Monday, December 20, 2004

'Countdown with Keith Olbermann' for Dec. 20

Guest: Matt Cooper, Todd Graves, Catherine Birndorf

CHRIS JANSING, MSNBC ANCHOR: Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow? The stolen baby case. The woman accused of literally cutting a baby out of an expectant mother's womb faces the criminal justice system. We'll take you inside the minds of women who think they can get away with a crime like this.

President Bush may be "TIME" magazine's man of the year but hardline conservatives on the Hill won't agree. Will 2005 be the year of the face-off inside the GOP?

Alarming new crash test results. For the first time in three years a popular vehicle on a road near you gets the worst rating possible.

And can't find the perfect gift for that hard to shop for loved one? How about donating a water buffalo to a family in need overseas. Stores banking on your charity. All that and more now on Countdown.

Good evening. I'm Chris Jansing in for Keith Olbermann. The leading cause of death for pregnant women is murder. Our fifth story on the Countdown tonight, the brutal crime that brought that chilling statistic to light. The woman accused of killing a pregnant woman for her baby made her first court appearance today before a federal judge in Kansas City, Kansas. Lisa Montgomery was charged with kidnapping, resulting in death. And is being held without bail, pending another hearing scheduled for Thursday. Authorities say she confessed to strangling Bobbie Jo Stinnett last Thursday, cutting out the eight-month-old baby and then passing it off as her own.

Authorities apprehended her Friday after looking at the victim's computer records. Ms. Montgomery allegedly met her victim through the Internet, pretending to be interested in the victim's dogs. Terriers. Ms. Montgomery, who was the mother of two high school age children, had told friends she was pregnant with twins but had lost one to a miscarriage. Meanwhile, the 8-month-old child, Victoria Jo Stinnett, was reportedly in, quote, "remarkably good condition," according to a hospital spokeswoman and the father said the recovery of his child is a miracle. The suspect's husband, Kevin Montgomery, made an emotional appearance today, saying this has been hard on both families.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I sure hope they get as much support from their church and communities as I am. We're all going to need it. It is a long road that we've got to go down now. Families are mighty precious to me and I hope they are to him. Zeb and Victoria Jo have a rough road to go. My heart ain't broke just for me and Lisa and her kids. It is them, too. That was a precious baby.


JANSING: Ms. Montgomery was allegedly showing off that baby at a restaurant in Melvern, Kansas, Friday, just hours before she was apprehended and even as there was an Amber alert out for the infant in neighboring Missouri. Many customers in that restaurant were reportedly surprised that the infant was just one day old, since its head was not misshapen as is typical after a baby passes through the birth canal. Ms. Montgomery had told her husband that she gave birth suddenly while out shopping. Joining us now to sort through some of this, Todd Graves, the U.S. attorney in charge of this case.

An affidavit released by your office says that Lisa Montgomery waived her constitutional rights and confessed. What can you tell us about what she told investigators?

TODD GRAVES, U.S. ATTORNEY: The affidavit will have to speak for itself. The information is in there. This is a very early investigation. There's not a lot of information beyond that we can provide.

JANSING: She said among other things, she lied to her husband about being pregnant. Do you presume he didn't know and what are the chances he or someone else could be charged as well?

GRAVES: We are only a number of hours into the investigation now. One person is charged with a federal crime and that's where I'll have to leave it.

JANSING: One key question is whether Ms. Montgomery had ever met her victim, the victim. One report is that she may have at least seen her previously in a dog show. Do you know whether she had seen her before or even seen a photograph of her on the Internet? How did she even know this woman who was selling dogs was pregnant?

GRAVES: They participated, both participated in a message board that had to do with rat terriers and they may have become acquainted through that. Other than that, it would just call for speculation.

JANSING: Ultimately, this baby was recovered remarkably quickly after a dog breeder in North Carolina tipped off investigators. The Internet has really changed the way you do business, hasn't it?

GRAVES: The Internet has changed everything in the world of prosecution and crime. I like to think of it as the river of humanity, the good, the bad and the ugly travels down that river. All of us need to take a lesson as we approach our daily lives and do more on the Internet. We need to think about who is on the other end. They may not always be what they first appear to be.

JANSING: The charge which is kidnapping, resulting in death, could have carried the death penalty. Does a confession make a guilty plea or an insanity plea some kind of deal more likely?

GRAVES: Ms. Stinnett (sic) hasn't even had her attorneys appointed yet. She has a right to a trial and to certain constitutional rights. I couldn't even begin to speculate on that.

JANSING: The victim's husband has been calling his new baby girl Victoria Jo a miracle. Have you talked with him? How is he holding up?

GRAVES: The family, as in any case like this, it's a very heart rending case. Our hearts go out to the family. At this point, they have their privacy and all those things can be saved for another day.

JANSING: U.S. attorney Todd Graves. Thank you very much. We appreciate it. NBC News has just learned that that baby has been released from the hospital. The family had been there. The father, other members of the family had been there. The baby was doing very well. And NBC News learning just moments ago, that the little baby, Victoria Jo, has been released from the hospital.

But what in the world would draw the mother of two to commit such a heinous act? If her actions sound delusional, perhaps they are. The "New York Times" reported today that an extreme state of psychosis can lead women to believe they're pregnant, even give them physical signs of pregnancy, like a bloated abdomen. But could a psychotic woman commit a premeditated murder? To help us with this, joining us now, Dr. Catherine Birndorf, the director of Payne Whitney women's program.

Cases like this are rare but not unprecedented. There were similar stories in 1987 in Oregon, 1995 in Chicago. Are there psychological threads to cases like this?

CATHERINE BIRNDORF, PAYNE WHITNEY PSYCHIATRIC CLINIC: Sure. I think in each case, you have to wonder what's going on with the mother and assume that when a case gets this far, there's definitely something psychological or psychiatric going on to cause them to go as far as to commit murder.

JANSING: The idea that a woman could do this has so many people just stunned. What are some of the hallmarks of this rare form of psychosis?

BIRNDORF: Well, it is when one thinks - that they imagine they're pregnant. They may not get their period. They may have bloating in the stomach. They may have breast tenderness. All the signs they may be pregnant. They convince themselves and others that they are pregnant when they really aren't. And it can go so far as, it's like an unshakeable, absolutely fixed belief that they themselves are pregnant. And when there's a longing for a child, and somehow there's no child produced, they may go to extreme lengths to produce a child.

JANSING: One terrible extreme would be to find a baby and to steal this child. But then you have another whole step further. The mother is killed. This is a brutal, violent bloody crime.


JANSING: How did it go to that extreme?

BIRNDORF: It's very uncommon that it would go to murder. You've heard about babies being taken from strollers, from hospitals, there are intense security systems to prevent that from happening. But murder is unusual. It doesn't typically go that far. You have to assume that this woman was suffering terribly from a psychiatric condition, a psychotic illness where she had lost touch with reality and really believed perhaps that this child was hers and that she was due to this child for some reason and she took it and treated it as her own and paraded the baby around with her, believing this.

JANSING: There's so much we don't know about this specific case. One possibility is that she made up the fact that she was pregnant. If she had been pregnant and did miscarry, is it possible something like this could be the result of postpartum depression?

BIRNDORF: Sure. Psychosis in the postpartum tends to develop quite early. She probably had preexisting illness so things would have been happening if she were pregnant prior to that. Certainly the loss of the babies if she was pregnant with twins, could certainly cause her to sort of become very ill and psychotic. And certainly the hormonal fluctuations don't help that any.

JANSING: Whatever the precipitating factor, it doesn't go away. By all reports, she had taken this baby, showed it off to family and friends, she called her husband and said come pick me up. I had this baby while shopping. And even took it to church. Her pastor saying this is a beautiful child.

BIRNDORF: Well, it just shows you how much she actually believes this to be the case. She may be functioning in the rest of her life perfectly normally, quote, unquote, but in this respect, she has this unshakeable belief that this is true. That's a very serious psychiatric illness.

JANSING: We want to say once again that this baby has been released. This is at least one part of the story that gives people hope. That this child seems to be fine, doing remarkably well given the circumstances. But what about the long term potential impact of this?

BIRNDORF: I think it is so tragic. I liked how someone said recently, that this case brings up, it really points out this tragedy which is really a trend. We really don't even understand how many of these cases exist, how many maternal homicides happen. It is just not well recorded. And I hope that what happens is that this brings to light, some national attention on this really important public health crisis. Hopefully for this baby, you know, it will be in a loving home and we'll somehow understand what happened and take that and to turn it into something good.

JANSING: Dr. Catherine Birndorf, many thanks.

BIRNDORF: You're welcome.

JANSING: Thus one case of a murdered pregnant woman is just beginning, but another has recently come to a close. Or so we thought.

The defense in the Scott Peterson case has put up a Web site, claiming to be searching for the real killer of Laci Peterson. The Web site says, quote, "we believe Scott Peterson has been unjustly convicted." The site is run by Mark Geragos' law firm. It asks for financial help, accepting payments by credit card or PayPal, saying, quote, "unfortunately, this does not come without a price."

One Peterson juror described the donation drive as "disgusting," according to "The New York Post." And legal analysts pointed out the unfortunate parallel to the O.J. Simpson case, when Mr. Simpson vowed to find the real killer of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman.

When we called Simpson's office for a status report today on the search for the real killer, we were first answered with laughter, and then a report that the office gets 20 to 30 tips each and every week, and all are looked at.

And the search continues for the real killer of JonBenet Ramsey. New information supporting the family's long held assertion that the 6-year-old died at the hands of an intruder. A report from CBS this weekend says that DNA evidence, collected at the crime scene, appears to be from someone other than the parents. The new evidence will be checked against dozens of suspects who were ignored for years.

The new information prompted John Ramsey to predict that the eight-year-old case will now be solved.


JOHN RAMSEY: What we do feel is that everything that can be done is being done by the current people who are working on the case. We have great confidence that they - that the case is in good hands, and they'll do what it takes.


JANSING: President Bush's reelection earned him the cover spot on "Time" magazine's person of the year issue, but conservatives, also emboldened by the election year gains, are looking to flex their muscles, too. The brewing battle inside the GOP.

And the insurgent battle that's front and center in Iraq. Deadly car bombs, brutal killings of election workers, and a message from Saddam. This is Countdown on MSNBC.


JANSING: In the nation's capital, President Bush wins "Time's" person of the year. How does he celebrate? Disneyworld? No. He goes before the press. The president's Christmas wish list, and the people in his own party ready to stand in his way. That's next.


JANSING: In Washington, D.C., very little will get done in the two weeks between now and the new year. But many in Washington are just lying in wait, polishing their agendas, along with their holiday table silver.

Except for President Bush. Of course, he probably has somebody polishing the silver for him.

Our fourth story on the Countdown, the man, the plan, and how he plans to execute it. Over the weekend, the president was named "Time" magazine's man of the year, in part, quote, "for sticking to his guns, literally and figuratively, and for reshaping the rules of politics to fit his 10-gallon hat leadership style." But that's an awfully big hat, and the president's agenda is just as massive.

Today Mr. Bush held only the 17th solo news conference of his presidency to talk about those plans. The last time he subjected himself to Q&A with the press corps, in November. He talked about the political capital he had earned and that he plans to spend it.

Today the president presented the legislative equivalent of a shopping list.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In a time of change, we must reform systems that were created to meet the needs of another era. Soon I will appoint a citizen's panel to recommend ways we can transform the outdated tax code. I'll work with the new Congress to make health care more accessible and affordable, to reform the legal system, to raise standards of achievement in public schools, especially our high schools, and to fix the Social Security system for our children and our grandchildren.


JANSING: But President Bush could face resistance on those plans from an unlikely source: Congressional Republicans. Conservative members of the president's own party feel that they have earned political capital, too. And their shopping list isn't always the same.

Many Republicans putting away their rubber stamps. Case in point, last week's intelligence bill. You'll recall conservative Republicans in the House tried to kill it, and they almost succeed. It did finally pass, but not before 67 Republicans voted against it, a sign that party leaders may have trouble holding the caucus together in the new term.

And Senator Arlen Specter's dream of chairing the Judiciary Committee was nearly derailed by conservatives, after the Pennsylvania Republican said anti-abortion judges would have a tough time winning confirmation. He had to promise that nominees would get quick consideration in order to hang on to a shot at the job.

And we haven't even mentioned the Democrats. Matthew Cooper is White House correspondent for "Time" magazine. He joins us now to talk about the man of the year's big plans for his second term. Good evening, Matt. Thanks for joining us.


JANSING: So the president lays out this ambitious domestic agenda today - Social Security, tax code overhaul. What are the chances he's going to get these big changes made?

COOPER: Well, he's got a lot of work to do, Chris. I mean, he's proposing basically the biggest change in Social Security since it was started almost 70 years ago. He wants to basically add these private savings accounts to it so you could put some money aside in a private IRA type thing, and let it grow that way. But it's a very, very expensive plan because you're taking a lot of money out of the current system.

JANSING: This is a fight that could get ugly.

COOPER: Yes. That's going to be really tough. And this tax reform that he's talking about is also hard.

But look, you know, I wouldn't sell him short. I mean, people have thought before he couldn't get things passed, and as he said, he does have this political capital going into it.

JANSING: Well, if the Republicans, at least some congressional Republicans, think they have political capital going, too, who is likely to win that battle of capital?

COOPER: Well, it's going to be interesting, how he frames these issues, Chris. You know, I mean, on some of these issues, the really conservative members of the Republican - in the House and Senate may like it. A lot of them have liked some kind of privatization of Social Security. So they'll be game for that. I think he'll have a lot of trouble on his education plans, which you quoted in the setup there. You know, those are pretty expensive programs that a lot of conservatives might be wary of. And especially his immigration plan. He has a plan that a lot of the conservatives think is too close to amnesty for illegal immigrant.

JANSING: It was reported that the president had told France he would be a lame duck very quickly into his second term and that he needed to move quickly.

So, what's the feeling at the White House?

What does history tell us?

How long does he have to get this stuff pushed through?

COOPER: We talked to him for his "Time" Person of the Year Cover last week in the Oval Office. And he basically said as much, you know, needs to move quickly on these issues. And that he intends to. I think it's almost going to be like a permanent campaign, Chris. He's going to be out there campaigning for these things. And in some ways, it will be like the election never happened. He's going to keep fighting for them.

JANSING: Well, Right After the election, as you well know, the president's men and a whole host of commentators talked about the president's mandate. His clear win. And just how much capital that would buy him. Is that a really ephemeral thing in light of what's going on in Iraq or the controversy over Donald Rumsfeld or his new director of homeland security?

Can all that just evaporate?

COOPER: It can be pretty transient. Our poll in "Time" this week shows he kind of has the lowest December approval for a president after an election ever. Usually there's a little wellspring of good feelings after an election. You know, whoever just won gets a little bump from it. He's not showing any signs of that. So, he's got his work cut out. And on the other hand, you know, a lot of people thought he couldn't get reelected, either.

JANSING: The Press Corps, as you know, those who don't get sit down with him in the Oval Office chomp at the bit to get these press availabilities like they got today, couldn't wait to ask him about Donald Rumsfeld. He said once again, he's standing behind the defense secretary.

Could that hurt him?

COOPER: Well, it hasn't so far, Chris. During the campaign, a lot of people thought, including a lot of Republicans, thought he should have dumped Rumsfeld when the Abu Ghraib Prison scandal broke out. But Bush stuck to his guns and that's one of the reasons we name him person of the year, because he kind of defied conventional wisdom by sticking to his guns at a time when so many people in his own party were telling him to switch and readjust his position on stem cells or firing Rumsfeld. He stuck to it. And my guess is he'll stick it and probably ride it out.

JANSING: "Time" magazine's Matt Cooper, thanks for your time tonight.

COOPER: Thanks, Chris.

JANSING: Elsewhere in D.C., another drug warning. Coming late this evening from the FDA, this one, catching a lot of folks in the medical community completely off guard. This is for the painkiller Naproxen. It's been approved for use since the '70s, sold over the counter for the last 10 years under the brand name Aleve. There are concerns Naproxen could increase the risk of heart problems. The information came to light as part of an Alzheimer's study. The FDA warns, if you're taking Naproxen, you should not exceed the recommended daily dose, don't take it for more than 10 days.

From serious news to Santa news. One look at the outfits of these

Santa wannabes and it can only know mean one thing to the Countdown

faithful, "Oddball" is next

And spreading Christmas cheer through charity. Goats for overseas families in need. No joke. And the stores will actually help you make the purchase.


JANSING: I'm Chris Jansing, holding down the fort for Keith Olbermann. And we've reached that time of night to strip of the mantle of serious news, slipped into the nightly equivalent of a muu muu.

We begin in Boston Massachusetts, with the fifth annual Santa Speedo Run. Jack Frost nipping at more than the noses of these brave souls. One hundred and 50 runners with nothing to keep them warm but a strip of swimsuit, a woolly hat and many some Christmas cheer courtesy of the pub where they congregated pre-race. Their goal - to raise money for a children's hospital. They also inadvertently, we presume, confirm the Countdown creed that most men should never wear a Speedo.

To Portugal, where the weather is warmer and the Santas are mercifully fully clothed. 9,000 of them showed up to try to break the world record for largest Santa Claus parade in the world. Considering the same parade already broke the world record last year, this year's event smacks of showing off. They arrived by train, cycle and foot. Baby Santas, canine Santas, biker Santas. Also in the town of El Porto (ph) even the obligatory Santa on stills, terrifying children everywhere by doing the robot.

And speaking of spills, run Forest run! Actually, this is Ashrita Furman of New York, breaking a world record by running nearly five miles on stilts. The last record was setback in 1892. Furman is something of a world record addict. He has broken 87 of them in the past quarter century, including 12 miles of somersaults, balancing 23 milk crate on his chin, and scaling Mount Fuji on a pogo stick. You may remember one of his breaking moves earlier this year if you watched tape. Furman was the guy who broke the fastest pushing an orange a mile using only your nose record at JFK Airport this summer, thus assuring himself a place of honor in Countdown's "World of Most Pointless Things Done in the Name of Breaking a Record."

A day of funerals in Iraq after deadly insurgent attacks. Saddam Hussein weighs in on the elections and the U.S.

Countdown weighs in on Saddam with one of its favorite moment of 2004.

A new crash test results causing alarm. A popular economy car gets the worst crash rating possible. Those stories ahead.

Now, here are Countdown's "Top News Makers of the Day."

Number three, Feng Qian, crowned the first ever Miss Man-Made Beauty of China. Miss Qian has had three plastic surgeries on her eyelids, cheeks and stomach. She also uses Botox on her face. The 22-year-old beat out 20 other altered state contestants, including a 62-year-old woman and a newly minted transsexual to take the title.

Number two, an unnamed groom in Malaysia, all set to marry his fiance in front of a thousand wedding guest at her family home, except he never showed up. Instead, he kindly sent his bride a text message, canceling the wedding. Dial J for jilted, oh, that also works for jerk.

And number one, an anonymous but not for long bank robbery in Milwaukee in Wisconsin. He walked into a Wells Fargo, handed over a note demanding money, took the cash and high tailed it out of there, leaving the note behind. The note was written on the back of a letter from his probation department with his name on it putting him back in the big house.


JANSING: Welcome back to Countdown. I'm Chris Jansing, filling in while Keith Olbermann is on vacation.

Forty-one days away from Iraq's first democratic election and the widely predicted rise in violence is under way, 67 civilians killed in car bomb attacks, three election workers gunned down in broad daylight, and Saddam Hussein lending his encouragement to the resistance.

Our third story tonight, insurgency in Iraq. The prime minister now warning that insurgents are not only trying to derail the elections. They're trying to start a civil war.

Our correspondent in Baghdad is Ned Colt.


NED COLT, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In Najaf Sunday, it was a scene of devastation and mayhem. A car bomber drove into a funeral procession, causing an explosion so massive, it sheared the fronts off buildings. Dozens were killed.

Two hours earlier, in nearby Karbala, the bomber chose the main bus terminal, more than 10 killed there. To date, security is extremely tight in both cities, as funerals begin. Cars have now been banned from downtown to stop more attacks. Shiite clerics are calling for calm and warn the bombers are attempting to spark civil war.

That wasn't the only violence Sunday. These stark photographs show the execution of three election workers on a main Baghdad street by killers so brazen, they did not bother covering their faces. The three were pulled from their vehicle and then shot in the head as they tried to crawl to safety.

(on camera): And we're getting reports that an investigation is under way into whether the three were pulled out of their car at a bogus checkpoint, that they were insurgents dressed as police. It wouldn't be the first time if indeed this proves to be the case.

Now, the spiral in violence here is prompting renewed calls for the delay of national elections scheduled for January 30 to provide time to try to negotiate with those opposed to the vote back to you.


JANSING: Ned Colt in Baghdad.

Delaying the elections not an option for President Bush, who again today reiterated his belief that a democratic Iraq will strike a powerful blow to terrorism. And for that reason, he expects more attacks in the run-up to January 30.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And so the terrorists will attempt to delay the elections, to intimidate people in their country, to disrupt the democratic process in any way they can.

No one can predict every turn in the months ahead, and I certainly don't expect the process to be trouble-free. Yet I am confident of the result. I'm confident that terrorists will fail, the elections will go forward and Iraq will be a democracy that reflects the values and traditions of its people.


JANSING: The last winner of a so-called election in Iraq, with 99 percent of the vote, no less, is calling the January elections illegal.

Saddam Hussein was unaware of the planned vote until last Thursday, when he got to meet with legal counsel for the first time since his arrest. In an exclusive interview with NBC, his lawyer relayed Saddam's position on the elections - quote - "He does not believe in these elections. He still believes he's the true president of Iraq and the elections are illegal."

Saddam also praised the insurgency in Iraq and urged the Iraqi people to continue resisting the U.S. occupation.

For a look at what all this means for Iraq's immediate and long-term future, I'm joined by MSNBC military analyst General Wayne Downing.

General, thanks for joining us tonight.

RET. GEN. WAYNE DOWNING, NBC MILITARY ANALYST: Thanks, Chris. Good to be here.

JANSING: Let's start with Saddam. Will his call for resistance and condemnation of these elections have any kind of impact do you think on ordinary Iraqis?

DOWNING: Well, I think probably not.

I mean, the fact that his lawyer spoke out doesn't really mean anything. I think right now, he is a minor player. I think, probably, we probably wished we would have rolled a hand grenade down that hole a year ago, but we did not. So we are going to have put up with him.

JANSING: So, the real problem is the growing insurgency that President Bush acknowledged today. He said the process won't be trouble-free. But here we are, just over a month away from the elections, officials openly being attacked. The prime minister thinks insurgents are trying to start a civil war. Do you think that's a real possibility?

DOWNING: Well, I don't think the civil war is going to start before the election. But, certainly, this violence is very serious, Chris. It is a matter of grave concern.

We - and when I say we, it's not only the coalition forces, but the Iraqi security forces - are really going to have to up the ante. We're going to have to do a better job of protecting the people putting on this election and then protecting some of these areas. I think the Shias really got a shock with these two big bombs in Karbala and An Najaf.

And i think you're going to see some extraordinary security precautions taking place now down in those Shia areas, which have been relatively violence-free. Up in the north, Chris, it seems to be going very well up in the Kurdish area. So, it looks like we're probably going to have a fairly decent election in about three-quarters of the country.

However, that other one-quarter of the country, to include part of Baghdad, it looks like it's going to be a pretty messy election.

JANSING: And the president talking about what could be a pretty messy election today with an uncharacteristically occasionally negative assessment, saying the real problem with Iraqi security forces so far has been often, when the heat is on, some of them have cut and run. He says the answer is to have - and I'm quoting here - "a better military command structure."

Is that the answer?

DOWNING: Well, Chris, we turned our back on the Iraqi security forces for a long time. And some of the unit commanders, some of our division commanders, recognized early in the game how key they were and started local efforts.

Now we've got General Dave Petraeus over there, Brigadier General Army Schwitters, two just top-notch U.S. military guys who are training these forces, but putting a lot of money, a lot of effort into it now. But, Chris, it's not going to happen overnight. You just can't take a magic wand and touch a person or touch a unit and make it into an effective force. So, it is going to take time.

They've gotten better. They fought much better in this latest go-around in Fallujah than they had six months ago. But, Chris, they have got a long way to go. And you can't create them overnight. We're probably less than 50 percent along in creating the number of forces we need, let alone equipping these forces and getting them up to the standards that they have to be. We've got a long road to go, Chris.

JANSING: General Wayne Downing, thank you very much for your time tonight, sir.

DOWNING: Great. Thanks, Chris.

JANSING: Saddam's views on the election and the insurgency weren't the only things NBC learned during that exclusive interview with his lawyers.

We also learned just how the butcher of Baghdad is holding up in jail. One year after his capture in Tikrit, his lawyer described Saddam as being in good health and high spirits. He's lost some weight. His face has aged. He now has a thick beard and very long hair. To meet with his lawyer, he met a shirt-sweater-pants combo. He also carried coat and a notepad, perhaps to jot down some inspirational thoughts, because Saddam Hussein has also taken up poetry, reading one of his handwritten odes to his lawyer at the start of the meeting.

It's been more than six months since we last saw Saddam in the flesh. And back then, it was such a complete transformation from the scraggly, hairy hole-dweller of that December. Comparing the two became one of Countdown's favorite things then. So, with apologies to "Queer Eye For the Straight Guy," Countdown did this.


OLBERMANN (voice-over): Grooming: Last time we saw him, it was the bad Santa look, the wiry beard, the shaggy dog hair cut that could have double for a lice motel. He was just plain filthy. Since, he's taken at least one bath, and he started exfoliating. He's working out, or they've worked him out. He's gotten rid of the baby fat. His hair is shoosed (ph) and definitely dyed. Not enough on the whiskers, but that close to the face, salt and pepper beard says, so what if I'm getting old, I prefer it to the alternative.

Design, sayonara spider hole. Hello, highly polished defendant's chair. It's comfortable, you can move in it, good armrest for you when you're not flailing around. It's the perfect pedestal from which to get your point across.

Culture, he's dropped the sword, his pistol is now in the White House, so what to do? Grab a ballpoint. Now he who said the pen is mightier than the sword probably was not thinking about international war tribunals, but this was still a smart move. It is a defiant statement: "I'm literate, I'm in control, and at least I still own a pen." Plus you can write down bullet points when the judge isn't looking. Stare daggers at judge.

And that fly, some might call this a nuisance. They're wrong. It amounts to an accessory, one that says, "I'm important. I deserve the attention, even if it is from an insect. " Attracting a crowd is key.

And finally, fashion. The pinstripe suit says, "Yeah, I'm in jail. So what? " No tie, collar unbuttoned, delivering the message, "I'm not a saint, I'm also not guilty, and I'm not be able to hang myself. "

A Menendez sweater might have worked here too, or better yet, a bullet-proof vest in the design of a Menendez sweater. But, this is still a big step up. At least from the burlap sack he got busted in.


If you enjoyed that trip down Countdown memory lane, consider this. As fun as that was, it still didn't make the cut for Countdown's year-end spectacular.

Keith counts down Countdown's favorite things of 2004, once at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, again at midnight this Christmas Eve on MSNBC.

A surprising find in the latest round of government crash tests. A failing grade, big time, has manufacturers of one popular economy car scrambling to make safety changes. And Martha Stewart's Christmas behind bars. The holiday cards still go out. And now news of how she'll spend the holidays think inside Camp Cupcake.

This is Countdown on MSNBC.


JANSING: Crash tests results you won't want to miss if you have a small compact car. Who gets passing grades and who did so poorly, they're heading back to the drawing board?

Stand by.


JANSING: If you're getting get ready for a road trip this holiday, bad traffic, worse weather and safety all probably on your mind, especially if you drive a small car.

Our second story on the Countdown, not all economy cars are created equal. While some small vehicles can be quite safe, new crash test results prove you have to pick the right one.

Carl Quintanilla has the details.


CARL QUINTANILLA, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): They're some of the most inexpensive cars on the road, small, light vehicles that zip through traffic, but also offer less protection, one reason the Insurance Institute For Highway Safety has tested several new small cars priced under $20,000.

Brian O'Neill runs the institute.

BRIAN O'NEILL, PRESIDENT, INSURANCE INSTITUTE FOR HIGHWAY SAFETY: We are mimicking what happens in a real-world two-vehicle crack.

QUINTANILLA: Take the 2004 Mazda 3, a loud crash, but the dummy shows few injuries. It gets the top rating.

O'NEILL: This is as good as you can get.

QUINTANILLA: The 2005 Suzuki Forenza gets an acceptable. But the dummy shows the driver would likely have a broken leg.

O'NEILL: It is better than a lot of cars used to be. It is just not as good as it could be.

QUINTANILLA: Other cars show more serious problem. The 2004 Hyundai Elantra dollars eight tests well only after the company redesigned the air bag system. In earlier tests, it failed to deploy. And others test even worse. The 2004 Saturn ION leaves the driver with a possible concussion and the steering wheel breaks off.

And the 2004 Kia Spectra sustained so much damage, it gets a poor rating, the only vehicle to rate that low in frontal crash tests in the past three years.

O'NEILL: So you're going to be beaten up pretty good if you're in a crash like this in this vehicle.

QUINTANILLA: All these manufacturers say they meet or exceed federal safety standards. And Kia, which got that poor rating, says it has met with the institute to make improvements.

(on camera): The institute also tested out several other small cars, including this one, the Ford Focus. It got a good rating, but consumers should know, while small cars are getting safer overall, they're still no match for those larger cars on the road.

O'NEILL: There's no question that occupants of small cars face greater risks in crashes.

QUINTANILLA (voice-over): Crashes being tested to keep consumers safe and leave the danger to the dummies.

Carl Quintanilla, NBC News, New York.


JANSING: The head-on impact of an imperfect segue brings us to our nightly roundup of celebrity and entertainment news that we call "Keeping Tabs."

And where would "Keeping Tabs" be without Martha Stewart? And where, we ask you, would Martha Stewart be without Christmas? The domestic diva isn't letting a little thing like the big house stand between her and the holidays. She's even expecting guests. "Star" magazine reports that Martha's daughter Alexis and some close friends plan to visit Camp Cupcake.

And our own Jeannette Walls says that Martha has sent out some Christmas cards. Makes sense to us. Lots of time on her hands. No waiting at the post office. If you want to send Martha a fruitcake, make sure you bake one without a nail file in it.

Kirstie Alley probably will be laying off the fruit cake this year. America's favorite fat actress has a new gig. The former "Cheers" star will be starring in an ad campaign for Jenny Craig. It is a trade-up for the Jenny Craig folks, because, once upon a time, Monica Lewinsky had the job.

And, no, we are not being insensitive about the fat actress remark. It also happens to be the name of Alley's new sitcom. Jared, the Subway sandwich guy, is said to be taking Jenny Craig announcement badly. Now, you laugh now, but Alley certainly made America forget about Shelley Long in a hurry.

"Keeping Tabs" certainly wouldn't be the same without Michael Jackson. And today, we learned we're going to be seeing a whole lot more of him in the new year. A California judge has denied a bid made by Jackson's lawyers to throw out the child molestation case against him, or at least delay the trial by several months.

The judge says the trial will start on January 31, as scheduled.

Break out that new 2005 calendar. Mark the date.

No wait necessary for the Robert Blake murder case. The actor, charged with murdering his wife, went on trial today. Prosecutors told the jury Blake shot his wife after two Hollywood stuntmen refused to do it for him. Blake's lawyer attacked the prosecution's credibility by calling them hallucinating drug abusers - jurisprudence at its finest.

A message to remember, the reason for the season. And think charitably before going overboard on presents. Who better to help keep that in perspective than stores? Cashing in on charity is next.


JANSING: On Sunday, during his weekly radio address from a window at Saint Peter's Square, Pope John Paul II urged Christians to avoid getting caught up in the materialism of the Christmas season. Heeding the call already, American retailers, this year urging shoppers to give the gift of compassion, a charitable donation, while they're buying holiday gifts, of course.

Our No. 1 story tonight, charity for sale.

Countdown's Monica Novotny joins us now with more.

Monica, good evening.


The idea is not a new one. For years, many retailers have taken part in charitable giving, especially during the holiday season. But this year, gestures of goodwill are more popular than ever. And retails are all over the trend, offering shoppers convenient ways to support charities, though sometimes the causes are rather unusual.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You can either buy the whole goat and maybe share it.

NOVOTNY (voice-over): This year, even goats are on the gift list, because now more than ever 'tis the season to give and give back. The latest feel-good holiday trend among retailers, encouraging you to buy and make charitable donations all at the same time.

RICHARD PERL, ABC HOME & PLANET FOUNDATION: Our customers, when they're being generous with loved ones, can give back to the world, whether it's a rain forest or a blind person needing an eye operation.

NOVOTNY: Here at New York City's ABC Carpet & Home Store, among their holiday gifts, the mission market, an in-store online boutique offering 14 different charities from which to choose. So, first, pick the perfect gift for mom. Then buy a water Buffalo for a Cambodian farmer.


NOVOTNY: And if you like, slip that good deed into someone's stocking.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Some people have everything, quite honestly, and so why not make this a gift to the person who has everything?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It just presents a great option for people who want to give and make a contribution.

NOVOTNY (on camera): Analysts say the trend of retailers using charitable giving as a marketing tool has more than tripled in the last few years.

MARSHAL COHEN, NPD GROUP: One of the secrets to success about connecting with consumers is finding the piece that will bring the consumer back over and over and over again. And they're absolutely utilizing the charitable connection.

NOVOTNY: Retail analyst Marshal Cohen says merchants are always looking for different ways to attract shoppers.

COHEN: Consumers today are telling us they're really feeling like they've gotten to a point where it's almost more important to show the world that you care more than what you've obtained.

NOVOTNY: But why all the goodwill this year? The answer could be these, Lance Armstrong's hip and hard-to-find yellow bracelets selling online and in retail outlets for $1 a piece, with proceeds going to his cancer foundation. The tag line, "live strong," encouraging people to give strong. And, so far, they have, $29 million worth.

But, as retailers offer up more charitable options, will shoppers who spend big on charity spend less in the store?

PERL: We know that is a risk and we hope that then, later, during the year, they'll come buy a couch from us because they recognize our commitment.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That they back some of these different types of charity operations makes you feel better about your shopping experience.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's just something that, really, everybody should do every once in awhile.


NOVOTNY: Retailers earn nearly one quarter of their annual sales this time of year. The question now is, of course, how much of that might translate into actual donations this holiday season?

JANSING: Yes, not to question the altruism of these stores, but if you happen to then feel better about the store and then go back and buy a sweater or shoes, they're not going to be unhappy about that either.

NOVOTNY: Exactly.

But it's interesting because we asked the shoppers what they felt about that. And it was really a mixed bag. Some said, oh, definitely, we really like knowing that the people behind the store have these values. Another woman just said, you know what? This was a great experience. I liked giving back, but I really don't care. It doesn't change how I feel about the store itself. So...

JANSING: Monica Novotny, thanks. Happy holidays to you and yours.

And that's Countdown. Thanks for being a part of it. I'm Chris Jansing. Good night and good luck.