'Countdown with Keith Olbermann' for Jan. 3
Guest: Barry Neild, Keith Richburg, Maura Harty, Jonathan Turley, Mo Rocca
KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST (voice-over): Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?
The increases in the death toll. And the newly seen images. They never stop coming.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That wave is a good 15, 20 feet tall, easy.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, my God.
OLBERMANN: Two billion dollars pledged in relief worldwide. Still, tens of thousands remain on their own, far away from relief.
This country puts faces to the effort. The two most famous recent presidents.
But how many American are missing? Could the fatality list actually exceed that of 9/11? Full coverage of the Christmas tsunami.
And of the surprising explanation for the rash of lasers pointed at pilots in mid flight.
And of the preparations for the inauguration. Will the second term survive - Kid Rock? And the special vice-presidential souvenir calendar? Mo Rocca joins us.
All that and more now on Countdown.
OLBERMANN: Good evening.
Each day the numbers have seemed implausible. Each day, the numbers have proved to have been merely the tip of the iceberg.
One hundred and forty-four thousand nine hundred and seventy confirmed dead in the Christmas tsunami. But in our No. 5 story on the count down tonight, the emergency relief coordinator for the United Nations suggests that the as yet uncounted death toll, just in Sumatra, may be in the tens of thousands. Last week, an Indonesian ambassador said that the total number of victims in Aceh province could be 400,000.
There is also an aching realization crossing the region, the price of seafood in Sri Lanka has dropped 90 percent. Because the people there are fearful that the fish may have fed on the bodies of people washed out to sea when the tsunami receded.
Live to the region in a moment. First the headlines of the day.
Across that region, rescue efforts are now recovery missions. Sri Lanka, India and Thailand saying they are almost ready to give up on at least 15,000 still unaccounted for. Officials instead are focusing on the grim job of trying to identify thousands of corpses, trying to recover hundreds, perhaps thousands more.
In Thailand, forensic experts even had to exhume 300 bodies that had been incorrectly identified in the rush to bury the dead there.
In India, families continuing to honor the mass with mass funeral pyres along the western and southern beaches. More than 9,000 confirmed dead in India.
And as for the million of survivors still without food or shelter, aid finally beginning to move slowly out of the airports and into the affected areas themselves.
Of the world's most searing natural disasters, this is clearly the most recorded one. As surviving tourists return home, they are bringing with them still more harrowing video taken as the tsunami swept across the Indian Ocean.
Some ran, others just stood and watched as the deadly waves came towards Khao Lak in Thailand. Even the German tourist who videotaped this footage stood his ground until the waves started to churn past military boats in the distance, gathering speed as it hit the beach. Khao Lak was one of the hardest hit areas in Thailand.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Jesus Christ! Look at that! (Expletive) hell. I know. I can see it. There's a wave. It's a good 15, 20 feet tall, easy.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, my God.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Get in! Get in! Get in!
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: We apologize for the inadvertent broadcasting there of an obscenity.
The British family which shot this tape in Phuket, Thailand, was fortunate enough to be on a high floor of the hotel. The waves swept through the complex, carrying debris in its wake.
Meantime, the moment of impact in Malaysia.
Beachgoers swept off their feet by the initial wave soon hurried back into the roiling sea to help the survivors back to shore.
After a slow start, aid is finally reaching survivors living around the Indian Ocean. International donors have already pledged about $2 billion. On Friday, the U.S. upped its pledge to $350 million.
And military aircraft from Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia and the United States now delivering supplies to remote coastal regions. In Indonesia, 2,200 U.S. Marines are also evacuating survivors, but the U.N. is warning that a million people in those areas are still without food and that reaching them is going to take a very long time.
This has been evident since late last week. The brunt of the damage, the brunt of the horror hit Indonesia. More than 94,000 confirmed dead there. Joining me now on the phone from Jakarta, Indonesia, the deputy bureau chief with the new service Agence France Press, Barry Neild.
Thanks for joining us again, sir.
BARRY NEILD, DEPUTY BUREAU CHIEF, AGENCE FRANCE PRESS: Hi. Hi.
OLBERMANN: We spoke 96 hours ago. What are your reporters telling you know about how the relief supplies are getting to the people who need them? Is that happening, finally?
NEILD: It's slowly moving through. There are still major problems. There's been a huge influx of aid and aid workers into Banda Aceh, which is the capital of the most affected area.
And the trouble is getting out of there. There are still problems with trying to get transport. There's no roads to the badly affected areas.
The presence of U.S. helicopters and the helicopters from other air forces from around the world is making a big difference. But the aid is getting through to some people, and people are being brought out by these helicopters. But you know, there's still a lot of areas which are yet - are yet to have aid reach them. And it's still going to be a major problem over the coming weeks.
OLBERMANN: Is there a better handle now on the full extent of the damage in Aceh province? With Banda Aceh, with Meulaboh, and he initial reports of widespread, possibly complete destruction there? Or is that province, are those areas still largely inaccessible, even to ascertain how badly they were hit?
NEILD: Well, I think you're looking at the pictures from the air yourself. And with all these helicopters overhead, it is possible to see, you know, quite a lot of the extent of the damage. And it is enormous. You know, the scale of this thing is completely unprecedented.
And but obviously, just getting on the ground is going to be the most important thing to assess the damage. There's going to be a lot more people out there who were hit by this who I'm sure we won't know about until many weeks ahead.
OLBERMANN: I was just going to ask you on the timing of this, there were even - even U.S. authorities who said that it's going to take a very long time.
Has - has there been any - any indication that there have been
failures to reach survivors in time? We're now talking about eight days
after this event. Is it - is it possible that at this point, the number -
· the large numbers of casualties who simply are casualties because rescue efforts did not reach them in time?
NEILD: I'm sure it's possible, and I'm sure it's something we're going to see over the coming days, as well. But at the moment, it's probably impossible to tell, because so many people have died out there.
The important thing is just getting to those who are still alive, who can run to the helicopters when they arrive. But you know, there's going to be people who are just dying, unable to move. Too feeble, too starving.
OLBERMANN: Are there estimates yet? Are there - is there guesswork? Again, we'd go back to Banda Aceh and Meulaboh and the surrounding areas and those horrible pictures where it looks like the place has been totally abandoned. Is there any maximum figure yet bandied about as to how high the casualty figures might go in Indonesia?
NEILD: Well, the official figure is just short of 100,000 at the moment. We've heard speculation that it's up to 400,000. The official figures are definitely conservative.
I mean, just over a week ago, actually, there was a forgotten province on a forgotten island that had its own, you know, forgotten civil war. Today, the whole world is focused on trying to help this place. You know, it's an unbelievable situation. And I think anything could happen there.
OLBERMANN: Barry Neild of Agence France Press, in Jakarta, Indiana Indonesia. Great thanks once more for joining us again tonight.
NEILD: No problem. Thank you.
OLBERMANN: Now to Phuket, Thailand, where the "Washington Post" reporter Keith Richburg is standing by for us.
Mr. Richburg, thank you for your time tonight. Tell us what it's like on the ground right now there?
KEITH RICHBURG, "WASHINGTON POST": You know, Phuket is a very large island, in fact. And the beach side, beach and Kamala Beach (ph) on the main Phuket Island, is completely devastated.
They're just now starting to see some clean-up. You're starting to see people coming in to try and look at their shops, hotels, storefronts, et cetera.
The surreal thing part about it is people about a mile inland from the beach area, life is actually getting somewhat back to normal. Tourists are actually coming in and going into some of the hotels that weren't damaged.
As you drive further up the coast, as I did just a few hours ago, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) I went to a Khao Lak, which was completely devastated. And that's where most of the thousands of Swedes who were there as tourists appeared to be missing from. And you can see why.
You see flattened bungalows, flattened hotels and also there's a small town there, a small Thai fishing village that I visited, called Ban Nam Kim (ph), which is completely devastated. Not a single house left standing. And that was not a tourist area. That was a Thai village. And it appeared to be where one of the greatest loss of Thai life might have been.
OLBERMANN: Give us idea here, as we return to that subject of tourism, we showed videotape last Thursday of many of those coastal resorts reopening and waiters bringing people drinks and westerners getting their tans and all the rest of this.
To what degree, actually, is Thailand's economy based on tourism? It's been a matter of some debate back here whether or not the idea of people sunning themselves is - is tasteless or absolutely necessary to the recovery of those communities. Which one do you think it is?
RICHBURG: It really is absolutely necessary on one degree. And as I said, the viewers must keep in mind that, you know, Thailand has got a west coast and an east coast. The west coast is where the tsunami hit. And that was completely hammered.
The east coast, places like Kosa Muri (ph), a popular destination was, it was untouched. And nothing happened there.
So what the Thai government has done was, for some of the people who were - maybe lost their hotel rooms out of the tsunami but were not really injured or affected, they offered to move them over to the other side of the beach.
Tourist dollars are important. Not just for the Thai economy but you know, in the macro sense, but on the micro sense. People in these parts of southern Thailand really make their living off of tourism. They sell things. They work in shops. They work in bars and they work in small hotels. You know, this entire part of the country would die without tourism.
And the Thai prime minister has said he wants things up and running again in a couple of weeks, if possible. (UNINTELLIGIBLE)
OLBERMANN: Obviously - obviously, we can't really hear Keith Richburg of the "Washington Post," who did fill in for us here from Phuket, Thailand, with the latest in that situation. Our great thanks to him before the cell phone disconnected there.
Elsewhere, Sri Lanka. That nation may soon see America's secretary of state and the governor of Florida, as well. Early this morning, Colin Powell and Jeb Bush arrived in Thailand, along with an international team of experts to assess the damage. They may also visit Sri Lanka before traveling to an international summit on the tsunami in Jakarta and Indonesia this Thursday.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist will follow Secretary Powell and Governor Bush tomorrow, heading first to Sri Lanka and then India. In an interview on the "Today" show, Frist, who is of course, also a physician, a surgeon, in fact, said he wants to assess the situation on the ground for himself and see how relief agencies are spending America's $350 million aid package.
And two more high profile figures have now been tapped by the administration to help with the relief of the tsunami disaster. President Bush today naming his two direct predecessors as the leaders of a nation wide fund raising effort.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In the coming days, President Clinton and Bush will ask Americans to donate directly to reliable charities already providing help to tsunami victims.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: And our nightly reminder, if you have been moved to donate to the relief fund, the number at the American Red Cross remains 1-800-HELP-NOW. Or you can log on to Countdown.MSNBC.com for a complete list of the aid agencies and phone numbers.
Could more American have perished in the Christmas tsunami than did on September 11? The State Department trying to track down 5,000 reports of missing U.S. Citizens.
Also tonight, it's back to Capitol Hill for Senator Kerry after his close election defeat. We'll have his first tape, perhaps his first one, on why his campaign fell short.
You're watching Countdown on MSNBC.
OLBERMANN: The only rough number of Americans missing in the Christmas tsunami was revealed last week and never referred to again. About 2,000.
Today, the State Department confirmed that it is still investigating 5,000 inquiries about missing American, but some of them, they say, may be duplicates.
Our No. 1 story in the Countdown, not to get provincial at a time when 150,000 are known dead and the total may be exponentially higher, but were more Americans killed on December 26 than were on 9/11?
Arriving in Bangkok, Thailand, Secretary of State Powell today said that 15 U.S. citizens have been confirmed dead and 4,000 to 5,000 were still unaccounted for.
"It means that people have called into our call centers and said, 'I don't know where my son, my daughter, my husband is'," the secretary explained. "They were there somewhere and we don't know where they are."
Back in Washington, a State Department spokesman said the total number of inquiries had reached 20,000. These remaining 5,000 were the ones they had not been able to nail down yet.
As Secretary Powell added, "They may make contact with their family, but the family doesn't notify us right away. And we have been grinding this number down at a rate of several hundred a day."
Whether the missing have died, will ultimately be found or will remain unaccounted for haunts families now in many similar ways that those questions haunted families and even strangers in the days after 9/11.
The missing posters. As we observed last week, that which symbolized 9/11, the incongruously smiling faces of people lost at the World Trade Center, were reprised on the walls of airports and public places around the region, especially in Thailand.
The missing - 9/11 list of missing peaked at nearly 7,000. Cross-checked against hospital lists and for duplications, it was eventually reduced to 3,016. That number, including victims in New York, at the Pentagon, and aboard all four of the aircraft.
But the missing of September 11 were confined to three relatively small geographic points. A few square blocks of downtown Manhattan, a corner of the Pentagon, a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
The missing, American and otherwise, of the tsunami are spread out over 11 different countries. On the other hand, it is useful to remember that in the days immediately after the World Trade Center attacks, a New York City newspaper calculated there had to be at least 10,000 dead there.
Maura Harty is the assistant secretary of state for consular affairs. She has considerable experience searching for Americans lost abroad, going back to Grenada in 1983, as these videotaped images show. And in the 1990's in the effort to recover American children taken in international abduction cases.
She spoke with us this afternoon in Washington.
MAURA HARTY, ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE, CONSULAR AFFAIRS: Well, we are dealing with approximately 5,000 now. What we're doing with each of those is asking - we're calling them back of those callers. Have you heard about your loved one?
If, in fact, we are lucky enough to get the person themselves on the phone, are they aware, can they tell us of who they might have traveled out of country and back to the United States with?
We have people here working around the clock since last Sunday a week ago. We have people in all of the affected areas. All of our embassies rolled up their sleeves.
They are not accounted for but neither does that mean they were in the area. We've just recently gotten some information from Thai immigration authorities. We have also made a request to the Sri Lanka immigration authorities. We will take those lists of who they know came into their country, and we will compare them to people who - about whom we have an inquiry.
That's painstaking, because frankly, there may be transliterations, misspellings of names. It's not going to be an exact one to one match. But we hope to be able to glean some information from that.
We have consular officers and other embassy officers in each of the affected areas, going to hospitals, to hotels, searching records every different way they can and searching everywhere they can so that we can start winnowing down this number.
I'd like to ask the people watching this broadcast to also participate in that effort. If someone watching knows that they have called our call center to ask about a loved one and has now knowledge that that loved one is safe, I'd like to ask that they call us again. That number is 1-888-407-4747.
If you've called this once, so we have an open record, and you now know that that person is safe, it would be a tremendous service to us to let us know that so that we can devote our efforts to those about whom we don't have such information yet.
It bears reminding that to date, we have 15 confirmed American citizens dead. Do I think that number will go up? Yes. Do I know how far? No.
OLBERMANN: That State Department number again, 888-407-4747. The U.S. assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, Maura Harty.
Also tonight, in Washington, the new Congress ready to go to work tomorrow. In advance of that, survival tips for the freshman class on how to use their new positions to make a nice living.
And up next, did you remember to lock the rooster in the barn? It's kind of cold. It's almost "Oddball" time. Stand by.
OLBERMANN: We're back, and we pause our Countdown for our nightly segment in which there is no bad news, only strange news. Let's play "Oddball."
2005 is the Chinese year of the rooster. So naturally, we begin in downtown Vilnius, Lithuania, to celebrate with the construction of a giant ice rooster in the town's center.
Said to represent the diligent and the hard working, the rooster stands over 15 feet tall. It was made with more than a ton of Lithuanian ice, which is made by freezing Lithuanian water, in case you've been familiar with the process.
The Chinese new year begins February 9. By which time, the elders of Vilnius will have explained to their people why the hell they're all celebrating Chinese New Year in Lithuania.
Speaking of ice, the people are Unicoi County, Tennessee, are hoping they don't get much more this year. Because you see, these are the town's three salt trucks. The only vehicles it had to make icy roads passable. Last week, all three were totaled in the same accident on an icy road.
None of the drivers injured.
Local construction companies have pledged to help out until the fleet is replaced with new trucks. Those new ones, of course, will not be leaving that garage until somebody salts the stinking roads!
Finally, to Washington, where the mural on the side of a barbecue restaurant featuring naked pigs has sparked outrage in the community. Five pink pantsless piggies.
It's an image so obscene the owners of The BBQ Shack say city officials denied them a permit to operate unless they covered up the offending pig parts. They said the town review board told them that naked pigs could lead to naked people. Or naked porpoises or porcupines, whatever.
So the restaurant has covered the mural with a white tarp until the appeal is heard. Meantime, Porky Pig had no comment other than to say his pants had been missing since 1935.
From pigs without pants to a candidate without a victory party. Wow! Is that a rough segue? John Kerry on his own assessment on what went wrong to his trek to the White House.
And the party planning full speed ahead for the president's second inauguration. But the early details already have many of us scratching our heads.
Those stories ahead. Now here are Countdown's top three newsmakers.
Chris Portman, the mayor of Mercer, Pennsylvania, who has suddenly resigned three years into his four-year term in order to pursue business opportunities elsewhere.
Nineteen years old when elected, he was one of the country's youngest mayors. He's 22 now. As he left Mercer, PA, passersby swore they heard him muttering something about "Logan's Run."
No. 2, Artie Moreno, owner of baseball's Anaheim Angels who was threatened with a lawsuit if he went through with plans to change the team's name by dropping the reference to Anaheim. Moreno today renamed the squad, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, thus disproving the theory that you can't be in two places at once.
And No. 1, the Los Angeles city council. The second district court of appeals has ruled that the members there have to pay attention during meetings. This after a strip club owner videotaped a council meeting from June 2003, during which members wandered around, read their mail, or made cell phones during the meeting.
They court also ordered the group to change its name to the Los Angeles City Council of Anaheim.
OLBERMANN: On Thursday of this week, there will be a fair chance that a member of the U.S. Senate will co-sign what will be at least a symbolic challenge to the electoral votes from the state of Ohio. So says Congressman John Conyers of Michigan, who has himself declared he will sign the challenge on the House side.
In the interim, there's been a John Kerry sighting. Our No. 3 story on the Countdown, the first post-election Kerry interview from November 11 has been published by "Newsweek" magazine. Kerry asked that the magazine limit its actual quotations of him. But he did say - quote - "I'm not going to lick my wounds or hide under a rock or disappear. I'm going to learn. I've had disappointments and I've learned to cope. I've lost friends, a marriage. I've lost things in life."
"Newsweek" said Kerry attributed his defeat to a failure to erase the Bush campaign's portrayal of him as a flip-flopper, the fact that no president has ever failed to be reelected during wartime, his own inability to connect with enough voters on a personal level, rather than sounding, in his own term, political.
As the new session Congress looms, two of its most extraordinary members ever have passed away. Shirley Chisholm died near Daytona Beach, Florida, on Saturday. She was the first African-American woman ever elected to the House from the 12th District in New York City in 1968. A year later, she was one of the founders of the Congressional Black Caucus.
And, in 1972, she ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, earning 151 votes at the party's national convention. Later that year, when Governor George Wallace of Alabama was shot and paralyzed, Congresswoman Chisholm visited him in the hospital. She left Congress in 1982 to teach at Mount Holyoke College. Shirley Chisholm died, cause not announced, at the age of 80.
Congressman Bob Matsui, meanwhile, was the first of the interned Japanese Americans from the Second World War to gain a seat in the House. He died suddenly on Saturday of pneumonia, a disease his body could not fight off because of a rare blood disorder. He first gained that House seat while vice mayor of Sacramento, California, in 1978, was successfully reelected 13 times, the last, obviously, this past November.
As chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he had overseen the raising of a record-breaking $91.5 million over the last two years. He was also behind the 1988 legislation that provided a presidential apology and payments of $20,000 to Japanese Americans who, like himself at the age of 1, had been interned during World War II. Congressman Robert Matsui of California was 63 years old.
That's the same age Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert has reached. He was considering retiring. So reports "The New York Times." But not anymore. The paper says that President Bush, aware of rumblings that the Illinois Republican would not seek reelection in 2006, took the occasion of an Oval Office meeting about the intelligence bill last month to tell him personally: "I hope you're going to run again. We need you" - the quotes courtesy of White House Chief of Staff Andy Card.
Hastert will be sworn in for his fourth term as speaker tomorrow, as will, for the first time, no fewer than 38 brand new representatives and nine more neophyte senators. The congressmen got to meet the president today. And, if they didn't know already, they just found out. They're making $162,000 a year. That may sound like a lot. And you may also wonder how many of them are ever worth that much.
But $162,000 a year is roughly worth equipment to the average players salary in American Major League soccer. So, how is a congressman or a senator supposed to make a dollar? You would be surprised.
Our friend professor Jonathan Turley of the law school at George Washington University has written an article for "USA Today" answering that very question. And he joins us now.
Jonathan, good evening.
JONATHAN TURLEY, CONSTITUTIONAL ATTORNEY: Good evening.
OLBERMANN: So, let's preface your four simple rules for profiting from one's stay in the House or the Senate. Is this bipartisan or are these legal wallet padding opportunities available to Democrats, Republicans and independent alike?
TURLEY: Oh, it is available to all. And there's many that are taking advantage of it. The Democrats and Republicans are equally to blame for the rising level of corruption. They wrote their own ethics rules. And that's pretty clear, because there are loopholes you could drive a semi truck through.
OLBERMANN: All right. Let's start driving those semis. Let's start with - your first rule is invest.
Well, the interesting thing is that the rules seem to restrict, for example, for House members how much money you can get in outside income. But there is a small exemption that exempts investment money, which means that members of Congress routinely invest, buy stocks in areas where they're legislating. One study that randomly took a large number of members found that 75 percent of them had stock transactions in areas they were legislating.
And, not surprisingly, another study showed that Senate members are beating the market by 12 points. And that's not too surprising when you know whether legislation will pass. And that affects the market.
OLBERMANN: It's a great country.
The second rule, profit-take before you legislate? It sounds a little Jesse Jacksonesque there in the rhyme. But what exactly does it mean?
TURLEY: Well, it is actually a variation of the first rule, that another way to do this is to give a lobbyist or a business interest a windfall in a government contract or bill. They turn around and give you a windfall deal.
Senator Stevens from Alaska is the ultimate example of rags to riches. He came to the Senate with modest means and then had one of these Scarlett O'Hara moments, that, I'll never be hungry again. And he got a deal where he invested $50,000 with one lobbyist. And it made him as much as $1.5 million. And the deal, he wasn't even subject to any debts or losses. In return, that guy, that lobbyist got a contract with the Air Force for $450 million that was muscled through by Senator Stevens.
OLBERMANN: The third rule on the list for congressional side income, family first. Explain family first.
TURLEY: Well, another good way to do this is, if a lobbyist comes and offers you $300,000 a year to do their bidding, you have to say, I'm shocked, shocked that you should offer me this money.
But if they come in and give your unemployable son that money, as a lobbyist, you can embrace them warmly and say thank you for recognizing the merits of my boy. And that happens a lot. If you go on K Street, you can throw a stick and hit 20 family member who have high-paying lobbyist jobs. Outgoing Minority Leader Tom Daschle had a whole family that was lobbyists, children, wife.
Incoming minority leader, Senator Reid, also has a lobbyist wife.
OLBERMANN: Seventy-three percent in history, 73 percent of all American politicians have had unemployable sons. So that's a particularly useful one.
OLBERMANN: But this last one that you mention, education, it contains the recommendation that not all education has to come from inside a college classroom. Is that right?
TURLEY: Well, this is the type of education I just can't offer to my students, frankly.
These members are not allowed to accept trip from lobbyists as just brides. But if they fashion the trip as educational, to speak at a conference, well, then they can pretty much write their own ticket. Two members wanted to - quote - "learn more about" the Yucca nuclear area in Nevada, which is in the desert, and they did that by having a lobbyist send them to Barcelona and Seville with their spouses.
OLBERMANN: So, when you read tomorrow that the House went for the tougher ethics standards tonight in their meetings, tougher is a relative term.
Jonathan Turley, professor of the law school at George Washington University, as always, sir, great thanks for your time.
TURLEY: Thanks, Keith.
OLBERMANN: The politics of democracy, of course, are just beginning to grow in Iraq. And, for months there, that process has been deadly. It remains so tonight. Just one day after more than 30 people were killed, the bloody campaign to sabotage the elections there, took at least 16 more lives in three different suicide car bombs today, including one near the party headquarters of the interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi.
Iraqi National Guardsmen and police officers were victims in all three of today's attacks. At least one Iraqi official believe now, the vote could be delayed, though not because of the violence, the interim defense minister saying it could be postponed in order to increase turnout among Sunni voters. But a spokesman for the Iraqi Election Commission ruled that claim - that the claim is inaccurate, saying that the elections will be held as scheduled on the 30th.
Also tonight, huge news on the horizon for everyone who flies, Saturday stay-overs, 47 different prices per flight, one major airline about to eliminate all that. And speaking of 47 different prices, there's Anna Nicole Smith. Her finances closed sharply lower today in relatively active trading.
Those stories ahead. Now here are Countdown's top three sound bites of this day.
WILLIAM J. CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I like and admire this man. I always have. When we had our differences, I did. And I came here in good spirits to show that I have forgiven him for showing me up at my own library dedication and giving the best speech of the day.
GEORGE H.W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I haven't forgiven him for beating me.
G.H.W. BUSH: That's all right.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Rolando's (ph) the guy on the left side. And that's Matt (ph). Matt is just happy to be there, see. He says, oh, he messed the whole thing up.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Here, take this.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Boom.
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The vice president and I share something else in common with you, besides having run together in 2004, is that we've all run for the Congress. I'm the only one who never won.
OLBERMANN: Lasers and cockpits, a dangerous combination, now the FBI weighing in on pilot complaints and listening to consumer complaints. New ticket rules that could come to an airport near you.
OLBERMANN: Nobody was sure what they were, but air professionals were sure what they weren't. The high-power professional-grade laser beams directed into the cockpits of eight craft in the last 10 days were not mischief, nor accidents caused by people playing around with laser pointers they got for Christmas.
Our No. 2 story on the Countdown, oh, yes, they were. So says the FBI. Cases of commercial jetliners and smaller craft being painted with lasers and the potential to blind or otherwise damage the eyesight of the pilots were reported in Ohio, Texas, Oregon and New Jersey. In November, Homeland Security had theorized that terrorists might try just such a tack to cause airplanes to crash.
But when a second event took place Friday night near Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, the bureau got its first clue. The police helicopter investigating that first incident was hit by a laser beam coming from a residential neighborhood. The bureau located the home from which the beam emanated and found a man who admitted that he and his daughter had been playing with a new laser pointer by aiming it into the night sky. They said they saw the police chopper, but never dreamed for a moment that the laser pointer was powerful enough to be seen by it, let alone reach it.
Between laser pointers and the unexpected no-frills carrier, frills having been redefined as not canceling most of your flights, nor losing most of your luggage, this would be the last time at which you would expect to see a war break out over air fares.
Yet, as our correspondent Tom Costello reports, it is the wacky world of U.S. aviation and so let the price slashing begin by the airline whose subsidiary, Comair, by the way, canceled all 1,100 of its flights on Christmas.
TOM COSTELLO, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It could be just the thing to lure back travelers tired of high fares and those inflexible travel rules, the nation's third biggest airline considering a radical pricing change, one that could force other airlines to follow suit.
TERRY TRIPPLER, AIRLINE ANALYST: This is what we've been waiting for, for a long time, to get rid of some of these antiquated rules and restrictions that come with fares that people just don't understand.
COSTELLO: The plan under consideration, make Delta more like a low-cost carrier, while maintaining the size and scope of a traditional airline. Gone would be complicated ticketing rules, like the required Saturday night stays, ticket change fees cut in half, and air fares simplified.
While Delta declined to comment, travelers who had switched to lost-cost carriers were eager for a change.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's about time they got competitive. They're well overdue.
COSTELLO (on camera): Delta has to do something. It has lost $6 billion over the last three years. Delta pilots recently gave up 32 percent of their pay to help the airline avoid bankruptcy. Now the entire industry enters the slowest period of the year for air travel.
(voice-over): Airline analyst Susan Donofrio says Delta has to act decisively.
SUSAN DONOFRIO, AIRLINE ANALYST: I think certainly time is of the essence with respect to changing your business model to be successful.
COSTELLO: The entire airline industry is on the brink. One reason, jet fuel, now 41 percent more expensive than just a year ago, while business fares on average down 8 percent and leisure fares flat. Canceled flights and lost luggage over the holidays symptomatic of much bigger problems.
U.S. Airways, in bankruptcy, could be liquidated this month. United, ATA, Hawaiian and Aloha airlines are also in bankruptcy. Delta has already test-marketed its new policies in Cincinnati, where it simplified its pricing from 40 fares down to six. Now perhaps a national rollout, putting pressure on competitors.
DONOFRIO: We are going to be seeing other airlines have to respond in order to be competitive.
COSTELLO: The question is whether other airlines can survive such a radical challenge from one of America's oldest carriers.
Tom Costello, NBC News, Washington.
OLBERMANN: Transitioning to the entertaining stories of "Keeping Tabs" tonight with two stories of Hollywood actresses giving away huge sums of money, one of them even doing so willingly.
The American Red Cross has announced that Sandra Bullock has donated $1 million to the organization's tsunami relief campaign, the Red Cross saying the star of "Speed" and "While You Were Sleeping" contacted its representatives last week to make the gift, her second. She donated the same amount to the Red Cross after 9/11.
The other actress story in a moment. First, a brief plug for something NBC announced today we are doing, airing a live telethon for tsunami relief a week from Saturday, the 15th, at 8:00 p.m., not just on the broadcast network, but also on MSNBC, CNBC, USA, Bravo Network, Trio and the Sci-Fi Channel.
Sci-fi, a fitting segue in the story of Anna Nicole Smith, whose next diet may be predicated on poverty. Attorneys for the ex-model and ex-wife of octogenarian oil man the late J. Howard Marshall say they will appeal a federal appeals court decision to reverse the ruling that she is not entitled to $88.5 million from her late hubby's estate. That was the ruling by a three-judge panel in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Texas.
It said a probate court in that state had full jurisdiction when it ruled that Marshall's son and not Ms. Smith was the late businessman's sole heir. She will appeal, trying to get that $88.5 million back - in ones, this according to her attorney, a man whose name inspires confidence when you talk about exotic dancers who married oil men 60 years their elders, an attorney named Howard K. Stern.
Also tonight, inaugurals and rappers, souvenir Dick Cheney calenders?
Inauguration kitsch and our special interpreter thereof, Mo Rocca.
OLBERMANN: Kid Rock, Kelsey Grammer, Gloria Estefan country singer John Michael Montgomery and teenager singer JoJo and a calender with 11 months of the vice president, Mr. Cheney, and one month of his dog.
Our No. 1 story on the Countdown, the Countdown to the inauguration. Those five performers and that one calender headlining some of the excess usually reserved for a catch-all kind of Christmas TV show or perhaps some college football bowl game's halftime salute to something.
In a moment, the thoughts of presidential historian and TV personality Mo Rocca. First, that calender, a limited edition distributed to the inaugural committee members showing the vice president walking with Mr. Bush, fishing, riding a horse, giving speeches, and - writer's embellishment here - proving that there are no bugs on him, paying homage to every other calender on the market. Hang in there. And, of course, whispering not-so-sweet nothings to Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont.
December will be a picture of the vice president's faithful dog, a Labrador retriever. Yo, dog. That's how a rapper like Kid Rock gets into the inaugural mix. Planning for the inauguration, we're promised, began on a bipartisan basis long before the election nine weeks ago tomorrow.
Rock and the teenaged Britney Spears clone, Ms. JoJo, will appear along with the Bush daughters at a youth concert. It was the Kid who said at a party during the Republican Convention that he'd never get caught having sex in the Oval Office were he president because he'd just install cameras in the Lincoln Bedroom. Your tax dollars in action.
More traditional celebrations are scheduled at the MCI Center on the night of the 18th. That will be the military tribute emceed by Kelsey Grammer, featuring Estefan and Montgomery. All celebrations are still as scheduled, despite the Indian Ocean tragedies and despite the fact that organizers have thus far raised only $15 million out of the $40 million they were expected to harvest.
Whenever presidencies and entertainment collide, only one man can provide us with the necessary road map and protective head gear, the one and only television personality Mo Rocca.
Mo, good evening. Happy new year.
MO ROCCA, TELEVISION PERSONALITY: Good evening. How are you doing?
OLBERMANN: Not bad.
But I'm confused by this. But perhaps as the author of "All the Presidents' Pets," you can explain this to me. Do you think there's going to be a stink over the proportion of months in that calender devoted to the vice president and to his dog? It's 11-1.
ROCCA: Well, December isn't the only month with an animal in the calender. As Mr. August, Dick Cheney has posed with a giant snake intertwined gracefully around his naked-prone body. He actually looked quite waifish, almost like jail bait, a whole different side. Richard Avedon would be impressed.
ROCCA: I think that the sale of the calender, including the naked snake pinup, is a way to generate money to pay for the deficit of this inauguration and for 60 additional million dollars for the inauguration of Jeb Bush as president in 2009.
OLBERMANN: Ah, planning ahead.
This year's inauguration events, the youth concert. Kid Rock plus the Bush twins equals what, an international diplomatic crisis?
ROCCA: Well, look, Kid Rock has proven his Republican credentials. I heard you earlier invoke Kid Rock's comment about having sex in the Lincoln Bedroom. Lincoln, of course, was a great Republican.
But Kid Rock also paid tribute to Dennis Hastert during the Republican National Convention with a tribute concert. Hastert is a former wrestling coach. And I'll point out that, among Kid Rock's hits, are included the songs "Drunk in the Morning," "Early Mornin' Stoned Pimp," and the classic - and I'm reading this here - "Balls in Your Mouth," which I'm assuming is a wrestling move.
ROCCA: I'm assuming.
OLBERMANN: Moving quickly on.
OLBERMANN: In about 30 seconds, these performers, JoJo, Gloria Estefan, Kid Rock, Kelsey Grammer, this is A-list as long as we're still in 1999. What happened to getting stars to perform at the inaugural galas?
ROCCA: Well, I think they wanted to go with 1999, but the stars of "Nash Bridges" were unavailable for this.
Look, who were the Republicans going to get? Bo Derek doesn't sing and Shirley Temple Black is about 70 years past her prime. This is probably the best they can do. And all the big stars, of course, are Democrats, Bruce Springsteen, Barbra Streisand, Sheryl Crow. They were set to perform. They thought Kerry would win. Now they're going to perform at the inauguration of Viktor Yushchenko.
OLBERMANN: And they had the open weekend.
OLBERMANN: Television personality and author of "All the Presidents' Pets," Mo Rocca.
As always, Mo, great thanks for your time.
ROCCA: Thank you.
OLBERMANN: That's Countdown. Thanks for being part of it, a memorable edition indeed.
Just put that anywhere.
OLBERMANN: I'm Keith Olbermann. Good night and good luck.
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