'Countdown with Keith Olbermann' for March 18
Guests: Wayne Black; Ben Venzke, Charles Wolfram, Toure
KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST (voice-over): Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?
Cornered: The No. 2 man in al-Qaeda reportedly in the cross-hairs near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. What does it mean and what could it mean for the No. 1 man in al-Qaeda?
Do you really pay for your sins? Well, it appears nobody is paying for Jason Blair's book. They printed a quarter million copies, they've only sold - no, you wouldn't believe how few they've sold.
The tides of March: Spring break.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I began being pelted with full cans of beer from kids that were up on the seventh floor and it continued until they realized that they were wasting perfectly good, drinkable beer.
OLBERMANN: Why the town once known as Spring Break City USA is now the hot spot for family vacations in March.
William Hung has really hit the big time. They want to give him a celebrity makeover. You may be surprised where they want to start.
WILLIAM HUNG, "AMERICAN IDOL" REJECT: Can you feel the love tonight.
OLBERMANN: You know, you can feel the Love tonight, if Courtney Love hits you over the head with a microphone stand. She's out of control and judging by this appearance on TV she may also be out of medication.
All that and more now on COUNTDOWN.
OLBERMANN: Good evening. HVT - remember that acronym for the next few days or few weeks, military speak for a "high value target." In this case, evidently, the No. 2 man in al-Qaeda.
Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN tonight: The HVT is AAZ, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, and he is reportedly cornered somewhere near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. But, that is one big border and maybe some big corner. And just perhaps, it could be some big red herring. Why this development may be overrated, in a moment. First, our correspondent in Islamabad is Jim Maceda - Jim.
JIM MACEDA, NBC CORRESPONDENT: Hi Keith. Well, Pakistani forces responded to a tip-off they got some two days ago. Now, it's a fight to the death by suspected al-Qaeda members who are protecting, perhaps, one of their top leaders.
(voice-over): The scene of the battle is the remote tribal zone of south Waziristan along the border with Afghanistan, where it is believed hundreds of al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters are protected by local tribesmen.
On Tuesday, Pakistani forces met surprising resistance from about 100 fighters in civilian compound west of WANA. Today the Pakistani forces returned, some 1,600 Army soldiers with artillery and helicopter gunships, determined to flush out any al-Qaeda.
MAJ. GEN. SHAUKAT SULTAN, PAKISTAN MILITARY SPOKESMAN: Well, I would say that this is a major operation. The government is committed to ensuring that whatever terrorists are present in this area, they are completely flushed out.
MACEDA: The battle is ongoing. The Army has surround the compound and tonight military sources on the ground say they believe they have cornered Osama bin Laden's deputy, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri.
DR. AYMAN AL-ZAWAHIRI, OSAMA BIN LADEN'S DEPUTY: We will never give up...
MACEDA: The 63-year-old Egyptian and former head of the extremist group, Egyptian Islamic Jihad. For the last decade, al-Zawahiri has been the power behind bin Laden. He is on the U.S. most wanted list with a $25 million reward for his capture.
M.J. GOHEL, TERRORISM EXPERT: He has been responsible for turning a small terrorist group into a major international, transnational terror group. This would really be a great achievement.
MACEDA: Late tonight the Pakistani military was still officially backing off from confirmation that their forces had trapped al-Zawahiri.
SULTAN: We suspect the presence of some high-value target in the area. Who that high-value-target is we are not really sure.
MACEDA: Today's attack on the same day U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell met in Islamabad with Pakistan's president Pervez Musharraf, commending the Pakistani government crackdown on al-Qaeda.
COLIN POWELL, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: The American people appreciate the sacrifices Pakistan already has made to keep us all safer from terrorism.
MACEDA (on camera): Tonight the standoff continues with the Pakistani military not ruling out airstrikes against the suspected al-Qaedsa fighters and it's confirmed against Ayman al-Zawahiri, himself - Keith.
OLBERMANN: Jim Maceda via video phone from Islamabad, Pakistan.
More on the hunt for al-Qaeda's No. 2, in a moment. First more on the hunt for al-Qaeda's No. 1. Senior investigate correspondent Lisa Myers now completes her three-part series on the search for al-Zawahiri's boss. From the (IT) time video surveillance of Osama bin Laden upon which the Clinton administration could not act, upon which the Bush administration would not act, it was a nightmare of opportunities lost. And as we see in tonight's report, after the change in administrations there was added the nightmare of momentum lost.
LISA MYERS, NBC SENIOR INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):
Shortly after taking office, President Bush ordered a new, more muscular policy to eliminate al-Qaeda. Helping draft that policy, Roger Cressey, a terrorism expert in both democratic and republican administrations and now an NBC News analyst.
Today Cressey is speaking out for the first time. He says in the early days of the Bush administration al-Qaeda simply was not a top priority.
ROGER CRESSEY, TERRORISM EXPERT: There was not the sense of urgency, the ticking clock, if you will, to get it done sooner rather than later.
MYERS: Cressey and other witnesses have told the 9/11 Commission of long gaps between terrorism meetings, greater time and energy devoted to Russia, China, missile defense, and Iraq, then al-Qaeda. Example: This document shows a key high-level NSC meeting on Iraq on February 1, 2001. Yet there was no comparable meeting on al-Qaeda until September.
(on camera): Are you saying some senior Bush administration officials actually viewed Saddam Hussein as a greater threat to national security than Osama bin Laden?
CRESSEY: Absolutely. It was inconceivable to them that al-Qaeda could be this talented, this capable without Iraq, in this case, providing them real support.
MYERS (voice-over): That spring, President Bush learned bin Laden was responsible for the attack on the USS Cole, which killed 17 sailors. Why was there no retaliation?
CRESSEY: You would think, after a attack that almost sank a U.S. destroyer, there would have been a demand for some type of action, yet we never saw that from the Pentagon.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: Terrorism was a high priority for this administration, as a matter of fact...
MYERS: National security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, insists that President Bush wanted to avenge the Cole, but not with a pinprick retaliatory strike.
RICE: We were concerned we didn't have good military options, that really all we had were options like using cruise missiles to go after training camps that had long since been abandoned.
MYERS (on camera): Our sources say the camps in Afghanistan were thriving, that you could have hit the camps and killed lots of terrorists.
RICE: Even if you'd been fortunate to get a few people, clearly it wasn't going to impress al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda had to be eliminated.
MYERS: Over the summer, the threats of an al-Qaeda attack grew, focused mostly overseas. Finally, on August the first, the president's new policy, designed to eliminate al-Qaeda in three to five years, was ready for a final decision, but the Bush team didn't get together until September the fourth, one week before 9/11.
Do you think the Bush administration can legitimately be faulted for spending nine months hashing out a policy? In retrospect, shouldn't you have done something?
RICE: Lisa, we were in office 230 plus days. By the time of summer of 2001, at least 16 of the 19 of the hijackers were already in the United States for the final time.
MYERS (voice-over): The 9/11 Commission is now looking into whether the Clinton and Bush administrations missed opportunities to get bin Laden and al-Qaeda, asking: What more could and should have been done to prevent September 11?
Lisa Myers, NBC News, Washington.
OLBERMANN: Coincidentally, it is now 229 days before Dr. Rice's boss seeks re-election.
Her argument seems to be that al-Qaeda's reign of terror could not have been stopped by capturing bin Laden or al-Zawahiri back in August 2001, so why the noise now about cornering al-Zawahiri?
Joining me now for some perspective, Ben Venzke, terrorism expert, founder and CEO of IntelCenter.
Ben, good evening.
BEN VENZKE, TERRORISM EXPERT: Good to be here, Keith.
OLBERMANN: Other than the symbolism and sense of completion of a task, is this reported cornering of al-Zawahiri being overplayed? Would it make any difference to al-Qaeda operations at this point?
VENZKE: Well, in terms of, if this is in fact Zawahiri that we have surrounded and if we actually do manage - or the Pakistanis, rather - do manage to actually capture him, there's no question it will be a very significant development in that it will have a negative impact on al-Qaeda's ability to operate, especially in the near term. But, unfortunately that does not mean that we've denied them the ability to conduct attacks even as large as 9/11 in the future.
OLBERMANN: I don't want to, by asking, yet another question - it seems like the first one, seemed like a wet blanket here, but given the number of times somebody was supposed to have bin Laden, in effect, cornered, and Tora Bora comes to mind, particularly, what does cornered mean, here? What are the realistic chances that cornered will mean captured?
VENZKE: Yeah. You know, when we about cornered, I think a lot of us sort of picture an individual standing in a field that's a perfect circle around him and they can't move anywhere, and this couldn't be any farther from the situation that we're faced with, right now.
This region, terrain is so difficult, so mountainous, and we're talking about a group that has contingency plans for these kinds of things, that thinks these things through and is going to have numerous escape routs and other plans in place to be able to deal with being, quote, unquote, "surrounded." So, while I'm sure, the Pakistanis are doing everything they can, I'm sure we're supporting them. You really don't know until the person is actually physically in your hands that you really have them.
OLBERMANN: And, lastly, the perpetual $64,000 question: Does capturing, cornering, whatever - al-Zawahiri necessarily bring us any closer to bin Laden?
VENZKE: If we do capture Zawahiri through - if we do capture him live through interrogation and also any other materials or computers or other things that could be found with him, there's a strong belief that Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri remain in regular communication so there could be opportunities there that you can exploit. The trick is, are you able to exploit them fast enough before Osama bin Laden changes up and is able to move out of the area?
OLBERMANN: Ben Venzke, as always, thanks for your perspective and insight, sir.
VENZKE: Thanks, Keith.
OLBERMANN: The fifth story continues in a, not a corner with al-Zawahiri, but in what seems to be a bottomless pit of violence. A day before the one year anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq, violence continues to escalate, there. Several explosions rocking central Baghdad today, in what U.S. officials described as an attack on coalition headquarters. No casualties reported. And a day after yesterday's devastating bombing near a hotel, officials sharply lowered the death toll was lowered from 27 to seven, yet the body count may still go up. The Arabic language station, al-Arabia, reports that American soldiers shot and killed one of its camera men and critically injured its correspondents today, in Baghdad. U.S. military saying it can't confirm that.
Meanwhile, three more journalists killed when gunmen opened fire on their minibus in Baquba. All three were Iraqi, employees of a coalition funded TV station.
And finally, the news from the southern city of Basra, eerily familiar, as another deadly car bomb goes off near another hotel killing four more. The aftermath brought yet violence. Vengeful crowds, in these pictures, have seized a man who was suspected being involved in that car bombing today, they chased him through the streets and then beat him to the ground. British troops managed to rescue him and then place him in custody.
COUNTDOWN's No. 5 story is now complete: The hunt for al-Qaeda's top men. The hunt for a peaceful day, in Iraq.
Coming up, No. 4 story: A travel nightmare that could have had a tragic ending - the airline that lost a passenger.
And later, the annual college pilgrimage that is spring break. We'll show you how one city has tried to rebound from its annual hangover.
First here are COUNTDOWN's opening numbers, the five figures that shaped this day's news.
Two hundred and four, point three million, the number of Americans with internet access, according to a new study, 75 percent of the country.
Eighty, the number of internet web sites that are counting down the days until the earth is destroyed by a giant asteroid.
Twenty-six thousand, five hundred, the miles from earth that a 100-foot-wide asteroid came within earth today, the closest to us ever on record. Wooshshsh!
And zero, the expected death toll if that asteroid had indeed collided with the earth. Scientists say it would have disintegrated in our atmosphere leaving no need to send to send up Bruce Willis to try to destroy it.
And of course, one - one star, Roger Ebert's rating for that Bruce Willis move, "Armageddon."
OLBERMANN: Tonight's No. 4 story is next: An airport layover goes wrong and a grandfather with Alzheimer's disease ends up lost on the streets of Atlanta. What can be done to protect travelers who need extra care? Stand by.
OLBERMANN: We rejoin you with the COUNTDOWN and our No. 4 story:
Something not so special in the air. His family says Delta Airlines lost an 80-year-old man suffering from Alzheimer's. Lost him - just let him wander off while he was supposed to be changing planes in Atlanta. This is Antonio Ayala, he as not just Alzheimer's he also requires kidney dialysis. He was flying home to El Paso after visiting family in New York. He got off the New York flight, was left to his own devices. Twenty-four hours later, Mr. Ayala was found 10 miles way from the Hartsfield Airport at the Atlanta bus station. The Ayala's say they were assured he would be escorted from one Delta plane to another. Delta says that's the first they've hear of that, that they are not legally required to shepherd passengers.
Regardless, Mr. Ayala's story is still a happier one than that of Margie Dabney, anoter Alzheimer's victim who wandered off an American Airlines stopover in Dallas in 2001. They never found her. Does your airline have a responsibility to look out for your elderly relative, Alzheimer's or not?
We're joined now by aviation security consultant, Wayne Black.
Mr. Black, good evening.
WAYNE BLACK, AVIATION SECURITY CONSULTANT: Good evening.
OLBERMANN: Are there legalities here? Are there FAA regulations? Is an airline supposed to provide assistance to the infirm passenger?
BLACK: Well, I think Keith, that when an airline is on notice that a passenger has a problem, whether it be a small child on an elderly person, I think there's a contract between the flying public and the airline to do the right thing. From a security point-of-view it's not good news, though.
OLBERMANN: From a security point-of-view, in a larger picture than just what happened to this man or in terms of generally regarding airport safety and security?
BLACK: Absolutely, we should be more vigilant, now. If the airline was on notice that this passenger had a problem they is should have tracked him. They can track people by seats, they know, for example, where various passengers are sitting depending on who they are. They should have tracked this man. The fact that they lost a passenger from a security point-of-view bothers me. I mean, I'm glad he's safe. There are procedures in place to track luggage. We need procedures in place to track people.
OLBERMANN: Air carriers have, as long as - I mean, I flew the first time when I was 6 years old, they seem to have always acknowledged that there are occasions inwhich children must fly by themselves, and they look out for them, they take extra special precautions and make a big deal about unaccompanied children on flights. Are they required to do that or are they just choosing to do that?
BLACK: Well, it could be a choice, but I contend that if they're on notice, there's a contract, a verbal contract. They paid for the seat, there's a contract to take care of that passenger, if they're on notice that the passenger, because they're too young or too old or have an ailment, can't take care of themselves. So yes, I think they should.
OLBERMANN: Is there any expectation we're going to hear something from the FAA about this?
BLACK: I think if you all ask them questions you might hear something, but I think it may fade away with the other news.
OLBERMANN: Until it happens again, and evidently we're going at about once every three years.
Wayne Black, of Wayne Black and Associates, many thanks for your time tonight, sir.
BLACK: Thank you.
OLBERMANN: With tonight's No. 4 story now complete, up next: The news that cannot get a number, but we enjoy telling you about it anyway. "Oddball" is up next. And if you had a bad day, wait until you meet the next man.
Sir, there's a train coming. Sir, there's a train coming. Sir...
Later, a bad day for ethics in D.C.: A new investigation on Capitol Hill and questions about two for the Supreme Court justices. Two is a lot of Supreme Court justices. Stand by.
OLBERMANN: We're back and we pause the COUNTDOWN to open the Pandora's Box of semi-news, with the caveat that honestly, the only injuries in the first item were minor. Let's play "Oddball."
There's a train coming, and Donny Hall of Houston, it has your name on it. There's a train coming. He's hurrying to catch the northbound local. There's a train coming. Unfortunately he's about to catch the southbound local. There's a train coming! His hearing aid was out. Mr. Hall, who just got enough glimpse at the last moment to turn way from the southbound train that you're seeing here, was thrown 10 feet in the air. He got some bruises to his left side, but remarkably, until, that is, they put him in the ambulance. Less than a mile from the scene of the train accident, Hall's ambulance, sirens awail, gets smashed into at an intersection by a car. But, once again Mr. Hall escapes serious injury, as do the paramedics. We are assuming that after treated and being released at the local hospital, he walked home.
If you think that man was unlucky, consider this Haru-urara, quickly becoming the national hero in Japan. Haru-urara is a racehorse. Her current streak has captivated that nation. A major motion picture based on her in the works. Japan's top jockeys fighting over the chance to ride her, and she's credited with single-hoofedly rescuing, from bankruptcy, the racetrack where she runs. All because of this streak: 105 races, 105 losses. She's become a national icon. "Never Give Up" tee-shirts flying off the shelves, and Haru-urara has been spared from a scheduled one-way trip to the glue factory.
Finally, speaking of losers, meet the Schlepp twins of Arizona. You heard me. Matt Schlepp and mike Schlepp. After 20 years of personifies their surname, these twins decided it was time for plastic surgery. They didn't set their hopes too high, they only wanted to look like Brad Pitt. The Schlepp twins spent over $36,000 between them, on nose jobs, cheek, and chin implants, in the Brad Pitt fashion. The whole process, chronicled by MTV and your answer is: The final product, two 20-year-old Schlepps who look NOTHING like Brad Pitt, but their faces are so full of plastic that one day they will have to be buried in a blue recycling bin.
COUNTDOWN hitting the halfway mark. When we resume, tonight's No. 3 story: Ethics in Washington, D.C., are they mutually exclusive? Conflict of interest at the Supreme Court, hints of bribery around the Medicare vote in Congress.
And later, last night we talked about Donald Trump's new catchphrase "You're Fired," today, he tried to literally make it his catchphrase.
Those stories ahead, first here are COUNTDOWN's "Top 3 Newsmakers" of this day:
No. 3: Mohammed Sami. He is an Egyptian drug suspect who escaped the seven cops who arrested him and then unwittingly unleashed the charade that followed. Fearful of reprimand, those seven cops talked a colleague into pretending to be the suspect. Then one of the real guy's friends shows up to testify and says, "That's not Mohammed."
No. 2: The Eternal Flame of World Peace in Birmingham, England. It went out last night. A dispute over who was supposed to pay the gas bill!
And, No. 1: Lyle Wray who had just quit his $80,000 job and moved to Connecticut after he resigned as the affordable housing advocate in Ventura County, outside L.A., because he couldn't find affordable housing in Ventura County outside L.A.
OLBERMANN: The phrase is an old one, the wages of sin. What are they exactly?
Well, in one case, the wages translate to 1,386 copies of a book. Our third story on the COUNTDOWN, ethics, or the lack thereof. And that number, 1,386, is from the Nielsen book scan ratings. It's how many copies have been sold of "Burning Down My Master's House" by Jayson Blair, the disgraced ex -"New York Times" reporter, 1,386 out of 250,000 printed. That would be slightly more than 0.5 percent.
Maybe people don't know it's not in the fiction section. The figure is correct through last Sunday. But it might still be a little low. Nielsen's surveys cover about 70 percent of the book-selling business. It does not include Wal-Mart stats. Regardless, the number of copies sold is still less than Mr. Blair's total number of promotional appearances on television, none of them on this show, we might add.
Continuing our third story, there are more substantial ethics questions tonight in Congress and at the Supreme Court.
Starting with Congress and how ethics were allegedly applied during the hours before the president's Medicare drug benefit was passed. Retiring Michigan Congressman Nick Smith was one of the Republicans who resisted the pressure to vote aye. He said the bill was too expensive. But after the vote he also said that - quote - "bribes and special deals were offered to convince members to vote yes."
At first, Congressman Smith said his offer had come from Republican colleagues willing to pass on $100,000 in cash to his son's campaign to succeed him in return for him changing his vote. Congressman Smith has since said the offer for his son came from outside Congress and that it's technically incorrect to suggest it involved cash.
Whatever the technical issues, the House Ethics Committee has voted to investigate. And Congressman Smith says he will cooperate.
And the third story moves to the nation's highest court now, where two-ninths of the justices are potential walking ethics violation, walking in long black robes. First, Justice Antonin Scalia again refusing today to remove himself from a case before the good that involves his good friend from Gerald Ford's administration, Vice President Dick Cheney.
The Sierra Club is suing the vice president's office, demanding information about his meetings with energy industry officials and lobbyists, information that the White House wants kept secret. Less than a month before the court agreed to take that case, Justice Scalia flew to Louisiana on the vice president's plane to go duck hunting. The Sierra Club says that trip looks wrong and seems improper. But Justice Scalia insists it is not and that - quoting here - "If it is reasonable to think that a Supreme Court justice can be bought so cheap, the nation is in deeper trouble than I had imagined."
And Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg may be in deeper trouble than that. As you can see on this page from the National Organization for Women's Web site, Justice Ginsburg has lent her name and presence to a lecture series co-sponsored by the group's Legal Defense and Education Fund. After all, it is called the Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Distinguished Lecture Series on Women and the Law. And the justice says: "I think and thought and still think it's a lovely thing. Let the lecture speak for itself."
However, critics, speaking for themselves, now point out that the NOW Legal Defense Fund often has business in front of the court and Ginsburg's continued association with That group could open her to accusations of conflict of interests or the appearance thereof.
Justice Ginsburg insists, however, that justices should recuse themselves only in rare cases and the her association with NOW is not one of them.
My next guest may not agree with either of the justices. Charles Wolfram is the author of "Modern Legal Ethics" and a retired professor of legal ethics who taught at the Cornell Law School.
Professor Wolfram, good evening.
CHARLES WOLFRAM, AUTHOR, "MODERN LEGAL ETHICS": Good evening.
OLBERMANN: The closest thing I ever came to a law degree was walking past Myron Taylor Hall at Cornell every day. But am I missing something here? Aren't both the Scalia and Ginsburg cases open-and-shut versions of that age-old of the understandable to a layman concept of the appearance of a conflict of interest?
WOLFRAM: I think very many people would regard it as an appearance of impropriety, appearance of a conflict, both cases.
OLBERMANN: Justice Scalia says - the exact quote is, "Many Supreme Court justices get their jobs precisely because they were friends of the incumbent president or other senior officials."
In other words, when you go to the Supreme Court, you can't and should not have to simply erase your previous life. Has he got a point on that?
WOLFRAM: Well, he has a point that you doesn't have to erase your prior life.
But he does not have a point if his point is that you can continue your prior life. You might have worked politically for people. You certainly do that after you become a member of the U.S. Supreme Court. And I think the same is true about duck hunting with a vice president in a very volatile political case that is before your court.
OLBERMANN: Taken as two cases, two incidences, these look like maybe cases of misjudgment or arrogance or perhaps cronyism, but is that just kind of a small-picture thing? Is there a big picture about actual or potential damage to the Supreme Court itself as opposed to just damage to two of its current justices?
WOLFRAM: Keith, that's the most important thing.
However these cases are decided, the Sierra Club case involving Cheney, any case in which NOW has asserted an advocacy position, no matter how the justices vote, people are going to shake their head about how they voted. It brings the court into suspicion that friendship, prior associations have more to do than the merits of a particular case. This is bad news for the court. The court doesn't need this black eye.
OLBERMANN: What is to be done here, sir? Neither of them obviously can be compelled to recuse in their respective cases or even apologize, can they?
WOLFRAM: Well, an apology would be irrelevant.
As to whether they can be required to step off the cases, I'm not so sure. The court has never done this but it seems to me it would be within the power of the court, the other eight members of the court, to sit as a court and to entertain a motion, if you will, from, in this case by the Sierra Club, asking review of Scalia's denial of the motion.
By the way, there is no motion pending with respect to any case involving NOW at this moment with respect to Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
OLBERMANN: Obviously, the potential exists for that at any moment, though, which is our entire point about the appearance or the possibility of a conflict of interests.
WOLFRAM: Absolutely. Absolutely.
OLBERMANN: Charles Wolfram, author of "Modern Legal Ethics," formerly a professor and a dean at Cornell, many thanks for your insights, sir.
WOLFRAM: Thank you.
OLBERMANN: Good night.
Three down, two to go. Up next, the words synonymous with youthful depravity, spring break. Thought I was going to say Cornell University. But the phrase in this town has gone from where the boys are to, where are the boys? We'll explain that one. Then why even the most perfect hostess can always use a little help from her friends in the form of letters.
But, first, here our COUNTDOWN's top three sound bites of this day.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
POWELL: Everybody seems to have something written down, but don't feel obliged to read what you have written down. I have nothing written. I have no notes. You all have notes. I have no notes. So that's not fair.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You mind if I take off my jacket?
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Go ahead and eat.
Are you waiting on me?
PETER HOFFMAN, "APPRENTICE" HOPEFUL: She's got a female outfit. She's a female. And then she's got this tuxedo. And I decided the tuxedo seemed like a more professional look. I wear this goofy dog and I bring the goofy dog and cross my fingers.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: Coming up, our No. 2 story on the COUNTDOWN. What's the past tense of spring break? And if you want to print up any T-shirts reading "You're fired," now is the time to do it. A moment from now is the time we'll tell you why.
OLBERMANN: After temperatures approaching 60 degrees on Monday, it has snowed along much of the Atlantic Seaboard these last three days and will do so again tomorrow, thus, the phrase spring break not exactly a popular one around here just now.
Our second story on the COUNTDOWN, continuing MSNBC's daylong coverage of the tides of March - who thought that one up? - we go someplace else where that term is also not exactly a winner, a city which, as COUNTDOWN's Monica Novotny reports, is pretty much spring-breaked.
Monica, good evening. Where are you?
MONICA NOVOTNY, NBC CORRESPONDENT: Keith, good evening. I am in balmy Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
And it is hard to believe as you walk around this very family-friendly beach town that this used to be the center of the spring break storm. In fact, local historians tell us spring break started here back in 1935 when the swim team from Colgate University came down around Easter time for a few days of swimming and sunning. Now, of course, spring break grew over the years until it reached a very high and very low point in the mid-'80s.
And that is when the people of Fort Lauderdale said, enough.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
_SHARON ANDERSON, ASST. POLICE CHIEF, FORT LAUDERDALE POLICE _
DEPARTMENT: I began being pelted with full cans of beer from kids that were up on the seventh floor. And it continued until they realized that they were wasting perfectly good drinkable beer.
NOVOTNY (voice-over): It was the year spring break broke, 1985, Fort Lauderdale's annual March madness degenerating into drunken disaster, inspiring locals to take back their beach.
(on camera): Was it as wild as we hear?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, it was. It was wild.
NOVOTNY (voice-over): A stark contrast to the innocent fun captured in the 1960 beach flick...
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "WHERE THE BOYS ARE")
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (singing): Where the boys are.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
NOVOTNY: The only thing that hasn't changed in Fort Lauderdale since then, besides George Hamilton's tan, is morning deejay Rick Shaw.
RICK SHAW, DISC JOCKEY: Back then, before the founding fathers of Fort Lauderdale decided they didn't want spring breakers anymore, everybody was welcome. They said, come on down.
NOVOTNY: And they did. But what started out as 20,000 students in the early '60s grew each year. And by 1985, 350,000 breakers spent $110 million soaking the city in beer and bedlam. Assistant Chief Anderson saw it all.
ANDERSON: The hotel people would have to put up with people vomiting, urinating in the elevator, in the hallway.
NOVOTNY: It was the beginning of the end.
NICKI GROSSMAN, FORT LAUDERDALE RESIDENT: In June of 1985, Mayor Cox from the city of Fort Lauderdale, went on television and said, don't come back here. You are not welcome here.
SHAW: In spite of the enormous amount of money that it brought to South Florida during spring break, they just said it wasn't worth it to them.
NOVOTNY: Officials banned open alcohol containers, built a wall to separate the cars and the kids. Police arrested about 2,000 students. And the residents of Fort Lauderdale said not in my back yard with their wallets.
JIM NAUGLE, MAYOR OF FORT LAUDERDALE: The voters in 1986 voted to raise their taxes to redo Fort Lauderdale Beach to make the beautiful pedestrian environment that we have out there now.
GROSSMAN: The people in Fort Lauderdale did not just settle on a face-lift. They decided they had to change everything. We went through what we call a lobotomy.
NOVOTNY: For Fort Lauderdale, change is good. Cheap motels now replaced by high-end hotels, shops and restaurants, luring 1.5 million visitors to spend about $700 million this spring.
As for the kids, only about 15,000 kids show up for a scaled-back spring break.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'd probably go somewhere else for a little bit more action.
NOVOTNY: Still, that old reputation is hard to kick.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We were told by a friend that we probably shouldn't come because it was going to be too wild and crazy. But it isn't. It's wonderful.
NOVOTNY: Keith, I'm standing here in front - right across from the ocean, rather, in front a mall that is filled with restaurants, and high-end little boutiques. And there are as many family members here with their small kids as there are spring breakers. This is something you never would have seen 20 years ago.
And, of course, the success story here of Fort Lauderdale is no secret in the state of Florida. We have been told that city officials from Daytona Beach came by earlier this week, probably from a break from their spring break, they are looking for advice because apparently they would like to get rid of some of those breakers as well - Keith.
OLBERMANN: We'll force them back into the snow yet.
COUNTDOWN's Monica Novotny on spring break patrol. And did I mention it snowed three times since left the office? Many thanks. Good night.
Time now to pause the COUNTDOWN, as we always do at this hour, to dumpster dive into the seamy underbelly of the news, the celebrity doings which we call "Keeping Tabs" once again.
Martha, Martha, Martha. MSNBC Dan Abrams has confirmed that the high doyen of household hints is indeed seeking a little help from her friends, writing a letter to about 100 of her closest pals, asking them to in turn write to the judge in her case and say nice stuff about her, in hopes the judge will not send her to the big house.
"If you would be so kind as to write such a letter, please include your opinion of my character, my work ethic, my integrity and my probity." Ms. Stewart suggests her pals include "any memorable experiences you have had with me." She did not write that they should leave out from those memorable experiences any great conversations they had about the stock market.
And, boy, were we ahead of the curve on this one. While we were bringing you last night's No. 1 story, Donald Trump and the catchphrase "You're fired," Trump himself was busy filing for a trademark on that phrase. If the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office goes along with him, he'll gain exclusive rights to slap "You're fired" on T-shirts, also games and, according to the application, casino services. Uh-oh.
And about our other favorite famous-for-being-famous guy, just when you thought we might have run out William Hung news, we have not. MSNBC.com's Jeannette Walls reports that the dentist from the show "Extreme Makeover" has volunteered to improve William's extreme overbite. And what exactly is wrong with William's overbite?
Finally, good news for you if the crucifixion scene in "The Passion of the Christ" movie was just too much for you. That was not actor James Caviezel, nor a stunt Christ being crucified. It was a robot. Was this a matter of sensitivity, of the refusal to subject any human being to what Jesus is said to have undergone on the cross? No. While filming, it was just too cold to have Caviezel hanging around in only a loincloth. So they built a half-million-dollar robot instead.
One story shy of a complete COUNTDOWN. There's a lovely treat waiting ahead. It started with a flash and ended with a bang.
But, first, in honor of that mechanical Christ on the cross, here are COUNTDOWN's top two other robots you probably thought were real. Two, the shark from "Jaws," actually three different mechanical sharks, each weighing 1.5 tons collectively named Bruce in honor of Steven Spielberg's lawyer, Bruce Ramer.
And No. 1 - I knew it! I knew it! I knew it!
OLBERMANN: It is no longer enough of a shock to see a celebrity in court. The eternal Hollywood phrase, I can't guest arrested in this town has taken on entirely different meaning. Now a misdemeanor, even a felony, no longer guarantees you even a headline. Now, if, while you're in court, your start making barking or growling noises, well, that's interesting.
And thus to our No. 1 story on the COUNTDOWN, Courtney Love is interesting, and just in the last 24 hours. She started her tour of own private universe on "Late Night With David Letterman."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN")
DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST: What is the nature of the ongoing court case?
Can you talk about that?
COURTNEY LOVE, SINGER: I'm not supposed to. I want to be here. I wanted to be famous my whole life. Slam. Oh, my God. Oh, my God.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: See, that was the point at which Drew Barrymore and Madonna and even, in a sense, Janet Jackson, stopped, but not our Courtney.
About eight hours after having taped Letterman's show, she was arrested at a Manhattan night club. The charges, reckless endangerment and third-degree assault. She was charged with hitting a fan, reportedly with a microphone stand. She was said to have thrown it from the stage on which she was performing into the crowd. Performers are usually encouraged not to throw things at fans because fans tend to be the ones who are paying the performers for performing.
One eyewitness offered this caveat, "She didn't do it in a dangerous way." The drummer in Ms. Love's new band says nothing was thrown and that the guy with all the bandages and the blood spurting from his head is just after their money.
Joining me now, somebody who was at the concert, contributing editor to "Rolling Stone" magazine, Toure.
Good evening to you, sir.
TOURE, "ROLLING STONE": How are you, Keith.?
OLBERMANN: All right, you were there for the history in the making.
TOURE: I was there.
OLBERMANN: Did she whack a fan with a microphone stand?
TOURE: No, no, to say that she whacked him with the microphone says it's active.
TOURE: It was a tiny little club, real rock 'n' roll, punk energy. Yes, she threw the microphone stand into the crowd. They were drinking through an open bottle.
Courtney Love cracked a cigarette. She sparked a cigarette on stage last night. I don't know if Bloomberg and his people want to rush in there and arrest her for that as well, but it was real rock 'n' roll energy. Not only that, she was at the Vines show before that, running around flashing everybody. Then she went to Wendy's, the fast-food restaurant, and rocked out. This was a real night of rock 'n' roll energy, that wild, unpredictable stuff we used to get from Mick Jagger back in the day. Now we have these superstars. It's not the same.
OLBERMANN: Well, certainly, you are right about that second point. But there's also the corporate anti-super star, if you will; 10 years ago, I wouldn't have had to ask this question. But it's 2004, so here goes.
She makes barking noises in court. She explains how her daughter helped mommy when mommy O.D.ed. She flashes Letterman. She does not whack, but she inadvertently hits a fan with a microphone stand. Is she nuts or is she just her own publicity agent?
TOURE: Well, you know, the thing is that, that the things that we love about Courtney on stage is the same Courtney that we get off stage, and we are like, geez, you can't act like this in a courtroom. But then she goes on stage and she rocks.
And, by the way, last night at 1:00 a.m. at Plaid, she was rocking hard. That was one of the best rock shows I have seen in a while. And if she was getting on stage and the songs were boring and the performance was boring, I would say, OK, these are publicity stunts, let's move on. But she can still rock. A hurricane called Courtney Love is coming to your town, album, video, MTV. She is going to rock.
And there's tragic things going on in her life, but this has been her life for as long as we have known her.
OLBERMANN: Toure, is entertainment so much about shock value now that someday soon we are going to see an actor or singer literally do the old Daffy Duck routine from the cartoon where he says, I can only do this act once, but it's terrific and he drinks a gallon of gasoline and then swallows a match? Could we see Courtney Love or somebody else go to a real dangerous extreme?
TOURE: I don't know, perhaps, maybe.
The thing with Courtney is, I don't see these as planned-out stunts. This is organic. She's wild. She's doing drugs. She's troubled. She's probably still processing all the stuff with Kurt Cobain and his life, his death, everything that's happened since then. She has got a lot of stuff to live through and to deal with and to process on a daily basis. So I mean, I understand how life is difficult for her, but this is also a special individual, like Tupac, like James Dean, like Kurt Cobain himself.
They're just special, wild people, and just sort of this stage called Earth is just really not enough for them.
OLBERMANN: And a place they only visit periodically.
TOURE: It's kind of - but that's what we Love, right?
When it was Mick Jagger, when you didn't know what he was going to do, or Prince, and you didn't really know what he was going to do, it was way more exciting. Now you have Britney. You know what she is going to do. And maybe you like it. But Courtney Love is just that wild energy, and you don't know what's going to happen.
OLBERMANN: Well, you know, it always works for me.
Toure, contributing editor to "Rolling Stone" magazine, thanks for your time tonight, sir.
TOURE: Thank you.
biological Before leaving our No. 1 story tonight, the No. 1 more thing you need to know, Courtney in court, Courtney in concert, either way, it's a crap shoot. If you find yourself in the neighborhood of Manhattan's Lower East Side tonight, beware of flying mike stands. She'll be appearing at the Bowery Ballroom. Intelligence sources do, however believe she is - quote - "surrounded."
Time to recap the top five COUNTDOWN stories, the ones we think you'll be talking about tomorrow.
No. 5, Pakistani forces say they have cornered a high-value target, probably Ayman al-Zawahri, near the Afghan border, the No. 2 man in al Qaeda. There's a fierce firefight ongoing. The U.S. can't confirm that Zawahri is there. Four, a family says Delta Airlines lost their elderly grandfather. The Alzheimer's sufferer was, the family says, supposed to be escorted between flights. Instead, he was found 24 hours later.
Three, a question of ethics, Justice Antonin Scalia refusing to recuse himself from a Supreme Court case involving longtime friend Dick Cheney. Two, spring break not in Fort Lauderdale. The town once synonymous with the annual college party has cracked down on the kids.
And, No. 1, Courtney Love, we love you, New York. Good night, everybody.
That's COUNTDOWN. Thanks for being part of it. I'm Keith Olbermann.
I'm not flashing anybody. Good night and good luck.