Wednesday, May 9, 2007

'Countdown with Keith Olbermann' for May 9
Special bonus podcast (Molly Ivins Award)

Guests: Jon Soltz, Dana Milbank, Mo Rocca

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

It's snowing. The Republican senior senator from Maine, Ms. Snowe, proposes a benchmarks and redeployment bill. The White House spokesman, Mr. Snow, promises another veto if the president gets another bill limiting his divine right of war.

The secretary of defense upbraids the Iraqis for planning to give their parliament two months off.


ROBERT GATES, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: We are buying them time for political reconciliation, and that every day we buy them, we buy it with American blood.


OLBERMANN: And at the same or higher prices, U.S. military information reportedly indicates attacks not decreasing, perhaps even increasing, since the surge.

And, of course, the vice president goes to Baghdad and claims he found members of our military and their government who agree with him.


DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They believe the situation has gotten better.


OLBERMANN: Thanks, Dick.

The president listens to the generals. Not these generals, of course.


GEN. JOHN BATISTE (RET.): Mr. President, you have placed our nation in peril.


OLBERMANN: Generals Batiste and Eaton in blistering new ad.

The president in Kansas, where he's expected to get a private blistering from the governor after the meat of the state National Guard was sent to Iraq while Americans are in danger in Kansas.

Ground Hog Day for Mr. Gonzales. The attorney general to testify before the House, his opening statement reads almost word for word like his statement three weeks ago to the Senate Judiciary Committee, including his repeated suggestion that this investigation is cramping his attorney generaling style.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No kiss tonight, baby.


OLBERMANN: That meant not for the attorney general but for the contestants who have suddenly put the "Dull" back into "American I-dull."

Maybe they could get him. O.J. Simpson asked to leave a steakhouse because he was being O.J. Simpson.

All that and more, now on Countdown.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Where's the beef?


OLBERMANN: Good evening from New York.

It's game time that a senior administration official's summary of the vice president's message to his Iraqi counterparts during a surprise visit to Baghdad, begging the question, just what were the last four years, then, Dick, batting practice?

Our fifth story on the Countdown, as that happens, and a Republican senator proposes a new plan for withdrawal, we have breaking news about an extraordinary meeting at the White House. Not necessarily Hugh Scott and Barry Goldwater taking their tough love to the Richard Nixon White House, but the possible watershed moment so many have awaited, 11 congressional Republicans telling this president, in almost unprecedented frankness, that the people they represent are prepared for defeat in Iraq, and that he has no credibility left about the war, our Washington bureau chief, Tim Russert, sharing the exclusive details with Brian Williams on "NIGHTLY NEWS."


TIM RUSSERT, NBC WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF: At 2:30 in the afternoon in private quarters of the White House, the Solarium Room, 11 Republican congressmen had a private meeting with the president, the secretary of defense, the secretary of state, the chief political adviser, Karl Rove, and the White House press secretary, Tony Snow, and others.

This delegation was headed by Mark Kirk of Illinois and Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania. It was, in the words of one of the participants, the most unvarnished conversation they've ever had with the president. Another member said he has met with three (INAUDIBLE) - presidents and never been so candid.

They told the president, and one said, quote, "My district is prepared for defeat. We need candor. We need honesty, Mr. President." The president responded, I don't want to pass this off to another president. I don't want to pass this off particularly to a Democratic president, underscoring he understood how serious the situation was.

Brian, the Republican congressman then went on to say, The word about the war and its progress cannot come from the White House or even you, Mr. President, there's no longer any credibility. It has to come from General Petraeus.

The meeting lasted an hour and 15 minutes and was, in the words of one, remarkable for the bluntness and no-hole-barred - no-holds-barred honesty in the message delivered by all these Republican congressmen.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: And Tim, in the few seconds remaining, how did the president react? And how then did this affect the instructions for Vice President Cheney heading off to Iraq?

RUSSERT: One congressman said, How can our daughters and sons spill their blood while the Iraqi parliament goes on vacation? The president responded, The vice president is over there to tell them, Do not go on vacation.


OLBERMANN: For more now on the extraordinary meeting at the White House, I'm joined now by "Washington Post" national political reporter and our own Dana Milbank.

Dana, good evening.


Good evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN: What does it reveal about the president, his administration, his party, that this meeting with this gang of 11 even took place?

MILBANK: Well, I think it is an extraordinary moment, and possibly a turning point. But first of all, we have the Republicans being very blunt with the president. We have Republicans in the Senate now talking about going against him with these benchmarks. And we have the secretary of defense telling Congress that, you know, things are starting to look at September as some sort of a deadline here. And even in the vice president, in his own way, trying step up the pressure on the Iraqis.

And I think what this is all heading towards is, there seems to be some forging of a consensus, through pressure on the president, toward some sort of an ultimatum and a deadline for the Iraqi parliament this fall.

OLBERMANN: And what would his reaction be to that, to being told that he doesn't have any credibility left on Iraq, not by Democrats, not by antiwar protesters, not by the Webs, but by members of his own party? Is there anybody able to convince this president that he's lost his credibility on anything?

MILBANK: I think the president knows that in some level, because he's already said that his best person to put forth on the war is General Petraeus. So he realizes that problem. He's been flailing quite a bit. Last week was this sort of swerve towards blaming everything once again on al Qaeda.

I think the president realizes that, you know, one speech after another, he's beginning to see that it's having no effect here. So that should not come as any surprise to him.

The fact is, he's not going to have a lot of options here if the Republicans are willing to now join with Democrats in Congress to have a filibuster-proof majority.

OLBERMANN: Obviously, this did not get out of the White House and out of Congress, this meet - the fact of this meeting did not get out via Democrats, nor even, no offense to Mr. Russert, by intrepid reporting. Republicans leaked this.

Is - what should we - sort of take us into the future. What events in the next two weeks might we see involving the president that would suggest that he got the message today or yesterday?

MILBANK: Well, that will be very difficult to see. But look, I mean, Josh Bolten, his chief of staff, is up there negotiating in the Senate. He's given them very little in terms of what they are willing to do so far. So if you see Josh Bolten giving the signals that, yes, they are willing to accept benchmarks, these sort of hurdles that the Iraqi government must meet, with actual consequences, which I - with actual teeth, then you will see that the president has gotten the message.

I have a feeling, if he doesn't get that message, it's very shortly going to be forced upon him.

OLBERMANN: And the leaders of this group, Mr. Dent being mentioned in there, what - do we have anything of those names that are involved and what their status is with the White House, and what the reaction would be to seeing Charlie Dent come in there and say something like what Tim Russert quoted the group as saying?

MILBANK: Well, what it is, is, these aren't the usual suspects, the, you know, the Walter Jones or Ron Paul, something like that, the people you would always expect to go against you. So these are, while not Republican leaders, are certainly mainstream Republicans, vulnerable Republicans, the president obviously realizing that not only does this Iraq war risk a larger Democratic majorities in Congress, but risks handing the presidency to the Democrats as well.

OLBERMANN: All right, one more point on this. I referenced Hugh Scott and Barry Goldwater going to the White House in August of '74 to tell President Nixon that the Watergate game was up. That caught - this is obviously not on that level, but is this the closest thing George Bush has experienced to it in his presidency?

MILBANK: I think it is. I think it's an apt analogy. You are correct that the consequences are nowhere near as immediate here. But the message is being delivered very immediately to the president, in the same way. He could obviously get the same message reading the polls, a new "USA Today"- Gallup poll out today saying 60 percent or so believe the Iraq war was a mistake and want the United States to set a timetable for a pullout, even if that results in a civil war.

OLBERMANN: Dana Milbank. Dana, stand by a minute. We want to get your insights on the other moving parts on Iraq today.

Starting with the most fast-moving of them, Republican Senator Olympia Snowe's withdrawal bid, legislation co-sponsored with Democratic Senator Evan Bayh which would require the Iraqi government to meet certain - there that word is again - benchmarks, and would require General Petraeus to report back to Congress on the government's progress 120 days later, that's significant in light of that meeting yesterday. And if the government fails, General Petraeus would have to submit a plan to start withdrawing troops.

Senator Snowe submitted her plan after a trip to Baghdad last weekend left her, quote, "more convinced than ever before that the Iraqi government does not understand that our commitment is not indefinite," or "infinite," rather. The vice president does not concur, evidently, claiming that he found the Maliki government now has a greater sense of urgency, and that while there is a long way to go, progress is being made politically and militarily.


CHENEY: They believe the situation has gotten better. They cite specifically the statistics on sectarian violence, Sunni on Shia and Shia on Sunni violence that they think is down fairly dramatically.


OLBERMANN: That seems to directly contradict the U.S. military sources in which (ph) have told "The Washington Post" that the number of attacks in Baghdad since the troop increase strategy started in February has, quote, "stayed relatively constant," a violent reality reiterated today when two mortars landed in the green zone barely an hour before the vice president's news conference, as far as political progress being made in Iraq.


CHENEY: I do sense today a, I think, a greater awareness on the part of the Iraqi officials I talked to of the importance of their working together to resolve these issues in a timely fashion.


OLBERMANN: Unless, of course, the parliament goes ahead with its planned summer recess, two months long, a situation the vice president asked them to remedy while calling it a sovereign issue for Iraq.

And the defense secretary called it a very bad idea.


GATES: I told some of the Iraqis with whom I met that we are buying them time for political reconciliation, and that every day we buy them, we buy it with American blood, and that for this group to go out for two months, it would, in my opinion, be unacceptable.


OLBERMANN: Back to Dana Milbank.

Obviously, the strong language from the congressmen yesterday must have resonated with the defense secretary. We just - we - that's one of those tea leaves we can now read in reverse. But is that all - is it also the case that maybe Senator Snowe's bill refers to this whole thing, that you - that Mr. Bush no longer has credibility in the eyes of some Republican congressmen, 11 Republican congressmen, it so emphasizes General Petraeus has to do this and General Petraeus has to do that?

MILBANK: Yes, I think you're seeing more of that now. Gates has always been something of a straight shooter, sort of the - quite the opposite of Dick Cheney. Now, the clips you play of Cheney show certainly that he's not quite where everybody else is on this, but for a man who's been on sort of the dark side of the moon when it comes to Iraq, I think even he is changing the tune quite a bit here.

So I think what you're seeing is signs of this pressure, and signs of what we were discussing earlier, this focus on saying OK, give us until September, and give the Iraqi government until September. And that's where everybody seems to be pointing right now.

OLBERMANN: Right. And the vice president is playing that record along with his videotape of "The Wizard of Oz."

But I want to read you something else the vice president said about his last visit to Iraq. "From our perspective, looking back, as I say, to a year and a half ago, I think it's remarkable progress. I think we've turned the corner, if you will. I think when we look back from 10 years hence, we'll see that the year '05 was, in fact, a watershed year here in Iraq."

We're now in 2007. Vice president says things are getting better. Our friend Craig Crawford wrote today, The same Republicans who said in January that there had to be success by summer or else are now saying there has to be success by September or else. Obviously Craig wrote that before we learned about the gang of 11.

But is he to some degree right when he suggests Republicans are using the equivalent of Muhammad Ali's old rope-a-dope?

MILBANK: Well, he's absolutely correct that things have slipped back. But you have sort of an equal and opposite reaction going on on the Democratic side, where they're very deeply spit - split, and you have the antiwar caucus, sort of the Dennis Kuciniches are getting very much alienated from the mainstream of the party there as well.

So you have the sort of the schedule being pushed back to September on one side, but you have sort of the antiwar Democrats on the other side being neutralized a bit as well.

OLBERMANN: Dana Milbank of "The Washington Post." Once again, great thanks for double duty tonight.

MILBANK: Thanks, Keith.

OLBERMANN: As the pressure for Congress to stand up to the president increases in Washington, a second front opened today outside the Beltway with an unprecedented event in the history of this war. For the first time, former generals who actually served in Iraq are appearing in advertisements criticizing the commander in chief, his handling or mishandling of the war, and congressional hesitancy to take greater control.

The ads pull no punches. In the first, the retired general John Batiste appears after a short clip of the president repeating the mantra he's repeated so many times before.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have always said that I will listen to the requests of our commanders on the ground.

GEN. JOHN BATISTE (RET.): Mr. President, you did not listen. You continue to pursue a failed strategy that has breaking our great Army and Marine Corps.

I left the Army in protest in order to speak out. Mr. President, you have placed our nation in peril. Our only hope is that Congress will act now to protect our fighting men and women.


OLBERMANN: The ad, sponsored by, come a little more than a year after Batiste and four other retired generals called for Donald Rumsfeld to resign.

Jon Soltz, of course, is the chairman of, sponsor of the ads. And he was an Army captain who served in Iraq in 2003.

Jon, thanks again for joining us.

JON SOLTZ, CHAIRMAN, VOTEVETS.ORG: Thanks for having me, sir. My pleasure.

OLBERMANN: General Batiste had the 1st Infantry Division in Iraq for two and a half years. Another one of your ads has Paul Eaton, 33 years in the military, the general in charge of training the Iraqi military from 2003 to 2004.

This is the first time retired commanders who actually served there have actually called the president's hand on his policy. What moved them to do this now?

SOLTZ: Well, there's also, also, Keith, a third ad with General Wesley Clark.

But I think with General Batiste in General Eaton, it's something very personal inside, much like it is for me. And if you talk to General Batiste, he'll tell you, it's all about helping the troops on the ground, it's all about taking care of soldiers, and it's all about keeping America safe and capturing and killing the people that attacked this country.

And we're strategically fixed in Iraq. And the president has absolutely broken the Army and Marine Corps and destroyed our ability to project force around the world and to protect this country and destroy al Qaeda. And for them, it's about national security, and it's about taking care of soldiers.

OLBERMANN: The ad we just saw called on Congress to protect our fighting men and women, aimed at about a dozen Republican members who are up for election and on the fence about Iraq. Do you sense that it could have an impact not merely on those races, but on what's happening in Washington?

SOLTZ: Absolutely. What we just talked about today with this gang of 11 is the exact intent of this ad. Not only is it for senators and multiple members of the House, but so often, when, when we go to Washington, D.C., and we talk to these members of Congress, they say, We're with you, Jon, we're against the president and we're against the escalation. But they're still voting with the president, and they're still accepting his failed strategy to defeat al Qaeda.

And what you see today is this pressure that's pushing the Republicans to go to the White House and say, Mr. President, you can't do this anymore. And that's the pressure that we're trying to provide. And since these Republicans are on the fence, hey, we thought, what's better than for them to hear from the generals themselves who served in Iraq and educate them and the voters that the president can't protect this country?

OLBERMANN: OK, to the gang of 11, while we have you here, you've got Congressman Dent, you've got Congressman Kirk and nine others going in there yesterday, as Tim Russert reported, and basically reading the riot act to the president. Do you sense, finally, as Dana Milbank just said, that this might be a turning point, that this might actually change things?

And if so, what is needed next from the public?

SOLTZ: I don't think it's the turning point. I think it's a step forward. When Jack Murtha came out, that was considered a turning point. Today with the generals' ads, that's a turning point. I think what it's about is that these Republicans are sort of surrounded politically, and they want to get out of this idea that they've stood with the president.

And the longer the Democrats hold up an idea of what the second plan's going to look like, the more political trouble these Republicans are in, and they're trying to slide out. So I think that they're moving closer to the Democrat position and closer to a position that is going to call for a responsible redeployment and the destruction of al Qaeda. But they're not there yet, and it's going to take a long, long time, and unfortunately, it might take the removal of this president from the White House in 2008 to completely end the war in Iraq and defeat al Qaeda in the war on terror.

OLBERMANN: Jon Soltz, chairman of As always, thanks for your service...

SOLTZ: Thanks so much.

OLBERMANN:... and thanks for your time.

SOLTZ: Appreciate it. Thank you.

OLBERMANN: Alberto Gonzales is back before Congress tomorrow. All new developments, all new scandals. Apparently, virtually the same old opening statement, nearly word for word, that he gave the Senate last month.

Speaking of President Bush, he goes to the Kansas town destroyed by a tornado, into the state whose governor says her National Guard is crippled by Iraq.

You are watching Countdown on MSNBC.


OLBERMANN: We intended tonight to bring you a preview of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's testimony tomorrow before the House Judiciary Committee.

But in our fourth story, despite new evidence, despite new Republican skepticism, despite new testimony shifting the onus for the U.S. attorneys purge away from Gonzales onto the White House, despite all of this, our review of Mr. Gonzales prepared testimony for the House tomorrow reveals it is almost exactly the same as the prepared statement he sent to the Senate on April 17.

Next time, get a row of stamps and mail it in.

The cut-and-paste job so sweeping that tomorrow, he will refer to the same events of, quote, "recent weeks" that he referred to three weeks ago.

Here, in a Countdown exclusive, some of tomorrow's testimony today.


ALBERTO GONZALES, ATTORNEY GENERAL: In recent weeks, I've met or spoken with all of our U.S. attorneys to hear their concerns.


OLBERMANN: This just in. Other than two dropped paragraphs, his prepared testimony tomorrow about the U.S. attorneys is 99 percent word for word what he sent in writing to the Senate panel. In fact, Gonzales will repeat his claim that the firings represented a consensus of his top aides, despite recent reports that those aides have testified to limited or no role in the firings at all.

And he has not added any explanation for new revelations from, the details of which we get now from David Shuster, who is covering all these developments for us from Washington.

David, good evening.


OLBERMANN: What exactly are the new revelations? What will the House Judiciary members want to know about them, given that Mr. Gonzales apparently thought last time went so well, he's sticking with the same script, literally?

SHUSTER: Yes, the issues revolve around the mounting evidence that the White House was deeply involved in the firings of the prosecutors. The story refers to an e-mail by the attorney general's spokesman. In that e-mail, the attorney general is described as being deeply upset that a deputy told investigators U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins in Arkansas was dismissed to make room for an aide to Karl Rove.

According to the author of the e-mail, Gonzales was upset because he, the attorney general, believed U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins was replaced strictly because of performance issues. That might have been the end of this, except Time reports that Gonzales' former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, has told investigators a very different story.

According to Sampson, Gonzales was upset because the deputy, by reporting to Karl Rove's aide, exposed the White House's interest in the dismissal of Cummins. Again, there have long been suspicions that White House officials, including Karl Rove, were deeply involved, and those suspicions have (INAUDIBLE) reinforced recently. All of Gonzales's top deputies, as you mentioned, have said they had no idea why the U.S. attorneys were fired, and that six of the U.S. attorneys had no performance issues whatsoever.

The latest allegation about Gonzales, and a possible cover-up, will provoke a string of questions tomorrow about Gonzales's conversations with White House officials. The last time Gonzales testified, though, he said repeatedly he could not remember conversations on this very issue with President Bush or with Karl Rove, Keith.

OLBERMANN: He may, in fact, say, I refer to you my lack of recollections of April 19. You (INAUDIBLE), you know, it's standard on the Hill, obviously, to use this kind of boilerplate statement if you're testifying before multiple panels in multiple houses in the space of a month. But on such a sensitive and fast-changing and fast-moving scandal, are there not several developments in just these past weeks since he spoke to the Senate that might have merited some kind of new explanation?

SHUSTER: Yes, absolutely. I mean, you can start with the revelation we learned a week ago that Karl Rove was actually coaching Justice Department witnesses as far as their testimony to congressional investigators in March, and Rove never told these witnesses about his own role, thereby prompting the witnesses to mislead Congress, I mean, that revelation underscoring Rove's key status in all of this, that's one issue.

Another is the Gonzales explanation, which will continue tomorrow, that all of the firings were justified on performance-related issues. That's an even more tenuous argument to defend now that the people who worked for Gonzales and supervised the U.S. attorneys have all told investigators that six of the U.S. - six of the eight U.S. attorneys had no performance issues whatsoever.

Furthermore, we now have a document showing that Gonzales quietly delegated Justice Department hiring and firing authority a year ago to two aides whose job description specifically entailed having them coordinate with the White House. So for Gonzales to stand by his performance issue defense on the heels of this new evidence of White House influence, well, that's also raising eyebrows.

A third issue, Keith, is the very fact that Gonzales's testimony last month went over so badly with Republicans. I mean, it's unusual for somebody to do as badly as Gonzales did, hear about it from his own party, and then consciously repeat the same testimony, even repeat some of his explanations almost word for word.

Democrats believe Gonzales is deliberately not putting forward any changes in his story line no matter how ridiculous his testimony now sounds because President Bush has made it clear that Gonzales is not going anywhere. Gonzales can say, I don't recall, as many times as he wants. The president has made it clear Gonzales is not going anywhere. That's what should make this hearing tomorrow, Keith, so confrontational, especially compared to the one last month, Keith.

OLBERMANN: Alberto Gonzales? Never met him. Oh, you mean I'm Alberto Gonzales?

David Shuster. As always, great thanks, David.

SHUSTER: Thanks, Keith.

OLBERMANN: The return of wildfires in the West, hundreds fleeing their homes, and some landmarks in jeopardy.

And O.J. Simpson kicked out of a steakhouse, now claiming the owner chucked him out because of his race, because there could be no other reason somebody might find him repugnant, correct?

Ahead on Countdown.


OLBERMANN: On the night of NBC's Tim Russert's exclusive report that 11 Republican Congressmen spent 75 minutes at the White House telling the president the truth about Iraq and America, a report we will recap presently, the president's mission today, quote, to hopefully touch somebody's soul.

And when you're more I don't than Idol, where do you go? Broadway?

Mo Rocca, currently treading the boards himself, will join us to assess. Those stories ahead. Now, here are Countdown's top three news makers of this day.

Number three, Vernon Wells of the baseball's Toronto Blue Jays, vehemently, but good naturedly heckled by fans in Cleveland sitting behind his position in center field. Wells threw the group an autograph inscribed baseball. The inscription, dear Mr. Dork, here is your ball. Can you please tell me what gas station you work at so when you are pumping my gas, I can yell at you. Now sit down, shut up and enjoy the game. Signed, your favorite center fielder. The Cleveland fans say they like Vernon so much they're going to drive to Detroit in September to see him play there.

Number two, the bride, the groom and 30 guests who celebrated a wedding at a restaurant in Villache (ph) in Austria. They finished their feast and as desert was being delivered all 32 of them promptly stood up and ran out without paying. The old wed and dash.

And number one, Michael David Schreiber of Marrowville, Indiana. The 22-year-old spent the night drinking and naturally enough ended up at the local graveyard tipping over tombstones. He decided he would knock over a really big one, a thousand pounder. The results? The letter V from the family crest on that tomb stone is now imprinted on Schreiber's thigh and oh yes, he was pinned underneath until morning, and both his legs were broken. I ain't afraid of no ghosts.


OLBERMANN: We already know it is the time of the tornadoes again. But there are 23 days left until the start of hurricane season. But in our fourth story on the Countdown, this year Andrea would not wait. She is the first named storm of 2007, subtropical disturbance less than 100 miles from the Georgia coast, with winds of up to 45 miles an hour. A tropical storm watch was in affect for parts of Georgia and Florida, although forecasters expect Andrea will not strengthen and likely not pose much of a threat.

If Andrea does worsen though, survivors can at least look forward to assistance from the cheerleader in chief, who views his job in times of crisis, in his own words, as one of lifting people's spirits and touching their souls. That was his self-professed goal in visiting Greensburg, Kansas, today, where survivors are busy lifting debris, and touching base with anyone who can help them with substantive help.

Governor Kathleen Sebelius saying, yes, her state has no immediate needs, but that the war in Iraq will likely slow the rebuilding of Greensburg, due to the drain on the Kansas National Guard. Our correspondent is Lee Anne Gregg.


LEE ANNE GREGG, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A warm welcome from a community that's lost nearly everything. President Bush traveled to Greensburg to talk with survivors and see for himself what is left of this town. The tornado, one of the strongest on record, ripped apart 95 percent of Greensburg, leaving the schools, hospitals, post office and nearly every home and business in ruins. Now the focus is on what's next?

GOV. KATHLEEN SEBELIUS (D), KANSAS: I think we have an incredible opportunity here to actually rebuild a better footprint, to really upgrade and update.

GREGG: President Bush promised cooperation with local governments and that help will come quickly.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My mission is today to lift people's spirits as best as I possibly can, to hopefully touch somebody's soul by representing our country.

GREGG: With so little left, those who live here, now faced with a cleanup, are grateful for the few belongings that survived the storm and for any help that might come their way.

Lee Anne Gregg, NBC News, Leesburg, Kansas.


OLBERMANN: Another weather-related crisis still ongoing tonight, though there was cause for optimism late today. Officials in Los Angeles reporting a massive wild fire there spurred by dry conditions, threatening homes and Hollywood symbols alike, had been 50 percent contained. Although officials do not suspect arson, the cause of the blaze remains unknown. The sight of it however will likely not be easily forgotten. Peter Alexander has been tracking the fire and the efforts it, as well as similar wild fires elsewhere in the nation. Peter, good evening.

PETER ALEXANDER, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Good evening, Keith. The fire is still smoldering at this hour and crews are focused on targeting hot spots. And while it's 50 percent contained, it caused quite a square scare here. One of the biggest fires to hit this area in nearly 50 years.


ALEXANDER (voice-over): Before dawn the skyline above the City of Angels was lit by flames. The 800 acre fire storm raced toward million-dollar homes, forcing 300 residents to evacuate. All were allowed back today. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa surveyed the damage from the sky.

ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA, MAYOR OF LOS ANGELES: We are prepared to do whatever it takes to protect life and property.

ALEXANDER: The flames threatened some of LA's most famous landmarks, including the Griffith Observatory. The Hollywood sign was just a canyon away. This aerial assault lasted for most of the day. Two air tankers and four water-dropping helicopters, all focused on preventing this fire from spreading any further.

Hundreds of fire fighters helped on the ground.

CAPTAIN PAUL SILVER, LAFD: This time of year it's very dry. If we don't hit it that hard, it's going to just take off and it's going to be uncontrollable.

ALEXANDER: Southern California is suffering a historic drought. With less than four inches of rain in the last 12 months, this is the driest year on record.

(on camera): The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

It's unclear right now whether it was an accident or arson. Keith?


OLBERMANN: Peter Alexander, thanks. The backlash against the Paris petition. Another petition, to hell with Hilton. And here are the replacements for her role of famous for being famous, well, exactly the same amount of personality, ahead on Countdown.


OLBERMANN: Oft it is argued that young Americans are robots, whether they are kids listening to rap songs about the injustice of the system, recorded by guys who have used the system to make millions, or their kids who have somehow been sold 108 dollar jeans that they are supposed to perch low enough to allow everybody to see their underwear. Our number two story on the Countdown, a unique suggestion proposed on how to restore the children turned automatons. Turn them not into robots, but onto robots. Our correspondent is Bob Faw.


BOB FAW, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Metals clash, gears whir, frenzied spectators bellow as 344 high school teams compete with robots they assembled in the super bowl of smarts. In the arena which hosted this year's final four, this competition is every bit as fierce.

(on camera): This is really cutthroat, no holds barred.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's really intense stuff.

FAW (voice-over): Eight thousand students, brought here by the inventor of the Segway and others, who say we need to celebrate science and technology more than sports and entertainment.

DEAN KAMEN, SEGWAY INVENTOR: The goal of FIRST from day one has been very simple, change the culture of the United States.

FAW: This winter, 10,000 high schools, like George Westinghouse, in a tough Brooklyn neighborhood, built then fine-tuned robots from materials provided by major corporations.

JONATHAN ALARCON, STUDENT: This has given me the key to the door I need to open in the future.

FAW: But dreams take a back seat to competence at the finals, where female competitors take a back seat to no one.

HANNA SACKS, STUDENT: We're kind of a force to be reckoned with now.

FAW (on camera): You're not intimidated?

SACKS: Not at all. Come back, come back, come back!

FAW (voice-over): Here, where they are told charge hard, but do so graciously.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You compete like crazy, but you treat your opponents with respect.

FAW: The assembled brainiacs treat organizer Camen like a rock star because he believes that is exactly how the country should treat them.

CAMEN: What we have to do is have them develop a passion, an excitement to excel at things besides bouncing a ball.

You're a winner because of this experience.

FAW: After all the hoopla, the kids from Brooklyn went home without a trophy, but hardly losers.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm going home with more respect and I'm happy about that.

FAW: Here, where robots are a means to an end, and young minds are the true super stars.

Bob Faw, NBC News, Atlanta.


OLBERMANN: Whatever you do with your kids, keep them away from Paris Hilton. That's the segue into our nightly roundup of celebrity and entertainment news, Keeping Tabs. Miss Hilton, having fired and rehired her publicist, has now apparently added a new attorney to her team, Richard Hutton. describing him as a celebrity DUI lawyer. Well that sounds like a super job.

Miss Hilton has already issued a statement through Mr. Hutton. The Hilton/Hutton combo says she takes the issue of driving under the influence seriously and is ready to face the consequences, quoting, "I do not expect to be treated any better than anyone else who violated probation. However, my hope is that I will not be treated worse."

Meanwhile, a new petition is up on the Internet, this one meant to counter the free Paris Hilton petition. This one asks Governor Schwarzenegger to not pardon her.

It probably will never get to this stage for Paris Hilton, unless she turns prison snitch, but O.J. Simpson has been thrown out of a Louisville restaurant for being O.J. Simpson. Owner Jeff Ruby said that the night before last Saturday's the Kentucky derby, Simpson came in as part of a group of about 12. Another diner came up to Mr. Ruby and said he was, quote, giddy about getting to see Simpson in the flesh.

That made Ruby sick to my stomach. I didn't want that experience in my restaurant. He then went to Simpson and said, I don't want to serve you. Simpson, Ruby says, did not reply. So Ruby repeated himself. And Simpson then graciously said he understood and left. He may have understood, but his attorney does not. Yale Galanter says this was a racial incident and that Mr. Ruby, quote, screwed with the wrong guy; he really did. We are waiting for Mr. Galanter's follow up statement, explaining that as the guy's lawyer he had to say something in Simpson's defense, and the racial crap was the only thing he could think of at the time.

Who knew? Sanjaya voted off and suddenly the "American Idol" finalists are worse than he was? And still headed to Broadway? Mo Rocca, himself a Broadway star, joins us. But first time for Countdown's latest list of nominees for Worst Person in the World.

The bronze to Dick Morris of Fox Noise gain, claiming that because Mitt Romney and John McCain both got slightly more time during last Thursday's Republican debate here on MSNBC than did Rudy Giuliani, this was a, quote, deliberate act by MSNBC and and Chris Matthews to deny Giuliani the nomination.

First of all, we have the power to do that? Second, a deliberate act? Have you ever actually worked in television, Dick? Our only deliberate act was the desperate struggle to get the damn show on and off the air on time.

The runner up, Phil Kent, writing an op-ed in the "Washington Times," repeating the lie that the media watchdog group Media Matters for America is funded by George Soros, even though all funding records prove that is flatly untrue. The sounds like a repetition of the stuff Bill O'Reilly made up. That's because it is. The newspaper is now using as its sole source on a story Bill-O.

But our winner, Henrietta Holsman Fore, whom President Bush plans to nominate to succeed the guy who had to quit as head of the U.S. Agency for International Development because of the D.C. madam scandal. Well he's got a winner here. Twenty years ago, she gave a speech at Wellesley University, for which she was then a trustee, in which, according to the "New York Times," she described as her experience as a businessman, the trouble she said she had, quote, keeping black assembly line workers from going back to the streets to earn more money selling drugs.

She added that Hispanic workers were lazy, white workers resented having to work with machines and Asians were very productive, but likely to leave to move on to management jobs. Head of the U.S. Agency for International Development; you're wasting her there Mr. president. This woman has United Nations ambassador written all over her! Henrietta Holsman Fore, today's Worst Person in the World.


OLBERMANN: It can only be a matter of time before "American Idol" the musical appears on Broadway. The actors playing the trio of judges will sing their critique. The Ryan Seacrest character will get to fly around the stage like Peter Pan. And all the contestants will be played by actual "American Idol" finalists from the past six or 12 or 17 seasons of the show.

Until then, Broadway is paving the way in a sense. In our number one story on the Countdown, already employing a half dozen former AI finalists. There's Frenchie Davis in Rent with Tamyra Gray joining her, Anthony Federov in "The Fantastics," Diana DeGarmo in "Hair Spray," Constantine Maroulis in "The Wedding Singer" last year, and even "American Idol" winner Fantasia in the "Color Purple."

This weeks final four may have nothing to worry about. They can always get jobs handing out copies of playbill. Even though they struggled with many of those Barry Gibb tunes, most of them not even born when the Beegees turned John Travolta into a disco king in "Saturday Night Fever," or when Mr. Gibb and Barbra Streisand were guilty.



SIMON COWELL, "AMERICAN IDOL": Lakisha, no kiss tonight, baby.


COWELL: Best performance so far. We're back in the competition.



OLBERMANN: I am joined now by television personality Mo Rocca, who's currently starring in one of Broadway's excellent incarnations, the 25th annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Good evening, Mo.

MO ROCCA, TV PERSONALITY: Good evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN: I've been informed by those Idol people who inhabit my workplace that these former finalists on Broadway run the absolute gamut from this Fantasia, who's gotten pretty solid reviews in the "Color Purple," Constantine Maroulis, who was good at making people wince - maybe that was the point since she was in the "Wedding Singer." Is there some underlying principle that explains Idol to Broadway?

ROCCA: Broadway is a way out for fallen Idols, much in the same way that the NBA is the way out for kids in many of our urban neighborhoods. This is why you have Fantasia in the "Color Purple" and Constantine Maroulis, who should have been in a production of Zorba, the whole Greek thing.

You have Ruben Studdard coming up in a revival of "Cats." You have Clay Aiken playing Teddy in "Fiddler on the Roof" and Bucky Covington in "Macbeth." So it's not just musicals. This is a place for fallen Idols, the best of them.

OLBERMANN: Sanjaya is Clarence Darrow. I was joking about the musical, the "American Idol" musical, but why not. Could you have been convinced that a musical based on Abba tunes would be a hit, or it was just recently announced that "Spider-Man" is going to become a Broadway musical. Spidey will be swinging and singing. Is "American Idol" though safe from imitation because its already got such a strong parody going of itself?

ROCCA: Well, hopefully not. Look, Fox has teased us by airing "American Idol" only two or three times a week. And until they bend to the will of the American people, and spin off a channel that's all Idol all the time, we are going to have to get our Idol fix on Broadway. As far as "American Idol" the musical, I think we should start a little more modestly. I like something like Soul Patrol, The Taylor Hicks Story, sort of a musical bio-pic. I also like the idea of bringing the judges in, maybe a "My Fair Lady," with Simon and Paula, or an "Emperor Jones" with Randy Jackson. There's a lot of potential there.

OLBERMANN: Somebody teach Paula Abdul to enunciate in English.

ROCCA: I love that.

OLBERMANN: Let's write that up right now. Let's copyright that between us right now. We don't have this Sanjaya guy any more. Actually we do. He is also destined for a Broadway show. Or is he more likely to show up in an advertisement for shampoo and conditioner first?

ROCCA: Well, Broadway insiders are telling me that Sanjaya is a lock for revival of "Hair." Expect a very pitchy "Age of Aquarius." But, on a more serious note, you know that I was one of the early Sanjanista leaders. The Sanjanistas, of course, were a rag tag army of Sanjaya supporters. And we were always misunderstood in the press. We did not like him because we thought he was a freak like William Hung. Or we didn't think he was a great singer like Kelly Clarkson.

We thought that he represented something larger, this lone Indian-American is facing up to Simon, the snooty Brit. It was really like Gandhi and the viceroy 60 years later. It was an exciting struggle. Without it, the show has really lost a larger narrative, I think.

OLBERMANN: We can't let you go without asking about the president and the queen of England meeting and the queen starting at the formal dinner that she hosted with: I wonder whether I should start this toast by saying, when I was here in 1776. Then she laughed. She laughed out loud. Does the queen always get the last word? Mo?

ROCCA: Well, at the White House, Dick Cheney always gets the last word. You know that, Keith. I think that the president was just being particularly gracious in this case. I imagine he had Dick Cheney's permission before he gave the queen the last word.

OLBERMANN: Mo Rocca, television personality, now star of Broadway his own self.

ROCCA: Be careful about Blake Lewis. He's very, very dangerous. In my blog, [link], read all about. I endorsing Jordan Sparks.

OLBERMANN: Appearing in the "25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," and his own blog. Many thanks Mo.

ROCCA: Thank you.

OLBERMANN: Before we go, let us recap the extraordinary news from the White House, exclusively reported tonight by NBC's Washington bureau chief Tim Russert. Eleven Republican Congressmen met yesterday for 75 minutes with President Bush, Secretary of Defense Gates, Secretary of State Rice, Karl Rove, Tony Snow, and others, an unvarnished conversation about Iraq, led by Representative Mark Kirk of Illinois and Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania.

One veteran Congressman telling Mr. Bush my district is prepared for defeat. We need candor. We need honesty, Mr. President. Another quoted as telling him the word about the war and its progress can not come from the White House or even you, Mr. President. There is no longer any credibility. It has to come from General Petraeus. And the president responding, I don't want to pass this off to another president. I don't want to pass this off, particularly, to a Democratic president, underscoring that he had a sense of how serious the situation had become politically, if not necessarily militarily. Tim Russert reporting exclusively tonight for NBC News.

That's Countdown for this the 1,470th day since the declaration of mission accomplished in Iraq. From New York, I'm Keith Olbermann, good night and good luck.