Guests: Dana Milbank, William Bastone, Cyril Wecht
KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST: Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?
The Abramoff scandal claims its first victim. The lobbying firm that hired Mrs. Tom DeLay going out of business because of the controversy.
The Alito confirmation hearings just getting started. He‘d have an open mind on abortion cases, he testifies today.
“A Million Little Pieces” breaks into a million little pieces. The Oprah Winfrey-endorsed memoir of addiction, recovery, violence, regret the first nonfiction book she ever picked may have a lot of fiction in it.
Lucky 13 for a man who has just become a baseball immortal after the voters said he wasn‘t the first 12 times they considered it. There is something wrong in this voting system. We will tell what you it is.
Speaking of wrong, “Don‘t bury me,” she said. “I‘m coming back.” So her daughter and her granddaughter let Johanna Pope (ph) sit in front of the TV for the two years and four months after she died. That‘s right. It‘s “C.S.I.” COUNTDOWN.
All that and more, now.
Washington continues to remind us of those nights in Hollywood where two big-budget movies are premiering at adjacent theaters, or a day in Chicago when both the White Sox and Cubs are playing at home.
Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, once again, a choice of political feasts, a Supreme Court confirmation on the main court, an ever-growing scandal in the grandstand facility.
To the Jack Abramoff scandal first, and its first identifiable victim. The money trail drying up tonight for Mrs. Tom DeLay. Among others, the Republican lobbying firm that paid her $3,000 a month to collect information on charities now folding in the wake of the Abramoff story.
The Alexander Strategy Group was, past tense, closely linked to the Republican lobbyist, Abramoff, and owned by Congressman DeLay‘s former chief of staff. Tonight the firm, which had also hired the wife of Republican lawmaker John Doolittle, is officially closed for business.
And thus, our first shots in the 2006 midterm elections already being fired, a Democratic activist group now running this ad in Houston, where primary day, March 7, is less than two months away.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ANNOUNCER: Tom DeLay, indicted for criminal money-laundering, pocketed tens of thousands in campaign contributions from indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Forty-eight trips to golf resorts, 100 flights aboard company jets, 200 nights at world-class resorts and hotels, $1 million from Russian tycoons to allegedly influence his vote.
One million dollars from Russian tycoons? What else will we uncover about Tom DeLay? It‘s time for DeLay to resign.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: So far, the race to replace DeLay as majority leader appears to be a two-man fight between GOP whip Roy Blunt of Missouri and John Boehner of Ohio, Mr. Blunt claiming to have more yeses at this point, but both men are said to have only a handful of commitments so far.
New polls showing that most Americans have lost confidence in their elected leaders at large. In “The Washington Post,” 58 percent believing the Abramoff scandal is evidence of widespread corruption in Washington, barely a third believing it is limited to just a few individuals, 53 percent of those surveyed by Gallup for “USA Today” calling the Abramoff case “a major scandal,” only 9 percent viewing it as “not a serious matter.”
Time now to call in “Washington Post” national political correspondent Dana Milbank.
Good evening, Dana.
DANA MILBANK, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:
OLBERMANN: Lots of ground to cover here. Like Jupiter‘s orbit, every couple of years, honesty comes back near earth. If Mr. DeLay is out because of his alleged association to scandal, what do we know about the men who want to replace him, Congressmen Blunt and Boehner? How do they fare on the cleanliness scale?
MILBANK: Well, the cleanliness scale is a relative thing here in our nation‘s capital, but—
MILBANK: ... as luck would have it, both Blunt and Boehner have received some money from Abramoff clients, as has a large number of the entire Congress, so we really can‘t count them out on that score.
The leadership race may be something of a referendum. Boehner‘s positioning himself as the reformer, the outsider, the guy who is opposed to sticking all these special projects in the spending bills. Blunt was DeLay‘s deputy, very much a part of the current leadership. So that may be a bellwether as to whether they see this as a time to make a serious change, or just more of the same leadership.
OLBERMANN: As we‘ve heard off and on for the last hundred years, the talk again, right now, anyway, is about rooting out corruption in Congress, how that is going to dominate in the agenda in the term ahead, and this time they‘re going after it once and for all. As I said, it‘s a century at least of reform. Is it a new song? Is there any new lyrics, any reason to believe it‘s being sung sincerely?
MILBANK: Sure, I think we‘re about to take care of the old Teapot Dome scandal here. But no, of course, these things never really go away, because even if you address the problem, there‘s still going to be money in politics, and it finds some other way to get in.
So I would treat it very skeptically. You can expect some action to be taken, victory to be declared, and then the campaign for the 2006 elections to begin.
But you really want to see if they get at the fundamental root of the problem, and that is that the lobbyists do so much of the fundraising for these members of Congress. If they really address that, they could fix it.
OLBERMANN: And the news conference from Harry Sinclair and Albert Fall will be live here on MSNBC at 3:00 a.m. tomorrow morning.
This Republican lobbying firm that had the ties to Abramoff and DeLay, and particularly Mrs. DeLay, going out of business, is this going to be the only one that actually meets that kind of fate? Or could this be a repeated up and down K street and in Georgetown in the months to come?
MILBANK: Well, even these guys aren‘t really going out of business. The two guys most involved with DeLay are gone. But the other dozen or so lobbyists in the firm say they are going to start a new firm, different name, try to seek—keep the same clients.
You got to understand, it seems everybody in this town is a lobbyist. There‘s tens of thousands of them. I—for all I know, you‘re probably a lobbyist with the National Puppet Theater Association. It‘s endemic.
OLBERMANN: I wasn‘t, but I‘m sure I‘ll get a call before we‘re off the air, if there is such an operation.
One more point here. The ads, like the one we saw from that Democratic group, Campaign for America‘s Future, aside from that, A, Tom DeLay‘s not really in any danger of losing his seat in an election, right? But also, as the poll numbers show, Americans are frustrated with their elected lawmakers. So do we have sense yet of what really is at stake here for the Republicans in the midterms?
MILBANK: Well, the other interesting thing about that poll is, the Republicans were only slightly more likely to be viewed as unethical than the Democrats were, so it‘s definitely a pox on both their houses. My favorite part was, only 2 percent of the people thought that lawmakers were actually more ethical than your average citizen. That‘s something close to the amount of people who believe in Santa Claus.
But I—you know, on the other hand, Republicans, because they are in the majority, may take a bigger brunt of this when the election comes in November. But right now, the voters are just saying, Pox on both your houses.
All right, the 2 percent that has the bitter, broken, damaged personal lives there.
Dana Milbank, national political reporter of “The Washington Post,” thanks for the viewpoint, as always, Dana, and good luck finding the 2 percent.
MILBANK: Thank you.
OLBERMANN: The other major story dominating the political news and the nation‘s capital today, day two of the Alito Supreme Court nomination hearings. The Q and A portion of these proceedings going pretty much as anticipated, heavy on the Q and light on the A.
Nevertheless, we did learn a little more about the nominee‘s views on the law, the judge telling his Senate questioners that he believes the Constitution does guarantee a right to privacy, and that the views he had expressed about abortion when he was a young lawyer do not reflect how he would go about deciding a case on the issue now.
Our justice correspondent, Pete Williams, with full details.
PETE WILLIAMS, MSNBC JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The divisive issue of abortion was the first to face Samuel Alito, and he said he believes in what many say is a foundation for rulings upholding it.
JUDGE SAMUEL ALITO, SUPREME COURT NOMINEE: I do agree that the Constitution protects a right to privacy.
WILLIAMS: As for a memo he wrote in 1985 that said, “The Constitution does not protect the right to an abortion,” he said it was written for his then-client, the Reagan Justice Department.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R-PA), CHAIRMAN, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: So you would approach it with an open mind, notwithstanding your 1985 statement?
ALITO: Absolutely, Senator. That was a statement that I made at a prior period of time, when I was performing a different role.
WILLIAMS: And Judge Alito said if he had an antiabortion agenda, he would never have struck down a state law that restricted Medicaid patients‘ access to abortion.
Democrats pressed for his view of White House power, especially with the revelation that President Bush authorized monitoring phone calls without a judge‘s order.
SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D-VT), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: So I want to make sure that the courts, that the courts are going to say, We‘ll respect your privacy.
SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY (R-IA), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Well, would you have any difficulty ruling against the executive branch of the federal government if it were to overstep its authority in the Constitution?
ALITO: I would not, Senator. I would judge the cases as they come up, and I think that I believe very strongly in the independence of the judiciary.
WILLIAMS: And Alito was asked if the Supreme Court‘s decision to take up the 2000 election dispute was judicial activism.
SEN. HERBERT KOHL (D-WI), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Was the Supreme Court correct to take this case in the first place?
ALITO: My answer has to be, I really don‘t know. And I would have to go through the whole judicial process.
KOHL: That was a huge, huge case.
ALITO: My honest answer is, I have not studied it in the way I would study the issue if it were to come before me as a judge.
WILLIAMS (on camera): So far, Alito‘s soft-spoken answers seem to have avoided any serious missteps that would cost him the nomination.
Pete Williams, NBC News, Washington.
OLBERMANN: Also tonight, search is on for a young American journalist covering Iraq for “The Christian Science Monitor.” Her translator was murdered. She has not been seen since Saturday.
And the search for the world‘s most-wanted terrorist. Osama bin Laden has not issued a statement, audio or video, in over a year. Is he dead? Is he hiding? The latest theory almost boggles the mind. It involves what might be called hiding in plain sight.
That‘s next. This is COUNTDOWN.
OLBERMANN: It is not only soldiers, civilians, contractors, police whose lives remain in danger every day in Iraq. Since 2004, at least 36 journalists have been kidnapped there, six of them murdered.
Our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN, authorities are now searching for yet another victim, Jill Carroll, a young American reporter freelancing for “The Christian Science Monitor,” snatched off the streets of Baghdad this past weekend.
Richard Engel is our correspondent there.
RICHARD ENGEL, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): She‘s feisty, strong-willed, and idealistic. American freelance reporter Jill Carroll came to Iraq nearly three years ago and occasionally appeared on MSNBC.
JILL CARROLL, “THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR”: There is a lot of concern, I think, in the street about...
ENGEL: Dressed in a back abaya, she moved around Baghdad, often undetected. Unlike reporters for major news agencies, she did not have bodyguards, an armored car, or even a flak jacket. Her only protection, disguise, and staying low-profile.
On Saturday, they failed her. Carroll, her driver and translator, drove to meet an Iraqi politician in a dangerous part of west Baghdad. But the politician wasn‘t there. As they left, Carroll‘s car was surrounded by gunmen.
The driver escaped. The translator was executed. Carroll was taken away.
She knew the dangers here. She‘d written about kidnappings in “The Christian Science Monitor” and spoke at a memorial in April for her friend killed by a car bomb, aid worker Mala Rizika (ph), 28, just like her.
CARROLL: She said, I love you, more often than anyone and meant it every single time.
ENGEL: After that, Carroll wrote, “Fear swept over me. What was I doing here? I‘d come as a freelancer with no experience covering a war.”
But friends say Carroll was cautious.
ELLEN KNICKMEYER, BUREAU CHIEF, “THE WASHINGTON POST”: Jill was not naive. She was more experienced in the Mideast than a lot of people here are.
ENGEL (on camera): Tonight, the search here continues, but so far there has been no news, no claim of responsibility, no videos released by the kidnappers.
Richard Engel, NBC NEWS, Baghdad.
OLBERMANN: And turning to the search for a missing person of quite a different disposition and intent, the reports about Osama bin Laden‘s whereabouts and his condition have been almost constant since he leapt into American consciousness on 9/11.
He was killed by the Pakistan earthquake, he died of a kidney infection in Iran, he‘s been hiding out successfully in Afghanistan—the rampant rumors serving only to highlight one apparent truth, nobody seems to really know anything. Pretty remarkable feat for the most-wanted man on the planet.
As Andrea Mitchell reports, that may have something to do with the fact that he has not communicated with anyone publicly for quite a long time.
ANDREA MITCHELL, MSNBC CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): He is the world‘s most-feared terrorist, yet he hasn‘t issued a new video message in more than a year, the longest he has gone silent since 9/11. Is Osama bin Laden alive? Dead? Or out of action?
Terror expert Peter Bergen, one of the few Westerners to ever interview bin Laden, describes him in a new book, “The Osama bin Laden I Know,” as surprisingly shy.
PETER BERGEN, TERRORISM EXPERT: He presenting himself as sort of like a cleric, very soft-spoken, limp handshake, voice barely above a whisper.
MITCHELL (on camera): Why do you think he was able to become the leader of this organization? What was his particular evil genius?
BERGEN: Well, they would say in Hollywood, he has a great back story. He was the son of a billionaire who fought the Soviets personally, you know, quite a courageous guy. People don‘t describe him as being brilliant at all. Most (INAUDIBLE) his friends say this is a guy who couldn‘t organize a picnic.
MITCHELL: What you have learned from talking to all of these people?
BERGEN: I‘ll tell you a few—one of the surprising things, the extent to which people in the inner circle were very opposed to 9/11. They may have celebrated the attack on the United States, but they realized this actually damaged al Qaeda and al Qaeda ‘s affiliates, because you suddenly got the United States going after you all around the world.
MITCHELL (voice-over): Bergen writes that despite Pentagon denials, U.S. forces could have captured bin Laden in the winter of 2001 at Tora Bora, if they had not outsourced the ground fighting to Afghan tribes.
Bin Laden escaped but was probably injured on his left side, as was visible in a video from that time.
BERGEN: I have eyewitness accounts from people who were in Tora Bora with bin Laden, saying what happened. He was nearly killed by a U.S. bombing raid on December 9, 2001. They were—they felt that he was lucky to have survived.
MITCHELL: Only last week, bin Laden‘s number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released a new video.
So is bin Laden less involved in terror operations?
BERGEN: I don‘t think he‘s picking up his satphone and calling in instructions to anybody. He remains important. Here‘s an example of his importance. Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the main insurgent leader in Iraq, last year, you know, pledged his allegiance to bin Laden.
So as an ideological figure, I think he does remain important.
MITCHELL: And despite a $25 million bounty on his head. the U.S. can‘t seem to find him.
BERGEN: The biggest failure of intelligence, it seems to me, so far, is that we haven‘t traced back the chain of custody of these audiotapes and videotapes back to bin Laden.
MITCHELL: U.S. officials tell NBC News that bin Laden may now be escaping detection by spy satellites by traveling without an entourage, on a motorbike. And according to recent letters intercepted by the U.S., this son of a billionaire may be broke.
Andrea Mitchell, NBC News, Washington.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: And another story that might wind up being filled with exaggerations and even falsehoods, a nationwide nonfiction bestseller, one man‘s story about addiction and recovery, and now allegations that it might be heavier on the story and lighter on the nonfiction.
No playing with the facts in Oddball. Derby races gone wild hitting the U.K. Get out of the way.
That‘s next. This is COUNTDOWN.
OLBERMANN: We‘re back, with our nightly break from the serious news and political issues of the day, for a brief segment about news of people with serious issues.
Let‘s play Oddball.
Beginning in Burton, England, for the second annual Whorecross (ph)
Downhill. How do you make the whore cross downhill? Never mind.
Turnout more than doubled this year, as thousands showed up to watch crazy Brits in crazy soapbox derby cars taking their lives in heir hands down Old Staffordshire Hill. The rules were drawn up by a bunch of guys at the village pub, and they‘re very simple. Build a car with working brakes, roll down the hill, try not to die.
Thirty-four teams participated, most with colorful and ingenious vehicles. Others were less ingenious. But in the end, it was the Yellow Submarine, built for speed as opposed to stopping power, that took the race. Convenient that they had a haystack there. Did you find the needle?
It might have hurt. He‘ll be all right, folks, he only hit his head.
To Kennesaw, Georgia, for the unraveling of a brilliant criminal scheme, brought to you through the magic of security camera video. This master thief found out what happens when you let pride get in the way of the job at hand, which is why he ended up tackled by a customer and arrested for robbery.
He had held up the joint pretending to have a gun under his coat. He did not have a gun under his coat, but the clerk didn‘t know that, so the clerk handed over the cash from the register. The plan worked to perfection. The robber was so proud of himself after this moment that he just had to tell somebody.
So he told the clerk, Sucker, I didn‘t even have a gun, ha-ha-ha-ha. And with that, as you see, the clerk and the good Samaritan customer jumped the robber, dragged him back into the store, and held him for the cops. As they say to people who rock-climb, never step back to admire your work.
Also tonight, was America suckered into believing the author of “A Million Little Pieces”? Oprah Winfrey picked it for her book club, it made bestseller lists. But now our friends at The Smoking Gun are calling the accuracy of James Frey‘s story into question.
And after 12 years of telling him he was not a baseball Hall of Famer, the voters today changed their minds and elected Bruce Sutter to the Baseball Hall of Fame. We‘ll explain why the selection process is so obviously flawed.
Those stories ahead.
But now, here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three newsmakers of this day.
Number three, Robin Toom of Queensland, Australia. He was playing hide-and-go-seek with his nieces and nephews at their house when he decided to hide in his sister‘s washing machine. Mr. Toom is 30 years old. It took the fire department an hour to get him out.
Number two, speaking of firemen, the department in Shimohetsugi in southern Japan was conducting its annual fire awareness party in its firehouse, barbecuing food for the neighborhood, keeping the heaters on, what with it being winter and all. And their firehouse is wood. Well, it was wood. They‘re not sure if the heaters did it, or the barbecue did it. But during the fire awareness party, the firehouse burned to the ground.
And number one, Simon Cowell. First it was “Dancing with the Stars.” Soon they will start “Skating with Celebrities” on TV. Now it‘s going to be duets created by the infamous American Idol Judge Cowell. It‘ll be celebrities singing alongside real singers. Can we just cut to the chase here and go to “Sleeping with the Stars,” in which celebrities have sex with high-priced prostitutes?
OLBERMANN: One of the oldest cliches in the book states simply truth is stranger than fiction. Maybe so, but nowhere in there does it say it‘s stranger than fiction on demand or if you are a writer and looking to get Oprah Winfrey to pick your memoir for her book club.
Our number three story in THE COUNTDOWN tonight, is the nation‘s number one paperback non-fiction best seller “A Million Little Pieces” actually a little million pieces of bs? If we can‘t trust Oprah‘s recommendations, what can we trust.
The editor of the Web site questioning the accuracy of the book in a moment. First the controversy summarized for us by our correspondent Bob Faw.
BOB FAW, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice over): In his two fisted macho memoir, James Frey says he wasn‘t just an alcoholic and drug addict and criminal, he was also a notorious outlaw.
JAMES FREY, AUTHOR: I didn‘t invent anything. Everything I wrote about happened.
FAW: Only this Web site which says it painstakingly checked police and court records, claims Frey wildly embellished, even fabricated, much of his purported criminal past. Suggesting the self-styled renegade is a con man.
WILLIAM BASTONE, EDITOR, THE SMOKING GUN: If you can‘t believe the stuff for which there is a paper trail attached to it, then why should you believe anything elsewhere it falls on his word?
FAW: Frey says is he sticking by his story, but today he refused to say anything about it, nor would his biggest benefactor Oprah Winfrey who once gushed, his raw unvarnished account made her weep.
OPRAH WINFREY, TALK SHOW HOST: I have never read a book like this.
It‘s like you were talking to us.
FAW: True, Frey is hardly the first public figure to massage the truth.
KENNETH LAY, ENRON CHAIRMAN & CEO: Within our balance sheet we will be back in even stronger shape than it is or was before the write-offs.
FAW: Disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff once described himself as a Talmudic scholar.
New Mexico‘s governor, Bill Richardson, said he been drafted by a professional baseball team.
Actor Brian Dennehy said he served in Vietnam, each falsely trying to burnish his credentials.
FREY: People tend to romanticize it and glamorize it and make it seem exciting and cool.
FAW: It can bring fame, even riches, but how measure the cost when a Jason Blare is exposed at The New York Times, when historian Steven Ambrose is found plagiarizing, or James Frey is scrutinized.
BASTONE: It turns out he is a well-to-do frat boy who isn‘t this kind of desperado that he would like people to think he was.
FAW: Leaving his many readers to decide whether poetic license has left his so-called fearless candor in a million little pieces. Bob Faw, NBC News, Washington.
OLBERMANN: Let‘s call in the editor of thesmokinggun.com, featured prominently in Bob Faw‘s report, William Bastone. Thanks for your time tonight, sir?
BASTONE: You are welcome, Keith.
OLBERMANN: It‘s rare that somebody would lie about a criminal record to make it worse. But what did you find here, or, more correctly, what did you not find here?
BASTONE: Well, I mean, the book, one of the incantations that he repeats in the book is that he was alcoholic, a drug addict and a criminal. And the criminal part of his past plays a very important role in the book.
And we decided to take a look at, you know, whether that actually happened and what he did was he blew out of proportion small incidents, especially the kind of single most important arrest described in the book into kind of full-blown fights with police, possession of crack, hitting a cop with a car.
When, in fact, it ended up being about the most vanilla, sort of minor misdemeanor drunk driving thing you could ever come across. And the importance of it is that it serves as kind of almost like a maypole around which a lot of other threads in the book revolve. The fear that he is going to go to prison for three years. These tense confrontations with his parents at a drug rehab center and finally the amazing outcome that he basically attributes to kind of almost a fix that is done on the case.
So it‘s kind of like, I think he needed to burnish what was kind of a run of the mill college boy‘s wrap sheet into this thing where he is bad. I‘m a bad guy. I was a bad guy. I was capital C criminal.
OLBERMANN: A couple of particulars here. How long was he in rehab as opposed to what it says in the book?
BASTONE: We didn‘t look at the rehab stuff. The prison time is what we looked at.
OLBERMANN: Right, the prison time.
BASTONE: He said he initially was looking at three years in an Ohio state facility and then magically the case somehow fell apart against him. But he did three months. We went to the sheriff. The sheriff checked the records. He never was in the facility. Basically it came down—and we confronted him.
He admitted he was in jail for a lot less time than three months and we said well, was it more like one or two days? He said yes, it was something along the lines of that. In reality, we think it was no more than five hours that he would have been in custody in a small Ohio police headquarters that didn‘t even have a secured holding facility, so he was like in a room until someone posted his bail.
OLBERMANN: And this moving story of the death of a girlfriend. I know it‘s a very intricate thing but that doesn‘t hold up to inspection, either?
BASTONE: No. He tells this very detailed story of the death of someone who he portrays as almost kind of his high school sweetheart who gets hit by a train at some point and he creates an entire alternate reality with what happened.
Actually what happened, placing himself in the midst of it. Not that he was driving the car or anything but that he helped facilitate this girl‘s—basically getting hit by the train and how the town turns on him after the fact and he becomes the bad guy, not the guy who drove the car and tried to get past the train. But he was the bad guy. Little Jimmy Frey took a licking for that.
OLBERMANN: Is this a scam? Or is this a man who is exaggerating to sell a book or are those actually one in the same thing?
BASTONE: I would say it‘s a twofer there. I think that he has admitted, you know, when the book came out he told The New York Observer that, you know, he pitched the book to 17 publishers who said no. He pitched it as a fictional work and then Doubleday said yes, but they wouldn‘t publish it as fiction. It came out as fiction.
The fact is, if you read these kind of melodramatic pulp fiction kind of tales from a guy who just made it up, the book—a, you are not going to get it published, and, b, if you get it published, if you sold one percent.
The importance as Oprah said was she kept looking at the back cover of the book because she wanted to make sure that the guy was still alive. And I guess looking at that author‘s photograph confirmed to her that, you know, this happened to someone. All these terrible things happened to James Frey and he made it through. You know it‘s like a redemption tale and that‘s why people have flocked to the book with her seal of approval.
OLBERMANN: Or, as they say, he dreamt it. William Bastone, the editor of The Smoking Gun. Good investigative work here. Thanks for your time.
Also tonight, The relief pitcher Bruce Sutter finally earning a spot on the Baseball Hall of Fame. Probably the only thing the sportswriters got right today. Why baseball might be better off picking its Hall of Famers names out of a hat.
What happened inside this house is so bizarre that we have to call in Dr. Cyril Wecht for our own version of COUNTDOWN CSI. Gary Sinise is in the building, too, we think.
OLBERMANN: It‘s the greatest honor a ball player can receive. But today, 12 of the voters returned their ballots blank. The latest travesties from the Baseball Hall of Fame elections next on COUNTDOWN.
OLBERMANN: For nearly 70 years now, sportswriters have been doing most of the electing of the members of baseball‘s hall of fame. And for nearly all that time, they have been screwing it up.
Our No. 2 story on the countdown: they corrected one error today and left another two or three dozen unaddressed as usual. Bruce Sutter, the brilliant relief pitcher of the Cubs, Cardinals and Braves, finally got enough votes to get elected this afternoon by the 520 voters from the Baseball Writers Association of America. Sutter shares the all-time record for leading a league in saves. He did it five times.
But it took until this, his 13th time on the ballot, for the writers to elect him. They still managed to bypass his contemporary in bullpen acedom, the legendary Goose Gossage, terrifying fireballer, the Yankees and White Sox and Padres and others. He finished third in the voting this year, behind the Red Sox star slugger Jim Rice, whom the voters have been insulting annually since 1995, even though the era during which he played.
In that, he led all his contemporaries in runs batted in and total bases and was second in homers and second in batting average. The writers also again Dale Murphy. From 1978 through 1991 he hit more home runs than anybody else in baseball, but he ended his career with 398 homers instead of the nice round 400, which has apparently has confused the writers ever since.
This was a player so exemplary that after winning the most valuable player award in 1982, he was still unhappy about a late season batting slump, so he spent the first few weeks of the off season with the Braves minor leaguers down in the Florida fall instructional league. Murphy got only 56 votes.
Ignored in the voting process is the fact that most baseball writers regularly see only the team that they cover. Their familiarity with players from other teams or the other league might be less than that of a good fan. It is noted that of the 520 ballots the writers returned this year in the vote, 12 were blank. That‘s assumed that that was some sort of protest there. But given their track record, there is an excellent chance that those 12 writers simply didn‘t know how to fill those ballots out.
From the so-called best to the undisputed worst in our nightly roundup of celebrity and entertainment news, keeping tabs, the worst dressed that is. The top of that list is Britney Spears. Mr. Blackwell‘s annual worst-dressed list is out.
Spears is No. 1 for looking like, quote, “An over-the-hill Lolita.”
And he thinks he‘s insulting Spears with that kind of top, by the way. Mary Kate Olsen grabs second place. Blackwell says she needs bug spray instead of perfume.
Blackwell‘s other targets, Jessica Simpson. He says she‘s a quote, “Cut-rate Rapunzel slinging hash in a Vegas diner.” Anna Nicole Smith is “Queen Kong in cheap lingerie.” And Renee Zellwegger looks like “A painted pumpkin on a pogo stick.” This from Mr. Blackwell, who forever appears to be stuck in a 1968 ad for arrow shirts or perhaps Asti Spumante.
Finally in this segment, Stan Sabik died this morning. He was a news man and executive, mostly for United Press International‘s radio network. He was a Peabody Award winner, who was in the Olympic village, reporting from rooms across the hall from where Palestinian terrorists were holding 11 Israeli hostages during the 1972 Munich terror attack.
And he was the man who hired a kid with no professional experience to become one of UPI audio‘s network sports casters in 1979. He may have done that, started me on my career, because nobody I have ever worked with has been able to do more with less. Stan once managed to beat a tight deadline for post-game interviews at the Super Bowl by simply hanging his microphone off the end of a compact fishing rod and casting the mike over the heads of football commissioner Pete Rozelle and Brent Musburger from CBS.
As to hiring me, as he said nearly 26 years ago, with a wonderful infectious laugh and his unswerving honesty, “Keith, the union makes us pay based on experience. I think I only have to pay you $8,000.”
Among Stan‘s many loves was the saxophone. It turns out he got his first paying gig in a Polish wedding band at the age of 10. He would later play the saxophone in the University of Michigan marching band. That combo, who he‘s in in this picture, when he was with Ed Kerrins (ph), our business editor, at that piano, and Frank Shertino (ph), the network‘s general manager. They were called the “Beep Tones.”
Why the “Beep Tones?” Because that‘s what we called the automatic warning sound we played before every UPI audio broadcast and news actuality, a beep tone. Stan Sabik died in Florida yesterday after a recurrence with cancer. He would have been 70-years-old next month. God bless you, Stan. And, remember, all of us are expecting you to uphold the UPI tradition and while you‘re there, file some stories, will you?
Also tonight, we told you last night of the woman who used DNA to prove a neighbor‘s dog killed her cat. We‘ll ask the one and only Dr. Cyril Wecht, how on earth did she do that?
But first, time for COUNTDOWN‘s list of today‘s three nominees for worst person in the world. At the bronze level, either the alleged perp or the victim. We‘re not sure in this one. But a woman in Northam, Australia, faces charges of non-life threatening unlawful wounding.
Her boyfriend kept playing Elvis Presley‘s “Burning Love” over and over again, so she took a pair of scissors and stabbed him over and over again. Thank you, thank you very much. He is OK.
Tonight‘s runner up, the police department of Easton, Pennsylvania, sued today by Keisha L. Davis, who had been arrested by them, strip-searched, incarcerated for five hours. It turns out the warrant was for another woman, Keisha E. Davis. This appears to be why we use middle initials, boys.
But the winner, Andrea Peyser, she‘s a columnist with the “New York Post,” the one who cut in front of everybody else in the line to get into the Howard Stern debut show yesterday and then wrote this, this morning, “There was Keith Olbermann. Before things got rolling, he could be heard loudly ridiculing his new MSNBC colleague Connie Chung for re-emerging, cockroach-like, in his airspace.”
You know, it‘s bad enough, lady, to be a sniveling little eavesdropper, but you could at least be an accurate sniveling little eavesdropper. I didn‘t say that about Connie Chung, that was said to me by a friend of mine from “USA Today,” who was next to me in the line. And incidentally, he meant it as a compliment, as in Connie will outlast all of us. Which to this point, she clearly has. So my apologies to my once-again colleague Connie Chung for having had anything to do with that, even getting into the paper. And my Journalism 101 note to Ms. Peyser, if you wanted a comment about Connie or anything else from either one of us in that line, you could have asked for it. You know, like a reporter does. Andrea Peyser, today‘s worst person in the world.
OLBERMANN: She told them she wanted to stay there in front of the TV. Period. So her daughter and other family members reportedly consented to Johanna Pope‘s (ph) request, even though she made it anticipating her own death which took place on August 29th, 2003.
That‘s where Ms. Pope had sat, her body gradually mummifying until someone finally noticed the smell. Our number one story on THE COUNTDOWN. It‘s one of those days when a bunch of stories from one topic all come in over the transom so we are going to have the pathologist, Dr. Cyril Wecht, joining us in a moment to talk about them before we flesh out the story of Ms. Pope, correspondent Kevin Corke on the tale we first told you yesterday, “CSI Pussy Cat.”
KEVIN CORKE, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice over): It sounds like something ripped from the headlines on NBC‘s “Law and Order.” But this real-life drama played out in rural Lovitsville, Virginia, complete with D.N.A. testing and stay at home mom turned detective. The murder victim, Mary Lynn Christian‘s beloved cat of 13 years Cody (ph).
MARY LYNN CHRISTIAN, CAT OWNER: It was complete shock and devastation. Our pets are like family to us so I wanted to know what had happened to him.
CORKE: When Christian found Cody‘s body at the scene of the crime, her yard, she called in a vet. And got an autopsy.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The nails were shredded which indicates a fight of some sort. And then, of course, there was the hair in the paw‘s, in the cat‘s mouth.
CORKE: The vet suspected a dog and armed with hair samples Christian scoured her neighborhood before coming upon Lucky, a new dog in town. Christian confronted Lucky‘s owners and got a D.N.A. sample from the Shepherd mix.
(on camera): Desperate to find out if Lucky was responsible for Cody‘s death, Christian turned to the veterinary genetic‘s lab at the University of California at Davis.
(voice over): Christian paid the lab $500 for a D.N.A. analysis. The lab reported the hair samples retrieved from Cody‘s mouth and claws yielded a partial D.N.A. profile that was identical to the D.N.A. profile obtained from Lucky. The odds of the D.N.A. matching any other dog but Lucky, one in 67 million.
Christian wants Lucky declared dangerous, but county officials have refused. The D.N.A., they say, is not enough.
CHRISTIAN: All I really want to do is protect my family.
CORKE: Lucky‘s owner admits the D.N.A.‘s a match, but says without an eyewitness there is no proof his dog‘s a killer. The case is closed for now and so are Christian‘s doors. She is keeping her other pets inside. Kevin Corke, NBC News, Washington.
OLBERMANN: It‘s about 350 miles from that strange Virginia street to a stranger one still in Madisonville, Ohio, over to Johanna Popes‘ house. We mentioned earlier, she died there at the end of August of 2003. First, telling her relatives, according to the coroner, don‘t show my body when I‘m dead. Don‘t bury me, I‘m coming back.
Her daughter Lisa and her caretaker Cathy Painter (ph) apparently thought they were honoring her wishes. They left her upstairs dressed in a white gown with the television on, to say nothing of the air conditioner on year around until such time as she, well, came back.
Authorities discovered her mummified remains last week. Friends and relatives who had stopped by to see her were told she was upstairs sick. Her own sister somehow found out only about a month ago and called the cops. Police have not charged anybody with a crime.
They say there is no evidence suggesting anybody benefited from keeping Ms. Pope in a chair by the TV all this time unless she had a Nielson‘s rating box.
Another story from the file of the ‘so macabre it‘s almost funny‘ we first told it to you yesterday, the headline ‘Fried Mice‘ was great. The truth factor was little. The home of 81-year-old Luciano Mares (ph) burned down Saturday evening.
A firefighter at the scene telling reporters Mr. Mares had tossed a live mouse into a pile of burning leaves and it, in one last desperate act of revenge, ran under a window setting the house ablaze. It‘s not true. The mouse, says Mr. Mares was already dead. So back off PETA.
The cause of the fire, flames driven by high winds.
To discuss all this from an entirely serious scientific point of view as promised, it is the famed forensic pathologist of “Tales From The Morgue,” Dr. Cyril Wecht.
DR. CYRIL WECHT, FORENSIC PATHOLOGIST: I‘m glad you saved the big one for me.
OLBERMANN: Let me start in front of that TV in Madisonville, Ohio with Johanna Pope with the air conditioner running year round. Without getting over technically here, what do they mean her body gradually mummified and how could nobody have noticed the smell for two years?
WECHT: They would have noticed the smell. There is no question about that. Not as bad after a while as the body begins to become dehydrated, desiccated and eventually mummified.
Very simply there are different kinds of decomposition. Sometimes, either planned by the ancient Egyptians, or just lucked out in this particular case, some body tissue remained. There wasn‘t much as I understand it, but actually shriveled skin inside the organs and tissues would have been gone.
So you have a mummy sitting up. It reminds me a little bit of Tony Perkins in “Psycho.” He left his mother around.
OLBERMANN: Exactly. And of other stories, too. In the last few months there have been news stories about there was a man in Germany keeping the body of his 75-year-old wife in bed beside him even though she was gone. There was a missing patient found under the floor boards of a rehab center in Russia.
Is it common at all that dead bodies are not treated in the way we would expect them to be?
WECHT: No, no, no. These are highly atypical situations. If you probe deeper, and eliminate murders, of course, in which there is a deliberate attempt to cover up, you are not going to have many situations like this. I think you will find, I don‘t mean to insult anybody, you are going to find some pretty significant neurosis, if not worse psychiatrically, in these situations where bodies are kept for no particular reason, no pecuniary gain and no attempt to cover up a crime.
OLBERMANN: The daughter continued to live downstairs like nothing happened.
Let‘s switch to cat versus dog here. They found the late cat‘s D.N.A. in the dog‘s mouth and claws. Do you agree though that that would not have been conclusive just to find the D.N.A.?
WECHT: I guarantee you if it had been two human beings it would have been conclusive. You know, I testified just two weeks ago in a murder case in which they used deer D.N.A. One guy, and this is many years ago I did the autopsy, and the police collected blood from different places and they collected blood from the deer which he had killed, and which they found hanging in the locker of the suspect and they traced it through D.N.A.
So a point is a lot of people don‘t realize that D.N.A., just as with human beings, D.N.A. can be traced to particular species of other animals as well as of course in the world of botany. D.N.A. is wonderful and if you have got the money and you‘re willing to pay, you can pursue it even for things of much less serious nature than homicides, or that is human being homicides.
OLBERMANN: Indeed. Let me ask you one other thing quickly about that mouse who did not burn the house down. Should we have known that when the story was first reported? Could a mouse who was on fire run very far and would he have enough of a revenge instinct to try to burn down the home of the alleged murderer?
WECHT: The latter I will leave to a forensic psychiatrist. The former I will tell you that I think it is conceivable that any living organism, a mouse with some fire is going to be very very heated, no pun intended, is going to run somewhere and why not into a nearby house?
I doubt that he had a vengeful motive in mind but I don‘t think it was beyond the realm of physical possibility. It is a fascinating story to someone who is indeed a real animal lover and would never think of killing any kind of living organism would say this was ultimate justice.
OLBERMANN: And also it must have been a hell of a mouse if it could have pulled something like that off although this story has suggested that it‘s not the case anyway, I don‘t know, I‘m just thinking we are getting too many episodes of CSI every week and that might explain all of these stories.
WECHT: It‘s out of hand.
OLBERMANN: Forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht. As always, sir, great pleasure. Thanks for being with us.
That‘s COUNTDOWN, I‘m Keith Olbermann. Keep your knees loose. Good night and good luck.
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