updated 8/24/2005 10:39:10 AM ET 2005-08-24T14:39:10

Guests: Bob Edgar, Mike Wise, Jose Avila

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST:  First, the hard news.  After September 11, he and his colleague Jerry Falwell blamed the attacks in part on the ACLU and the Supreme Court of the United States.  In October 2003, he suggested that the U.S. State Department be blown up.  And yesterday, he called for the assassination of the elected president of Venezuela.

But perhaps the most surprising statement by or about Pat Robertson is contained in almost every account of his statements in the news today, namely, that he is a, quote, “religious leader.”

Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?

The actions of a terrorist, say the Venezuelans, not a Christian.

Paying for gas with more than just money.  An SUV owner drives off without paying.  The gas station owner tries to stop him and is killed.

The president to Cindy Sheehan, Sorry for your loss, and you‘re wrong.

And Mr. Bush admits a mistake, a mistake by the accuser‘s mother in the Jackson case, kind of.  She‘s charged with welfare fraud.

And need a bed?  There‘s a FedEx for that.  A desk with wall shelves? 

There‘s a FedEx for that.  In fact, are you too cheap to buy any furniture? 

There‘s a FedEx for that too.

All that and more, now on COUNTDOWN.

Good evening.

Who would Jesus assassinate?

Throughout the history of this country, the strongest and most bipartisan of reactions, the most unanimous and solid of feelings, have come when prominent figures in other countries have suggested regime change here.  One needs only to recall the Iraqi scheme to assassinate the first President Bush and the national revulsion in this country.

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, tonight this country appears to be on the other side of that equation.  The fallout in politics and religion and religious broadcasting here in a moment.

First, the outline of the Pat Robertson story from our correspondent Bob Faw.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BOB FAW, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  This was no extremist cleric issuing a death threat.  This was Christian minister Pat Robertson discussing Venezuela‘s president Hugo Chavez.

PAT ROBERTSON:  But if he thinks we‘re trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it.  It‘s a whole lot cheaper than starting a war.  We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability.  We don‘t need another $200 billion war to get rid of one, you know, strong-arm dictator.  It‘s a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with.

FAW:  Immediately, Chavez‘ government called the remarks “terrorist.”  “Inappropriate,” said the State Department.  The National Council of Churches called them “appalling to the point of disbelief.”

BARRY LYNN, AMERICANS UNITED FOR SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE:  I do think this is just the kind of political and religious fanaticism that leads to violence throughout the world.

FAW:  But today, there was no apology, no comment whatsoever from the founder of the Christian Coalition and one-time presidential candidate, who once suggested that Saddam Hussein also be assassinated, and that the State Department be blown up with a nuclear device.  “Islam,” he once said, “is a Christian heresy.”

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, January 1985)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Obviously you‘re not saying that there are no other people qualified to be in government or whatever if they aren‘t Christians or Jews.  But what you‘re saying is that...

ROBERTSON:  Yes, I‘m saying that.  I just said it.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FAW (on camera):  Robertson has gotten into hot water before, not just because of what he said, urging Christians, for example, to get mad and take back the nation, but also because of what he‘s done.

(voice-over):  Like using his religious TV network to help peddle Pat‘s Diet Shake.  The recipe, he says, he devised himself.  Or, like denouncing gambling while owning an expensive race horse.

OLE ANTHONY, CRITIC OF TELEVANGELISTS:  He‘s violently against abortion, yet he‘s encouraging support of the Chinese government, which has forced abortions.  What I‘m troubled by is the hypocrisy.

FAW:  And now, comments further inflaming tension between Caracas and the United States, the number-one buyer of Venezuelan crude, from a man of God who doesn‘t calm waters but roils them.

Bob Faw, NBC News, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  While Venezuela‘s ambassador to this country and its vice president responded in outrage, President Chavez may have won the verbal battle by going quiet.  Asked tonight in Havana for his reaction to Robertson‘s remarks, Chavez said, quote, “I don‘t know who that person is.  About his opinion of me, I could not care less.”

To assess the political fallout here, I‘m joined again by Craig Crawford, senior columnist at “Congressional Quarterly” and an MSNBC analyst.

Good evening, Craig.

CRAIG CRAWFORD, “CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY”:  Always interesting to hear that Virginia accent, “Take them out.”  He wants to take him out.

(LAUGHTER)

OLBERMANN:  He is not in the Bush administration, but obviously, he represents a huge part of its political support.  Are you surprised...

CRAWFORD:  No.

OLBERMANN:  ... by the tepid nature of the response from the administration?  I mean, the quote...

CRAWFORD:  No, I...

OLBERMANN:  ... the State Department spokesman was the remarks were inappropriate.

CRAWFORD:  Inappropriate, yes.

OLBERMANN:  Secretary Rumsfeld said, Well, it‘s against the law.  We don‘t do this type of thing.

CRAWFORD:  The Bush administration, or the President Bush, going back to his father‘s presidential campaign in 1988 knows full well the political power of Pat Robertson even today.  I think it‘s probably still not, still there, not quite as strong, going back to 2000, when the president was running against John McCain in the South Carolina Republican primary.  McCain attacked Pat Robertson.  Bush campaign took full advantage of that and scarfed up plenty of Robertson voters in the South Carolina primary.

This is a political leader, this is not a religious leader.  I have seen him as a political figure more than a religious figure for a long time.

OLBERMANN:  Yes, well, I don‘t know about his religious credentials.  We‘ll get to that in a moment. But where—if this is a political issue, then, if we‘re boiling it down to that, where were the Democrats on this today?  Shouldn‘t somebody have been saying, We need to Epoxy this man‘s lips together?

CRAWFORD:  I think the Democrats have a real problem with, there is no leader.  It‘s hard to say who is the leader of the Democratic Party to come forward and represent sort of the loyal opposition or the shadow government, if you will.  And that person doesn‘t exist.

So they‘re also all on vacation.  So maybe we‘ll give them a break on that.  They haven‘t had much to say about Cindy Sheehan, either.

OLBERMANN:  We as a country clearly have issues with Venezuela now.  Chavez threatened to cut off oil exports here.  That‘s 1.3 million barrels a day.  In response to this today, he said—he sort—somehow implied he might open his own chain of gas stations here and sell gas cheaply to the underprivileged Americans, bypassing the American oil companies.

Isn‘t somebody in the government, to try to calm these waters, going to have to say something to Venezuela to tamp down what Robertson has now inflamed?

CRAWFORD:  It doesn‘t seem enough to just say it was inappropriate.  And for a State Department spokesman to be the person saying that, you‘d think it would go higher.  And you‘d also think, if Jesse Jackson had said this, a political opponent of the administration, I think we might hear a bit stronger reaction.

OLBERMANN:  Is this, I guess on the last point, the right time in world history for anybody with a platform in any country to be advocating interfering in another country‘s politics, let alone murdering the political leaders in another country?  Isn‘t this just a dangerous doctrine, no matter who the participants in the equation are?

CRAWFORD:  At a time when our image around the world suffers a bit from people who, rightly or wrongly, see us as very antagonistic hostile, and (INAUDIBLE) prone to the military and lethal options, you know, Karen Hughes just took a job at the State Department to deal with our image abroad.  One of the things she‘s going to create is a rapid response team.

This, I would imagine, might be a first test for her rapid response team, to try to get out there and put some, probably some presidential wording on this.  I think they‘re going to need some language from Bush or at least Condi Rice, secretary of state, condemning Pat Robertson to deal with the PR fallout around the world.

OLBERMANN:  Yes, given that Mr. Robertson has not said anything about this since he said his remarks last night, he may be back with more.  I mean, this may not even be over.

CRAWFORD:  Well, and hurricane season‘s coming up, you know, he‘s turned away a couple of hurricanes, he claims, so...

OLBERMANN:  Well, he may—I—he may have just caused one here with (INAUDIBLE).

CRAWFORD:  He may have.

OLBERMANN:  Craig Crawford of MSNBC and “Congressional Quarterly” and the soon-to-be-released “Attack the Messenger,” thanks, Craig.

CRAWFORD:  Good to see you.

OLBERMANN:  Let‘s switch to the religious end of this.  I‘m joined now by former congressman Bob Edgar, who‘s the general secretary of the National Council of Churches.

Thank you for coming in, sir.

REV. BOB EDGAR, GENERAL SECRETARY, NATIONAL COUNCIL OF CHURCHES:  It‘s good to be with you tonight, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  A man who believes himself, positions himself as a religious leader publicly advocates the assassination of a politician in another country.  Isn‘t this supposedly what we‘re fighting against in Iraq and in the war on terror?

EDGAR:  Absolutely.  This is abomination.  And Pat Robertson should be ashamed of himself.  He should resign from the “700 Club.”  And he should apologize and retract the statement.  We don‘t need, in this time in history, with conflicts around the world, for a religious leader, especially a Christian religious leader, to bypass the very core of Jesus‘ message of care for the least of these, our brothers and sisters.

Jesus would be appalled to hear that a Christian so-called religious leader was making statements about taking out a government official in Venezuela.

The question I have is, who would you take out next?  Would you go to North Korea?  Iran?  Other places?

I think Pat Robertson has gone a mile too far and needs to be stopped.  And I—as far as the administration‘s concerned, I‘d call upon them to call in the Federal Communications Commission.  They go after shock jocks all the time.  Why wouldn‘t they go after hate speech that may lead to death and destruction around the world?

OLBERMANN:  Yes, but there is a problem.  And it was suggested at the end of “HARDBALL” by Al Sharpton as well.  Not only can you not impeach a televangelist, and you can‘t suspend a televangelist from a network that he owns, but also, because it‘s cable and satellite, it‘s not under the aegis of the FCC.  The Federal Communications Commission really doesn‘t have any control over cable broadcasting.  So we‘re really left without a self-correcting mechanism here, aren‘t we?

EDGAR:  Well, Keith, I think there are some limitations.  But, you know, the Congress of the United States, I was a member of Congress, voted not to assassinate world leaders, and ordered that nobody in government should do that.  I think private citizens ought to abide by that, both nationally and internationally.

I was in one of the 12 members of the United States Congress who served on the Select Committee on Assassinations looking into the death of Dr. Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy.  I interviewed white supremists who had put out a $50,000 reward on anyone who would kill Dr. King.  James Earl Ray picked up on that theme and pulled the trigger.

My belief is that what Robertson has done in this instance could have a ripple effect all over the world, where opposition leaders would begin to think assassination is the way to go, rather than diplomacy, rather than the rule of law.

OLBERMANN:  Well, then, clearly, you know particularly the rule of law here.  And as the Venezuelan government was quite adamant today about talking about exploring its legal options.  Are there legalities involved in this country, conceivably, with what Pat Robertson said?  Or is this—he‘s going to be sued in a Venezuelan court for threatening the president by proxy?

EDGAR:  Yes, I think we ought to explore all of those issues.  One thing should be said, and I think this has to be made clear.  This is not a conservative-versus-liberal issue.  It‘s not a far evangelical versus liberal Christian kind of issue.

Ted Haggard, who heads the opposite organization in the Evangelical Association  came out today strongly against the comments of Pat Robertson.  I think conservative evangelical Christians of goodwill who care about the poor, care about the environment, moderates and progressives, ought to join hands, and all of us need to condemn this kind of hate speech.

OLBERMANN:  Is there any biblical dispute here?  Could Bible scholars read the same book and the same passages and come up two different conclusions based on the idea, not that it—that they were talking about Hugo Chavez here, and kind of a ludicrous idea to suggest that he merits assassination, even if you were to take the premise seriously.  But, say, is there something in there that would have said it was all right to go and assassinate Hitler?

EDGAR:  I think we have to struggle with those kinds of issues.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian, was actually arrested and hung shortly before the end of World War II because he participated in an attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler.  I think that is a different issue than what we‘re talking about today.  And I would argue that Dr. King and Gandhi had it right, that nonviolence should be the rule of law, and only on the rarest exceptions, when your life and the life of your friends and neighbors are at stake.

Here we have a legitimately elected head of state, who Pat Robertson simply doesn‘t like.  And he thinks that it‘s cheaper to take him out through assassination than going to war.  That is a flawed theory, a flawed idea, and an idea that‘s dangerous, not only in Venezuela and the United States, but it‘s dangerous in the Middle East, it‘s dangerous in Asia, it‘s dangerous all over the world.

And I think people of faith, Christians, Jews, and Muslims, should join hands and condemn this kind of terrorist speech.

OLBERMANN:  Just to be clear, I wasn‘t trying to equate or even remotely compare Chavez and Hitler.  I‘m just putting out that sort of, no pun intended, devil‘s advocate question there.  And I‘m glad you answered it in the way that you did.

The general secretary of the National Council of Churches, Bob Edgar, great thanks for coming into the studio this evening.

EDGAR:  Good to be with you.

OLBERMANN:  Meantime, the persistent problem for President Bush, Iraq.  The commander-in-chief, responding to Cindy Sheehan‘s point of view, and surprising reporters by admitting a presidential mistake.

Also, rage at the gas pumps, gas theft and gas murder.

You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Should those big number twos dominating gas station signs in this country become big number threes as a result of the Pat Robertson fatwa, at least Americans will know to whom to direct their considerable anger.

Our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN, signs of that anger getting out of hand, resulting even in a murder investigation.  Police in Alabama now searching for the motorist who ran over the owner of a Texaco station on Friday, after allegedly having stolen a tank of gas, witnesses telling police they saw owner Tony Caddi grabbing the side of a tan or gold Jeep-style SUV before he was dragged across the parking lot and onto the highway, where he then fell from the vehicle and was run over by its back wheels.

As we mentioned, police say they‘re treating it as a murder investigation.  The apparent motivation, the price the SUV owner would not pay for his tank of gas, $52.05.

The National Association of Convenience Stores already has a term for this, and a statistic.  The theft is called pump and run.  And according to the group, the cost of gasoline theft rose from $112 million in 2003 to $237 million last year.

Some of that obviously can be accounted for by the rise in gas prices. 

But most of it can only be accounted for by the rise in rage.

COUNTDOWN‘s Monica Novotny is just back from the suddenly all-too-real battle at the pumps.

Good evening, Monica.

MONICA NOVOTNY, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Keith, good evening.

Gas prices hit a record average high of $2.61 a gallon last week.  That‘s about 73 cents higher than one year ago, which is just enough to make some drivers want to pull off the road permanently.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We sold my wife‘s car.  You know, that‘s, you know, for her, it‘s—that‘s a big change for her.

NOVOTNY:  So how does she get back and forth to work now?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  She get a bus now.

NOVOTNY (voice-over):  It‘s come to this, drivers handing over the keys to avoid paying for gallons gone wild.

(on camera):  What does it look like today?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Today, $35.  See, we were at $27.  Now we‘re at $35.  It just keeps getting worse.

NOVOTNY:  And now the threat of pump-and-run road rage driving motorists over the edge.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  That‘s evil.  That‘s horrible.  Because you still—you use the gas, you‘ve got to pay for it.  You‘re not—shouldn‘t be committing murder over gas.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  It‘s not fair to us as consumers.  It‘s really expensive.  But the poor station attendant really—that‘s awful, that‘s really bad.

NOVOTNY:  So someone did a pump-and-run on you, and it cost you $55.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Yes, $55, I pay.  Amazing.  And he (INAUDIBLE) from terrorists.

NOVOTNY (voice-over):  And though after adjusting for inflation, today‘s prices still trail behind the highs hit in 1981, one thing remains clear, road warriors are frustrated, feeling forced to change their ways.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I‘m not going to be able to do anything that I usually want to do.  I‘m not going to be able to go out and have fun, I guess.  I always have to worry about gas and everything.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  A lot less family entertainment going on.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Stop going out.  You know, stop going to the movies, stuff like that.  Just staying at home now.  I mean, it‘s like, you know, that‘s all you could do, because the prices are so high.

NOVOTNY:  And yet, the AAA predicts a busy Labor Day weekend, with close to 29 million drivers on the road.

But we couldn‘t find one.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  It is too expensive and too crowded.  And I‘d rather stay close to home.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I would rather watch TV and go to Blockbuster, get a good movie, and stay home.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

NOVOTNY:  The true record for gas prices was set in March of 1981.  And when you adjust for inflation, the cost was $3.11.  So if it makes you feel any better, we‘re still about 50 cents away from that all-time high, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Before Mr. Robertson‘s remarks.  COUNTDOWN‘s Monica Novotny, great thanks.

I understand the prices get you angry, but what do you mean when you say that all the cars in the lines are beginning to look like ducks to you?

And the man without furniture who found his deliverance overnight in empty FedEx boxes, which you should be seeing there, the FedEx boxes.  His story ahead on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Each evening at this time, we take a short pause from our COUNTDOWN of the day‘s important news to spend a minute or two playing goofy video of no value to anybody whatsoever.  It‘s our gift to ourselves.

Let‘s play Oddball.

We begin in Latvia, where they take their motor sports seriously.  If you don‘t believe me, get a load of this duck-mobile.  It the Latvian championships of Stupid Go-Carts, held in the streets of Riga.  Each builder is given the same chassis, and then has two weeks to design whatever type of car they think will give them the best shot at victory.

Well, the duck clearly has aerodynamic advantage.  No man can argue with the cornering ability of an upside-down house.  But in the end, the cart shaped like a cloud was the winner, because the audience got to vote, and they liked to wander lonely as a cloud on high (INAUDIBLE).

To New Zealand, where a few guys went fishing over the weekend and set a new international game fishing record for the biggest tuna ever.  Businessman Michael Hayes hooked the 591-pound monster, which took more than two hours to reel in, and 11 guys to haul into the boat.  Was it putting up a better fight before we took these pictures?  I hope so.

A justice of the peace was on hand to witness the official weigh-in and marry one of the fishermen to the fish.  But the record will not be official until a DNA test can prove it actually is a tuna and not a Volkswagen.

Also tonight, some vacation this is.  The president says Cindy Sheehan is wrong.  But for the second time, he has been interrupting his time off to say it.

And Iraq, as it compares to Vietnam.  It comes up at Secretary Rumsfeld‘s news conference.  It‘s who brought it up that‘s news.

These stories ahead.

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

Number three, FBI agents based in Atlantic City, maybe their all-time best scam against Asian smugglers in New Jersey.  They invited them all to the wedding of a fellow mobster and to his reception on board a cruise liner.  The groom, of course, was an undercover agent, and the free limo rides to the ceremony were actually free limo rides to the pokey.

Number two, the folks at the Ramada Inn in Janesville, Wisconsin.  They saw a guy in some sort of military-like outfit carrying an unusual weapon, wearing something that looked like bulletproof armor.  So they called the cops.  They said there was an armed robbery in progress.  Actually, the marquee on the hotel could have told them it was a “Star Trek” convention—“Star Wars” convention, and the robber was a guy dressed up as a Galactic Empire storm trooper.

Sorry.

And number one, the irrepressible Saparmurat Niyazov, the wacky old president of Turkmenistan.  He‘s already banned beards, he‘s banned gold caps for teeth.  His newest proclamation, no more prerecorded music at public events, at weddings, or on television.  Don‘t kill talent by using lip-synching, he says.  President Niyazov, Ashlee Simpson has reportedly fled the country.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  It was one of the most disturbing moments of the 2004 presidential campaign.  The question, if Mr. Bush could remember making any mistakes while in office was disturbing.  The answer—nobody is perfect, but he could not think of one right at that moment—was equally disturbing.  Today, he thought of one. 

Our third story on the COUNTDOWN, the president and Iraq, begins, in another one of those unusual bits of geography that begins with the letter I, Idaho and the mid-vacation impromptu news conference the president held there today, at which he admitted a mistake. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I‘m going to tell the people tomorrow in Boise that I made a mistake not getting here earlier.  It‘s a beautiful state.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  After praising the natural splendor that is Idaho, it was time for Iraq, the president heaping praise on the interim government there, before reiterating his disagreement with anti-war protester here. 

We begin our coverage with White House correspondent David Gregory. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Robert William Channel Jr. (ph) 

DAVID GREGORY, NBC WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  In Idaho today, the anti-war protest that has been a fixture during Mr. Bush‘s summer vacation came calling yet again.  Inspired by Cindy Sheehan in Texas, Laura McCarthy (ph), the mother of a 21-year-old son now serving in Iraq, had a message of her own. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Everywhere he goes, there is going to be a Cindy Sheehan in every community. 

GREGORY:  At a mountain resort two hours away, the president acknowledged the protests, but questioned whether Sheehan has much of a following. 

BUSH:  She doesn‘t represent the view of a lot of the families I have met with. 

GREGORY:  Beside, Mr. Bush said pointedly, he thinks she is wrong. 

BUSH:  I think those who advocate immediate withdrawal from not only Iraq but the Middle East are advocating a policy that would weaken the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Thank you. 

GREGORY:  The White House has been careful to avoid criticism of Sheehan, the mother of a fallen soldier in Iraq.  But groups on the right are beginning to line up against her. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Semper Fi, sir.

GREGORY:  At this California rally today, the charge that Sheehan‘s protests is helping the enemy. 

DEBORAH JONES, DEMONSTRATOR:  It gives the insurgents the continued ability to fight against our men and women, which ultimately will result in the loss of more lives. 

GREGORY (on camera):  As the debate plays out across the country, this summer, Americans appear to be taking a long, hard look at the war in Iraq, questioning whether the U.S. is winning and whether the goals are worth the sacrifice. 

(voice-over):  John Crawford, a Florida National Guardsman who has written a book about his tour of duty in Iraq, says it is about time Americans debated the realities of this war and its consequences. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Prior to this, there was a very universal, unanimous feel to the war.  Everyone believed in it.  It was the right thing to do.  It was very American.  And no one had actually voiced any opposition to it.  And, when they did, they were more or less immediately silenced. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  William Latham (ph).

GREGORY:  With that silence now broken, the president is under increasing pressure to demonstrate success in Iraq and indicate when U.S.  troops will come home. 

David Gregory, NBC News, the White House. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  A few hours after the president‘s news conference, it was the turn of the secretary of defense.  He had not just Iraq to deal with, but also Vietnam.  The surprise was who brought the V-word up. 

Our Pentagon correspondent is Jim Miklaszewski. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JIM MIKLASZEWSKI, NBC PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld himself raised the Vietnam issue at his Pentagon briefing today, claiming the enemy in Iraq, unlike that in Vietnam, does not have strong popular support. 

DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE:  Their most prominent leaders are not Iraqis.  They‘re not Ho Chi Minhs with a nationalist base, in the case of Zarqawi, a Jordanian murderer. 

MIKLASZEWSKI:  Rumsfeld lashed out at critics of the war who predict America‘s failure in Iraq, but avoided direct criticism of at least one, Senator Chuck Hagel.  The prominent Republican and decorated Vietnam veteran said this week, the U.S. is now bogged down in Iraq, similar to Vietnam.  Rumsfeld politely disagreed. 

RUMSFELD:  The differences are so notable that it would take too long to list them. 

MIKLASZEWSKI:  Rumsfeld also tiptoed through political mine field laid down by anti-war protester Cindy Sheehan, who lost her soldier son in Iraq. 

RUMSFELD:  One always tries to help those that are grieving understand the importance of what their sons and daughters have been doing. 

MIKLASZEWSKI:  While Rumsfeld empathized with Sheehan in her grief, he firmly rejected her demand to bring American troops home now. 

(on camera):  But there‘s increasing concern at the Pentagon that a growing anti-war drumbeat here at home could eventually take a toll on troop morale in Iraq, not at all unlike Vietnam. 

(voice-over):  Today, however, Rumsfeld ignored the latest polls, which indicate a majority of American now think it was a mistake to go to war in Iraq. 

RUMSFELD:  I think he‘ll have the support of the American people and it will be sustained and we will be successful. 

MIKLASZEWSKI:  And while there are marked differences between the wars in Iraq and Vietnam, the rhetoric, at least, is beginning to sound much the same. 

Jim Miklaszewski, NBC News, the Pentagon. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Also tonight, the less weighty international controversies.  The French again accuse Lance Armstrong of cheating six years ago.

And just when you thought there were no new stories to be had about Britney Spears, how does the word bigamy strike you?  That‘s next.

This is COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  The French accusing Lance Armstrong of cheating, a reporter accusing Britney Spears of not recognizing him as her other legal husband, and FedEx accusing a programmer of misusing their box.  It‘s conflict night coming up on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  What killed one athlete?  What has kept another superstar athlete from the same city from playing all season?  And do the French have a vendetta against an American hero or do they have the doping goods on him? 

Our number two story on the COUNTDOWN, they do still play sporting events in this country, but, unfortunately, the real world seems to intrude ever more frequently. 

The first of two memorial services for the dead San Francisco 49ers lineman Thomas Herrion tonight in Mountain View, California, the entire team organization expected to attend.  Several players plan to honor him personally.  Offensive tackle Eric Heitmann composed a piece of music.  Wide receiver Fred Amey wrote a rap song.  Players from Herrion‘s alma mater, Utah, plan to memorialize him with a moment of silence prior to their season opening game on September 2. 

A contingent also will attend Herrion‘s funeral in his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, that schedule for Saturday.  Still no word on what led to the collapse and sudden death of the 23-year-old player just moments after San Francisco‘s exhibition game at Denver last Saturday night. 

A toxicology report awaits.  Such analysis of what drugs and chemicals were or were not present can take up to six weeks.  They are not supposed to take up to six years.  Yet, it is on that basis that the international cycling champion Lance Armstrong is being criticized in France.  A sports newspaper there, “L‘Equipe,” now claiming to have proof that Armstrong used the performance-enhancing drug EPO to win his first Tour de France victory in 1999. 

It says that samples from that race had been retested by a lab and the substance identified.  There were no tests capable of detecting EPO back in 1999.  But the World Anti-Doping Agency, WADA, started retesting frozen samples from ‘98 and ‘99.  The seven-time Tour de France winner continues to deny ever having used performance-enhancing drugs, calling the whole thing a witch-hunt. 

He adds in a statement—quote—“The paper even admits in its own article that the science in question here is faulty and that I have no way to defend myself.”  The Tour de France executive director, Jean-Marie Leblanc, said he remained cautious about the latest reporting, but also felt—quote—“disappointment inside me, like many sports lovers do.” 

And then there is the supposed performance-enhancing drug use by a domestic star, Barry Bonds, single-season home run-hitting champion and though he has missed the entirety of this season due to complications after knee surgery, still a threat to break the career record in that category.  There‘s been another update on his health. 

Between the statements made by Bonds himself and by his San Francisco Giants employers, this has to be the 20th or 25th statement of this season.  Now Giants manager—or general manager—Brian Sabean says that Bonds has made a marked improvement in recent weeks.  He is hopeful that Bonds can return to the team for the end of the season.  Sabean also acknowledges, however, that he may have to prepare for the prospect of Bonds not only playing this season, but not playing next season. 

Since his first knee surgery on January 31, Bonds‘ statements have swung from, I will never play again, to his latest statement on his own Web site, there‘s a good possibility that I could be back in September.  He also added that he is offering a series of game-used, game-issued and other unique items that “come from my personal storage facility, where I keep everything I have collected throughout my career.”

As the late Harry Caray used to say, you can‘t beat fun at the old ballpark. 

Joining me now in a traipse amid these fun topics, Mike Wise, sports columnist of “The Washington Post.” 

Good evening, Mike.

MIKE WISE, SPORTS COLUMNIST, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  Good evening, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  Let‘s work backwards. 

Bonds.  I suggested today that these constantly changing statements about his health are like the old Chevy Chase joke.  Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead. 

(LAUGHTER)

OLBERMANN:  Is Bonds really hurt or is this some sort of a weird protracted campaign to make it looks like he is hurt, when in fact he is being prohibited from playing baseball because of those allegations of steroid use?

WISE:  Yes.  You know when you‘re a kid and you took something out of the kitchen and you run to the back of the yard to hide from your parents?  I feel like Barry Bonds is hiding from something.  I don‘t know what.  I don‘t want to say what. 

Frankly, Keith, I‘m a little tired of his—of his updates.  There‘s been more Barry Bonds updates than terror alerts in the last few months.  And I just—I think, at this time, I almost feel sorry for him, because it is as if he needs some kind of spotlight on him.  He almost needs the game more than it needs him in some way.  And I think that‘s sad for a guy that is pursuing hank Aaron. 

OLBERMANN:  I will take, by the way, the—as much as I dislike Barry Bonds‘ updates, I will take them over the terror alerts any day of the week.  But that‘s another story. 

WISE:  Yes. 

OLBERMANN:  Speaking of allegations, Armstrong and the retesting of the 1999 samples for EPO, three possibilities here.  Armstrong is a doper and he‘s gotten away with it because, as a cancer survivor, he has been an untouchable in terms of media criticism here, or the French are after him because he‘s an American who has dominated their big sporting event, or, thirdly, both of those things are true.  Any ideas? 

WISE:  I—you know, it‘s—part of me wants to say, Lance Armstrong is being pursued by the French.  And when the going gets tough, the tough blame the French.  Soon, they‘ll be accused of bringing over the snakehead fish as well. 

I don‘t think it is a witch-hunt.  I do think they‘re asking serious questions about cycling over there.  I don‘t—part of me thinks that maybe Lance Armstrong is guilty of using performance enhancers at one point in his career.  I still—I don‘t know how you reconcile that with all the hope he‘s brought to so many people, cancer survivors, including—that have wore those yellow wristbands.  Those yellow wristbands would come off in dozens the day that they find out and show proof that he actually has used performance enhancers. 

OLBERMANN:  As we may remember from Darryl Strawberry, the difficult New York Yankee who was embraced by everybody because he was a cancer survivor.  Then he went back on all sorts of recreational drugs.

WISE:  Right. 

OLBERMANN:  And he was dropped by the team and by his fans like a stone. 

But the...

(CROSSTALK)

WISE:  And Lance—Lance is really the last American infallible hero at this point.  I think everybody else, we have questions about.  Lance is sort of one of those guys that has transcended all that and been on that pedestal.  He gets knocked off, there‘s—we actually might have to start looking at doctors and lawyers and parents as role models. 

OLBERMANN:  Finally, this story of Thomas Herrion.  It is not that of a role model.  It is the question of whether or not the National Football League is going to address this.  And, if so, what is it going to address?  Or is he going to fade in the background, just like all the other fatalities in pro and college ball in the past few years?

WISE:  I hope that doesn‘t happen. 

The Korey Stringer death in 2001, when he died of heat stroke at the Minnesota Vikings training camp, that—the NFL actually, they found something called ripped fuel in his locker.  It was an ephedra supplement.  They have banned—they banned ephedra after that. 

I want to say after Thomas Herrion, in the wake of his death, that the NFL takes a serious look at his weight gain, at these weight-gain guys on the offensive line and the defensive line.  There‘s just so much size now.  It all about sumo wrestling. 

OLBERMANN:  Three hundred and fifty, I guess it was, 350 guys over 300 pounds in the NFL. 

Mike Wise, columnist of “The Washington Post,” as always, sir, great thanks. 

WISE:  Thanks, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  Those were all more than sports topics.  They were also health issues. 

And our favorite one here, of course, our continuing campaign to help you stop smoking, “I Quit.”  We focus this week‘s on incentives, financial incentives.  Tonight, you can make money by quitting smoking. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN (voice-over):  More now on smoking and money.  Let‘s call this one the World Series of Poker method of quitting.  We mentioned previously that a pack-a-day smoker spends about $1,277 out of pocket, but that a study at Duke indicates that, if you figure in increased insurance, health care, loss of income, that $3.50 per pack you‘re paying is really $40 per pack. 

And the annual bill is the same as somebody who smokes four $10 cigars every day, $14,600 a year.  Well, here‘s another way to use your love of money to overcome your seeming love of smoking.  Viewer Geena Testino (ph) sent this in.  “I suggest doing what I did,” she writes, “and make it a contest.  Quit smoking with a friend.  Save all the money you would spend on cigarettes in a jar and have it held by a trustworthy third party, each week, contributing your money.  At the end of a predetermined number of weeks, in my case, 10 weeks, you‘ll have hundreds of dollars of found money for splurging on yourself.  And if one of you cheats while you‘re saving, you will forfeit your money to the other person.”

Well, this now has the elements of a poker tournament, or, more correctly, a Tontine, the old Italian scheme in which a bunch of people put in money and the last one alive gets all of it.  It is a little grim.  At first glance, the only way you make money is if your competitor starts smoking again. 

But once more, if you‘re a pack-a-day smoker and if the no-smoking bet works for 10 weeks, you and your competitors will each walk away with $245.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Geena found her way to the “I Quit” Web site and shot us that little gem.  You can do the same and e-mail us your tips as well. 

A familiar face peeks out from the top of our nightly roundup of celebrity and entertainment news, “Keeping Tabs.”  The accuser‘s mother in the Michael Jackson case, she has been charged with welfare fraud today, the five-count complaint alleging she collected more than $18,000 in welfare money while making false claims that she was indigent. 

This was the subject about which she had invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination during that trial, you will recall.  The defense had presented evidence that she had received a settlement for $150,000 while claiming welfare.  And that settlement was cited in today‘s criminal complaint against her.  But it was not the trial testimony that tipped off the social services, rather a tip from a private investigator about $637 she was paid in January 2003 from Jackson‘s people for her rent. 

And then there‘s Britney Spears and the always encouraging topic of bigamy.  Biga-you?  Bigamy.  MSNBC.com‘s Jeannette Walls reporting that a British TV host says a mock wedding he went through with Spears two years ago may be legally binding.  Richard Bacon, who would retroactively have become the first Mr. Britney, performed the stunt for his program, “The Big Breakfast,” just after Spears and—quote—“singer”—unquote—Justin Timberlake broke up.

But he adds—quote—“I had a vicar waiting around the corner with a real marriage certificate.”  He claims he and Spears both signed the certificate, but as soon as the show was over, one of her security guys tore it from his hands and shredded it. 

If it was legally binding, ripping it up would not be considered a nullification, even in Kentwood, Louisiana.

Still shopping for a baby gift for Britney and either of the hubbies?  May we suggest furniture made out of FedEx boxes?  The creator joins us next.  And you don‘t even have to register.

But, first, time for COUNTDOWN‘s list of today‘s three nominees for coveted title of worst person in the world.  Pat Robertson is a given. 

Also tonight, there‘s the group Save the Newchurch Guinea Pigs, celebrating this evening after a British farm announced it would stop raising the animals for clinical testing.  It and other groups have been attacking this company and this farm for seven years.  Last year, somebody dug up the body of the dead grandmother of the owner.  Nice.

Also nominated, an unnamed patient of Dr. Terry Bennett.  He told her she was officially obese and really needed to lose weight to save her life.  So she filed a complaint with New Hampshire‘s attorney general. 

But the winner, an old favorite here, Ann Coulter.  In a recent column, she writes of terrorists, “It is far preferable to fight them in the streets of Baghdad than in the streets of New York, where the residents would need immediately surrender.”  Ms. Coulter evidently did not know that most of 9/11 occurred in New York, New York, where the residents would immediately surrender.  This is from somebody who ran away in terror from a pie. 

Does this woman even live in this country?  Ann Coulter, today worst person in the world.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Lastly, true confession time.  In my first apartment,

my television rested on a board sitting on two empty stereo speaker boxes.  And the shelves, they rested on stacks of videotapes.  It‘s thus, in that spirit of solidarity, that our number one story on the COUNTDOWN takes you inside the apartment of Jose Avila of Tempe, Arizona.  His furniture is not mission, is not art deco.  It is not early American.  It is recent FedEx. 

Mr. Avila is a computer software engineer and self-taught home improvement dude.  He has fashioned FedEx boxes into a couch, two chairs, a corner desk with wall shelves, and a bed strong enough that he can jump up and down on it.  And, no, the place doesn‘t look boxy particularly, but visitors do report a sense of anxiety about whether or not they should be at home waiting to sign for an overnight delivery of some sort. 

Most bizarrely of all perhaps, in a world in which the struggle between advertisers and new ways to avoid advertisers is continuing, FedEx is unhappy with Mr. Avila, asking that he “stop using our name and our materials in his endeavors.”

Mr. Avila joins us now. 

Good evening to you, sir. 

JOSE AVILA, FEDEXFURNITURE.COM:  Good evening, Keith.  How‘s it going? 

OLBERMANN:  Let‘s start with the reaction from FedEx.  Is it to the furniture itself or is the fact that you have a Web site that shows how you made all that stuff? 

AVILA:  I think it‘s a combination of both, both the Web site and the fact that I actually used FedEx shipping boxes to do what I did. 

OLBERMANN:  Do you sell anything on the Web site or is this just demonstrations? 

AVILA:  No, I do not sell anything.  I am just going out there to show people that it‘s OK to be ghetto and when they‘re in a bind, just go out there and be creative and you can get by. 

OLBERMANN:  When they‘re kind of boxed in, as it were. 

Do you suppose that FedEx might be afraid that all of the boxes at all of its shipping centers are going to be surreptitiously removed by other people who want to follow your lead, that they‘re aren‘t going to be any boxes left for the shippers? 

AVILA:  I don‘t think a bunch of people are going to go out and get a bunch of boxes.  I mean, who wants to live on a box couch?  It‘s certainly not attractive to females.  And I don‘t really see it as a growing trend. 

OLBERMANN:  When I had my empty stereo box TV shelf, also known then as the home entertainment unit, it was there not so much because I didn‘t have any money.  It was there because I just hadn‘t gotten around to being comfortable with the idea of actually having my own furniture. 

So, let me ask you this in that context.  Why don‘t you have any furniture? 

AVILA:  I ended up moving from California to Arizona for a new job.  And I was in an apartment with some friends out in California.  And I didn‘t want to screw them over by just jumping out of the lease. 

And so, I committed to making both payments in both locations and didn‘t have enough money to go on an IKEA shopping spree. 

OLBERMANN:  So, all right, let‘s talk about the particulars here.  As furniture, how does this stuff hold up? 

AVILA:  It holds up fairly well.  I‘m actually fairly impressed at the sturdiness of the boxes.  And I can jump up and down on my bed.  All my furniture is completely, 100 percent functional. 

OLBERMANN:  And is it comfortable?  Is it sort of like plastic lawn furniture?  How‘s it feel? 

AVILA:  It definitely beats sleeping on the floor. 

(LAUGHTER)

OLBERMANN:  How long did it take to build some of this stuff?  And how many boxes, say, would you need to build a bed? 

AVILA:  I would say, for a bed, you would need a tad over 100 boxes.  Altogether, I have probably got a little over 300 boxes in furniture.  And it probably took me about a weekend worth of creativity to put everything together. 

OLBERMANN:  And given their response to this, have you thought of switching brands, maybe make something out of a UPS box? 

AVILA:  People have considered it.  I have not really spent the time thinking about it. 

OLBERMANN:  Maybe you could go with a nice chandelier out of priority mail.  That might be the next project. 

(LAUGHTER)

OLBERMANN:  Jose Avila, when it absolutely positively has to be built out of boxes overnight, although you‘re probably too young to remember that ad campaign of theirs. 

Thanks for joining us and good luck.  Don‘t get stuck to the furniture.  And don‘t let them move you or anything, or deliver you.

AVILA:  Thank you. 

OLBERMANN:  Thanks.

That‘s COUNTDOWN.  I‘m Keith Olbermann.  Keep your knees loose.  Good night and good luck. 

Time to turn it over to “RITA COSBY LIVE & DIRECT.” 

Good evening, Rita. 

RITA COSBY, HOST, “RITA COSBY: LIVE & DIRECT”:  Good evening, Keith. 

Thanks a lot.

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

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