'Countdown with Keith Olbermann' for May 31
Guest: John Dean, Jim VandeHei
KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST: The mystery of Deep Throat. Not just the journalistic enigma of the last 100 years, but the ethical enigma as well. Who could contribute covertly to the fall of a corrupt presidency, and then for 30 years deny he had anything to do with it? Whose emotions would be so mixed, whose motives would be so opaque?
Who would it finally prove to be?
With simple words to his own family, today the mystery ended. Find the guy they call Deep Throat.
This 91-year-old lawyer reveals himself as journalism's most elusive source in an article quoting his relatives in "Vanity Fair." He admits he was the one who guided reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein through the maze that was Watergate.
We'll be joined here by former Nixon White House counsel John Dean, who has pursued the source's identity for more than three decades, and former Nixon speechwriter, Pat Buchanan.
This is Countdown's coverage of the unmasking of Deep Throat.
Good evening from New York.
"I would have done better," he said in his last public denial that he was the anonymous Watergate source known to history as Deep Throat. "I would have been more effective," he insisted. "Deep Throat didn't exactly bring the White House crashing down, did he?"
The mystery of the man's motives, his attitude towards himself, and what it tonight proves he did are all perhaps explained by those quotes to the "Hartford Courant" newspaper in 1999, plus a statement he made to his own grandson that he didn't think being Deep Throat, quote, "was anything to be proud of."
It was a mixture of loathing that he did it all and loathing that he didn't do more.
Our fifth story on the Countdown tonight, on this date in 1972, the world-turning political scandal called Watergate was still 17 days in the future. On this date in 2005, the man who did as much as any other to make the scandal public and permanent has identified himself.
He is the former deputy associate director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, W. Mark Felt.
Reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, whose Watergate coverage kept what had seemed like a tiny political contained scandal alive inside the pages of "The Washington Post," always insisted they would keep their source's identity anonymous until he died, or until he relieved them of their burden of secrecy.
Then came the shocking story in the magazine "Vanity Fair," to which Bernstein is a contributing editor, but evidently was not involved in the magazine's revelations in this case.
Felt, the former number two man at the FBI, kept his identity as Woodward's famous subterranean parking-garage friend a secret, even from his own family, until 2002, the magazine reported.
But that has changed. His grandson, Nick Jones, confirmed what Felt had said and how the family had convinced him to let them go public. "The family believes that my grandfather, Mark Felt, Sr., is a great American hero," he said, "who went well above and beyond the call of duty at much risk to himself to save his country from a horrible injustice."
But after the story broke late this morning, Woodward, Bernstein, and "The Post" for hours said nothing. The reporters insisted they would stick to their original promise, they would not give up their source until his death, or until he authorized them to say something.
By shortly before 5:30 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time tonight, he had evidently authorized them to say something. On its Web site, their former paper ran this story that began, quote, "'The Washington Post' today confirmed that W. Mark Felt, a former number two official at the FBI, was Deep Throat."
Tonight, Woodward and Bernstein went to Woodward's home in the Georgetown section of Washington, and one was heard to exclaim to reporters, "We are in for the night. We have work to do."
So, for those who have sought Deep Throat, for the first time in our lives, instead of discussing theories and investigations, we can discuss the identity of the secret source.
Nixon White House counsel John Dean joins me now from Los Angeles.
As always, sir, great thanks for your time.
JOHN DEAN, FORMER NIXON WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL: Thank you, Keith.
OLBERMANN: How surprised were you to hear Mark Felt's name, and today?
DEAN: Well, I was surprised because I've always had him out of the loop, so to speak. He doesn't seem to be, to me, somebody who had all the information that Deep Throat had when he gave it to Woodward. So he's been off my list for years, and this, to me, just raises a lot of questions.
OLBERMANN: We'll get to those questions at length in a moment, but let me get your overall reactions on the other facets of this first. On the tapes, on the Watergate tapes, it's clear that Richard Nixon himself suspected that Mark Felt was the source of many press leaks.
How surprised would Richard Nixon have been to have heard Mark Felt's name today?
DEAN: I don't think at all. In fact, I have a conversation, a taped conversation with Nixon about Felt being a source of a leak in February of 1973, where we talk about a national security leak. And Felt has been fingered by somebody else in the bureau, and we'd had a number of reports from people in the FBI that Felt was the source.
And Henry Peterson, the head of the criminal division, had told us that he knew that Felt was a source for stories.
So I don't think it would surprise Nixon at all.
OLBERMANN: What was Felt's motive? Is that clear now? Is it more clear from the article? Is it what has been suspected all along about lack of promotion? And if that's the case, why did he fight the identification for so long?
DEAN: Yes, the motive still isn't very clear. There are lots of - as I say, to me there are so many questions clouding this. Bob once told me, after - in the same conversation when we talked about it being definitely one person, he said, John, when you know who it is, it will be sort of an epiphany for you. You'll understand all this.
Well, that hasn't happened. To the contrary, I've just ended up with more questions than I have answers, by far.
OLBERMANN: Yes, the - you'll shake your head and say, Why didn't I think of that? But somebody thought of this in 19 - when, '76 or '77 was the first time Felt was identified?
DEAN: Yes, he has been identified continuously, and there was a whole school that thought it could be outside the White House, the source could be. I always looked at the information and said, Hey, nobody outside the White House could have had this.
For example, I think Felt is out of the bureau by the time, in November of 1973, that Woodward and Bernstein write their last reported Deep Throat story about the fact there are erasures on some of the tapes, Nixon tapes. And they identify four sources from the White House. And then in the book, when you cross-check those, one of those is Deep Throat.
So they, in essence, labeled him as a White House source. So these are the kinds of questions. Hopefully Woodward, when he addresses this, now that he's indeed said this is the source, he'll tell us how this all works out, so we won't have all these questions.
I'm waiting for my epiphany.
OLBERMANN: Yes. And to that point, in the midst of what I guess would be kind of a semieuphoria about this - this must have been the way people felt when the 100 Years' War ended - obviously there is a lot that does not add up. Felt repeatedly denied it.
And from your book for Salon.com in 2002, "Unmasking Deep Throat," which was a very methodical analysis of this, as opposed to guesswork or suppositions, I want to read one - actually, two quotes.
"Deep Throat worked for the federal government," and you cite page 23
of "All the President's Men," "in the executive branch," page 71, his
position was "extremely sensitive," and he was in a "unique position to
observe the executive branch with access to information at the Committee to
Re-Elect the President as well as at the White House," page 71. In act, at
one point, Deep Throat tells Woodward that "The FBI," "The FBI doesn't know what is truly happening," page 72.
So here's the question, John. What did Mark Felt know, and when did he know it, and did Woodward and Bernstein mislead us about him for 33 years?
DEAN: Well, that's a very, very pertinent question, Keith, because that's what always struck me, and one of the reasons I took Felt off the list, because how could Felt, as an FBI man, be telling Woodward things that the FBI didn't know when he, indeed, is the man running the FBI investigation?
So this just doesn't work. It's an oxymoron, if you will.
The other issue that comes up is, indeed, has the man obstructed justice? Is that one of the reasons he remained silent? Is there not the motive of what he did what he did, but why he remained silent, because he felt the threat of a criminal investigation, having been through one of those himself already?
OLBERMANN: Ben Bradlee, the legendary boss of "The Washington Post," and at the time of the Watergate stories, the guy who okayed the use of this very unusual source, and relied on it, said today that he felt pretty comfortable, in retrospect, and he felt that way then, because this was a number-two guy at the FBI. Yet, as you point out in the book and here tonight, so much of what was attributed to Throat had to have come from inside the White House, lots of it had to have been unknown to the FBI, or the whole story doesn't hold together.
Is the new version, the new evolution of the Deep Throat mystery going to be reconciling the information with this identification?
DEAN: It's going to be a problem. One of the other things that Ben Bradlee said in that statement was that Deep Throat had given him, given "The Post" nothing that was wrong.
Well, that isn't correct. If you - now, obviously, we have the benefit of hindsight. But if you go through and marshal all the facts, what Woodward told him, when he told him, and take each one of those facts, which I've done a couple times, a startling number, maybe as much as 50 percent of the information, is dead wrong, historically wrong. It was wrong at the time, and it has been proven wrong.
I'm anxious to hear Bob's explanation of that. And, you know, he's remained silent, while he did correct a few errors along the way in the manuscript, where he knew he had misinformation from Deep Throat.
For example, Pat Gray going to the White House and demanding, in essence, that he get the job. When that was found wrong, he corrected it by a footnote in "All the President's Men."
OLBERMANN: You know the theory, one of the theories about William Shakespeare not being the actual author of all the plays that we consider his, that he was the stage manager of the Globe Theatre at a time when it was deeply, deeply dangerous for people to publish controversial, politically controversial plays, and Shakespeare merely put his name on all of the plays that came out of the Globe Theatre, whether or not he'd had a hand in writing them. That's why there's so many different areas of expertise that the Shakespeare character supposedly has.
The first conclusion about Deep Throat, from almost anybody who investigated it, was, this is a composite. Could we now, in fact, be seeing that it was a composite with a sort of centerpiece to it, in Mr. Felt, that he represented a lot of this information, but that many other things were sort of thrown on top of the Deep Throat-Mark Felt pile?
DEAN: I think that's going to be the case. And I'll - what's striking to me is that Bob, over the years, assured me it was not a composite. I suspect he still says that. So how is he going to explain Felt having some of the information he had, when it just isn't in the realm of possibility that he had access to it, even third-, fourth-hand hearsay?
So these are the questions that are new, and we have a new mystery. And probably what this is going to force, and maybe this is why Woodward initially denied or decided to take his former stance is, because it's now focusing on Woodward's journalism. And maybe he didn't want to have that experience at this point.
But that's obviously what this story's going to do.
OLBERMANN: The other new element, the videotape that you may have seen as you were speaking just there, was that shot that I described earlier of Woodward and Bernstein going to Woodward's home - there it is again - in Georgetown, just before sunset tonight in Washington.
And you can hear them - there it is - bantering with the cameramen.
"We need to get some work done. We're packing it in for the night."
Let's evolve the speculation, John. What is the work at this point? When they go in there behind those doors that we just saw, they're going to say, What do we do now?
DEAN: Well, we know from Ben Bradlee that at one point they had written not quite an obituary, but a front-page story explaining a lot about Deep Throat and his role and what-have-you. So that was already in the can, so to speak. They now - that was premised on Deep Throat not being around to comment.
I'm not sure that Mark Felt is in any condition, at his age and mental state, to refute, or really get out and discus anything that Woodward and Bernstein say at this point.
So they've got this set up nicely. The question is, how do they handle it? Because there's not many people that are able to refute anything they might say.
But yet there are very important questions about how they constructed their story, how they relied on Felt, you know, what Felt...
You know, for example, how did Felt get "The Washington" - "New York Times" and circle page 20 of Bob Woodward's paper to signal he wanted to talk to him? How did Felt manage, while he's running the bureau as the day-to-day operations, to keep an eye on the flower pot on Woodward's balcony to see if the red flag is out?
Why hasn't Felt told us what garage they met in to see how he physically was able to do this, given where he lived and what-have-you?
So lots of these things need to be addressed. And hopefully when Woodward and Bernstein come forward in this piece they're working on right now, they'll do so.
OLBERMANN: One thought on that, John, before we go to break, and I ask you to sit tight, because we have, oh, only another 2,000 or 3,000 questions to get through. One thought on the - that might explain the flower pot, now, that perhaps we hadn't considered before, if he was the man-to-man operating - or day-to-day operation of the FBI man, perhaps Mr. Felt was able to have people address the flower pot and "New York Times" situation for him. Perhaps he had people that were Deep Throat-ettes, or Deep Throat, Juniors.
In any event, Countdown's continuing coverage of the unmasking of Deep Throat will resume. We have Pat Buchanan, who, of course, is now part of that great group cleared of presumption, supposition, questions about were they Deep Throat? We'll talk to Pat, and we'll continue with John Dean.
You are watching Countdown on MSNBC.
OLBERMANN: The scene once again at just about 7:45 Eastern Daylight Time in Georgetown, in the Washington area, as you see, Bob Woodward on the left, and Carl Bernstein on the right, the two famous "Washington Post" reporters who kept the Watergate story alive in the summer of 1973 and into 1974, leading ultimately to the impeachment procedures against - proceedings, rather, against President Nixon, and finally his resignation on August 8 and 9 of 1974.
This is Day One AI, after the identification of their principal source, Deep Throat, as Mark Felt, the former deputy associate director, that was his actual title, at the FBI.
And we're joined again by John Dean, author of "Unmasking Deep Throat," "Worse Than Watergate," and many other books, and a man who went from a principal in the events that were described by Deep Throat and covered by Woodward and Bernstein to the principal Deep Throat hunter (INAUDIBLE)...
OLBERMANN:... sleuth, from which all pretenders, or people who deserve that title as you do, John, all are officially retired from, I guess, tonight, except for the details here.
But as we continue to discuss the details, one of the things that's evident in reading "All the President's Men" and throughout all the coverage that the Deep Throat moniker was added later on, and originally this was simply known as - the source was simply known as Woodward's friend.
DEAN: Bob's friend.
OLBERMANN: Right, implying that there was a connection to - between them prior to that story.
Does it match with Mark Felt? Is there evidence of a Mark Felt-Bob Woodward friendship?
DEAN: Well, I wouldn't say it's a - you know, they talk - Woodward talks about how much he respected this person, how they had had long conversations about the way the government, federal government was operating, and what-have-you, which may or may not be true.
Felt seems to me that he - as I understood, was one of these workaholics that would work until he dropped and then go home late, and then start all over the next day. So it - but who knows where they met? We'll find that out, hopefully, in Bob's reporting on this.
Carl, it was not Carl's friend. In fact, I think Carl went quite a ways before he actually learned who the source was. But it's very possible, sit, you know, Washington is its own incestuous city. Woodward was an aggressive young reporter, still is an aggressive older reporter, and very easily could have crossed paths.
And as I say, there's no question that Felt was a regular source for an awful lot of reporters.
OLBERMANN: So much of the image of Deep Throat, obviously, is that of the movie, and that image of Hal Holbrook in the shadows behind the buttresses in this parking garage. Certainly in terms of appearance, that was a pretty good match, if it is indeed Mr. Felt. But does the personality match as well, the Scotch-drinking bachelor, or live like a bachelor, was chain-smoking or smoking heavily, end-of-the-world temper? Do all those elements fit as well?
DEAN: They don't. The - I think he's both a Scotch and bourbon drinker, I read somewhere. I read Felt's book years ago, when, of course, he was still denying the fact that he was Deep Throat, and didn't leave so much as a hint in that book that he might be. It was actually a ghost-written book that he did.
So it got filtered and what-have-you, so we didn't learn much from that about his personality or his feelings and motives, and how he Felt about how Washington worked, and what-have-you.
What, Keith, what's striking to me is that in coming forward at this time, that he didn't drop so much as any inside information that would help corroborate this. I don't understand that.
So, you know, this just lends more to the composite theory. And while it lets some people off the hook, I'm not sure it lets everybody off the hook.
OLBERMANN: Yes, I'm sure you had the same reaction and in greater magnitude than I did when I first heard about this, which was, with that long interval between "Vanity Fair"'s announcement and the announcement from Woodward and Bernstein that, yes, OK, that's it, Mark Felt was Deep Throat, you caught us. There was this big gap in which they simply said, We're not going to say anything until we are authorized to do so by our source.
And it seemed as if there might have been some sort of big, big disconnect here, because as this component parts certainly do not add up to the picture of Mark Felt.
DEAN: Well, there are two things in the statements they've made so far. Woodward, in that first statement, he said he had a duty to protect his sources, which sounded like this might not be his source. And in the more recent and second release, after he identified it, and said it - they were going to go to work on it and what-have-you, he indicated that Felt wasn't his only source, that there were many.
And this begins to sound, again, more like composite than being one person.
So, as I say, it's given us a new twist in the story at this point, and not a total resolution of the story, in my estimation.
OLBERMANN: Having looked at it for so long, John, and in so many different ways, do you think, even assuming that Mark Felt is perhaps this centerpiece to this composite, as that picture is beginning to, I think, draw clearer to us, do you think Watergate would have turned out as it did without Mark Felt?
DEAN: I do. In fact, one of the - I think one of the important things to understand about the story is, there's a certain mythology about Deep Throat and his being omnipotent and knowing all and seeing all. As I said earlier, he missed a lot of information, had it wrong.
The other thing that people need to understand is that Bob and Carl did not crack this - the case. I think they'd be the first to tell you they didn't. What they did, and what Felt did, Felt gave Ben Bradlee reassurance, with these very young reporters, who were on this story to keep it on the front page, because here he had the number-two man in the FBI giving him, you know, through Bob, assurance that they were on the right track.
And that kept the story alive with the Congress, with the prosecutors, with the FBI itself, with judges. So it had a very important inside-the-Beltway impact, and had that not have happened, Watergate might have disappeared. Bob once said he didn't think he'd write another Watergate story after Nixon was reelected.
Well, because of the momentum of the story, they just couldn't drop it. And so it was - clearly, Mark Felt did have an important role in keeping Ben Bradlee's attention on the story.
OLBERMANN: He was the voice in the wilderness that kept everybody from leaving the entire playing field.
DEAN: Well, that they were on some kind of right track.
DEAN: But there are still lots of questions, Keith, lots of questions.
OLBERMANN: Well, but that brings me to the last one of mine, for the moment, anyway, personally. The old joke comes to mind about the dog chasing the car. And of all the Deep Throat sleuths, yourself foremost of them, and me, way back down on that list, if we are collectively the dog, apparently we just caught the car. How does that feel?
DEAN: We are still tasting it to see how we like it, now that we've got it.
OLBERMANN: Is there plenty of disassembly yet to do? Do we still have to go and now take the car to the body shop?
DEAN: Well, we have to see what kind of car we've caught, and what it really - whether it was worth the chase.
OLBERMANN: John Dean, the author of "Unmasking Deep Throat" and "Worse Than Watergate" and so much more, Richard Nixon's former White House counsel, and now, like the rest of us, in some sense former Deep Throat sleuths. It's a very odd feeling. The trophy, to some degree, is on the wall, my friend.
And our great thanks for being with us tonight, sir.
DEAN: Thank you.
OLBERMANN: All right, John, thanks.
Coming up, the view from the Deep Throat shortlist. What's it like to be lifted, or have the veil of suspicion lifted from you, after years of the - being part of the D.C. favorite guessing game? Pat Buchanan joins me next with that insight and so many more about Watergate and the role of Deep Throat and who Mark Felt was.
This is Countdown on MSNBC.
OLBERMANN: If you are just coming back from an eight-hour walk or something, three decades of a mystery shrouded in secrecy wrapped in an enigma are over tonight. Our fourth story on the Countdown, Deep Throat of Watergate is former deputy associate FBI director Mark Felt, a 91-year-old attorney in failing physical and mental health, living in Santa Rita, California, this confirmed by Woodward and Bernstein after an article that revealed Felt's identity in the new edition of "Vanity Fair" magazine.
That it is Felt means it isn't any of the other Nixon aides and or the investigators who have been fingered at various times as Deep Throat. It isn't Alexander Butterfield and it isn't not Steve Bull. It isn't Dwight Chapin, and it isn't Chuck Colson. It isn't Fred Fielding, and it isn't Len Garment. It isn't David Gergen. It isn't L. Patrick Gray. It isn't Larry Higby. It isn't Henry Kissinger. It isn't Gordon Liddy. It is not Jeb Stuart Magruder. It isn't Ray Price. It isn't Earl Silbert.
And it isn't Pat Buchanan, former Nixon speech writer, presidential candidate, now MSNBC political analyst. Hey, Pat, you're not Deep Throat. Congratulations!
PAT BUCHANAN, FORMER NIXON SPEECH WRITER, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:
Keith, I've always known it.
OLBERMANN: I know! You have, but now it's official.
BUCHANAN: Well, you know, listen, you ran down that list of names. I must say, I knew it was - didn't know for certain, but I've put Mark Felt at the top of my list for years. And I've told people privately, and I haven't used the name publicly for a simple reason. I don't think Deep Throat is an honorable man, and I felt it would be a slur on him if I said it was he, and it turned out to be not he.
But you've got all those names of Nixon people. It never could have been them, in my judgment, for a simple reason, Keith. All those individuals owed their careers and everything else to Richard Nixon. They had no motive to go to "The Washington Post" and give "The Washington Post," Nixon's enemy, information to damage a president who had befriended them all and benefited them all.
OLBERMANN: Do you think, Pat, that that issue is at the heart of these conflicting statements that we had from Mark Felt all these years - in other words, that last denial in '99 to "The Hartford Courant," where he said, I would have done better, I would have been more effective, and then supposedly telling his grandson or his son that it is not an honorable thing to have been the leaker of information like that?
BUCHANAN: I think you - Keith, you are right on the money. I think Mark Felt is at times very ashamed of what he did. It is not honorable, in the middle of an investigation, to grab secret - grab material that you've dredged up, which is supposed to go to the prosecutors who decide who to indict, and slip it over to "The Washington Post" to damage a president in the middle of a campaign.
And his motive, as Mr. Woodward indicated, is Mark Felt was passed over. When Hoover died, Nixon gave the eulogy, and we put L. Patrick Gray, who was very close to the president, who as assistant secretary at Justice or assistant attorney general - put him in charge. And the FBI fellows who were senior fellows that served under Hoover, had run the place since the '20s, were very bitter.
And so his motivation, I think, is not good. His deeds are dishonorable, if not criminal. And I don't know what he thought he was doing for his country. My sense is he was probably ashamed of what he did.
OLBERMANN: I thought, also, in terms of whether or not he did all that has been attributed to Deep Throat...
OLBERMANN:... that John Dean did a really masterful job in analyzing the "who had to know what, when," the "who had to be where, when," and his analysis eliminated Felt very quickly. Is the implication there that Woodward and Bernstein fudged this, that they must have assigned information they got elsewhere to Felt, stuff he couldn't have known?
BUCHANAN: I think that's possible. But Dean, too, is wrong. He's put my name out and Bull's name out, I believe. Look, let me give you an incident, Keith.
In the fall of 1972, I was called around 6:00 in the morning by Haldeman and told to get over to the White House, we had a serious problem. There in "The Washington Post" was the story of the dirty tricks operation run by Segretti, Donald Segretti. Now, I knew we had an operation of some kind out there, a Dick Tuck operation. I didn't know it was big like that, and I didn't know Segretti's name. And nobody in the White House, except for Chapin, I think, or maybe Haldeman, knew Segretti's name.
Now, who had that - A, the information of Segretti's name, and B, a motive to give it to "The Washington Post"? That's why down the road, I said to myself, the only people who could have the information, besides the insiders, is the folks at the FBI and Silbert and Glanzer. And nobody had a motive in the White House, so it's got to be over at the FBI. It's not Gray. Who is it? Who's the number two guy, who has a reputation for leaking? Mark Felt.
OLBERMANN: Certainly wasn't Dwight Chapin, with whom Segretti went to college. But let me...
BUCHANAN: Exactly. Why would Dwight Chapin leak information that eventually sent him to prison?
OLBERMANN: Let me - let me conclude with this aspect to it.
OLBERMANN: We think of this man as the 91-year-old we saw hobbling on the walker to the doorstep today. not an entirely happy picture. But at that time, this was, if not the second-ranking man in the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the third or the fourth, depending on how you map that out. What kind of potential for law breaking was there if he had been identified at that time?
BUCHANAN: Well, if he'd been identified, he'd just have been fired. I don't think anything would have happened to him. He did get prosecuted and convicted after - years later, because he - apparently, he had been authorizing some of these break-ins on the - or unwarranted searches on the Vietnam opposition folks. But I think if he'd have been identified, again, he would simply have been fired.
But you raise a good question, Keith. If what he did was honorable, why didn't he come out after he left the FBI and say, I want to say this is what I did, it was right to do, and here's why I did it? Why has he hidden all these years?
OLBERMANN: The answers to those questions, I think, are now going to be the new version of the Deep Throat mystery, which will just evolve now.
_BUCHANAN: It'll keep Keith's show going forever!_
OLBERMANN: Look, we've done this before with political stories, you may recall from seven years ago.
BUCHANAN: OK, my friend.
OLBERMANN: Pat Buchanan, the former - the former Nixon speech writer, now MSNBC political analyst, and again, for all - once and for all time, not Deep Throat. Thank you for your time, sir.
BUCHANAN: Thank you, Keith.
OLBERMANN: The greatest political mystery of our time now solved, at least in large part, at least with that one name attached to the identity of Deep Throat. The motivations, the fall-out and the checking of facts will doubtless continue.
And believe it or not, that's what passes for a day off around here. I'm Keith Olbermann in New York. Alison Stewart is at headquarters to take this edition of Countdown the rest of the way.
Good evening, Alison.
ALISON STEWART, GUEST HOST: And good evening to you, Keith. We're bringing up the rear here.
Here's the 411 on tonight's 321 (ph). No picnic for the president in the Rose Garden today before the press, and on the defensive, Mr. Bush came out swinging at Congress and critics of the U.S. detention center at Gitmo. The Michael Jackson trial, a hugely important day that could make or break the case for either side. What rules will be laid out for the jury? And the wackiest of traditions we just can't let go without another look. It's the great cheese roll, people. What makes the Brits go through this year after year after year? And event organizers offer some excuses, explanations. Stand by.
STEWART: The year is 2007. Work with me. It's May 31, approximately seven months after the mid-term elections. With less than two years remaining in his second term, the quacking sound you hear from 1,600 Pennsylvania Avenue could be the sound of a lame duck. No hard feelings there. It's just an unfortunate fact of politics.
But the year is not 2007. It's just about seven months after President Bush's reelection, and yet that lame duck label has a little bit of stickum on it. Our number three story on the Countdown tonight: With certain agenda items in limbo, President Bush made the short trip to the Rose Garden today to answer some questions and give what seemed to be a pep talk to himself. And it may have worked. As our correspondent, David Gregory, reports, the president has plans.
DAVID GREGORY, NBC CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):
Appearing in the Rose Garden today, the president sounded like a politician campaigning against Washington, and particularly Congress, which lately has either stalled or set back his agenda.
GEORGE WALKER BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My attitude toward Congress is - is - will be reflected on whether or not they're capable of getting anything done.
GREGORY: The President appeared to be criticizing both Democrats and Republicans when he spoke of John Bolton, his pick for U.N. ambassador.
BUSH: And so I was disappointed that once again, the leadership there in the Senate didn't give him an up or down vote.
GREGORY: Reporters challenged the president about whether he's got enough clout left to muscle his Social Security plan through.
BUSH: I'm not surprised that there's a reluctance, and I'm not surprised that there's been some initial pushback. Congress has a duty to come up with some solutions.
GREGORY: The president saved his sharpest attack for Amnesty International's recent report calling Guantanamo Bay prison the, quote, "gulag of our times," a charge the president called absurd.
BUSH: Seemed like to me they based some of their decisions on the word of - and the allegations by people who were held in detention, people who hate America, people that have been trained, in some instances, to disassemble (sic). That means not tell the truth.
GREGORY (on camera): Mr. Bush insisted today he's not worried about anything here in Washington. But privately, aides admit there is frustration about a second term agenda increasingly stalled. David Gregory, NBC News, the White House.
STEWART: And we're joined now by Jim VandeHei, the White House reporter for "The Washington Post," who was at the president's Rose Garden news conference this morning. Jim, good evening to you.
JIM VANDEHEI, "WASHINGTON POST": Good to see you, Alison.
STEWART: As you noticed - noted in your piece in "The Washington
Post," the president, shortly after he was elected - we all remember this
· he said, I have political capital, and I'm going to spend it. What happened to it?
VANDEHEI: I think reality set in. I mean, you have Republicans who were so tethered to the president in 2004 because he was at the top of the ticket now looking at their own survival, looking 18 months ahead at having to win elections on their own, so they're much less obedient, as far as what the president would like. And at the same time, you've got Democrats, who have to draw a line in the sand and show that they're different from Bush and challenge him. And they are challenging him on Social Security, on the Bolton nomination and on judges.
STEWART: You mentioned those last three things. Of those three that are considered stalled, which one is likely to get shoved overboard?
VANDEHEI: I think Social Security is very difficult for this president. It depends what victory is, in his mind. If he wants a Social Security package that reduces benefits and creates these personal accounts carved out of the existing system, I think that's very difficult to do. Republicans on Capitol Hill say those are very, very tricky and that there's sort of a tepid response from Republicans and just all-out opposition from Democrats. So the president's going to have to make a decision some time in the next couple of months about whether he's willing to jettison, I think, those accounts, as he has outlined them, to get a deal with Democrats on Capitol Hill.
STEWART: Do you think there's anything else that he can do to recreate sort of the kumbaya feeling he has with his other Republicans in Congress? It just seems so odd to see him standing up there, wincing and kind of having bad feelings about Congress, when you have a Republican president and a Republican-controlled Congress.
VANDEHEI: I think the president is still very popular with Republicans on Capitol Hill, and he still does have leverage. But his leverage comes from popularity. If the polls show that he's very popular with the people and that his ideas are popular with the people, then lawmakers will respond. But if you look inside those poll numbers, they show that the public does not back the president's prescription for how to fix Social Security, so that makes them a little bit leery. They wonder, Should we take this political risk on a program that we don't want to really change? So the president has to somehow shape public opinion to back his goals, and then have lawmakers see that.
STEWART: We talk so much about the domestic agenda. Let's talk about the foreign agenda. Iraq will always be associated with this president.
_STEWART: Is his foreign policy agenda at the mercy of events there?_
VANDEHEI: You know, it really is. I mean, if you think of this presidency in the second term, the sort of the twin pillars, you've got Social Security on the domestic side and Iraq on the foreign side. I think that his success in doing so many things on the foreign stage, about spreading democracy, about ending tyranny, which he talked about in the inaugural address, it's all predicated on having success in Iraq. And so when you have more violence, when you have a more robust insurgency, when you have more deaths, that makes it much harder for the president to remain popular, as far as his policies in Iraq. So if he can't bring home troops, if he can't show progress that people can really see here in the United States, it makes it harder for him to have leverage in doing other things.
STEWART: Jim VandeHei of "The Washington Post," thanks so much for sticking with us this evening.
VANDEHEI: Have a good evening.
STEWART: Our condensed version of 321 barrels ahead. All along, court observers have said too close to call, but on a day when there was no defendant, no jury, no lead defense attorney, we get what is perhaps our first real hint of how things might all shake out, lead prosecutor, district attorney Tom Sneddon, overheard telling a colleague, quote, "We just got screwed."
That's our number two story on the Countdown: Day 561 of the Michael Jackson investigations. Today arguments on the very procedural legal minutiae known as jury instructions, but oh, so important minutiae it is! Prosecution and defense lawyers grappled over such important details as should Michael Jackson's name be in all caps or fender (ph) defender style? Matters to some.
What excitement came in the day resulted from a jury instruction about considering the criminal past of witnesses. Arguing for the prosecution, Deputy DA Jerry Franklin (ph), an expert in appellate issues. It was when he walked away from the agreed-upon wording that reporters heard the Sneddon smackdown, quote, "I don't think you thought this thing through when you opened your mouth. We just got screwed." Oops.
Jury instructions will be finalized tomorrow. Closing arguments expected to begin on Thursday.
Coming up, our number one story. If you saw "Cliffs of the Cheese Roll" last night and wondered what is that all about, you are not alone. We'll talk to an organizer of this bizarre event. Cheese, please!
STEWART: There are many reasons to celebrate America's final liberation from British rule 221 years ago. We don't have to drink hot tea and have cold showers. We don't have to add the letter "U" to every other word, and we don't have to choose from a plethora of dates with bad teeth.
The last line was written by a British woman, so don't write me.
Our number one story tonight: Add two more things to that list. We don't have to chase wheels of cheese down a hill. And unlike ITV news reporter Steve Hargrave, we don't have to listen to a hit single based on a cell phone ring.
STEVE HARGRAVE, ITV NEWS (voice-over): Chris Martin of Coldplay is waking up today, trying to come to terms with the strange fact that a madcap cartoon frog has beaten him to the top of the charts. Yes, as expected, the (INAUDIBLE) crazy frog ring tone has hit number one after brainwashing the nation's kids and students. The relentless advertising for the tune has been criticized by some and has no doubt left the majority of us rushing for the CD remote. The question now, though, is, How much longer do we have to put up with it?
DANIEL MALMEDAHL, CREATOR OF CRAZY FROG: It might live for, say, a month, a year. It's very hard to know.
HARGRAVE: Incidentally, there is one thing more annoying than the frog, and that's the sound of its creator. It was his impersonation of a broken moped that led to this track in the first place. Don't say I didn't warn you.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ring ding ding ding ding ding ding da-ding ding.
HARGRAVE: I think that's quite enough of that.
STEWART: All right. That incredibly irritating tune also beat out Oasis, the Black Eyed Peas and Gwen Stefani to take the number one spot in Britain, this from the land that originally brought us the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, but also the Spice Girls, so you could see how it could happen.
I'm not sure how a cheese chase happens every year, but it is a Countdown favorite. Dozens gather in the English countryside to hurtle down a hill in pursuit of an eight-pound wheel of double Gloucester cheese. After years of just running the video for sheer enjoyment, we got to thinking, What does possess these people? Why chase a hunk of cheese? Who started this crazy sport?
For answers, we called Richard Jeffries (ph), the press secretary of the cheese rolling race committee. There is actually a committee and a press person for this event.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What's the technique?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just - I don't know, go for it.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When you get back (INAUDIBLE) do it again.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We don't know exactly when it started, but I'm pretty sure it's hundreds of years old. Now, at midsummer in ancient British times, they used to hold bonfires on top of high hills in which the local people would jump over the bonfire, and so on, to scare away the witches, to stop the cattle aborting, and so on. As a result of that, they made a cheese at the same time.
_UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I got the cheese!_
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The first person down to the bottom wins the cheese. The second person gets 10 pounds, and the third person gets 5 pounds. And the others don't - go home and try again on the next race, if they want.
To ankle injuries, I understand from the people that there is one person who's got a slight spinal injury. But I don't know how serious it is. I don't think it's serious. But in fact, last year, we had one, I think, who had concussion and refused treatment by the ambulance people and went back up and ran in the second race. So you know, then there are the nutters (INAUDIBLE)
Clothing is optional. Last year, we had a streaker, but this year, that was the minimal one - the only one we had this year.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Better, (INAUDIBLE) better than everybody else.
And stay on me feet. Stayed on me feet quite well, as well.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The secret is to keep to the right-hand side of the hill, where the slope is fairly even. The left-hand side has dips in the middle, and that's when people start tumbling down the hill. But to lean back and make sure you stay on your feet, because if you stay on your feet, you're usually the winner.
STEWART: You don't want to see what they'll do for fondue.
And that is the Countdown. Thanks for being a part of it. Stay tuned for a special edition of "Hardball" with Chris Matthews next, Deep Throat revealed. I'm Alison Stewart, in for Keith Olbermann. And good night.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END