Thursday, December 23, 2004

'Countdown for Keith Olbermann' for Dec. 23

Guest: Alden Taylor, Katrina Voss, Keith Olbermann, Monica Novotny, Bob Faw,Bonnie Holscher


CHRIS JANSING, HOST (voice-over): Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?

The enemy within. Tonight, renewed fighting in Fallujah. Plus, new evidence out of Mosul, that the suicide bomber there was wearing an Iraqi military uniform.

We have a winner. Sort of. They counted, recounted and counted some more. Finally, 51 days after the voting, a result to the Washington gubernatorial election. So why isn't it over?

Home for the holidays. You'll get there but it might take you awhile. Tonight we'll show you where the trouble spots are, as millions of Americans take to the land, air and water.

And as the old saying goes, it's better to give than to receive. We'll meet some Florida students who are sharing the gift of knowledge with the children of Iraq.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We just wanted to make sure, you know, they each had the opportunity to learn just like we did growing up.

JANSING: All that and more, now on Countdown.


JANSING: Good evening. I'm Chris Jansing. Keith Olbermann is on vacation.

It's possibly the worst convergence of circumstances imaginable. Our military needs Iraqi soldiers to move that nation toward true independence. But Iraqi soldiers can carry suicide bombs.

Our No. 5 story on the Countdown tonight: evidence that the suicide bomber suspected of killing 22 people at a military mess hall in Mosul wore the union for of the Iraqi military.

Brigadier General Carter Ham confirms as likely that the same individual wore both the Iraqi uniform and the bomb, although he cautioned those findings were preliminary.

The implications of this new piece of evidence are devastating, especially since Tuesday's explosion was the deadliest attack against Americans since the beginning of the war. Eighteen of the 22 killed were Americans.

And more ominous news. Suspicions that this was not the action of a lone suicide bomber but rather part of a well-coordinated attack.

It now seems likely the bomber may have had inside knowledge of the base's layout and the soldiers' schedule, leaving military officials with the critical question of how base security was breached.

And the growing concerns over security, once again, are extending to Fallujah, which today should have been the scene of the happy return of the first 2,000 residents displaced by last month's bloody U.S.-led offensive to retake the rebel strong hold.

But then heavy fighting erupted between insurgents and U.S. Marines. Marines shelled suspected guerilla positions as F-18 fighter bombers struck targets on the outskirts of the city.

The fighting, the heaviest there in weeks, took lives on both sides, including three U.S. Marines.

Though the Fallujah offensive in November was held as a tactical victory, many insurgents likely escaped to parts of central and northern Iraq. And judging by today's fighting, some came back, or never left.

Tonight, the face of that insurgency is both obvious and insidious as the latest reports about the Mosul suicide bomber are ultimately confirmed.

To help us wade through these issues, joining us again, Lt. Col. Rick Francona, who also served at the U.S. embassy in Iraq and now an NBC analyst.

Colonel Francona, thank you for joining us.

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

JANSING: By this time, does the U.S. military know, first who this bomber is; and second, are they going over how he was vetted?

FRANCONA: No audio.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No audio. No audio.

JANSING: All right. We obviously are having a problem with Rick Francona. So we're going to get back - we will get back with him in just a moment.

As the election in Iraq moves ever closer, election monitors plan to get nowhere near it. Representatives of seven nations meeting in Ottawa agree that it was too dangerous for election observers to actually monitor the election in Iraq, so they'll do it from Amman, Jordan.

Iraq's election on January 30 will be the first significant national vote of its kind to go forward without monitors on hand.

The United Nations and European Union will have groups there to organize and administer the vote, but have said that monitoring the election would be a conflict of interest.

And speaking of conflict of interest, but on a far less serious note, would Yasser Arafat really have wanted to host a bar mitzvah? Well, apparently, he did.

The "New York Post" reporting today that the deceased Palestinian leader had a two percent share in a New York bowling alley, and a very popular one, at that. In fact, it's in the heart of Greenwich Village.

Bowlmor Lanes founder Tom Shannon says it was, quote, "a complete shock," and some of his patrons were none too happy. The upscale pinfest played host to the Jewish Defense League and bar mitzvahs, as well as some GOP shindigs during this year's convention.

Arafat apparently invested $799 million over the past two years in everything from venture capital funds to software startups, according to a Bloomberg report. And he was tied to the bowling lane through a complicated investment scheme of holding companies.

The lawyers for Bowlmor said they're working to end those ties.

And now more on the latest in Iraq, including the ongoing search for how security was breached in Mosul and the latest deaths: three Marines in Fallujah.

We're joined once again by Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona.

Thanks very much for join us, Rick. First, let me ask you about this suicide bomber. By this time, does the U.S. military know who he is, and are they going through the records to see how he was vetted?

FRANCONA: Well, that's the problem, is that it's very difficult to find out who it was. There was an initial report that it was one of the workers who went missing. Now we're hearing that it's possibly someone in an Iraqi military uniform.

If it was - if it was an Iraqi military uniform, the problem is that the Iraqis are responsible for that vetting. So what we have here is an Iraqi problem. But we end up paying the price. It's virtually impossible for us to vet Iraqi soldiers.

JANSING: Now, do non-Americans have varying levels of access and knowledge of workings on the base?

FRANCONA: Well, here's the problem again. Because we do employ a lot of Iraqi nationals on that base. They have access to it. Now, they're searched when they come in. But it's a rudimentary search. And as you see them every day, you begin to trust them more and more. But they have full access to the base.

JANSING: So it's like anything else, you see a familiar face, you're going to be more likely to let him go through?

FRANCONA: Exactly. Once they develop that pattern, that pattern of recognition, then they just walk right through and they have even more access.

And two things can happen. One, this guy could be a plant who made it his business to infiltrate that facility, or he could have been approached by the insurgents and said, "We know you have access to the base. We need to you tell us information or we're going to take reprisals against your family."

So it's a very difficult situation to combat against.

JANSING: So this wasn't just a lone bomber, but instead, Rick, a well-coordinated plan, what does that say about the level of the insurgency's intelligence, its sophistication at this point?

FRANCONA: Oh, it says they've got an extensive network of informants and observation. The fact that they're able to tell that the people go to the chow hall at a certain time, isn't that - you know, we know that they know that.

The problem is, is they know where to go, where to place the bomb and all that. And if you look at the sophistication of the suicide bombs themselves, you can't put one of these on yourself. It has to be placed on you. And they have to be made, so that they're non-detectable.

So this indicates a very sophisticated effort on the part of the insurgents.

JANSING: All right. Let's turn now to Fallujah. New fighting there after the insurgency was supposedly quelled. What do you make of that? And are we at least keeping them from executing some - I don't know - hit-and-run type attacks?

FRANCONA: Well, here's - OK. In Fallujah, what we saw was the Marines and the Army went in there and cleaned the place out, did a good job doing that.

But immediately after they quelled the situation there, we had problems in Mosul. So a good portion of the Army forces were pulled out of Fallujah and sent up to Mosul. That weakened the U.S. garrison in Fallujah.

And the insurgents started infiltrating back in and are now mounting attacks against the remaining Marines. These hit-and-run tactics generally don't prove to be effective for the insurgents.

They hit, but they're usually not able to run, because the Marines are able to respond so quickly that most of the time the insurgents are killed. We do take casualties but we inflict as many or greater.

It's the IED that is their best tactic.

JANSING: So let's look ahead to the January 30 election. Does this sort of become, I don't know, a question of moving parts? Where do you put your troops and when?

FRANCONA: Well, that's exactly what the insurgents are trying to do. They'll hit in one place and, as you try and react to that, they'll hit somewhere else, keeping you on the move.

And what you need to do is be on the offensive. You want to keep the enemy off balance. You don't want them to keep you off balance. And that's what they are trying to do, as we lead up to elections. They're trying to intimidate the people by showing that the United States cannot guarantee security for these elections.

JANSING: Col. Rick Francona, many thanks.

FRANCONA: You're welcome.

JANSING: Electoral surprises. After weeks of counting and recounting in Washington state, the third time proves to be the charm for the Democratic candidate for governor, Christine Gregoire. But the battle there far from over.

And the battle on the road. A power punch of old man winter. As much as two feet of snow in the Midwest and thousands stranded in the airports and on the highways. We'll get the latest Christmas forecast.

This is Countdown on MSNBC.


JANSING: Elections in the news. The Washington recount is over, but the court moves could just be beginning. And the new vote in the Ukraine days away as news surfaces on allegations the challenger was poisoned. Stand by.


JANSING: Fifty-one days since the election, and in the Washington state governors' race they have counted, they've recounted, and they have recounted again.

Our fourth story on the Countdown, and the winner is - well, we don't know yet. But the Democrat appears to be pulling ahead.

George Lewis is in Seattle with the details.


GEORGE LEWIS, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Seven weeks and two days after the election and still counting. An incredibly tight race and a series of snafus have left Washington state residents wondering who will be their next governor: Republican Dino Rossi or Democrat Christine Gregoire?

On November 17, the original count was finished and Rossi was ahead by 261 votes.

DINO ROSSI, WASHINGTON STATE GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATE: Probably about 261 relatives there somewhere.

LEWIS: Under Washington state law, a machine recount of the votes was mandatory. That showed Rossi leading by just 42 votes.

CHRISTINE GREGOIRE, WASHINGTON STATE GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATE: Some folks have suggested that we ought to flip a coin or stage a duel.

LEWIS: The Democrats called for a second recount, by hand this time.

As of last night, that showed Gregoire ahead by the thinnest of margins, just 10 votes out of 2.9 million cast.

Jeffrey Grant, who teaches law at the University of Washington, says there are legitimate explanations for all the different numbers.

JEFFREY GRANT, UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON: Because humans were able to actually eyeball the ballots, there were likely some ballots that were counted that had not been counted in the first place.

LEWIS: There were more complications. In the Seattle area, King County, a Democratic stronghold, election officials discovered they had improperly thrown out more than 700 ballots due to clerical error.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Count every vote! Count every vote!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Count every vote! Count every vote!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Count every vote! Count every vote!

LEWIS: With noisy demonstrators rallying outside yesterday, the state supreme court ruled the disputed ballots must be counted. That count began this afternoon. So this thing is far from over.


LEWIS: Tonight, with this final count complete, Gregoire, the Democrat, winds up with a 130-vote lead. But the Republicans have not yet thrown in the towel - Chris.

JANSING: George Lewis.

And although the race for president really is all but over tonight, in the state of Ohio, Senator John Kerry's legal team is filing papers in federal court, asking in effect that all of the evidence obtained during the recount be saved and that the court move quickly to uncover the facts.

While Senator Kerry is still technically the third party in all of this, acting in support of the Libertarians and the Greens, the parties that official requested the recount, the outcome affects him.

Kerry's lawyer in Ohio, Daniel Hoffheimer, telling Countdown tonight that the Democratic ticket wants to make sure things are done right.

"Senator Kerry and Edwards are very concerned that the law for conducting the recount should be uniformly followed. Only then can the integrity of the entire electoral process and the election of Bush/Cheney warrant the public trust."

In Ukraine, here's hoping that three is the charm. Only three days to go until voters head to the polls for a third time to pick a new president. The last time didn't take because of - well, you know, massive voter rigging and fraud.

The opposition candidate in the race, Viktor Yushchenko, emerging as the frontrunner, building on the momentum of those around the clock protests in his honor on the streets of Kiev.

As you're probably aware, Mr. Yushchenko looks quite different than he used to, his face now badly scarred from dioxin poisoning this fall, his wife saying he used to be a hand some man.

He says Ukrainian authorities were trying to kill him. But today those authorities claim to have had nothing to do with it.

Ukraine's top security agency releasing a statement denying any involvement in the poisoning. The investigation into who is responsible continues.

A break from the hard news of the day for the broken news. Santa on skis? Water-skis no less. "Oddball" is next.

And news from inside Martha Stewart's prison. A recently released inmate talks about the prisoners, how they treat Martha and drops a bombshell about a holiday contest. Wait until you hear this.


JANSING: Welcome back to Countdown. I'm Chris Jansing, holding down the fort while Keith Olbermann takes a much-deserved vacation.

Time now for us to take a break from the serious news of the day and explore the sillier side of life. Let's play "Oddball."

We begin in gorgeous Cleveland, Ohio, where despite the near freezing temperatures and speechless fleets (ph), Santa took his wife out for a quick spot of water skiing. And of course to him it probably feels like the Caribbean compared to the North Pole.

But being rather plump and wearing a red velvet suit isn't particularly conducive to water sports. So - wipeout.

Maybe he should stay on land and burn rubber like this group in merry old England. Two thousand six hundred thirty-three biker Santas showing up for a race for charity.

Believe it or not, that doesn't come close to the largest Chopper Clause - Chopper Clause gathering ever. Five thousand of them once showed up in Portugal.

In Texas, a very pricey Christmas gift for one woman. She just spent $50,000 to clone her dead cat Nicky. Genetics Savings and Clone, a company set up specifically to duplicate dead animals - I am not making that up - produced the new kitten just in time for the holidays. His name, Little Nicky.

Apparently the owner has never watched the Adam Sandler comedy of the same name, about the ugly misshapen son of the devil. At least, we hope she hasn't seen it.

Anyway, Julie, who is staying anonymous, fearing retribution by anti-cloning groups, says Little Nicky is identical to his genetic daddy, even down to his personality: shredding the same furniture, marking his favorite spot in the family room.

What, she couldn't clone a continent cat?

Finally, a small Spanish town called Sort is guaranteeing a very merry Christmas. They won a part of the country's biggest lottery for the second year in a row, this time the town raking in more than $522 million.

The double dose of good fortune sounds like a million-to-one chance until you find that the town's name translates in English, as "luck."

Extreme winter weather catching some travelers off guard in the Midwest. They could have used a little of that luck. Hundreds stranded. The National Guard called in for the frigid rescues.

And a frosty reception for Christmas this year. Efforts to push "happy holidays" has some Christians upset and heading to court. Those stories ahead.

Now here's Countdown's top three newsmakers of the day.

A veritable celebration of law and order. No. 2, the city council of Villahermosa, Mexico, shocked at a recent state of public nudity. The council banned people from taking their clothes off. Period.

Residents are forbidden from quote, "displaying themselves nude intentionally in public, or private areas, and inside the home."

How are they supposed to enforce that one?

No. 2, police in Furlag, Poland, in a desire to spread Christmas spirit they started handing out fines of $150 to anyone who swears. Well, merry freaking Christmas to you, too.

And No. 1, officials in Boulder, Colorado, they're proposing a $1,000 fine for anyone caught doing 20 miles over the speed limit. In a related story, the posted speed limit on all roads in Boulder is now 5 miles per hour.


JANSING: This winter is officially two days old, and already some parts of the country have been buried under more snow than they normally see in an entire year.

Our third story on the Countdown. When Bing Crosby was dreaming of a white Christmas, we're pretty sure this is not what he had in mind.

The massive storm stretching from Ohio to Wyoming, the Texas Panhandle to the Great Lakes. Parts of Ohio, slammed with up to two feet of snow.

In Cincinnati, the roof of a furniture warehouse collapsed and hundreds of thousands lost power.

But being at home, even without electricity, probably seems like heaven to these folks. The snowfall in Paducah, Kentucky, setting records, stranding motorists along Interstate 24. The National Guard called in to rescue them.

Same scenario in southern Indiana. Guardsmen hard at work today along the highways, many travelers there stranded overnight. Temperatures dropping to just 12 degrees.

So far, nationwide, seven deaths are being blamed on this storm.

Alden Taylor is spokesman for the Indiana Emergency Management Agency.

He joins us now from Indianapolis.

Mr. Taylor, thank you for your time.


thing. No problem.

JANSING: How is the situation right now along the southern Indiana interstate?

TAYLOR: It's starting to improve. There are two areas that are of concern right now. One is Interstate 64, west of Evansville near the Illinois state line. And the other is Interstate 65 just north of Louisville.

Traffic is being diverted from the interstate to allow road crews to work on getting ice off of them. There have been a number of accidents, and semis are continuing to slide and making the removal of snow very difficult.

JANSING: Now, we talked about stranded motorists. It seems just about everybody these days has cell phones. But how concerned are you there might be people out there stuck who have no way of communicating that?

TAYLOR: Throughout the night, the National Guard will be patrolling, in its Humvees, the four-wheel drive vehicles, checking cars to make sure that nobody is in them.

JANSING: Do things look any better for those who are going to be traveling in the state of Indiana tomorrow? Big day to get home for Christmas.

TAYLOR: The roads are getting better. There was a problem with blowing and drifting earlier in the day, and the winds will remain brisk this evening. We're not getting reports of additional blowing and drifting and those sorts of problems.

JANSING: Alden Taylor, Indiana Emergency Management Agency, thanks for being with us. Good luck to you tonight.

TAYLOR: Thank you very much.

JANSING: And now imagine being one of the unlucky many stuck out on the highway for hours upon hours at a time. Imagine leaving your house in upstate New York 8:30 last night and you're still out on the road tonight at this hour, trying to get home to Indiana for Christmas.

That's what 22-year-old Bonnie Holscher has been going through. Now, luckily, she has not been traveling alone. Her fiance, Robert (ph), is with her.

And she joins us now by cell phone on the road outside Indianapolis.

Bonnie, thanks very much for joining us. You have been on the road for 24 hours already?


JANSING: All right. What was the worst stretch? Tell me what this has been like, this last day on the road.

HOLSCHER: It's been very nerve-racking. We just want to get home before Christmas.

JANSING: Was there one point where you were stuck particularly bad, Bonnie?

HOLSCHER: Earlier, outside of Dayton, there was an accident. We were sitting for almost 6 ½ hours.

JANSING: You know, we always hear from state highway patrol, from AAA you should keep blankets in your car when traveling a long distance. You should have your cell phone. You should have some extra food. You should have water. Did you have supplies with you?

HOLSCHER: Yes. We did pack extra blankets. And we had a cooler and the cell phone.


JANSING: Go ahead.

HOLSCHER: We did pack extras, just in case.

JANSING: Twenty-four hours. How long would it normally take you to get home?

HOLSCHER: Usually anywhere from 10 to 12 hours.

JANSING: So you're already at double that. Did you know the storm was coming? What was your anticipation when you hit the road yesterday?

HOLSCHER: Well, we thought we would get ahead of it and be home early.

JANSING: Have you been in touch with the folks back at home who you're heading to see?

HOLSCHER: Yes. I just got off the phone with them a little bit ago.

JANSING: Yes. How worried are they?

HOLSCHER: They're just glad that we're almost home.

JANSING: Now, I've got to ask you this question, because you've got a young relationship there. You're engaged. You're going to get married. How are the two of you getting along stuck in a car together for 24 hours?

About ready to pull your hair out or what?

HOLSCHER: A couple times, it was a little irritating to be stuck in the car for that long. But, basically, we're still doing OK.

JANSING: Well, Bonnie, I hope you and Robert get home very quickly. Good luck to both of you. And congratulations. I hope the wedding is beautiful as well. And you're not going to have a winter wedding, are you?

HOLSCHER: Absolutely not.


JANSING: Bonnie Holscher with her fiance, Robert, on the road, for 24 hours.

Well, whether you're helping to get somewhere else or expecting others to come to you, you're going to need to know how the weather shakes down in the day ahead.

For that, let's turn to AccuWeather's Katrina Voss.

Good evening, Katrina Voss. So what's the weather forecast for the next 24 hours?

KATRINA VOSS, FORECASTER, ACCUWEATHER: Well, I guess I could say it's good snuggle weather. And maybe that's kind of a hint to those motorists who are finding themselves together with those cold temperatures.

Well, we did have some snow as well. And it came down pretty heavy in some areas between Dayton, across Ohio and parts of Indiana. Well, we got upwards of 20 inches, unfortunately, and the cold is coming in behind the frontal system that brought us this nasty weather. And we're just in for some lake-effect snow after that. Look at those temperature bands, as we move up and down the East Coast, Miami, 78. A lot of us wishing that we were down there, of course.

And a little bit farther north, not all that bad tomorrow, that is Christmas Eve, in D.C. and New York City. We're still going to be sitting in that nice warm air mass there. But the colder temperatures are going to be getting into the eastern-most cities as well.

JANSING: A lot of people on the roads, but a record number potentially also flying home this Christmas season. Where do there look to be trouble spots for people who are taking to the skies?

VOSS: Well, we are expecting some flight delays. And they are going to be in some places that you wouldn't expect, actually.

You can see here Boston, minor morning delays. And that's basically because we're going to have a low ceiling, that is, some cloud cover. That could reduce visibility. Also, some showers in Miami might give us some minor delays. But, again, as soon as that storm moves out, it's dry weather behind it. And, unfortunately, we're going to be paying the price for a white Christmas, that is, with the cold, but without actually getting the white Christmas in many areas, just absolute bitter cold, dry and mild, however, across the West Coast.

And you see that little area of low pressure down in Texas. Well, that could make some icy conditions along the coast. Christmas Day, well, you see it here, lots of snow across the Great Lakes. That is lake-effect snow, so not exactly ideal, but, again, nice snuggle weather, if you've got somebody to snuggle up with.

So here are your Christmas weekend highlights, cold, but, again dry, then turning warmer across the Rockies. And the good news is that we will get a warm-up. It is on the way, but it's not going to be happening until after Christmas, that is, the beginning part of the upcoming week.

JANSING: AccuWeather's Katrina Voss, thank you.

VOSS: Thank you.

JANSING: And at least one bit of good news today for airline travelers. The Transportation Security Administration announcing that it's changing its pat-down procedures after hundreds of women complained that patting down all too often ventured into the realm of feeling up.

Tom Costello with our story.


TOM COSTELLO, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): At New York's La Guardia Airport today, Jascal Smith (ph) was just one traveler selected for a closer look, first with the wand. Then, a screener checked and under her breasts for explosives.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The little thing, that thing is fine. But the pat-down, that's a little bit too personal.

COSTELLO: Today, Washington agreed it is too personal and ordered screeners to avoid touching women between their breasts during pat-downs.

MARK HATFIELD, TSA SPOKESMAN: We found that we could maintain the value of the procedure and also address the customer service issue.

COSTELLO: Just last week, the man in charge of the TSA told NBC News the complaints from hundreds of women had resonated.

DAVID STONE, TSA ADMINISTRATOR: We take every single one of those comments that we get as if it was our mom or dad or our sister or brother, husband, wife.

COSTELLO: But the pat-downs began after two Chechen women wearing a thin sheet of explosives brought down two Russian planes in August, killing 90 passengers.

(on camera): Roughly two million passengers each week are patted down after either being selected by a computer or setting of a metal detector. And until new technology can tell whether a passenger has wrapped themselves in explosives, the pat-down remains the only way to tell whether that person is in fact a security risk.

DOUGLAS LAIRD, AVIATION SECURITY ANALYST: If we want to succeed in keeping airplanes 100 percent safe, or as near as we can get to 100 percent, we have to be able to do a body scan.

COSTELLO (voice-over): The TSA is testing explosive sniffing machines.


COSTELLO: But only at five airports, which means the pat-downs will remain.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't care. I have nothing to hide. If it means to protect our country, I'm for it.

COSTELLO: For now, the best way to keep a suicide bomber on the ground.

Tom Costello, NBC News, New York.


JANSING: George W. Bush was "TIME" magazine's person of the year. But, for some, that award should have gone to Jesus. The year of "The Passion" up next.

And breaking holiday news from Camp Cupcake, jaw-dropping developments about Martha's time in the pokey. Those stories ahead.

But, first, here are Countdown's top three sound bites of this day.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing):... we'll wander. Sweetheart, you and

I. Wait 'till the sun shines, Nellie, bye and bye.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They fly for Santa. Santa sprinkles some reindeer dust on them.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Sometimes, they can fly. But we run in there real quick and grab the lead rope and pull them back down before they get too far in the air.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think it's cool when they fly.

NORMAN MINETA, TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY: I know that children everywhere are eagerly awaiting you. And so, congratulations. Travel safely. Santa, here is your certificate.



JANSING: The faces of Jesus 2004 brought a dramatic update to his changing image through the years. And Martha's changing image behind bars. The decorating contest results are in. And a former roommate speaks out about how the rest of the prisoners are treating Martha.


JANSING: No matter what your religious beliefs, it's still one of the greatest stories ever told, a virgin birth, shining star, and wise men paying homage to a baby. Perhaps more impressive than the original story is the actual real-life modern-day impact of its central character.

Our No. 2 story on the Countdown, two millennia later, 2004 as the year of Jesus. We saw it in the red-blue divide of the election, Karl Rove appealing to the GOP's Christian base; 35 percent voted for President Bush's reelection, his largest voting bloc. And we saw it at the beginning of the year, first, the uproar over Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," then the unexpected upsurge at the box office, the Jesus biopic bringing in an astounding $370 million in the U.S. alone.

The picture put its own unique brand on the image of Jesus, an image that has changed dramatically over the years, simply because our perception of Jesus is all in the eye of the beholder.

Here is Keith now with one of Countdown's favorite things of the year.


KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST (voice-over): At the time of the birth of Christ, the average man, this guy, more or less, weighed 110 pounds and stood a not-that-imposing 5'3". Unless you ascribe to the theories about the Shroud of Turin, there are no contemporary images of Jesus.

In essence, to visualize him, everybody has to make it up. They started making it up not long after Jesus was gone, a simple man, simple outfit, a simple beard. There were subtleties and nuances. Africans gave him darker skin, Scandinavians blonder hair, Asians more almond-shaped eyes. But the blueprint was essentially the same.

What we might not irreverently call the first face-lift of Jesus came during the Renaissance. Michelangelo saw his vision, "The Pieta." Van Gogh offered his own; da Vinci tried for context in "The Last Supper." Raphael and Botticelli went back to the beginning. Few could resist a representation, Caravaggio, Lotto, Rembrandt.

The centuries passed, the publicity did not. Then came America. And suddenly the Jesus of the first 1970 years was not big enough. Jesus, the matinee idol. The tone has become more reverential, but the actor no less photogenic. Now it's James Caviezel, formerly the cinematic "Count of Monte Cristo" and once Wyatt Earp's brother, Warren.

Rarely have the movies offered an unhunky Jesus. "King of Kings," 1961, that's Jeffrey Hunter, later the original choice to play the captain on "Star Trek." Max von Sydow tried it in "The Greatest Story Ever Told," Willem Dafoe in "The Last Temptation of Christ." But that was hardly the last temptation of Hollywood.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: One little question and I'll let you all go. Are you all together or is it separate checks?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Please, go away!



GEORGE CARLIN, ACTOR: I give you the buddy Christ. Look at it.

Doesn't it pop?


OLBERMANN: Seriousness has not been a prerequisite on screen, not lately. "Monty Python's Life of Brian" had a title character mistaken for Jesus, plus, the real one. Only, in their Sermon on the Mount, he did not preach loudly enough to be heard in the back.





OLBERMANN: Parody would give away to absurdity on "South Park" and to marketing everywhere else, Jesus lunch boxes, Jesus bobblehead dolls, Jesus action figures and even to athletic stardom, soccer Jesus, baseball Jesus, aerobic Jesus, skiing Jesus, karate Jesus, and, incongruously, to sport iconography at a Catholic school, Notre Dame's Touchdown Jesus. It's up and it's good.

Thus, perhaps has Jesus moved through modern culture much as he is said to have moved through his real life, from the unknown to the worshiped, to the mocked. The images then and now are still from our imagination. We see what we want to see, for, when saved from the controversy and the hype, the faithful and the skeptic alike would have to agree, the real Jesus is in the eye of the beholder.


JANSING: As much as Countdown loved that piece, it didn't make the cut for the special holiday show. You can catch Countdown's favorite things 2004 tomorrow night at 8:00 Eastern, and then watch it again at midnight. It is a must-see.

Segueing neatly in our segment of celebrity stories in "Keeping Tabs."

And there's breaking news out of Alderson prison, West Virginia. And, frankly, it's an outrage. Martha Stewart lost the jail decorating contest. The shocking story came out this afternoon. No word yet on who took the title from the high doyen of household hints and no word on how she is handling this surprise upset.

But a former inmate at the jail says Ms. Stewart is at least surrounded by friends on the inside.


CHRISA GONZALEZ, FORMER ALDERSON INMATE: She's very well liked. She has been very kind to the other inmates. She's very respectful of the staff. She just seems to be another inmate. In fact, from what I understand, the other inmates are very protective of her, considering all of the media attention.

I spoke to a friend of mine who told me that there's photographers all over the place trying to get pictures of Martha Stewart. And the inmates will actually gather around her to keep the photographers from taking pictures of her.


JANSING: Yes, well, that's a good thing.

Their last meeting ended in a brawl. But in two days, the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons will face off once again. And brawler Jermaine O'Neal will be in the thick of it, this despite his 25-game suspension for punching a fan on November 19. A federal judge agreed to temporally uphold an arbitrator's decision to knock 10 games off that suspension, thus allowing O'Neal back on the court for the Christmas Day game.

And an early New Year's resolution from one New York Gossip columnist.

Lloyd Grove of "The New York Daily News" says he will never mention Ms. Paris Hilton again, unless she does something really important, like, say, win a Nobel Prize. Grove ticked off his reasons in a column this morning under titles like, "Her Sense of Entitlement Knows No Bounds" and "She Doesn't Strain Credulity; She Herniates It."

Among her perceived sins, rudeness to others, racial comments, shameless self-promotion and even the fact that she didn't vote in the election. Now, Grove admits his own role in pushing Paris Hilton's exploits on the world. But he promises to go cold turkey. We are going to hold you to that, Mr. Grove.

Merry Christmas vs. happy holidays. Political correctness meets the courts. And amid the confrontations, the season of giving still wins out, a touching program for schoolkids here to help Iraqi youths.


JANSING: In a memorable "Seinfeld" episode, George Costanza's father, when faced with the prospect of going through another holiday season, reminded everyone that he celebrated Festivus. He proclaimed, Festivus for the rest of us.

Our No. 1 on the Countdown tonight, the edgier side of holiday diversity, because if someone could file a lawsuit, they will. Now, it's not all bah humbug tonight. And we'll get to the less cynical fare in a moment.

But, first, Countdown's Monica Novotny joins us to report on Christmas controversy.

Good evening, Monica.

MONICA NOVOTNY, NBC CORRESPONDENT: I have the cynical fare tonight.

Chris, good evening.

Most people agree the holidays are time to celebrate. But there is disagreement when it comes to public celebrations that imply or include religion. How much religious freedom do individuals have this time of year? And should we be saying merry Christmas, happy holidays, wondrous winter, or something else entirely?


NOVOTNY (voice-over): Like it or not, it's Christmas. Under the tree this year, more lawsuits and protests than ever. On one side, Christians who want to keep Christ in Christmas and celebrate in public places from schools to parades, on the other, those who say when you're out and about, keep it secular, Santa.


AND STATE: The truth of the matter is there are just more government officials and retailers who are trying to be sensitive to the fact that there's a really diverse country that we have here.

KELLY SHACKELFORD, LIBERTY LEGAL INSTITUTE: Let's be real. We don't celebrate winter. We celebrate Christmas. There's very clearly an agenda by folks in this country to secularize our society.

NOVOTNY: These accusations flying faster and father than Rudolph.





NOVOTNY: In Maplewood, New Jersey, residents singing Christmas carols in protest after school officials banned them from the high school holiday concert.

In Denver, Colorado, a Protestant group protesting after seeing their merry Christmas float with carolers rejected from the holiday parade. In Edmonds, Washington, one woman cooking up her own protest after checking with her lawyer, a happy birthday Jesus cake for her child's first-grade classmates.

In Plano, Texas, a 4th grader offering candy cane gifts at school with a message about Jesus attached, only after lawyers got him a court order. And in Orangevale, California, the Committee to Save Merry Christmas boycotting Federated Department Stores for omitting the phrase from advertising. But Federated says it has no such policy.

(on camera): So what do people really think of the holiday wars? Well, we came down to the Christmas capital, New York City's Rockefeller Center, to hear who's being naughty and who's being nice.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I go out of my way to say merry Christmas.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm proud of the fact I celebrate Christmas and I want to Merry Christmas.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Happy holidays, because that includes everyone.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think it's more fair than going too far. It's all just words. And it's the feeling that's important.

NOVOTNY (voice-over): Maybe, but just in case.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): We wish you a...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Happy holidays.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): We wish you a...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Happy holidays.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): We wish you a...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Happy holidays.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): And a happy new year.


NOVOTNY: Now, over the years, the Supreme Court has set some guidelines establishing what's appropriate. For example, when it comes to the public display of holiday symbols on government property, the nativity can be displayed, but it must be accompanied by secular decorations, candy canes, a gingerbread house, just to represent the fact that Christmas is a religious and a secular holiday in this country - Chris.

JANSING: And what do you say to me?

NOVOTNY: You're putting me on the spot.


NOVOTNY: I'm going to say merry Christmas.

JANSING: Monica Novotny, many thanks.

NOVOTNY: I did. I did. I'm going to be in so much trouble with her.


JANSING: Now we promised you a kinder, gentler Christmas story. So how about this, the gift of light? An Iowa couple paid the electricity bill for their entire town. The tab, $25,000. Richard and Donna Hamann said they said they wanted to give back to the community that had been so good to them.

So, the 650 residents of Anthon, Iowa, got free lights and much more for one month. I spoke with Richard Hamann last night. He said he'd got dozens of cards from both residents and well wishers from out of state and explained that these gifts came after a more ambitious plan fell through.


RICHARD HAMANN, IOWA RESIDENT: What we really wanted do for the town was to build a wind turbine on top of the hill that we have here, which adjoins the west end of Anthon. We couldn't do that. And so we thought that buying the electricity for one month for the electrical patrons would be the next best thing.

JANSING: And finally tonight, we come full circle from Iraq to the spirit of Christmas and back again.

There's so much focus on the war in Iraq and its election that there seems to be little time left to look at the other needs of that country.

But, as our correspondent Bob Faw reports, there are plenty of American kids who have not forgotten the children of Iraq.


BOB FAW, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In Tallahassee, Florida, high school cheerleader Nadia Smith (ph) isn't just sounding off to help children in Iraq. She and her classmates raised $300 for school supplies.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's a good cause, because it's helping the kids.

FAW: It's part of Operation Iraqi Children, a national grassroots campaign. At Delta Zeta Sorority at the Florida State University, 74 sisters pitched in.

MELISSA WILSON, FLORIDA STATE UNIVERSITY: For them to get this, it'll help them. It will give them some hope. It will give them some drive actually to learn.

FAW: Local businesses agree. This bookstore discounts supplies bought for Iraqi children.

JOHN MCNEILL, BILL'S BOOKSTORE: Anything we can do to just do anything to brighten their world a little bit, we're willing to do so.

FAW: Since April, donors in every state have given $1.5 million, enough for nearly 100,000 packets, nearly 300 assembled from the track team from fraternities at this Florida State University rally.

(on camera): To strangers they'll never meet, Americans are giving, most because they're generous, some because of guilt they feel about the destruction in Iraq; 7,000 miles away, however, the motivation, whatever it is, doesn't really matter.

(voice-over): Seven thousand miles away throughout war-torn Iraq, American troops prepared for the worst delivered those packets of hope. And recipients, children, ordinarily suspicious, often terrified, can, for a moment, be children again, gifts to them from Americans who support the war.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They need these things to develop their education, so they can learn.

FAW: Gifts, too, from those who oppose the war.

DAPHNE BRUSSO, FLORIDA STATE UNIVERSITY: We just wanted to make sure that they each have the opportunity to learn just like we did growing up.

FAW: Gifts from Americans who think helping their minds might be the best way to win their hearts.

JAKE MCKAY, LEON HIGH SCHOOL: If all we show is the military side and we don't show that we care about them, I don't think that is going to work.

TATIANA GEORGE, FLORIDA STATE UNIVERSITY: The short term is important, but the long term I think in our eyes is a lot more important.

FAW: Geopolitics and goodness. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.


FAW: Bob Faw, NBC News, Tallahassee.


JANSING: And that's it for this Thursday edition of Countdown.

One more reminder, Keith will be back tomorrow with Countdown's favorite things of 2004. It's a must-see.

Thanks for joining me this week while I tried hold down the fort. Merry Christmas, happy holidays, whatever is politically correct. Good night.