona, Creighton Lovelace, Valerie Estess, Michael Musto

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

Is the terrorist Zarqawi wounded?  If not, why are Arabic Web sites calling on Muslims to pray for him?  If so, why are Arabic Web sites publicizing his condition?

This Koran abuse story again, a new view from the White House. 

“Newsweek” did not cause the rioting.  And they always said that.

A different view in North Carolina.  The Baptist minister behind this sign joins us.

The filibuster fight.  All that trouble, all that compromise, and they didn‘t even vote today?  And who did blink?

Everything but the dancing Judge Itos.  Jay Leno goes to the Michael Jackson trial.  Michael Jackson Puppet Theater goes with it.

*

And the protests against this Paris Hilton commercial.  And no, they‘re not being funded for publicity‘s sake by the people who made this Paris Hilton commercial.

All that and more, now on COUNTDOWN.

Good evening.

It is counterintuitive.  But so much of our three-and-a-half years of living with opponents, extremists, and terrorists in the Muslim world has been counterintuitive.

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the chief maker of mayhem in Iraq, reportedly wounded and needing the prayers of his sympathizers.  Now, we know that, or we know of that rumor, because it has been publicized on a series of Web sites in the Middle East, including at least one that has previously been right on the money about terrorist activity in the past.

So if he is injured, or worse, why put it on the Internet?  Several Islamic Web sites posting messages purportedly from his group Al Qaeda in Iraq, saying that Zarqawi is badly wounded and asking supporters to pray for him.  One of Zarqawi‘s lieutenants, named Abu Karar (ph), told “The Washington Post” that the terror leader was shot between the shoulder and the chest while fighting in Ramadi over the weekend.

According to Karar, Zarqawi, also reportedly nearly captured by American forces as recently as February, lost consciousness several times, but is now stable enough to hold meetings with his lieutenants to talk about his possible successor.

I‘m joined now by MSNBC analyst retired Air Force lieutenant colonel Rick Francona.

Thanks for your time tonight, Rick.

LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA (RET.), U.S. AIR FORCE:  Sure.

OLBERMANN:  It‘s hard, obviously, to say what is and is not true about Zarqawi, based on Web sites from the Middle East that are not notoriously uniformly accurate.  But maybe we could prove a negative.  Is there a reason that a Web site would post erroneous information about Zarqawi being wounded?

FRANCONA:  Well, there‘s no real reason for this to come out unless there‘s something in the works.  Whether—he‘s either wounded, or he‘s seriously wounded, or he may even be dead—there‘s no upside for the terrorist organization to put this out there, unless there‘s something to it.

OLBERMANN:  Could he be, in fact, dead?  Could this be a softener, in the sense of, you know, dating back to Roman times, you have the guy leaping out of the sick emperor‘s bedroom, saying, He‘s given me his ring, I‘m his natural successor.  Could that be (INAUDIBLE)?

FRANCONA:  Well, you know, that‘s the first thing that comes to mine.  They say, Well, OK, he‘s dead, we‘re going to say he‘s wounded.  And it gives us time to get a successor into place.  It gives us time to transition and keep the operations going.  And we‘re not the only ones that are saying that.  That‘s all—there‘s also speculation in the Middle East.  Some of the Middle East networks are saying that as well.

OLBERMANN:  We know, Rick, that he has been out on the road a lot.  He has supposedly been seen and reported traveling to and from Syria to debrief or kick in the butt or hold a convention for his people, so there‘s at least the possibility that he was wounded in some sort of firefight.  But is it necessarily the case that we would have known, some American source would have known if he‘d been wounded?

FRANCONA:  No.  The way these firefights happen, the way these ambushes happen, you would not necessarily know who was injured, who was not.  And, of course, they would make every effort to remove him from the battlefield and get him to medical care.  So it‘s quite plausible that we don‘t know if he‘s wounded or not.

OLBERMANN:  But with the tracking, supposedly, that‘s gone on, and after the story came out that Syria needed to do more to keep control of its border with Iraq, for the simple reason that Zarqawi apparently had free access across the border, one would think that as close to a tail on this guy as we could have in these circumstances, we‘ve had on him since then, right?

FRANCONA:  Well, you would hope so.  I mean, well, they say they came so close, it was a few months ago.  Remember, they had him being watched by a Predator, and his—he was moving in a truck.  He jumped out of the truck at the last minute.  So they‘ve been close.  But I don‘t think, when we say they‘re out there looking for him or—he‘s not really under surveillance.  They really don‘t have that good of a beat on him.

If they knew they were that close, they would mount every effort to go get him.

OLBERMANN:  The U.S. interest in nailing this information down right now is how high, and why?

FRANCONA:  Well, it‘s very important that we determine what his status is, because he‘s a charismatic leader of one of the most important parts of the insurgency in Iraq, probably the most important.  He‘s target number one.  If he goes, it‘s going to have an impact on the organization.

Now, they may have a successor in the wait—in the wings.  He may be grooming someone to take over in case something like this happens.  But he‘s a charismatic, hands-on leader.  It‘s going to have an impact, a negative impact initially.  So they may want to soften that blow.

OLBERMANN:  Let‘s end near where we began, on the subject of a successor.  Not that this is the hereditary dynasty of the Middle East.  This is not, you know, Kingdom of Jordan or something.  But wouldn‘t they already have a successor in mind for somebody who is target number one?

FRANCONA:  Well, they don‘t really have a rank structure.  So it‘s not like I‘m the number two guy, I‘m going to step into the position.  He may have three or four lieutenants out there, each one who is capable or being groomed.  So, you know, we really don‘t know the internal hierarchy of this organization.  Although there have been some key lieutenant been captured, I don‘t think we have a really good picture of how this organization functions.

OLBERMANN:  The retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, now MSNBC analyst, Rick Francona.  As always, Rick, thanks for your time.

FRANCONA:  Sure thing, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Whether Zarqawi is actually out of commission or not, or alive or not, has had little impact on the recent surge of insurgency in Iraq.  Thirteen U.S. servicemen killed across that country in the past two days, three of them by one single car bomb that exploded next to their convoy in Baghdad today.

That brings the number of American troops killed just since the new Iraqi government formed last month to 57.

But Iraqi civilians are still bearing the brunt of terror attacks, 49 of them killed since Sunday, including six bystanders killed when a bomb exploded near a girls‘ junior high school.

Meanwhile, full-steam reverse in the saga of “Newsweek” magazine, the discredited Korans at Guantanamo Bay story and the White House reaction thereto.

You may have thought that the administration, through press secretary Scott McClellan and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, had attribute the rioting in the Muslim world and the deaths of 17 people in Afghanistan to that since-retracted “Newsweek” report, in about the formal investigation of prisoner treatment at Gitmo, reportedly having found something to substantiate the many claims that a Koran had been thrown in or flushed down a toilet.

Silly you.

Eight days after his first blast at “Newsweek,” Mr. McClellan was asked about Afghanistan‘s president, Hamid Karzai‘s comment, that he did not believe the violence in his country was directly tied to the “Newsweek” story.  Yet McClellan had himself made that link.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, May 23)

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  Actually, I don‘t think you‘re actually characterizing what was said accurately.  Now, the—as I said last week, and as President Karzai said today, and as General Myers had said previously, the protest may well have been prestaged.  The discredited report was damaging.  It was used to incite violence.

But those who espouse an ideology of hatred and oppression and murder don‘t need an excuse to incite violence.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, May 17)

MCCLELLAN:  This report, which “Newsweek” has now retracted and said was wrong, has had serious consequences.  People did lose their lives.  The image of the United States abroad has been damaged.  There‘s lasting damage to our image because of this report.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  But he never said that.

You know, the phrase that Nixon‘s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, used to use during Watergate might be helpful here, That statement is no longer operative.

But there‘s a different kind of statement on the subject of the Koran.  About 65 miles west of Charlotte, North Carolina, in Forest City, greetings of—greeting parishioner on the Danieltown—of the Danieltown Baptist Church, plus any motorists who happen to be driving past it on U.S. 221 south, this greeting from Reverend Creighton Lovelace, the pastor of the church, “The Koran needs to be flushed!”

Despite protests from some Muslims in the area, and disavowals from the head of the Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce, Reverend Lovelace isn‘t apologizing.  In fact, he joins us now.

Thank you for your time tonight, sir.

REV. CREIGHTON LOVELACE, DANIELTOWN BAPTIST CHURCH:  Thank you.

OLBERMANN:  Do you mean that...

LOVELACE:  Thank you, Mr. Olbermann.

OLBERMANN:  Do you mean this literally?  Would you flush copies of the Koran down a toilet, or otherwise literally destroy them?

LOVELACE:  I don‘t mean it I literally.  I merely mean it as a figure of speech, utilizing the “Newsweek” story, but rather that we are attempting to try to tell people what was desecrated, was anything desecrated, based on our religious belief and conviction on the Bible, the 66 books of God‘s word.

OLBERMANN:  Is it possible that that book, the Koran, can be as holy or sacred to Muslims as the Bible is to you?  Is that not a precept of your religion, that those—both of those things might be true?

LOVELACE:  Well, actually, God, into his revelation to man, in the Book of Revelation, Genesis to Revelation, and he said, If any man adds to the word of this book, I will add unto him the plagues that are listed inside of this book.  And if any man takes away from the words of this book, I will take away his part out of the Book of Life.

And but the Muslim faith, they do hold the Koran to be holy.  But yet we must remember, in this world in which we live, there are absolute, there is an absolute.  There is a right way to heaven, and there is a wrong way, which would lead people to hell.

OLBERMANN:  But—but...

LOVELACE:  (INAUDIBLE) --  I‘m sorry, go ahead, sir.

OLBERMANN:  Yes, sir.  I‘m just wondering, is that not what they say about your religion too?  Is that not what the Muslims believe?  Is that not part of the problem of their religion sort of spiraling off into this area of violence and terrorism?

LOVELACE:  Well, that‘s—they claim that they trace their lineage back to the Holy Scripture.  But yet if one would merely look at the Koran and look and see the stories that are taken from God‘s word, for example, they state that Esau, or Jesus, was born by the Virgin Mary under a palm tree.  Now, Luke chapter two, verse seven, says Jesus, our Lord and our Savior, was born inside of a stable.

And so as far as I can see, the Koran is merely another tool used by Satan to deceive people around the world.

We don‘t hate Muslims.  We don‘t hate Islamic people.  I merely am commanded by God‘s word, the Holy Bible, to tell my people what is truth and what is not, and to hopefully, by our statements and standing firm on God‘s word, that people will hopefully look and see, Well, what is—is the Koran right?  Is the Bible right?  Hopefully they will—people will begin to look at this issue for themselves.

OLBERMANN:  What if they look at it in the same way that the “Newsweek” story was looked at?  I mean, we all know about this supposed connection between the story about the Korans in the toilet, and the rioting in the Middle East, and the way news travels around the world today on the Internet and other ways.  If people in the Middle East see or read about your sign, and there‘s a riot, and some of those people are killed, how will you feel?

LOVELACE:  Well, I, of course, I would be very sad that these people have lost their life.  But yet again, the Bible teaches that we have free will.  And if someone riots and takes up a weapon to attempt to murder someone because of just, of this story, they are the ones that have chosen to do this.  And the Koran teaches the Islamic people, jihad, or a holy war.  And the Bible stresses that we are—Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.

OLBERMANN:  Last question, reverend, if he saw your sign, if he saw that message, “The Koran needs to be flushed!” what would Jesus do?

LOVELACE:  I believe Jesus would commend us, because Jesus spoke against those who had a form of godliness but they denied the power thereof, as the Apostle Paul said, and that we, as believers of the Lord Jesus Christ, we need to take a stand inside of our world, inside of our society, and tell people what we believe.

OLBERMANN:  The Reverend Creighton Lovelace at the Danieltown Baptist Church in North Carolina.  Thanks for your time tonight, sir.

LOVELACE:  Thank you, sir.  Mr. Olbermann, God bless you.

OLBERMANN:  Well, must be a different Jesus than I know.  But that‘s a debate for a different time.

Also tonight, Jay Leno from late night one-liners to testimony under oath, he testifies at the Jackson trial.  And it was like one of his sets from his standup days, 26 minutes on stage.

And the big D.C. cool-down after the red-hot threats of the nuclear option, winners and losers from the great filibuster fight.  Or were there none?

You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Well, here it is, the next-to-next-to-next-to-last day of school, the hour before your hiatus, the possible day the defense rested.  Your entertainment and tax dollars in action, day 554 of the Michael Jackson investigations.

And, of course, always leave them with a show-stopping final witness, Arlene Kennedy of Universal Dance and Design School.  She was the anticlimax after Jay Leno today.  But as our correspondent Karen Brown reports from Santa Maria, the defense needed something by that point, because to them, Jay was a surprise witness.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KAREN BROWN, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Jay Leno may have looked amused at being called as a defense witness, but Jackson‘s attorneys may not have found anything humorous about what he told the jurors.

JIM MORET, LEGAL ANALYST:  Jay Leno seemed to be all show and no business.

BROWN:  The defense had claimed that Leno received an effusive phone call from the accuser that led him to believe the family was just out for money.  But the late-night star testified that the family never asked him for anything.

MORET:  He didn‘t feel that he was being set up for a shake-down. 

This seems to directly contradict what we were promised by the defense.

BROWN:  Although some jurors chuckled at the comedian‘s quips from the stand, legal analysts said having Leno play a part in the defense‘s case may have backfired.

SUSAN FILAN, FORMER PROSECUTOR:  The expectation is huge when somebody like Jay Leno takes the witness stand.  And when he doesn‘t deliver, boy, does that bell ring loud in the jurors‘ ears.

BROWN:  But legal analysts said that the defense may have sounded an alarm about the accuser‘s mother.  Several years ago, the family received more than $150,000 from a lawsuit in which they claimed department store security guards had beaten them.  But today, a paralegal testified that the mother said her bruises were actually from her abusive husband.

FRANK SMITH, FORMER SANTA BARBARA D.A.:  The mother was willing, according to the witness who testified, to falsify injuries.  They are suggesting there is a pattern or a scheme or a plan to do that same kind of thing with respect to Michael Jackson.

BROWN:  Mary Holdser (ph) also testified that the mother had the accuser and his brother go along with the lie.  The defense has been trying to prove that Jackson was the victim of a family of grifters looking for a celebrity mark.

Karen Brown, NBC News, Santa Maria.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Comedian Chris Tucker was the last witness of the day.  And he may not have helped the defense either, acknowledging that after the accuser told him that a fundraiser for his medical expenses had not made any money, Tucker had wired the family $1,500.  But again, he did not testify that the family asked him for money.

Tucker‘s testimony continues tomorrow.  Then the defense rests, with Jackson having not testified.  Then the prosecution has about five rebuttal witnesses, and we should be wrapped up by Thursday.  Whoo-hoo.

But about those quips and such from the stand from Jay Leno.  They were about the unlikelihood that the accuser, then a 10-year-old boy, would have been a big enough fan of the “Tonight Show” to leave gushing voicemails for Leno, something we seek to recreate tonight in the latest edition of Michael Jackson Puppet Theater.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  So, Mr. Leno, the accuser‘s calls to you were, Oh, I‘m a big fan, you‘re the greatest, to that effect?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  They were overtly effusive, is all I‘m saying.  Here‘s my next bit of testimony.  This is from “The San Jose Mercury News” newspaper.  Kevin, Kevin, you‘ll enjoy this.  Listen up, Kevin.

It seemed a little bit unusual.  I‘m a comedian in my mid-50s.  I‘m not Batman.  How are we on time, your honor?  Ten seconds.

We have Rene Zellweger on the show tonight.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Thank you very much, Jay.  When we come back, comedian Chris Tucker will join us.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Can I just say one more thing?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Sure, Jay.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Whoo-hoo, whoo-hoo-hoo.  I always wanted to say that.  Whoo-hoo-hoo.

OLBERMANN:  For the record, I wanted to point out that our voice artist does not actually do an impression of Mr. Leno.  He can only do an impression of the guy who played Mr. Leno in that TV-movie, “The Late Shift,” and that would be the actor Daniel Roebuck (ph).  Like, you couldn‘t tell that our voice artist doesn‘t do an impression of Mr. Leno.

He‘s fired.

Here‘s something I do have to tell you, where this drag racing is being done.  The good news is coming in from Iraq.

And we‘re not sure what, if anything, there is to celebrate here.  It‘s supposed to be a commercial for a hamburger.  But all I see is the bun.  Is this a bad ad, or the kind of controversy that advertisers dream of?

Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Back with the arts and culture segment of our program.  And tonight, we have a special treat for you, a guy in a Corvette doing doughnuts in Baghdad.

Plus, frog racing.

Let‘s play Oddball.

Yes, some of the good news from Iraq we‘re always clamoring for, street racing is on the rise in Baghdad.  A group of young Iraqi men have set up this makeshift racetrack there, part of growing trends, and leaving skid marks.  This would have been illegal under Saddam Hussein.  Actually, technically, it is still illegal, but exactly who‘s there to write them a ticket?

Still, the racers prefer the closed slalom track over the too-fast, too-furious street-style racing.  Fewer tanks and fewer roadside bombs.  And unfortunately, that is not a cynical joke.

This is more my speed, celebrated jumping frog of Calaveras County.  The frog-jumping competition inspired by Mark Twain‘s first renowned short story.  He wrote it in 1865.  They started doing it in 1928.  Way to pick up on the publicity, boys.

They say 35,000 people showed up for the event over the weekend past.  The rules seem simple enough, scare the living bejeesus out of your frog, and then chase it around a fenced-in area.  Stopping behind the frog, as you see, seems to be the strategy of choice.  But one wrong move, and they got to call in a guy with a spatula.

Kind of a jumping-frog contest these last few weeks in the Senate. 

Who won?  The filibuster fight, as analyzed by Howard Fineman.

And another faceoff looming, the House passing new stem-cell research legislation that the president is vowing to veto.

These stories ahead.

But first, now here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three newsmakers of this day.

Number three, sheriff‘s deputies in Lee County, Florida, Fort Meyers, this is.  A suspicious package on Daniels Parkway at the I-75 underpass.  As traffic was shut down for about an hour, a robot disabled the foot-long cylinder, which looked like a pipe bomb but turned out to be a wad of paper shaped into the form of a man‘s—yes.

Art student left it there, no doubt.

Number two, M.A.A. Fatmi.  He is a minister in the Indian government, and he‘s got a problem in his office in New Delhi, too many monkeys.  These monkeys come in from the street and run around the office.  So he hired a langur, a kind of monkey known for scaring other kinds of monkeys.

One problem with hiring a monkey, Mr. Fatmi is the minister of human resources.  Thanks a lot for sticking with our species, pal.

And number one, Jeff Foran of Winthrop, Arkansas.  He had something to drink, so, to his credit, he had a buddy drive him home.  Mr. Foran got into the passenger seat, window rolled down, lit up a cigarette.  But then the wind hit just then, and he dropped the cigarette out the window.  So he decided to go get it.

Mr. Foran‘s face is pretty banged up.  Otherwise, though, he is in surprisingly good shape—except for the fact that the car was not parked when this happened.  That‘s right.  He was dumb enough to dive out a car going 60 miles an hour, thinking he could catch a cigarette in midair.

Superman is here!

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  If you were a poli sci major or a student of American history, you know all about compromises that actually turn out to be not compromises on issues but merely compromises between something bad happening today and something bad happening later.  The Missouri Compromise of 1821, the Compromise of 1850, even the Constitution itself all simply put off the issue of how to resolve slavery.

In our third story on the COUNTDOWN, hardly of that consequence, but the judiciary filibuster compromise of 2005 may be nothing more than an IOU with a short due date.  Years of gridlock broken today on the floor of the Senate, lawmakers voting 81 to 18 to end debate over the nomination of Justice Priscilla Owen (INAUDIBLE) one of the moderates‘ compromise made yesterday, clearing the way for a confirmation vote expected to happen either tomorrow or perhaps later tonight.  The confirmation now all but official, President Bush inviting Justice Owen, along with Senators Hutchison and Cornyn of Texas, as well as Majority Leader Frist to the Oval Office this afternoon for a photo op/victory lap.

But is anybody besides Judge Owen an obvious winner in the Washington power struggle over her nomination?  Here to help us keep score is our political referee, “Newsweek” magazine chief political correspondent Howard Fineman.  Good evening, Howard.

HOWARD FINEMAN, “NEWSWEEK,” MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Hi, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Craig Crawford and I were knocking this around last night as this all happened, and I suggested that if you‘re President Bush or you‘re Majority Leader Frist with that kind of majority, and your side compromises at all, you lose.  And if you‘re Harry Reid and you have no fulcrum at all, no power, and you come away with anything, even if it‘s just two judicial scalps, you‘ve won.  What do you think?

FINEMAN:  Well, as Ed McMahon used to say, You are correct, sir.

(LAUGHTER)

FINEMAN:  I think 24 hours to reflect on it leads me to the same conclusion.  George Bush won only in the sense that he got three pretty conservative judges, it looks like, that he‘s going to get confirmed.  And that raises the bar because the Democrats had talked for months about what wild persons these were, what crazy jurists who shouldn‘t get on any bench, and now they‘re going to end up getting confirmed.  So Bush won in that limited sense.

But he lost in a lot of others.  First of all, the filibuster still lives.  Even though Democrats say they‘ll only use them under extraordinary circumstances, you know that the next circumstance is going to be an extraordinary one.  And the filibusters are going to come right in the middle of a Supreme Court nomination, I‘m convinced.  Bush wanted that out of the way.  He want the road paved, so to speak, for a conservative on the Court.  That‘s not going to happen because the filibuster still lives.

Bush‘s leader in the Senate has been—has been undermined.  That‘s Bill Frist, who was there for the photo op but was really outmaneuvered by the—by the “mod squad” in the Senate.

And last, and I think most important, Keith, I think the divisions in the Republican Party that George Bush had welded together are being exposed again, especially on issues such as abortion and the role of judges and science.

OLBERMANN:  That language again, Nominees should only be filibustered under extraordinary circumstances—obviously, it sounds like the Missouri Compromise.  When it blows up, can one side win the blowing-up?  Can they cheat the other?  Could the Republicans ram through other nominations in a way where it‘s too late for the Democrats to filibuster, or the other way around?

FINEMAN:  Well, we‘re going to come back to it.  And you know, you made the comparison to slavery, and you said it was—was—in terms of the gravity of the issues, not comparable.  There are a lot of conservatives, a lot of right-to-lifers, who think that it is every bit as serious.  And on the other side, there are a lot of people who believe in the role of science, who believe that limits, for example, on stem cell research are, you know, standing athwart progress, who take it with just that kind of grave seriousness.

That‘s why the battle over the Supreme Court to come is going to be so big and so important.  On a cultural level, in some ways, without sounding, you know, too histrionic about this, Keith, it‘s a grave, grave issue in American life.  And that‘s why it‘s going to divide us again, and that‘s why this compromise is just a patchover.

OLBERMANN:  And an aspect of it—I‘ve got to ask you while we have the chance here about stem cell research.  We‘re covering the actual developments in a moment.  This is kind of out of order here.  But the House approves looser restrictions on it.  The president will veto that.  The House will probably not be able to override.  Is the president going to lose this one next time, if not this time?  Is that the sense, the tea leaves?

FINEMAN:  Well, it could be, depending on whether the 2006 elections are over this—are over this kind of thing.  This is all about judges, the Supreme Court in particular, and these fundamental questions of the role of science versus faith in public life.  That‘s what we‘ve been arguing about for years, and it‘s going to come to a head in the Bush presidency second term and the Supreme Court battle to come.

OLBERMANN:  Howard Fineman of “Newsweek” and MSNBC, of course, as always, insightful and valuable analysis, and our great thanks for it, Howard.

FINEMAN:  Sure, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Meanwhile, down the hall, the dissension and debate today in that other chamber of Congress as the House moved toward approving the bill that would overturn some of the president‘s limits on stem cell research.  No surprise, then, that the president had already said he would veto that measure should it pass both House and Senate, the bill in question lifting the president‘s ban on the funding of research using stem cells from embryos that were harvested after the ban took effect in 2001 -- specifically, so-called abandoned embryos from fertility clinics and such.  The president says those are just unborn children who should be adopted.  The House has passed the measure 238 to 194, but it would need 290 votes to override his threatened veto.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, the disease that killed Lou Gehrig and afflicts Stephen Hawking, is just one of the illnesses that could possibly be controlled or cured or at least addressed through stem cell research.  Project ALS was founded by Valerie Estess and her sisters after one of them, the New York theater producer Jennifer Estess, was diagnosed with the disease when she was just 35.  Jennifer Estess lost her battle with ALS 18 months ago at the age of 40.  Her sister, Valerie Estess, joins us now.

Thank you for your time tonight.

VALERIE ESTESS, PROJECT ALS:  Hi, Keith.  Thanks for having me.

OLBERMANN:  Despite the fact that the president promises to veto this bill if it gets through the Senate, was today still a good day in the fight for stem cell research?

ESTESS:  I have to say today was pretty historic in the sense that Democrats and Republicans came together behind embryonic stem cell research, which has shown signs—it‘s very clearly a tool not only for treating so many diseases and disorders but for actually understanding them and ultimately curing them.

OLBERMANN:  Do you accept the president‘s premise, as he stated it today, that the ethics are not changed by this, that the unwanted embryos, as they‘re describe, need to be carried to term and born somewhere and not, as he put it, destroyed?

ESTESS:  I‘m not sure if the president is all that realistic in that respect because the embryos, so-called, that we‘re talking about are sort of earmarked for destruction.  They‘re leftover embryos at in vitro fertilization clinics, and again, earmarked for destruction.  What science presumes to do is to take these, grow them up and to treat devastating illnesses like ALS and the related scourges, Parkinson‘s, Alzheimer‘s, and so many other ills.

OLBERMANN:  For four years, this administration has said what it will not do about research into treating diseases like the ones you just rattled off basically boils down to no new stem cell research.  Has it ever said what it will do, what the alternative is?

ESTESS:  Well, you know, Keith, I think that‘s a great, great question.  What the debate now is embryonic stem cells versus adult stem cells.  If President Bush and company have decided that embryonic stem cell research is immoral or not worth pursuing, I‘d like to know what are his plans for an all-out attack on disease, or these so-called biological terrorists that so many millions of Americans are dealing with right now?  He doesn‘t seem to have a game plan.  I‘d like to know what the game plan is.

OLBERMANN:  Will, do you think, in the long term, we look back one day at this ethical debate and say, What was that all about?  I mean, stem cell research is obviously going to continue full-tilt in other countries.  The Koreans made breakthroughs in terms of cloning stem cells.  If somebody makes a breakthrough, an applicable breakthrough with stem cell research somewhere and comes up with an inoculation against Alzheimer‘s or a treatment for ALS—if and when that happens, does this whole argument become moot?  Does it become like looking back on the ethical debate we used to have about test tube babies, which was a terrible, forceful debate in this country, and people can‘t imagine that there was any question now.

ESTESS:  It‘s an interesting comparison.  I don‘t think that stem cells are a magic bullet for any of these—the disorders I‘ve mentioned.  It‘s going to take a lot of schmoozing and work from our best and brightest scientists all working together in true collaboration to truly get at the promise of stem cells.  But unless we get all over this now, we‘re really behind the eightball and millions of Americans will die.

OLBERMANN:  To your knowledge, practically speaking—this is the devil‘s advocate question that has been asked time and time again—has stem cell research actually accomplish anything regarding ALS or any of the other diseases?

ESTESS:  Well, gosh, Keith, Project ALS, which is a company I help to run, has shown incontrovertible evidence that embryonic stem cells can actually become functional nerve cells, the same ones that are lost in ALS.  So that‘s pretty compelling evidence to me.  I‘m not coming from the perspective of politics or religion or science here.  I‘m just coming from the human place.  And I think the American people have spoken, and we want to protect our families.  We want to protect our children.  And this is one of the best avenues we have of research of addressing these problems.

OLBERMANN:  Valerie Estess, co-founder of Project ALS, great.  Thanks for your time tonight.

ESTESS:  Thank you, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  From saving or improving life to creating life.  Not the way we‘re thinking here.  The great baby boom in Florida.  Think back nine months and ask yourself why these newborns should have a kind of mark of cane on them?  Cane.  Hurricane.  And just when you thought the 15 minutes of fame were up, another game show in this man‘s future.

Those stories ahead but now here at COUNTDOWN‘s top three sound bites of this day.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REV. AL SHARPTON:  There is an expression in Brooklyn, New York, where I come from, where I‘ve told them that someone wee-wees in your face and then calls it rain.  And that‘s how I felt about his not apologizing for the (INAUDIBLE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  (INAUDIBLE) half-time report in just a second.  But first, certainly one of the highlights of the first half, the—another appearance by the Golden Oldies here at American Airlines Arena.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Now, that might be—I don‘t know about Golden Oldies, but that might be cubic zirconia there.

(LAUGHTER)

GEORGE WALKER BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  You are Audrey Siglenski (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  That‘s right.

BUSH:  And...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I‘m a 70-year-old widow.

BUSH:  Don‘t ever say your age.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Oh, that‘s—I have no problem.  Don‘t ask me my weight, though.

BUSH:  OK.

(LAUGHTER)

BUSH:  Reminds me of my mother!

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  In August, 1966, hospitals in New York and other Eastern cities reported the strange phenomenon: more children being born, many more children than unusual.  They counted back nine months on their fingers and went, Ah! In late June, 2002, hospitals in New York and around the country reported the same strange phenomenon.  They counted back nine months on their fingers and went, Ah!

And in our number two story in the COUNTDOWN, this week, hospitals in Florida are reporting the strange phenomenon once again.  As our correspondent Kerry sanders counts back nine months on his fingers, you‘ll go, Ah!  In 1966, nine months after the great blackout, 2002, nine months after 9/11, 2005, nine months after Florida‘s hurricane swarm.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KERRY SANDERS, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  The unexpected aftermath of hurricane season 2004.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  She‘s so beautiful!

SANDERS:  A baby boom in Florida.  At Winter Park Memorial Hospital, births erupt 20 percent.  Newborn twins, Reagan (ph) and Ryan (ph), will forever be linked to a hurricane named Jean.

BARRY TAYLOR, NEW FATHER:  We kept hearing on the radio we‘re supposed to hunker down, so we hunkered down all right.

HOLLY TAYLOR, NEW MOTHER:  Thanks, Dad.

SANDERS:  At Boca Raton Community Hospital, where there‘s usually four to five births a day, there are now more than a dozen a day.  Meet baby Kate.

KELLY GILMORE, NEW MOTHER:  I mean, this is the perfect thing to do when you‘re—you‘re all home alone for that many days at a time.

TODD GILMORE, NEW FATHER:  Assuming that you really, really like each other.

SANDERS:  The hurricane babies, products of waiting out the storm.

SONYA KELLER, EXPECTING HURRICANE BABY:  The whole (INAUDIBLE) story was I forgot to pick up my prescription.  And in the meantime, I‘m pulling trees off my house.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Good little heart rate.

SANDERS:  The medical staff who saw more and more pregnant mothers initially didn‘t believe this had anything to do with the hurricanes.  Why?

NANCY HOFFMAN, RN, WINTER PARK MEMORIAL HOSPITAL:  We were without power.  There was no air-conditioning.  You couldn‘t shower.  Do you get my drift?

SANDERS (on camera):  Not the ideal conditions, you‘re saying.

HOFFMAN:  No way!  No way.

SANDERS (voice-over):  Dr. David Lubecken (ph)...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  In my expert medical opinion, when people have more time on their hands, they have time to conceive babies.

SANDERS:  And that‘s exactly what happened with Anna (ph) and Fred Sage (ph).  Married less than a year, and now with Liliana (ph), a family.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Not much to do in the house when you‘re all boarded up without electricity, so got to enjoy each other.

SANDERS:  Experts say there‘s also a psychological factor, simply surviving Mother Nature.

DR. ANNE-MARIE V. JONES, OB/GYN:  Yes, that could bring mom and dad together and closer, so...

SANDERS (on camera):  And make a little baby.

JONES:  And make a baby.

SANDERS:  June 1 begins this year‘s hurricane season.  For those who live in hurricane zones and have now heard about this baby boom, it might be time to reconsider what‘s in those hurricane survival kits.  Kerry Sanders, NBC News, Winter Park, Florida.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  And to the hurricane of game show participants.  Ken Jennings leads off our nightly round-up of celebrity and entertainment news, “Keeping Tabs.”  His 74-game win streak on “Jeopardy” brought him 2.5 million bucks and now his own TV quiz program, comedy Central announcing Jennings will be a central figure.  The actual host, an as yet unnamed comedian.  Folks at Comedy Central say the concept is straightforward and simple, but they won‘t say what it is.  They fear competitors stealing their idea.  The executive producer says Jennings‘s work in commercials convinces him he is a natural entertainer.

Well, maybe.  Maybe he saw something I did not.

And we‘ve lost another of the unheralded geniuses of entertainment.  Howard Morris has died.  Not many generations did not have the pleasure of seeing his work.  He, Carl Reiner, Imogen Coca were Sid Caesar‘s co-stars on “Your Show of Shows” in the 1950s, Morris memorably playing a “This Is Your Life” guest who literally would not stop hugging the subject of the show.  The guy‘s name was called Uncle Goopy (ph).  In the ‘60s, though, he was Earnest T. Bass, the backwards poet on “The Andy Griffith Show,” and in the ‘70s, Professor Lilloman in Mel Brooks‘s movie spoof “High Anxiety.”

Throughout, Howard Morris was also the voice of dozens of animated characters, from Adam Ant in the ‘60s to Flem (ph) in “Cow and Chicken” in 1997.  And he was a director: “Who‘s Minding the Mint,” “Don‘t Drink the Water” and countless TV shows.  Howard Morris died Saturday, according to his son, David.  He was 85 years old.

From Hollywood legends to star wannabes.  Paris Hilton trying to pitch hamburgers, critics pitching a fit, another controversy whose beneficiary will be the advertisers.  Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Just in from San Jose, California: The husband of the woman arrested and charged with trying to scam Wendy‘s restaurants by planting a fingertip in a cup of their chili has himself today been charged in the case.  Jaime Placencia, the husband of Anna Ayala, accused of two felony counts, conspiracy to file a false charge and attempted grand theft.  He will be arraigned on Thursday.

And speaking of fast food, sort of: It is an axiom as old as time itself.  If something offends you and you want to stop its distribution or the publicity attendant to it, ignore it.  But then there‘s the twin of that axiom—namely, that if something offends you and you want to stop its distribution or the publicity attendant to it, it is impossible to ignore it, nor quell your righteous indignation.

Our number one story on the COUNTDOWN: That inability to just shut up made a best-seller out of “Lady Chatterley‘s Lover” by D.H. Lawrence.  It turned Monty Python‘s “Life of Brian” into a box office success, and for all we know, it drew a crowd to the first dirty words ever scratched on a Neandertal‘s cave.

And here we go again.  A racy TV commercial from Paris Hilton, putting the “fast” in fast food, and the loud and angry comments of another organization that just could not stop itself, this one called the Parents Television Council.  And it equals an instant pulsation of publicity for the product, the performer and the controversy.

(VIDEO CLIP OF COMMERCIAL)

OLBERMANN:  “This commercial is basically soft-core porn.  It‘s inappropriate for television,” says Melissa Caldwell.  She is the research director for the Parents Television Council.  She adds she plans to mobilize the group‘s one million members to protest to the FCC.  She obviously is new here.

Anything but is our friend, Michael Musto, of “The Village Voice,” who joins me now.  Michael, good evening.

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

OLBERMANN:  Nobody ever gets this.  Nobody ever just lets these things die, do they.

MUSTO:  No.  These people are clueless.  I wouldn‘t be surprised if they actually were hired by Paris to help promote this by, you know, protesting it and let her rise from the ashes one more time like a Phoenix.  These people just don‘t get it.  You know, if they would just shut up, you would think this is a commercial about a girl, a car and a hamburger.  But no, they got to make it into something dirty.  It is dirty.  Duh.  You know, people are going to enjoy it because it‘s dirty.  But just let it go.  People wouldn‘t be mad about this if it weren‘t for the protests.  They (INAUDIBLE) be mad about the cholesterol levels.

OLBERMANN:  I‘m reminded tonight of H.L. Mencken‘s definition of Puritanism: the haunting fear someone somewhere may be happy.  Is that at the bottom line here, I mean, that the people who have to protest crap like this ad—and it‘s crap—but are they afraid it will corrupt somebody, or are they afraid somebody will enjoy it?

MUSTO:  They‘re actually afraid somebody‘s going to enjoy it, namely, their husbands, OK?  These people are not afraid that this is going to corrupt children.  Children don‘t know what it is.  If you don‘t tell them it‘s dirty, they‘ll think it‘s a girl just being silly.  But you know, these are the same people that were mad about Janet Jackson‘s breast.  That didn‘t corrupt a whole generation.  It didn‘t lead to a wave or murders and abductions, maybe some tacky choreography and bad nipple rings.

But in this case, what these people are mad about are people are going to enjoy it.  It‘s dirty, and they‘re going to love it.  Duh.  That‘s the point.  Let them enjoy it.

OLBERMANN:  So speaking of enjoying it, let‘s say that in this climate, the protest actually works, the FCC orders this ad off the air, and the lesson to ad agencies and advertisers becomes, Make as racy an ad as you can, tick off the far right, get three times the free publicity as the publicity you paid for, and even if the FCC acts swiftly, you still come out way ahead, right?

MUSTO:  Absolutely.  Just go dirty.  Push the envelope and cause a controversy, get an avalanche of free publicity and go farther and farther.  Who knows what Paris could do with a foot-long.

OLBERMANN:  Yes.  About the—about this ad itself, I have to say this is the first time I ever believed a Paris Hilton performance.  I believed, seeing that, that she could make a career out of washing cars.

MUSTO:  Well, I saw “House of Wax.”  She definitely can‘t make a career out of acting.  I read her book.  She can‘t make a career out of writing.  But yes, washing cars she does very well.  Eating she does very well, though I suspect she vomits afterwards.  She probably could be a wait server at a fast-food place, but not acting or writing, and certainly not talking, which, by the way, nobody‘s protesting the fact that She doesn‘t talk in this thing.

OLBERMANN:  Yes, we should be—actually, there should be another council formed to congratulate her on not speaking throughout the commercial.  I think you make a great point there, as you always do.  Michael Musto of “La Dolce Musto” in “The Village Voice,” always a pleasure, sir.

MUSTO:  Thank you, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  And that‘s COUNTDOWN.  I‘m Keith Olbermann.  Chris Matthews is next with a live bonus edition of “HARDBALL,” so do remember to listen in from the first word and pay attention from that point on.

Keep your knees loose.  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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