Wednesday, December 1, 2004

'Countdown with Keith Olbermann' for Dec. 1

Guest: Jason Dearen, John Harwood


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

John Kerry, joins a lawsuit over the recount in Ohio. Is it a bold statement about counting every vote or a token gesture to quiet the activists?

Jurors weeping in the courtroom. Not today. Today the defense put witnesses on in its bid to spare Scott Peterson's life, and they did not impact the jury.

Tears of a different kind, the unflappable anchorman flaps.

TOM BROKAW, "NIGHTLY NEWS": Very sweet. It's been a great, great - privilege.

OLBERMANN: The farewell from the farewell to Tom Brokaw.

And who sits a top Burger King, a s you can see.


CHILDREN: Spongebob Squarepants.


OLBERMANN: What's ripped off by teenagers as fast as can be.


CHILDREN: Spongebob Squarepants.


OLBERMANN: The latest national crime wave. The epidemic of giant Spongebob blowup doll thefts. We will consult and FBI profiler.

All that and more now on Countdown.


OLBERMANN: Good evening.

What is more fun than that, election day in America. So much enjoyment, so much to do, that soon they may be saying in Florida, once is never enough. That state, 67 chief elections officials have voted to endorse a proposal eliminated election day in Florida and replace it with an 11-day election season. Festivus.

Now our fifth story on the Countdown, electile dysfunction. The proposal that would also change the Florida system by eliminating precincts and creating super voting sites with banks of voting machines and no waiting. And as to this year's election, four weeks to the day John Kerry conceded, what is left of the campaign makes its first dip into the recount fray in Ohio.

Delaware County north of Columbus, last week obtained a temporary restraining order blocking the recounting of votes there. The counties attorney said the that the second tally was a poor use of the jurisdiction's resources, i.e. money. The incoming president of the Ohio Association of Election officials, said last we he was considering suing to stop the recount in his country and that the whole organization might sue to stop the whole thing.

Two fringe parties, the Greens and Libertarians, had invoked their rights under Ohio law to have a recount. And on this program Monday night secretary of state Kenneth Blackwell, said he would give it to them. But with Delaware County suing, the Greens and Libs, the glibs for short, sued back. As of last night, the John Kerry campaign had asked the judge to let them join that lawsuit. The first time that campaign has officially touched the Ohio recount issue, even with a 10-foot pole. The glibs are asking that the cast be shifted from state to federal court.

Now Kerry's chief attorney on the ground in Ohio, Daniel Hoffheimer says, quote, "If there is going to be a recount we don't want it to exclude Delaware County or any other county that might decide to follow Delaware County's lead. It should be a full, fair and accurate recount. According the campaign lawyers who helped file those documents, the decision to join the legal process was made by John Kerry himself. But other campaign aides tell NBC News, they don't consider this that big of a deal. More of a SOP to activists and supporters who have decried his silence, as the Bibs and Greens have carried the water.

Is it one or the other?

Can it be as with so much else with John Kerry, both.

Joining me to try to answer that is, John Harwood, national political editor of "The Wall Street Journal."

John, good evening. Good to see you again.


OLBERMANN: So, Senator Kerry's toe is officially in the water. But it's just his toe, and maybe it's just his toenail.

Is he trying to have his cake and eat it too here?

HARWOOD: He is a little bit. He knows this is not going to change the outcome. The counting of all those provisional ballots and ballots that came in overseas, has shrunk George Bush's margin to somewhere just below 120,000 votes. But nothing is going to overturn this outcome. John Kerry's got to deal with the Democratic activists though, who are fighting on his behalf and may be relevant if he decides to run again four years from now, as he is hinting. The other goal that he has Keith, is to try to protect the integrity of the recount process.

You don't - I talked to a senior Kerry advisor today who said, you don't want to establish a precedent that one county, perhaps a county controlled by the other party could opt out of a recount that could make a difference in an election.

OLBERMANN: Was he pushed to any degree on this I supposed, and no pun intended by the use of the word push, was he pushed by Jesse Jackson's whirlwind tour of Ohio and Jackson throwing around the new f-word, fraud?

HARWOOD: I think that certainly contributed it to. Any time Jesse Jackson, who remains a symbol of the black constituency in America, African-American voters are very important to the Democratic Party. When he starts makes a lot of noise publicly about something, ostensibly on be have of the Democratic Party, the Democratic nominee, if that nominee in essence says it's not my fight, I'm not going to participate in it, that could hurt him.

OLBERMANN: John, nine day ago the Democratic Party in Ohio put out a press release that said that the Kerry/Edwards campaign would join the recount, and there was a big controversy over that within Democratic ranks. And within hours that news release was withdrawn. They put out another identical, except it said the Kerry/Edward campaign would participate in the recount. And a few days before that came the senator's online statement with that ambiguous statement, regardless of the outcome. Now you have this lawsuit.

Why the parsing? Why the exactitude.

It's almost seems fearful.

Is he afraid if he goes too much in one direction he becomes Al Gore, and if he goes too much in the other direction he becomes the reluctant warrior?

HARWOOD: Anything sound familiar here, Keith?

You know, John Kerry has had an issue. During the campaign, George Bush used it very effectively, that he was somebody who tacked one way and tacked the another. In addition to worrying about those Democratic activist if he runs in 2008, he also doesn't want to look like a sore loser who is prolonging an election whose outcome is already known.

So, John Kerry is keeping hi s distance from the recount. This more limited measure where he is participating in this lawsuit to keep alive the principle that every county has got to participate is sort of the minimum way that he can participate and keep both sides happy.

OLBERMANN: I think you can recount an election, but you have to win that recount. I think that was the Al Gore lesson. And perhaps Mr. Kerry has already figured that one out.

HARWOOD: Not happening in this case.

OLBERMANN: John Harwood, national political editor to the "Wall Street Journal," great thanks, John.

HARWOOD: You bet.

OLBERMANN: The rest of the post vote news runs from the sublime to the ridiculous. An attempt to delay the certification of the vote in Nevada has been rejected by a local court there. A group describing themselves at concerned citizens, asked Judge Peter Breen to in essence freeze Nevada's five electoral votes until hearings could be convened, at which they would get an opportunity to prove their claims of voter registration fraud and malfunctioning voter machines.

Standard stuff for this process, but the Judge Breen's reason for dismissing the suit was interesting. He wrote the election should not be disturbed nor scrutinized with the court without a reasonable showing of a different outcome or an uncertain result.

He doesn't mean the result in Nevada. President Bush won by only 21,000 votes. He meant the plaintiffs did not show, that they could change the national election. A bid for a recount in the state of Nevada was not effected by this ruling.

And in Washington state this delightful fact, the inaugural ball for the governor-elect is all set for January 12. The ice sculptors have been ordered, the bans hired. They have done everything except send the invitation to the governor-elect because they really don't know who it is yet.

Out going Democratic governor, Gary Locke, chiming in on Republican's Deano Rossi's 42-vote win over Christine Gergoire, saying if there is going to be a hand recount it should be of full state of Washington, not just of the precincts in which voting irregularities have been reported.

"We need to resolve this as quickly as possible so the next administration can take office to have a very seamless transition," he said, "So much is at stake.

Republican Secretary of State Sam Reed echoed Locke on the recount. If there is one, it should be statewide. The Democrat Gregoire, who you see there, has until Friday to raise the estimated three-quarters of a million dollars a recount would cost. if it happens, it is expected to until December 23.

And if you view the whole recount and voting irregularity saga as a bunch of folks running around with aluminum foil on their heads to block out the rays from the government satellites, you may have gotten ammunition for your argument.

Last night at the retirement ceremony for the controversial election supervisor of Palm Beach County, Florida, Theresa LePore, the equally controversial voting activist, Bev Harris, who you see here on file tape, burst into the conference room of the Orlando hotel, via an exit door, strode to the podium announcing she was serving LePore with papers as part of a lawsuit papers over voting records in the county. She was accompanied by another woman and a man with a video camera. The county supervisors who staged the surprise tribute to Miss. LePore at first they thought it was part of a farewell skit. It was not. Ms. Harris, founder of the organization Black Box Voting left the room as she came, only with the supervisors screaming and booing at her.

The streets of Kiev, meanwhile, offering political booing and screaming of a different sort, but it's still all about the voting. Ten days and 10 nights now of the presidential protest in the Ukraine. And as our correspondent, Jim Maceda reports, those believing the election was stolen have reason to celebrate tonight. The parliament telling the government today, you are fired.


JIM MACEDA, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It was the shot of adrenaline that tens of thousands pro reform protesters, most camped out for 10 days and nights, needed. They cheered because Prime Minister Victor Yanukovich, the Kremlin backed candidate, they say stole Ukraine's presidential election and his government were toppled today in a parliamentary vote of no confidence.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm very excited and I'm proud of my country.

MACEDA: The vote was mostly symbolic. The lame duck government's term was to end in about 3 weeks. But in these politically charged days, the sacking of the official winner, Yanukovich is seen by many here as a huge moral victory for the prowestern president contender, Victor Yushchenko who refuses to accept defeat.

(on camera): While Ukraine's Parliament debates just how to break the impasse inside, outside tens of thousands of pro reform supporters have surrounded the building and chanting their own one word solution, Yushchenko.

CROWD: Yushchenko!

REPORTER: Yushchenko's claim that the November 21 election was rigged has galvanized a people power movement behind one idea.

AOSTVSLAV PAVLENKO, POLITICAL ANALYST: Elections falsified and manipulated to the extent it happened on November the 21st, it is too much.

REPORTER: But the crisis seems far from over. Calls by the reform minded Yushchenko for a quick, new election were called a farce today by outgoing president Leonid Kuchma who backed the pro-Russian Yanukovych. And wants to move slowly.

Today, special European envoys brought the two rivals, Yushchenko and Yanukovych face-to-face. There was a handshake, but no substantive deal. The street protests go on.

And tonight, despite the political limbo, fireworks lit the streets over Kiev. Viktor Yushchenko, the man who would take Ukraine towards Europe and NATO was still not president, but his supporters once again, were believing. Jim Madeca, NBC News, Kiev.


OLBERMANN: Meanwhile, it is life and death inside a California courtroom after the victim's family reduced jurors to tears yesterday. The defense hoped to do the same thing today. Apparently they failed.

After 21 years of coming into your home every night, Tom Brokaw signs off for the last time on "NBC NIGHTLY NEWS." We'll show you how it all ended. And estimate how many people saw him over the course of his career on that program.


OLBERMANN: It was a moment seemingly more worthy of a Perry Mason episode, or the movie "The Verdict." The mother of the murdered California housewife, Mrs. Laci Peterson, testifying in the life or death penalty phase of the trial of the man who was her son in law, screaming at him from no more than 10 feet away, divorce is an option, not murder.

Our 4th story in the Countdown, some jurors flinched noticeably in their seats. At other times in yesterday's family plea for Peterson's execution, those same jurors wept.

Today, the defense tried to replicate that response. Its attorneys and witnesses stressing the severity of a life in prison sentence. And its testifying parent tried to describe a normal suburban family.

Peterson's father, Lee, spoke of his son's childhood dream of becoming a professional golfer. He said, quote, "I love him very much. I have great respect for him." But he referred to his son's murder conviction only obliquely, saying it was hard to see him in jeopardy.

Scott Peterson whipped tears from his eyes as his father spoke. No one in the jury box appeared to do the same.

Joining me again from Redwood City to describe the scene in that courtroom, Jason Dearen, a court reporter with the San Mateo County Times. Jason, good evening. Welcome back.

JASON DEAREN, "SAN MATEO COUNTY TIMES": Good evening. Thanks for having me.

OLBERMANN: I gathered that judging by the reactions from the jury these 2 days in that court room could not have been more different. Is that fair to say?

DEAREN: Oh, yeah. It's fair to say. Yesterday, Sharon Rocha took the stand and gravitated between hushed, kind of, crying testimony and then screaming at Scott Peterson. And the jurors were really affected by it. Many of them were crying. Some kind of covering their face when this screech came out towards Peterson from Rocha.

Today, it was the complete opposite. They, at times, seemed bored trying to pay attention to, obviously, a very saddened man, Lee Peterson who looked very weary on the stand. Obviously he and his family have been through a lot over the past 2 years.

The jury just wasn't as struck by Lee Peterson's testimony today. It wasn't as emotional. He seemed a lot more tired. And for a long time went into his own personal background, how he grew up and his family was like, and kind of how he was a self-made man.

It looks like the defense is trying to paint the picture to the jury of these two parents and have them really vote to save their lives and not Scott Peterson's. Because Susan Cardio (ph), Scott's sister, who also took the stand, said that if they voted for death it would kill his parents.

OLBERMANN: Nonetheless, if you see on one day, I guess it is human nature to see the prosecution witnesses reducing members of the jury to tears, the next day the defense witnesses reduce them to yawns. And the presentation is laborious and at such length and for so more hours. Did there seem to be any kind of surprise on the part of Peterson's defense team that the reaction was what it was?

DEAREN: No, they actually, Pat Harris, the co-chair of the defense, gave the opening statement today. And he told the jury, bear with us through this. We want to give you a detailed, stark portrait of this family, not just Scott Peterson, but the family.

And also, you have seen a portion of what the true Scott Peterson is. They hope over the next week they'll be able to tell them who he really is as a person.

So he warned them almost, that look, this is going to be some tedious stuff, but please bear with us and realize you have the ultimate decision to make here, a man's life. And you need to learn all of this stuff before you make that decision.

And he also came out and said, you know, life in prison is sometimes viewed as a worse punishment than death. And he even pointed to the fact that two jurors had written that on their questionnaires, that they felt that way. So, he did warn them that this wasn't going to be the same kind of emotionally driven kind of volcanic testimony like we had yesterday.

OLBERMANN: You mentioned a week. Quickly, how much longer do you think it will be before the jury gets this back?

DEAREN: I would say by week's end. It looks - after Lee Peterson was on the stand, they've been going through the witnesses pretty quickly. I know they're going to call former coaches of Peterson's. He was a golfer. He played with Phil Mickelson in high school and for a time in college as well. And Teachers, former friends, a former girlfriend, they're going to call all of these people.

But they are going through these witnesses. And they are going to bookend the testimony with his mother who will make an impassioned plea for her son's life. And I'm thinking Friday. But probably at the very latest, Monday.

OLBERMANN: Jason Dearen of the San Meteo County Times taking us inside the Peterson courtroom yet again. Many thanks, Jason.

DEAREN: Thank you, Keith .

OLBERMANN: One more legal note. You may have heard of the Rhode Island television reporter facing jail time for refusing to reveal a source of one his stories. On the verge of his imprisonenment that source has now identified himself.

Jim Tericoni of our NBC station WJAR had been found guilty 2 weeks ago of criminal contempt for having refused to reveal a source for one of his stories. On the verge of his imprisonenment that source comes out and says, it's me. I'm the guy who gave him the undercover videotape showing an aide to a former Providence mayor taking a bribe.

A defense lawyer in the case, Joseph Bevilacqua has identified himself as that source, a fact which Tericoni has been able to confirm the source through his attorney. The underlying corruption case produced convictions of both the former mayor and his aide in 2002, and of civil contempt against the reporter. The revelation expected to keep Jim Tariconi out of jail.

You have heard of people jump out of perfectly good airplanes, but out of cable cars? That leads to our nightly look at the news of the bizarre. We call it "Oddball." See you, fellow.

And as if Ken Jennings' $2.5 million Jeopardy bucks were not enough, he is now getting freebies.

You are watching Countdown on MSNBC.


OLBERMANN: We're back. And we once again step off the the Countdown carousel of news, cross the midway, stop for cotton candy and head for our own, very own freak show of journalism. Keep an eye out for the boneless wonder. And let's play "Oddball."

We begin in Merida, Venezuela, home of the cable car that reaches the greatest height in the world. Consisting of four sections totally over 12.5 kilometers in length, that car travels to the Marida Valley to Venezuela's highest peak, Pico Bolivar, 13, 700 feet above sea level. It's the perfect thing to jump from. Goodbye. Didn't want to pay the toll.

It's Argentine dare devil, Nicholas Lopez doing what we love most, putting hmm him in extreme danger so that "Oddball" has 30 more seconds of material.

His leap was from 820 feet. And he was kind enough to wear a camera on his head for that 38 second flight which ended safely on the valley floor below. Of course, the cable car is the only way in or out of the area. And that is the last we will be seeing of Senor Lopez for awhile. He is stuck.

To the Benson Hotel in Portland, Oregon, where chief - chief chef David Duffinger (ph) has spent the last 6 weeks constructing, not just a holiday ginger bread house, but an entire gingerbread metropolis. Three castles, 23 homes, over 50 trees making up the 32 square foot town which took more than 22 pounds of chocolate and 12 pounds of marzipan. Marzipan!

The magic kingdom of castles is on display in the hotel lobby. At least it will be, until Disney folks gets wind of the title Magic Kingdom and send their lawyers over to smash the thing with their brief cases.

And finally to Thailand, which produces enough odd news on its own without going and importing any of it. But the British ape enthusiast Sam Legg (ph) and his girlfriend, Noga Rushion (ph) have moved to the beautiful island of Phuket permenantly to live and study Gibbons (ph), little monkeys. This week the couple got married there. If you're going to get married anywhere, get married on Phuket.

And if you thought you've seen strange wedding videos before, how about this. That's right, a tribute to the Gibbon. Everyone ran around making monkey noises, swinning from trees and flinging their own filth at each other.

All right. We are not sure about the last part.

I think there's a Sherlock Holmes story like this, is there not? Incidently, it is not appear that any real Gibbons showed up. Bunch of snobs.

This is not a seque, Tom Brokaw give his final sign-off on NBC Nightly News tonight. We'll bring you the emotional farewells and a look back at his extraordinary career.

And 12,000 4,000 more U.S. troops headed to Iraq in advance of elections there. Those stories ahead.

Now here are Countdown'S top three newsmakers of this day.

No. 3, Joe Volpe, the Human Resources Minister of Canada. The country's HR department under public fire, he has decided to scrapped the controversial program that handed out temporary work permits to 660 foreign born exotic dancers. No more outsourcing strippers. Ben Affleck is said to be distraught over the news.

No. 2: Dr. Ricardo Barragan of the Colombian military's new air hospital. This week he performed the first surgery onboard the turbulence free C-130 cargo jet above Colombia 19,000 feet above the junbles above Colombia. A direct quote from Dr. Barragan, "the plane was steady and so was my hand." Gives me a great idea for a primetime series on Telemundo.

And no. 1: Chris Doyle of Sydney, Australia. He's cashed in on the whole eBay craze of selling food products that look like famous people. But his hunk of breakfast cereal, which he has had laquered for preservation does not resemble Jesus or the Virgin Mary, it looks like E.T., the Extraterrestrial. And it sold for 804 bucks. Phone, account.


OLBERMANN: The anchor of "NBC Nightly News" is now officially Brian Williams. He will not complain if we talk one last time about his predecessor.

Our third story on the Countdown, the final day of Tom Brokaw. And while the backlash has begun - television is making too much of television again - consider this. In his 21 years on the job, counting each viewer each night separately, the number of people served by his newscasts can be conservatively estimated at 49,968,000,000. So he said goodbye to a lot of viewers tonight and today.

That goodbye in fact started on "The Today Show," which he hosted before he had switched to "Nightly News." And for audiences accustomed to the stoic, imperturbable South Dakotan, it was a revelation. They did not tell him his staff would be saying goodbye personally.


BROKAW: I have been extraordinarily privileged, handsomely paid to do this kind of work. And Brian Williams now gets his opportunity and life will go on.

MATT LAUER, CO-HOST: People here gathering are members of your staff at "NBC Nightly News."

KATIE COURIC, CO-HOST: They actually...


LAUER: And they are coming in because they want to toast you with champagne in hand. And, as they want to do it, so do we, Tom. And we just want to say, can you give us the glasses here?

COURIC: A little bubbly.


LAUER: There you go.

COURIC: Oh, thank you.


BROKAW: See, that is the difference between "The Today Show" and "Nightly News." You have a champagne budget.

LAUER: Right.


COURIC: And someone who brings it out on a silver tray.

BROKAW: A silver tray, right.

LAUER: It's simple.



LAUER: It is from a song, but nobody does it better and no one ever has, Tom.

TOM BROKAW, NBC ANCHOR: Well, it's very sweet. I - it's been a great, great privilege. Thank you.

LAUER: Cheers.

COURIC: Cheers.


COURIC: Congratulations and all the best, Tom.


BROKAW: I didn't think I was going to do that.

COURIC: It kind of snuck up on you.


COURIC: And we'll be back right after this.


OLBERMANN: And then there are the seemingly small pivots on which a career or a life can turn.

Visiting old friends at the NBC station in Miami recently, Tom Brokaw recounted one of those pivots. In 1962, he was offered a job at $100 a week to be a reporter there at WTVJ. The news director, the Miami legend Ralph Renick, told him, you have the potential to make a great success of yourself in this business. But then Renick did a belated background check. And the news director of the South Dakota television station for which Brokaw had interned did not give him a good reference. "He was unable to operate a typewriter, had never covered a news story, could not shoot news film and did only a passable job on the air. We were, frankly, disappointed." The Miami offer was withdrawn.

And South Dakota news director Norman Heffron (ph) took a place somewhere near the guy who turned down the chance to sign the Beatles to their first recording contract because guitar bands were on the way out.

Thus, Tom Brokaw did not go to Miami and whatever path would have followed there. Instead, it was to Atlanta, to Los Angeles and then NBC in New York.


BROKAW: I was on duty in the newsroom in Omaha when the bells began to ring on the wire service machines, indicating there was a bulletin of some kind. And I just simply announced what had happened.

He was this dashing, romantic, younger figure. And then to have him brutally murdered in that way was such a traumatic experience for everyone. You can say that the assassination of John F. Kennedy led to the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, who was uncertain about what we should do about Vietnam.

American infantrymen cut their way through dense jungles today.

That led to the enormous upheaval in this country politically, the protests that went on in 1968, kids burning the flags, and the rage and the anger on the part of a lot of the demonstrators was so palpable. And you can see it in the pictures.

Good evening, live from the Berlin Wall on the most historic night in this wall's history.

The army moved in on Saturday night against the students in Tiananmen Square. And, as you can see, it was a violent confrontation. Thousands may be dead.

I fight my way into Beijing. And it was a city of great tension when I got there. And then one of our cameramen came up with this idea of putting soft drink boxes on the back of a bicycle, putting a little Sony high-eight camera down on the side and then wiring me up.

Normally, news photography is off limits in this area. Only one passing bicyclist seemed to know what we were up to.

I went to Normandy to do the 40th anniversary of D-Day.

Have you ever been more scared?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You were so scared, you became brave. That was one question they ask me. And they say, would you go back? Would you do it all over again? My answer is absolutely. I will do it all over again to let you here in America stay free.

BROKAW: And I thought, these are the people who raised me. They have been out there all this time, having gone through so much trial. And I thought, I've got to write about this.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A second airplane, a 727 just rammed into the building!

BROKAW: The State Department has been evacuated. The White House has been evacuated.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Get away from it!

THOMAS: Both twin Trade Tower centers have collapsed. This is the most serious attack on the United States since Pearl Harbor.

I remember thinking, don't lose control. Your job is to be cool and calm and to keep providing as much information as you can.

America has been attacked and it has been changed. This is the first great test of the new century for this nation.

ANNOUNCER: America strikes back.

BROKAW: It does now appear that United States military action against targets in Afghanistan is under way.

The wave of sympathy for the U.S. after the original attacks has

largely evaporated. The

Massive air assault has begun in earnest now, Shock and Awe.

We are at war. It is a dangerous world in which we are living. These are issues that can't be resolved just militarily. We are going to have to be more imaginative in how we deal with those out there who love our culture and hate our government.


OLBERMANN: As he and especially our bosses have pointed out, Tom Brokaw is not retiring. He will continue to report and anchor special events for NBC News.

But as to network news anchoring, now he belongs to the ages. And this was how he said goodbye tonight.


BROKAW: Well, the time is here.

We have been through a lot together, through dark days and nights and seasons of hope and joy. Whatever the story, I had only one objective, to get it right. When I failed, it was personally painful and there was no greater urgency than course correction. On those occasions, I was grateful for your forbearance and always mindful that your patience and attention didn't come with a lifetime warranty.

I was not alone here, of course. I'm simply the most conspicuous part of a large, thoroughly dedicated and professional staff that extends from just beyond these cameras across the country and around the world, in too many instances in places of grave danger and personal hardship. And they are family to me.

What have I learned here? More than we have time to recount this evening, but the enduring lessons through the decades are these. It is not the questions that get us in trouble. It's the answers. And just as important, no one person has all the answers. Just ask a member of the generation that I came to know well, the men and women who came of age in the Great Depression, who, at great personal sacrifice, saved the world in World War II and returned home to dedicate their lives to improving the nation they had already served so nobly.

They weren't perfect. No generation is. But this one left a large and vital legacy of common effort to find common ground here and abroad in which to solve our most vexing problems. They did not give up their personal beliefs and greatest passions, but they never stopped learning from each other. And, most of all, they did not give up on the idea that we are in this together. We still are.

And it is in that spirit that I say thanks for all that I have learned from you. That has been my richest reward.

That is "Nightly News" for this Wednesday night. I'm Tom Brokaw.

You'll see Brian Williams here tomorrow night.

And I'll see you along the way.


OLBERMANN: Forty-nine billion, nine-hundred and sixty-eight million served. Thank you, sir.

From sign-offs to send-offs. More troops will soon be leaving home to bolster U.S. forces in advance of the Iraqi elections. Somebody call the FBI. Alert Homeland Security. The great SpongeBob SquarePants conspiracy, it's attacking the nation. Who is behind this dastardly crime wave? That's ahead.

Now, though, here are our Countdown's top three sound bites of this day.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: More than 80 percent of Canadians' exports go to my country. I proudly ate some Alberta beef last night and I'm still standing.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If your Christmas tree is destined for the wood chipper too early and your floor littered with all those pesky pine needles, the remedy may be right behind the liquor store counter.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So I figured, well, let's try adding vodka to the bottom of the tree.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You have the extra vodka. I say, go for it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's hope it doesn't get too tipsy. We don't break any ornaments.


CONAN O'BRIEN, HOST: Earlier tonight, they lit the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. Here is how the tree looked last year, of course. There it is. Everyone knows the tree - this is too bad. This year, they made a bad decision. They almost broke the tree in half because they put the wrong "Star" on top. Take a look. It's too bad when they do that.





OLBERMANN: The U.S. planning to step up its presence in Iraq, in hopes of staying ahead of the insurgency as the election there draws nearer. And stealing SpongeBob, not once, but many times, all across this country. What is going on?


OLBERMANN: The numbers began leaking out last week. The expected increase in U.S. troop strength in Iraq, supposed to be 5,000 and 6,000, was actually going to be much more than that, in fact, double that.

Our second story on the Countdown, that harsh blow became official today. And the leaks were right on the money; 1,500 members of the 82nd Airborne will leave the U.S. for Iraq. And 10,400 members of the 2nd Brigade, the 13th Corps and the 31st Expeditionary already in Iraq will stay there longer.

From the Pentagon, our correspondent Jim Miklaszewski answers the question why. The January 30 elections, a key juncture in the fight to defeat the insurgents. We warn you that you may find some images in his report disturbing.


JIM MIKLASZEWSKI, NBC PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Senior defense officials tell NBC News the recent battle for Fallujah has put insurgents on the run and may mark the turning opponent in the entire Iraq war. The officials claim the elimination of Fallujah as a safe haven and the recovery of large caches of weapons has dealt the insurgents a serious setback.

More importantly, the capture of more than 1,000 enemy prisoners, along with computer files and documents, is providing a treasure trove of intelligence to help identify and track down insurgents dug in elsewhere. But who exactly is the enemy? It is estimated there are as many as three dozen separate cells of insurgents, each with its own leadership, but all with one short-term goal.

It is estimated there are as many as three dozen separate cells of insurgents, each with their own leader and separate long-term agendas, but all with one immediate goal.

STEVE SIMON, RAND CORPORATION: In the short term, they all would like the U.S. out sooner rather than later.

MIKLASZEWSKI: Senior military officials say the most dangerous and resilient enemy are the former members of Saddam Hussein's regime who have now moved into an entirely new, more insidious phase of the war, the systematic execution of Iraqi civilians and security forces, like the 70 killed in Mosul last week, to intimidate others from cooperating with the U.S. or new Iraqi government.

SAJJAN GOHEL, ASIA-PACIFIC FOUNDATION: The tactic of the insurgents is a very clever, powerful psychological tool. It prevents Iraqis from working to rebuild their own country.

MIKLASZEWSKI: But what about the terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi? Senior defense officials claim the Fallujah operation has knocked Zarqawi's operation back on his heels and knocked out the command-and-control of his fighters.

The officials say, while Zarqawi still has the ability to carry out - quote - "the spectacular," like suicide car bombings or kidnappings, they insist his impact on the overall war has been diminished.

(on camera): But the fight in Iraq is far from over. One official here says it may take the commitment of an entire generation of both Iraqis and Americans to win the war.

Jim Miklaszewski, NBC News, the Pentagon.


OLBERMANN: We segue into our celebrity segment, "Keeping Tabs" tonight.

All this sympathy for Ken Jennings, having lost last night on "Jeopardy," when he actually lost on September 8. The game just wasn't shown until last night. Nonetheless, a quick P.R. move by the company whose name Jennings couldn't remember. The 4,575th question in Jennings' 75-game tenure on the program was this. This company's 70,000 seasonal white-collar employees work just four months a year.

Jennings answered FedEx, no doubt thinking of the Tom Hanks character in "Cast Away," who only worked four months that year. The answer, of course was H&R Block. And today, that tax preparation company offered Jennings its services free for the rest of his lifetime. With the amount of publicity they have gotten in the last few days, they should pay his taxes for the rest of his lifetime.

I don't know the last time a dictionary was considered part of the celebrity news, but if a computer geek on "Jeopardy" can make it, why not? Dictionary publishers Merriam-Webster out with their list of the top 10 words of 2004, based on how often they were looked up on the company's Web sites.

No. 10, defenestration, always a popular word, meaning to throw out the window. No. 6, cicada. Remember that crap back in May? No. 3, electoral. No. 2, incumbent. And the No. 1 word of the year was blog. They said it has been on their daily list of the top 50 looked-up words every day since July. And I helped.

We will get Bloggermann in there next year, right after hell freezes over.

A nationwide crime alert we must tell you about. Have you seen this man? He is about 10 feet tall, should be considered a promotional stunt. And he keeps getting kidnapped again and again and again.


OLBERMANN: The date now stands as a watershed, the time the Rubicon was crossed, November 18, 2004. It was still funny then.

Our No. 1 story on the Countdown, it's not funny now. On the night of the 18th, someone climbed to the roof of the Burger King in Little Falls, Minnesota, and met his kidnap victim, 10 feet tall, yellow, inflated, his fists pumped triumphantly into the air, his legs dangling over the edge, smiling his goofball smile into the cold Minnesota night, even though there was no one there to see that smile, nobody except the vandal.

Somebody stole that giant inflatable figure of SpongeBob SquarePants off the roof of the Burger King in Little Falls. And at virtually the same hour, two teenagers in Lexington Park, Maryland, decided to steal the SpongeBob off the Burger King in that town. Other reports of similar incidents in Whitehall, Michigan, Norfolk, Virginia, 10 different states in all.

Some of the Bobs intended to promote the movie version of the cable cartoon hit have been rescued. Others have met a horrible fate. They have been auctioned on eBay.

Him? He's just sitting in learning the ropes. He's guest hosting Countdown in a couple of weeks. The perpetrators in Minnesota did leave a ransom note: "We have SpongeBob. Give us 10 crabby patties, fries and milkshakes," signed "Plankton." "P.S., "Patrick is next."

One of the two teenagers in Maryland said, we were like, that's got to be a first, stealing a giant SpongeBob off the top of Burger King. Yes, right.

As we do whenever crime baffles the pros, whenever the nation's safety is imperiled, we turn to MSNBC analyst, former FBI profiler Clint Van Zandt.

Clint, good evening.


OLBERMANN: Clint, what sick mind could be behind something like this?

VAN ZANDT: Well, you've got to understand, as an FBI agent for 20 years, 25 years, I worked a lot of serious and in this case not so serious kidnappings.

Many times, though, it's a conspiracy, Keith. In this case, you know, you may well have Howdy Doody from the old puppets retirement home. You've got Barney, the purple dinosaur hanging out there. And then have got Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside, Shrek and the Donkey. They've all got a piece of this.

OLBERMANN: Shrek and Donkey.

VAN ZANDT: Because I think SpongeBob is cutting into their time.

OLBERMANN: Yes. I knew it was Shrek and the Donkey.

Seriously, we had an inflatable sheep here once in the office. And it was stolen, and it got sent around the world in kind of a game of international keep-away.


OLBERMANN: Is this really as simple that, as simple as a lot of people reenacting keep-away?


I think what you've got, really, Keith, I think this becomes kind of a little cult-like following. You have a couple of teenagers up in the northern part of the country. It's cold. There's not a whole lot going on. And it's, what are we going to do?

And all of a sudden, one person gets an original idea, and everybody else copies it. And I think you've got - some kids went out there and they kidnapped, hijacked, stole SpongeBob. And they got their 15 minutes of fame. And all of sudden, you've got other people saying, wouldn't that be a neat thing to do? And I think, just as you suggested, this has kind of caught on right now for kids to do something.

It's like the old days when you take a BMW and put it on top of the high school auditorium or something, until after it had been done half a dozen times. Then, oh, that's old. Let's not do it anymore.

OLBERMANN: So is this just peaking? When is this going to stop, do you suppose?

VAN ZANDT: Well, it's getting cold.

When one of these kids slide off a roof on a Burger King or something, I think that will end it real quick. Something like this has a real short lifespan. Kids see it for a while. But the first group of kids to go and try to do it and somebody says, oh, you're just copying. Can't you get an original thought? That will shut the action down so fast, and all these kids who have this vision that they're going to fill half their bedroom with SpongeBob, they'll probably move on to something else.

OLBERMANN: Also, it's much bigger, unless you have a really big bedroom.

The one we have here is about 10 feet high and it's taken most of the staff all day to move him around.

But one last thing, conspiracy theories, back to those. Anybody suggested that this could just be Burger King or the makers of the movie doing this to stir up the publicity, or is that an evil that is just too evil to contemplate?

VAN ZANDT: You've got to understand, that's the first thing I thought about.


VAN ZANDT: First thing.

OLBERMANN: That's 25 years as a profiler with the FBI coming back to haunt you there.

VAN ZANDT: It is. Thank you.

OLBERMANN: Clint Van Zandt, valuable information, as the nation stands vigilant looking to find those behind the thefts of the blow-up SpongeBobs. Many thanks, Clint.

VAN ZANDT: Save Bob.

OLBERMANN: Save Bob. Excellent. Thanks for playing along.

And just one final word. Remember, wherever you are, whatever kind of town you think you live in, it can happen here. Be careful, Bob.

That's Countdown. Thanks for being part of it. I'm Keith Olbermann.

Good night and good luck.