'Countdown with Keith Olbermann' for Feb. 20
video 'podcast' (partial)
Guests: Jonathan Alter, Richard Wolffe, Eugene Robinson
KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC ANCHOR: This is a special report from MSNBC in New York. I'm Keith Olbermann. We interrupt Hardball to tell you that the "New York Times" is reporting on its Web site tonight that top advisors to Senator John McCain have, quote, "intervened to protect the candidate from himself," unquote, to keep a 40-year-old Washington lobbyist named Vicki Iseman away from Senator McCain because in the words of the "Times" correspondents they became, quote, "convinced the relationship had become romantic."
The "Times" says both Ms. Iseman and Senator McCain deny there's any kind of romantic relationship. What exactly the relationship is between the 71-year-old McCain and 40-year-old lobbyist who is representative of several firms whose business has come before the Senate is unclear at this point, but the "Times" has broken in onto its Web site with this extraordinary story that reeks of so many in history the day after Senator McCain won the Wisconsin primary not by a huge margin over the challenger, the Republican nominee presumptive John McCain victory in Wisconsin last night.
The best source on this story is obviously what the "Times" has reported by itself that most of this took place eight years ago. To read the article compiled by Jim Rutenberg, Marilyn Thompson, David Kirkpatrick and Stephen Labaton. In Washington is the dateline, "Early in Senator John McCain's first run for the White House eight years ago, waves of anxiety swept through his small circle of advisors. A female lobbyist," the article continuing, had been turning up with him at fundraisers, in his offices and aboard a client's corporate jet. Convinced the relationship had become romantic," the article continues, "some of his top advisors intervened to protect the candidate from himself, instructing staff members to block the woman's access, privately warning her away and repeatedly confronting him. Several people involved in the campaign said on the condition of anonymity."
This, again, we're reading from the "New York Times" report on Senator John McCain and his relationship or past relationship with a lobbyist named Vicki Iseman. To continue the article, "When news organizations reported that Mr. McCain had written letters to government regulators on behalf of the lobbyist's clients, the former campaign associates said some aides feared for a time that attention would fall on her involvement. Mr. McCain, 71, and the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, 40, seen there, both say that they never had a romantic relationship," the Times reports. "But to his advisors, even the appearance of a close bond with a lobbyist, whose clients often had business before the Senate committee McCain led threatened redemption and rectitude that defined his political career."
The article continues later on to quote William Cheshire, a friend of McCain who as editorial page editor of the "Arizona Republic" defended him during the Keating 5 scandal, the savings and loan scandal of the late '80s you may remember. The quote from Mr. Cheshire, "He is essentially an honorable person but can be imprudent."
Our Kelly O'Donnell is following the campaign of Senator McCain in Toledo, Ohio, where this bombshell is resonating even as we speak. Kelly, good evening. What have you got for us from Toledo?
KELLY O'DONNELL, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: Well, it is very limited right now, Keith. I spent a lot of time with Senator McCain today riding on his campaign bus. At the moment he is traveling here from Aurora, Illinois. There are times on the campaign trail when a candidate goes off to a fundraiser. He did that this evening, even though he's campaigning in Ohio. I have not been able to see him since this hit "The New York Times" Web site. My attempts to reach out to his close associates, have not received an answer yet. That may in part be because they may be on the plane with him.
To give you the larger picture, again reinforcing that what "The New York Times" is reporting here is not about this current campaign cycle. The details that you just went through are all about what happened eight years ago, allegations that they tried to flesh out in this story. Senator McCain when he became aware of reports along this line that the story was being prepared by "The New York Times" came out and flatly denied anything inappropriate. He was apparently very agitated by that. He retained counsel, Robert Bennett, a well-known Washington lawyer.
So to sum this up right now, we're not getting anything new from the campaign just yet. I'll continue to work that, of course. But what this tries to suggest and the biggest picture is that McCain, who is putting so much of his candidacy about trying to clean up Washington, trying to have less government spending, a lot of the fundamental things that he stands for, any question of a relationship with a lobbyist, even just doing favors, he denied ever doing any favors, does put him in a difficult position. Obviously this changes the dynamic of the campaign trail. We'll have to press him on this. We'll have to get reaction. As you know, Mike Huckabee has remained in this campaign. One of the things he has often said is you just never know when something is going to happen that might alter the dynamics of the race. So Mike Huckabee is someone we need to reach out to as well. This is all unfolding now. The McCain people prior to this being published had said that there was nothing to it. We'll be tracking it down to get additional details, Keith.
OLBERMANN: Additional details will be most need, Kelly. Thank you kindly. Kelly O'Donnell at Toledo, Ohio. Let me flesh out a few more moments from this "New York Times" article as Kelly O'Donnell works the McCain campaign there in Ohio. "In interviews," the article reports, "two former associates said they joined in a series of confrontations with Mr. McCain warning him he was risking his campaign and his career." This again dating back to 2000 and 2001. "Both said Mr. McCain acknowledged behaving inappropriately and pledged to keep his distance from Miss Iseman. The two associates who said they had become disillusioned with the senator, spoke independently of each other," says "The New York Times," "and provide details corroborated by others. Separately a top McCain aide," the "Times" reports, "met with Ms. Iseman at Union Station in Washington."
So now we have the element of cloak and dagger involved in all this, "Met with Miss Iseman", says the "Times" at Union Station in Washington to ask her to stay away from the senator. John weaver, a former top strategist, now an informal campaign adviser said in an e-mail message," that would be an e-mail message to the "New York Times," "that he arranged the meeting after," quote, "'a discussion among the campaign leadership'" unquote, "about her."
To continue "The New York Times" reporting on this story. "Our political messaging during that time period centered around taking on the special interests and placing the nation's interest before either personal or special interest," Mr. Weaver continued. "Miss Iseman's involvement in the campaign it was felt by us could undermine that effort. Mr. Weaver added that the brief conversation was only about her conduct and what she allegedly had told people which made its way back to us. He declined to elaborate."
Richard Wolffe of "Newsweek" magazine and a frequent contributor to our programming here at MSNBC joins us now by phone from Austin, Texas. Richard, did the political world see this story that has broken tonight on the "New York Times" Web site about John McCain and an untoward, if untoward is meant simply in the unethical sense, a possibly untoward relationship with a lobbyist, did anybody see this coming?
RICHARD WOLFFE, "NEWSWEEK" (on phone): This story has been talked about inside Washington for a long period of time. There was a lot of controversy about "The New York Times" holding it, about why they weren't going to print with it. I have to say I don't know why they pushed the button on it now. People have been talking about it for a long time saying it gets into the questions of ethics, about his relationship with lobbyists, of course as a personal dimension as well. It's been the subject of gossip in Washington like I said for several weeks if not months.
OLBERMANN: Give us a brief recap why this particularly resonates, assuming from what the "Times" reporting suggests this is not a romantic relationship but some sort of close relationship with a lobbyist representing firms that did business or had to be approved by Senator McCain's committee or indeed just was taken in front of the senate. Why is that particularly damaging to John McCain? Why is it particularly relevant and how is it tracks so far back into the past of the Keating savings and loan scandals of the '80s and '90s.
WOLFFE: Well, I think you have to go back to a sort of underlying narrative of John McCain approach to business, lobbyists and corporate influence in Washington. Yes, it starts with the Keating experience which was a searing one for him. But it takes you to the 2000 campaign. And the 2000 campaign for John McCain was really centered, hinged around the idea of campaign finance reform which ended up annoying a lot of people in his own party but also what he called the iron triangle of lobbyists and money that dominated Washington. That's still an important theme for him and will be an important theme for him as the Republican nominee.
I mean, one of the things that Democrats have been beating up the Republicans about has been lobbyists' influence and money in politics. With John McCain as the nominee that would normally take it off the table. This story raises questions, obviously, about his own relationship with lobbyists and that opens up the issue again for Democrats but is also is obviously an ethical question that McCain himself is going to have to deal with.
OLBERMANN: And as we remember most distinctly from a year and a half ago, Karl Rove after the Republican Party lost Congress in the midterm elections, the extraordinary midterm elections of 2006 said the Democrats had won and the Republicans had lost not because of the war in Iraq, not because of any anti-Bush feeling but because of the series of ethical scandals into which prominent Republicans found themselves dragged. This by itself will have what kind of affect both on John McCain's presumed clear road to the nomination and also on the Republican's path towards the general election. What kind of impact will it have, do you think?
WOLFFE: Again, just to pick up the 2006 campaign. Of course, Jack Abramoff, the sort of super lobbyist was a key figure in many of those Republican scandals in that election. And John McCain, as a matter of pride has been saying, look, I took on Jack Abramoff on a whole range of issues and made a number of enemies, not just with Abramoff but with his entire circle in Washington. Again, it raises questions about his record there. Not because he was involved with Abramoff but just in terms of what kind of reformer, what kind of clean hands he has.
And more broadly moving forward, look, the people who dislike what John McCain had done on campaign finance reform inside the Republican Party, inside the conservative movement will also jump on this and say he is the sort of reason that we had our doubts about him. They may be hypocritical because they have been on the wrong side of some of his attention, his investigations on these issues but those questions are something he still has to bet down since he hasn't technically locked down the nomination.
OLBERMANN: What does this do relative to Governor Huckabee's candidacy. We heard earlier about continuing faith in a miracle that Governor Huckabee had been maintaining as his justification saying he's still in the race even though it's now mathematically impossible for him to garner enough delegates to garner the Republican nomination instead of John McCain.
What does this do to the Huckabee campaign? How on earth can he utilize this without seeming to be exploiting it? And is there going to be a backlash against Huckabee because people may wonder, now, if you're praying for a miracle that might let you back into the presidential race and suddenly one of them pops up, maybe the two things are not miraculous. Maybe they're not even coincidental.
WOLFFE: Well, it's obviously not divine intervention, it's the "New York Times." And most Republicans would enjoy targeting the "New York Times" as part of the liberal media establishment or whatever you want to call it this month. The problem for Huckabee is how you use it, how you try to exploit it and trying to do it and whether it's unseemly to do it in an aggressive overt fashion.
But it does reinforce Huckabee's argument for needful reform, for someone outside Washington to come in and clean it up.
Which is very much as it happens the Democrats' argument and Senator Barack Obama's argument.
Huckabee, as you say has a long way to go and it's really not clear, even with this kind of story that he can do anything about John McCain.
OLBERMANN: Richard, we all remember - with sometimes searing flashbacks of where we were 10 years ago this month, just about this time of year but a couple of weeks of from the exact decade mark when the Monica Lewinsky story broke involving President Clinton, the uncertainty about what that involved and what the outcome of that would be.
I'm not asking to draw any parallels between the two stories because what's in the "New York Times" does not suggest there are not parallels. There are explicit denials. There are concerns that there might have been some sort of a romantic relationship but there are explicit denials from both. There is no charge of that by the "New York Times" but in the environment that we have today, where does this story go as of an hour from now or 12 hours from now?
WOLFFE: Well, of course, people, some people, especially certain Web sites are going to be focused on the personal aspect to this. But really what's much more important is what it says about John McCain's relationship to lobbyists and to business interests inside Washington at a time when he's presenting himself as a candidate of reform who has taken on lobbyists like Jack Abramoff.
So I think where the media takes it, what other examples, if any, what is the extent of him doing lobbyist work and doing their bidding if indeed he has even on this story.
And I suspect that's going to have to be unraveled over several weeks. That's going to be an unclear, murky position about who drafted what, who had what access to him and that takes him right through this period on the Senate Commerce Committee.
OLBERMANN: Richard, standby. Richard Wolffe of "Newsweek." We're coming up to the top of the hour, 8:00 Eastern Time. 5:00 Pacific where we're going to start our Countdown broadcast.
To recap this for you briefly, "The New York Times" is reporting a female lobbyist had been turning up with Senator John McCain at fundraisers during the previous campaign for the presidency in 2000. And some of his top advisers had intervened to protect the candidate from himself, instructing staff members to blocking the woman's access to McCain because they feared the relationship had become romantic.
Good evening again, Keith Olbermann reporting. This is Countdown on MSNBC. "The New York Times" is reporting tonight on its Web site and that story posted within the last hour that top advisors to Senator John McCain had, quote, "Intervened to protect the candidate from himself, to keep a 40-year-old Washington lobbyist named, Vicki Iseman, away from Senator McCain during the 2000 campaign for president because on the words of "The Times" correspondents, they became, that is the Washington insiders associated with John McCain, hey had become convinced, quote, "The relationship had become romantic." "The Times" says, both Ms. Iseman and Senator McCain have denied that there was any kind of romantic relationship. Whatever the relationship was between the senator from Arizona and the 40-year-old lobbyist for the firm of Alcalde and Fay, represented telecommunications companies for whom Mr. McCain's Commerce Committee was pivotal, according to "The Times". Her clients contributed tens of thousands of dollars to his campaigns. The article from "The Times", a considerably lengthy one, posted by Jim Rutenberg, Marilyn Thompson, David Kirkpatrick and Stephen Labaton and several of the top reporters at "The Times", concluded here that this female lobbyist, Ms. Iseman have been turned up with him at fundraisers, in his offices, and aboard a client's corporate jet convinced the relationship had become romantic. Some of his top advisors, and "Times" reports, intervened to protect the candidate from himself.
I'm joined again by Richard Wolffe of "Newsweek" and frequently of MSNBC, who's in Austin, Texas and joining us by phone at this hour. And Richard, the phrase here: Protect the candidate from himself. Intervene. This sounds, this sounds eerily familiar to we harkened back to the efforts from members of President Clinton's staff to try to keep Monica Lewinsky away from him 10 years ago and more. Those are eerily similar uses of the language, are they not?
RICHARD WOLFFE, NEWSWEEK (by phone): Yes, they are. And this is very delicate phrasing from "The New York Times". I know that one of the big concerns in terms of "The New York Times" going to print with the story was that the denials from both the central players that there was any romantic relationship involved. But clearly, "The New York Times" is reporting here that there was something else going on, at least in the minds of the people who are closest to John McCain. You don't protect a candidate or a politician from himself if there aren't strong grounds for people thinking that there was something to protect him from. So, they tiptoed around it very carefully, but the hints, the suggestions are clear. And remember, this prompted a very strong, robust rebuttal from John McCain when the story was first rumored to be ready for publication several weeks ago. So, I would suspect that we're going to get more of the same strong denials from John McCain moving forward, now that they've missed (ph) to print.
OLBERMANN: Right. And the denial at this point simply says that Mr. McCain, 71 and lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, 40, both say they never had a romantic relationship. Before I read the rest of that paragraph from "The Times" story about this relationship between the presumptive Republican nominee for president of the United States, John McCain, and this lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, 40-years-old, working in Washington, D.C., let me turn now to Jonathan Alter of "Newsweek" magazine, an editor there. Jon, good evening to you.
JONATHAN ALTER, NEWSWEEK: Hi, Keith.
OLBERMANN: Lay this out for me, give me an idea of what we're talking about and why this resonates, not just in terms of the 2000 campaign which seems, literally, ancient history, as ancient as the Egyptian pyramids, but why does this echo beyond that one and into this race?
ALTER: Well, first of all, we don't know how much it resonates. Sometimes these stories land with a lot of impact and they become one or two-day stories and then, they fade. And I have a sense that that might be case with this because my experience covering these stories of alleged sexual involvement over the years. And it goes back to, you know, Gary Hart and Donna Rice back in 1987, is that you do have to either have some sort of really incriminating physical evidence like, you know, Donna Rice sitting on Gary Hart's lap. Or one of the parties, like say Jennifer Flowers coming forward and saying that there was some sexual contact. Without that, the sex stories, they don't really have legs not to make a bad tone (ph). And so, this story right now is lacking that. And both parties deny there was any sexual activity. So, I don't think that part of the story, which is really what fuels these things, because let's face it, people are more interested in sex than they are in telecommunications lobbying activity. Since that what fuels this, for this story to continue and to really cause serious damage to McCain's campaign, it would have to have more developments coming out now. And I wouldn't rule those out. But there's no indication of them. Remember, this story has been in preparation for quite some time. I first heard about it over the Christmas holiday. There were rumors about it all through American journalism and the assumption was, "The Times" didn't have enough quite enough to go to print. Now, they've clearly now decided otherwise. And it will be interesting to find out why they made that decision.
OLBERMANN: And obviously, if there is resonance, if it's amplified to some degree, because this is not just Senator McCain, and not just Senator John McCain, presumptive Republican nominee but this is John McCain of McCain-Feingold, ethics above reproach and a man who was early in his relatively early in his senatorial career burn by the savings and loan scandal and seemingly becoming the white knight of ethics since. And the point as "The Times" said and I'll read it again directly from their story on this. That after the denials of any romantic relationship, quoting again: "But to his advisers, even the appearance of a close bond with a lobbyist whose clients often had business before the Senate committee Mr. McCain led threatened the story of redemption and rectitude that defined his political identity." In other words, whether or not there was anything untoward in terms of his marriage, there may have been the appearance of impropriety between him and the lobbyist which may even strike a stronger dagger politically. It might have not?
ALTER: Well, it might. I was covering that campaign quite intently in 2000. I've spent a lot of time with John McCain that year and actually, this issue of his relationship with lobbyist did surface. He had to go on "Nightline" with Ted Koppel and answered questions about it, because there were some letters coming out of the Senate Commerce Committee during the 2000 campaign that raised some questions about whether he was as pure in his, you know, criticism of the rule of lobbying in Washington as his campaign would suggest. He weathered that, what at the time it was seen as a flap. And since what we're talking about now are concerns that are eight years old. Again, I don't think it's really likely this is going to somehow, you know, change the dynamic enough that Mike Huckabee for instance, gets into this contest. But I'm always willing to be surprised and frequently am in politics, Keith.
OLBERMANN: Yes, but here's my point. We're going to talk to Pat Buchanan specifically about this in a moment. But let me try it out on you first. In this of all Republican races, where there has been such adamance that this is the wrong candidate by, obviously, a minority group in the Republican Party but a powerful, boisterous and seemingly tireless minority group on the Republican Party. Is this not the perfect storm for John McCain in the worst sense of that phrase, that if anything is going to be picked and run with, it's the story that involves campaign contributions to John McCain, plus, a woman 30 years his junior, plus, campaign staffers intervening to protect him from himself, plus, material information, lobbying that was done in front of his own Senate committee. Is this not something that whether there is a there there, will be carried along as if there is a there there, if not by Mr. Huckabee then by those who want to see somebody other than Mr. McCain be the Republican nominee, even at this late date?
ALTER: Well, I think that's an excellent summary of the political challenge that John McCain faces right now. But he's got a 600-delegate cushioned in order, you know, to survive this. So, as long as you don't have a drip-drip-drip, I think you can get pass it. But you're absolutely right that this gives a lot of ammo to his Republican opponents and more important, arguably, to Barack Obama, should he be the nominee. We've already noticed that on several issues, Obama is working on a theme of John McCain as hypocritical on torture, because he voted for a bill recently that was quite different and his attitude toward waterboarding and what he had enunciated previously on finance campaign reform. Clearly on taxes, Obama has gone after McCain for being a hypocrite on that. That you know, he was against the Bush tax cuts eight years ago, and now is for them. You may see this relationship with lobbyists turn up in some of what Barack Obama has to say as he turns his attention to what he now is assuming will be a general election campaign against John McCain.
OLBERMANN: Jonathan Alter of "Newsweek" and MSNBC. We'll ask you to standby as we continue to try to and again not to, these are inevitable. Plus, this out, I'm going to pose this same questions now to Pat Buchanan, MSNBC political analyst, himself, a member of several cabinets and a speech writer for Mr. Nixon, presidential candidate. Pat, if this doesn't sound like d'j... vu all over again, I don't know what does. Tell me what your sense is of this article and its potential impact on this campaign from cursory read of it?
PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST (by phone): From what you've said, Keith, this refers back to a story that just before Christmas ran on drudge. And the story was, that "The New York Times" reporters had done a lot of digging and had a connection between Senator McCain and this woman who is a lobbyist and it implied that there was a connection between the two. It did not say romantic, but both the woman and Senator McCain had apparently gotten lawyers and Senator McCain had talked to a Bob Bennett, the famous lawyer who now has a book out and who's I believe was a defender of Bill Clinton, that Bennett had talked to "The New York Times," I hope I'm getting the facts right as I recall them, and told them this is an awful thing to do, to drop a story like this of days or almost hours before the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary on January 8th. And that they had persuaded "The New York Times" and owner of "The Times" to in effect pull the story and they didn't run with it. And people have been talking since then, whatever happened to that story.
So, one question you've got here, Keith, is did "The New York Times" have this, deliberately withhold it when it really would have been a problem for McCain in the New Hampshire primary, perhaps could have cost him that if there's any substance to it. And then hold it until after he'd won the nomination. The second question is the one you're raising is: What exactly is being alleged here? I did not recall of it being eight years ago, but the fact that his aids were, you know, keeping John away from someone eight years ago, doesn't seem to be a serious matter or a big story. I mean, eight years ago, this lobbyist, the woman was apparently 40 years old.
Both of them deny any kind of relationship. And so, what it implies, the only reason you would bring something like this up, especially "The New York Times" which does not deal frankly, and you know, in personal matters, much it all it buries (ph) them even the Clinton era. What it implies is some kind of favors done by the Senator McCain or it suggests that favors done by Senator McCain for the firm or for the outfit this lobbyist represents. But nothing you have said thus far, from what have read and I've had not read it, really makes that direct linkage or direct charge.
They sort of just leave it sitting out there. So, this seems to me to be:
if this is all they have, it seems to be terribly unfair. And if there is more, why isn't it in the story? And if they have this and they thought it was serious, why did not "The New York Times" come out with it earlier? I mean, there's an awful lot of questions here, not simply, I mean, if Senator McCain denies it and the woman denies this any kind of relationship, what do we have here? Do they suggest something was done a favor was done by Senator McCain or his committee? I mean, I haven't seen that or heard that. So, I think this story raises more questions than it answered right now.
OLBERMANN: With that taken as the absolute limit of the story, what's
on the Web site now is pretty much the way you describe it, that it alleges
that members of the campaign staff fearing this had become some sort of
romantic relationship, stepped in to keep the candidate in 2000 away from
the lobbyist. And that's -
BUCHANAN: All right. Keith, let me, right there, between you and me, so what? If people out (ph) the campaign, if there's some gal on the campaign and somebody is attracted to her, they say, keep him away from her, we don't want any rumors and we got enough problems with all what's going on in South Carolina that need not have any rumors about that or anything. I mean, it seems to be not worthy of a "New York Times" story.
OLBERMANN: That may be a valid criticism and you and I maybe in the same end of that analysis in terms of media criticism. What I want to know from you from practical points of view is: Where do Republicans in this party, at this point, who still do not sit with the idea of John McCain as their nominee, where do they move on this, or can they not move on this?
BUCHANAN: This freezes the line backers. Here's what will happen in my judgment, Keith. Look, if you're a candidate here, you do not touch this. If I were Mike Huckabee or Governor Romney, who didn't end his campaign, I think he simply suspended it, you simply say, my knowledge of John McCain is this is a man of honor and integrity. And if he says nothing happened here, I believe John McCain, I don't know why "The Times" is doing this. And they haven't made any hard allegations. And I'm not going to touch it. If I were Obama, here's where I disagree with your former, our friend up here, just whom you just spoke to.
OLBERMANN: Jon Alter, yes.
BUCHANAN: Yes, Jonathan Alter. If I were Obama, I would not touch it either. If there's something here, it's up to the press. It's up to "The New York Times" now, having raised suspicions to come forward with something. And as for a candidate, you don't go after someone else on appearances of something when no allegation has been made. And there's nothing he's got to answer right now. And if I were Obama and Hillary, I would stay away from it. I would stay away from it if I'm Huckabee. I would watch what's going on and say just you and I are saying, look, we don't have enough to go on now. Would you turn over a couple more cards, or do you have any?
OLBERMANN: We'll see if everybody has that kind of restraint that you and I have, Pat. I'm not sure we can hope for that, but perhaps, this time, we would have learn a lesson on it. Pat Buchanan, MSNBC political analyst. Great thanks, Pat.
BUCHANAN: Thank you, Keith.
OLBERMANN: And we'll have more on this breaking story from "The New York Times" tonight.
Up next: Chuck Todd, about what this could mean to the other GOP candidates, as Pat Buchanan mentioned, even Mitt Romney, suspended but did not end his campaign, of Mr. Huckabee's miracles. We will hear much more right here on Countdown, next.
OLBERMANN: Continuing our breaking news coverage of "The New York Times" report about the possibility of an improper relationship between John McCain and a Washington lobbyist during his 2000 run for the presidency. A female lobbyist that been turning up with him at fundraisers, reports "New York Times" in his offices, aboard a client's corporate jet, convince the relationship had become romantic. Some of his top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself. More details and the reaction of Chuck Todd, NBC News political director, when Countdown continues after this.
OLBERMANN: Continuing with Countdown and the breaking news tonight hitting the campaign for John McCain for president. As we've been reporting within the last hour, "The New York Times" posting a report on its Web site that during his previous run for president in 2000, a circle of top advisers to Senator McCain, quote, "Intervened to protect the candidate from himself," unquote, in order to keep a 40-year-old Washington lobbyist named Vicki Iseman away from the Arizona Republican because those advisers were, in the words of "The Times" correspondents, quote, "Convinced the relationship had become romantic." "The Times" says, both Ms. Iseman and Senator McCain have denied there is any kind of romantic relationship or was any kind. Political reporters telling us tonight that rumors about this report had been circulating for quite some time. In fact, Mr. McCain denied them to the Politico.com Web site in December of 2007. No word in "The New York Times" about whether there was kind of quid pro quo between Senator McCain and the lobbyist, Ms. Iseman, no fun is intended there. Many of her clients apparently had business that was handled by many of the senator's committees in the Senate. And we have many questions raised in the wakes of tonight's revelation. NBC News political director, Chuck Todd joins us now from Washington. Chuck, good evening.
CHUCK TODD, NBC NEWS POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Good evening, sir.
OLBERMANN: All right. Where does this go from here in terms of the Republican primary race? Is there reason to suspect that there might be more of a Republican primary race tonight than there was an hour ago?
TODD: Well, you know, I think the reaction of one person that I'll be curious of tomorrow is Rush Limbaugh. And I think you were implying this earlier on your conversation with Pat. Those, you know, those conservatives who have some angst over John McCain, is this the excuse to try to sabotage his candidacy or is this an opportunity ugly enough for McCain to make lemonade out of lemons in this respect? This is "The New York Times" going after what some in the conservative group I believe is the media's golden boy Republican, John McCain. And, you know, will there be some sort of - well, look, you know, there goes the big media again. Here goes, you know, (inaudible) that "The New York Times" is coming after; anybody that stands in the way of the Democrats, even go after John McCain. And is there an opportunity ugly enough for McCain to sort of win over some conservatives simply by saying, you know, look, I'm in the line of fire. Clearly, you know, I now see what you're saying when it comes to the media and scrutiny.
OLBERMANN: So, it increases his bona fide days by written up in this way by "The New York Times", but this does that not presume that this is not the tip of an iceberg but rather simply a piece of ice floating in the water? I mean, if there's more to the story?
TODD: Well, that's exactly. No, and that's the thing. If this is the story, and I agree with Pat, if this is it, and when you read it, I mean, you know, factually, you're sort of going, ten year old allegation? The whole thing, you know, even not knowing the rumors of it, when you read this story, you say to yourself: Huh, or "The New York Times" isn't one that just immediately very up high to say deny having an affair. There's this feeling that they didn't include everything that they think they know or everything that they know, so you do. This is not sort of "New York Times" style to write about sort of sexual innuendo like this unless there's some other stuff. And that's what I think that, you know, if you're the McCain campaign, you sort of going and you're reading the story and you're thinking: This is it, whew. You know, this is a 10-year-old allegation. Everybody has denied. This is, you know, look at the timing and they could point to that. This feels like a story that they could get around. And you know, look, it's a first test for John McCain as the presumptive nominee. So, we'll certainly get an idea of how his campaign is.
OLBERMANN: And of course, I'm reminded of painful to some of us here particularly that that, I'm sure would have been what anybody associated with President Clinton would have said have they read the initial versions of the 1998 "Newsweek" story about Monica Lewinsky and the relationship between the intern and the president at that point, not trying to make a parallel between those two stories. But in terms of what gets published and why. I mean, it's a media thumb-sucking question, it becomes fascinating in that regard. But what is in the paper right now, does it have any merit as a story? Is it a campaign issue? Is it a reopener to the Republican process if you have these components involved? And clearly all of these are mentioned: Lobbying in front of his own Senate committee by someone who was to whom he had some sort of personal relationship; an intervention on behalf of campaign staffers and again, this is the 2000 campaign; campaign contributions going from her clientele into his presidential campaign; and this dissatisfaction by a third more of Republican Party, especially its extreme conservative base with McCain even now pointing up to the fact that in Wisconsin last night, his margin over Mike Huckabee who mathematically cannot win the nomination was barely larger than Barack Obama's margin over Hillary Clinton, and one of the greatest struggles for a nomination we've ever seen. Are those not enough combustible elements to get, not that we are rooting for this, but is there not enough there to make a fire if not a forest by it?
TODD: Well, considering the wackiness of his campaign, you know, I don't want to rule anything out in that regard. And there's certainly plenty of time to end the process and rules and plenty of so called uncommitted delegates. So, sure, anything can happen if disaster struck John McCain with this story. But as the facts stand now, it looks like, you know, a bad news day. Something that McCain and you know, knowing sort of how John McCain handles stuff like this, you know, it's very likely he's one of these folks that will immediately confront it. I mean, look at how aggressive he was on this story when it was simply a drudge leak. It wasn't even in the so called mainstream media at the time. And so, you could almost sense John McCain holding a press conference tomorrow, doing nothing but taking 35 minutes of questions on this topic and almost saying, OK, here it is. Here's all my dirty laundry, I've aired it. You know, are you really going to have another day of this story?
OLBERMANN: And there are no Republican superdelegates. We might add here.
TODD: Well, there are a few technically, but you don't want me to get on that.
OLBERMANN: Not enough to do what this, if there were a Democratic version of this, this is what those superdelegates could intervene with. There's not enough (INAUDIBLE) reconstruction (ph).
OLBERMANN: All right. Chuck Todd, NBC News political director who will reappearing with us later on this hour. Thank you, Chuck. Standby.
The headlines in the Democratic race for president tonight: Another big night for Senator Obama, creating an even bigger uphill climb for Senator Clinton. Chuck will weigh in with a look at the delegate math. And an extraordinary comment from Bill O'Reilly even for him, the quote, "I don't want to go on a lynching party against with Michelle Obama unless, just a week ago, the president urged to everyone to remember, lynching is not an acceptable term. It does not apply to him, we suppose. Countdown continues.
OLBERMANN: As Republican nominee presumption John McCain and those covering him scramble to make sense of a "New York Times" report tonight of a relationship eight years in the past between the senator and a female lobbyist that made the campaign staffers of 2000 feel the need to intervene to protect the candidate from himself. Headlines from the Democrats tonight on Countdown. Barack Obama's camp today saying it looks virtually impossible for Hillary Clinton to overtake him in the delegate count when you add up all the numbers, which we will do.
And tonight, unbelievable, even by the lack of standards of Bill O'Reilly, talking about a "lynching party against Michelle Obama." And he still has a job. Countdown continues.
OLBERMANN: The big headlines tonight for the John McCain campaign were supposed to be about his win in last night's Wisconsin primary. Instead this hour, there is breaking news on the "New York Times" Web site reporting a relationship between Senator McCain and a 40-year-old lobbyist named Vicki Iseman during his last campaign for president in 2000. A newspaper that does not usually find itself reporting news of this sort saying that a circle of top advisers to Senator McCain at that point quote intervened to protect the candidate from himself in order to keep the 40-year-old Washington lobbyist, Vicki Iseman away from the Arizona Republican because those advisers were, in the words of Times correspondents, "convinced the relationship had became romantic."
The "Times" says both Ms. Iseman and Senator McCain deny there's any kind of romantic relationship. We'll continue to cover this story as developments warrant.
As to the Democrats, 258 days until the election. If you've just run a gauntlet of 11 days in which you average nearly one primary or caucus victory per day and if your opponent's husband, a former president, tells supporters in Texas that they don't deliver for her in the primary there, he doesn't think she can be the nominee - you may not either want to tempt fate nor the wisdom of Yogi Berra. You may officially say it ain't over 'till it's over.
In our third story on the Countdown tonight, it might be over. Senator Barack Obama adding Hawaii to his win column, his 10th straight victory since February 9th early this morning. With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Senator Obama, born and raised in Honolulu, taking 76 percent of the vote in the Hawaii Democratic caucus. Senator Clinton the other 24 percent.
Final numbers in Wisconsin, Obama 58, Clinton 41, a 17 point margin. Facing numbers like that and exit poll demographics no more encourage President Clinton this afternoon getting blunt in Beaumont, Texas.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If she wins in Texas and Ohio, I think she'll be the nominee. If you don't deliver for her, I don't think she can be. It's all on you.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: As for what it would take to win in Ohio, Senator Clinton's lead in the Buckeye State cut in half in the last week with two more weeks to go. What is now a nine point margin over Senator Obama in a Survey USA poll, 52 percent to 43 percent had been 17 points just last Tuesday - 56, 39.
Keith number, 8.7 on both pollings. The latest polling done before the results of the Wisconsin primary were even known. Today in New York City, Senator Clinton barely pausing to acknowledge defeat in Wisconsin and Hawaii. After briefly congratulating her opponent, she went back to attacking him. Her weapon of choice? A variation of the fear card.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This is the choice we face. One of us is ready to be commander in chief in a dangerous world. Every day around the world, situations rise that present new threats and opportunities. Situations like the change of leadership in Cuba and the elections in Pakistan.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: Also on the agenda for the Clinton campaign in New York this morning, trying to raise money. The senator, attending back to back fundraisers at the Dakota Building, Mark Ambinder of the "Atlantic" reporting that allies of the senator are canvassing big money donors in hopes of forming a 527 political action campaign, or committee rather, to buttress her standing in the must win states of Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania. Their goal, according to the "Atlantic," to raise at least $10 million by next week via pledges of up to $100,000.
Asked by Countdown to comment on the report, Clinton spokesman Hilary Perry telling us quote, "We can't comment on a 527 since we have no involvement with them." Senator Obama raising his money the new fashion way via the Internet. Having raised $36 million last month, a campaign source telling TalkingPointsMemo.com it expects to raise another $36 million in February and will soon report that it has passed the $1 million donor mark. As for the negative attacks that have been coming his way this week, today in Dallas, Senator Obama said about disputing Senator Clinton's charge, that he offers more style than substance.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Contrary to what she's been saying, it's not a choice between speeches and solutions. It's a choice between a politics that offers more of the same divisions and distractions that didn't work in South Carolina and didn't work in Wisconsin and will not work in Texas or new politics of common sense, of common purpose, of shared sacrifices and shared prosperity. It's a choice between having a debate with John McCain about who has the most experience in Washington or having a debate about who's most likely to change Washington because that's the debate we can win.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: After Wisconsin and Hawaii, Senator Obama building on his lead in the NBC News hard count with 1,168 delegates. Senator Clinton 1,018 - 53 delegates still unallocated in states that have already voted.
For more on the delegate map, let's turn again to our political director Chuck Todd. Chuck, thanks again for your time tonight.
CHUCK TODD, NBC NEWS POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Yes, sir.
OLBERMANN: As if the hard pledged delegate count were not enough, I understand Senator Obama picked up some superdelegates today?
TODD: Three more of them. You know, he's really moved that number up quite a bit. He's picked up, I believe now since Super Tuesday, February 5th, he has picked up 15, she has lost four - a net of 24. Her superdelegate lead, which at one time was approaching 90, is now down to 67 by our count. And it's possible, when you add that all together, Obama is at 150 pledged delegate vote lead. Throw in the supers and he has about an 80 overall delegate lead, the combine delegate total. But everybody I've talked to in that campaign and that Obama campaign, they think they will get some 20 new superdelegates, endorsements before March 4 so he may have a hundred delegate plus lead overall before March 4.
OLBERMANN: All right. So that means what in terms of percentages? What does she need to do? How big does she have to win Ohio and Texas and then Pennsylvania?
TODD: Well it's interesting. When you sit here and try to do the math, the math is not impossible but it is improbable. She has to win some 65 percent of delegates in all states that she wins. Particularly if you see some of the states, March 4 going forward, that Obama will win even on his worst day - Vermont is one of them, North Carolina probably. I mean he has five or six states that are left that he will definitely win. So when you throw those out, she's at a 65 percent clip.
In some cases, you have to win sometimes 70 percent of the vote in order to get 65 percent of the delegates. Very difficult. So instead frankly the Clinton campaign strategy isn't to try to overtake him on delegates, it's to overtake him on perception. It's this hope that even if they only win by one vote in Texas and Ohio and Pennsylvania, as long as they're winning, they suddenly introduce this idea that Obama maybe can't get elected in November and they talk the super delegates into making the switch.
OLBERMANN: And to that, what is this new Clinton campaign Web site?
The delegate hub?
TODD: Well look they are losing this delegate spin war badly. The Obama people have been on top of this delegate fight, have been on top of sort of dictating the terms of how the math should be counted, how delegates should be counted. Literally, this is the umpteenth thing that the Obama people have outmaneuvered the Clinton people tactically. The Clinton folks are now trying to desperately sort of reframe how this delegate fight should be covered and even including saying hey, by the way, did you know the magic number is actually 2,218 if you count Florida and Michigan? So they are trying to reframe the delegate fight because they really have been outmaneuvered by the Obama campaign.
OLBERMANN: If we count everybody whose name sounds like delegate, we could also raise the number a little bit further, too. Chuck Todd, political director, NBC News. Double duty with us tonight. Thank you.
TODD: It's a delegate situation.
OLBERMANN: Better you than me. Clinton and Obama debate tomorrow night of course. Our special Countdown coverage begins upon its conclusion at 10:00 p.m. Eastern, 7 Pacific. Richard Wolffe, Howard Fineman, Rachel Maddow, Pat Buchanan. If you must, watch it there, but understand it here.
Coming up, the reference to Michelle Obama by Bill O'Reilly that is
beyond relief. Quote, "I don't want to go on a lynching party against
Michelle Obama unless there's evidence." O'Reilly still employed, not even
suspended after suspending that. And if Obama had never made the lynching
reference, he would still have made it into worst persons as he winds up
saying that FOX News is not a responsible news agency.
OLBERMANN: Bill O'Reilly's quote "lynching party against Michelle Obama," next.
First time for our number two story tonight, Countdown's worst persons in the world. The bronze to Frederick Denmark of Tampa, Florida. He is an Elvis impersonator. Police say his next number could be "Jailhouse Rock." He got the American Legion Post 138 there to host a benefit concert for him last September. Locals raised two grand for him plus clothes and household items all to replace that which he lost in a house fire. Problem was, there was no fire, no hunka hunka burning love.
The runner up, E.D. Hill of FIX News. There are three different versions of Michelle Obama's proud sound bite. The first one read, "For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback." Second, "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country," et cetera. Plus, a version with the word really garbled. Plus Mrs. Obama's explanation today.
E.D. Hill chose none of the above. Pretending to quote Michelle Obama and saying quote, it's very deliberately worded and slowly said, "I have never been proud of America really until now." If you can't remember the quote, read it off a piece of paper or go into some line of work for which you might be suited, like announcing the departures and arrivals at the bus station.
Speaking of which, our winner. A double header tonight for Bill O'Reilly. The other should get him suspected. This one will probably get him in trouble with his bosses. Complaining that NBC and MSNBC used a sound bite of the Obama supporter at whom President Clinton pointed a finger at a campaign trail. Now there are plenty of nuts on the campaign trail, but you don't legitimize them if you are a responsible news agency. However NBC News gave Clinton guy air time. Immediately there after, Sean Hannity put the Clinton guy on his FOX Noise show as a live guest. Remember Sean, you don't legitimize them if you're a responsible news agency. That's Bill O'Reilly as today declared that FOX News is not a responsible news agency. Oh and one other note, there are plenty of nuts on the campaign trail. Really, whatever do you mean?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: Hey Senator. That's really low class pal, really low class. Everybody in the world will see it. He senator, a word please. Senator, a word please. Senator, we came all the way up to see you.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: Bill O'Reilly, today's worst person in the world.
OLBERMANN: On February 12, celebrating black history month, President Bush said some Americans do not understand the effect that references to nooses and lynching can still have. A month earlier, Golf Channel sportscaster Kelly Tilghman said in order to have any hopes of defeating him, the younger rivals of the game's greatest player may want to quote, "lynch Tiger Woods in a back alley." She apologized. Woods said he took no offense and considered her a friend and she accepted without protest a two week suspension.
But in our number one story tonight, Mr. Bush's most prominent TV cheerleader did not merely ignore the president's plea for restraint on this exact issue, nor glean any guidance from Kelly Tilghman. Bill O'Reilly spoke on national radio for metaphorically lynching a black person, a black woman and not just any black woman. First Mr. Bush's remarks from just last Tuesday.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: For generations of African-Americans, the noose was more than a tool of murder. It was a tool of intimidation that conveyed a sense of powerlessness to millions. The era of rampant lynching is a shameful chapter in American history. The noose is not a symbol of prairie justice, but of gross injustice. Displaying one is not a harmless prank. Lynching is not a word to be mentioned in jest.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: O'Reilly yesterday acting on his radio show as though he were defending Michelle Obama, shooting down a listener's claim that she is an angry woman by saying he must investigate first to decide that for himself, then claiming he has sympathy for her and other public figures such as Bill Clinton leading up to this clip, which we have not edited in any way. The operative word in this may not in fact be lynching, it may be quote, unless.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
O'REILLY: They're thrown into a hopper where everybody is waiting for them to make a mistake, so that they can just go and bludgeon them. Ands you know, Bill Clinton and I don't agree on a lot of things and I think I've made that clear over the years. But he's trying to stick up for his wife. And every time the guy turns around, there's another demagogue or another ideologue in his face trying to humiliate him because they're rooting for Obama. That's wrong. And I don't want to go on a lynching party against Michelle Obama unless there's evidence, hard facts that say this is how the woman really feels. If that's how she really feels, that America is a bad country or a flawed nation. Whatever, then that's legit. We'll track it down.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: Let's go now to Eugene Robinson, political analyst for MSNBC and both columnist and associate editor at the "Washington Post." Thanks for staying with us, Gene.
EUGENE ROBINSON, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Good to be here, Keith.
OLBERMANN: I'm sorry it's under these circumstances.
ROBINSON: As am I.
OLBERMANN: Can you convey what Mr. Bush apparently failed to get through to everybody, some sense of the obscenity, the moral obscenity involved in a national discussion of whether to launch a lynching party against the black woman married to the black man running for president?
ROBINSON: I think you kind of said it, Keith. That's the offense. You know what lynching was? Lynching was a horrific practice of murder, torture, dismemberment, burning alive, hanging, and the only purpose of lynching was to perpetuate white supremacy in the Jim Crowe South.
It wasn't - the idea of course wasn't to lynch all black people, but by lynching a few black people, not a few, by lynching some black people, to demonstrate to other African-Americans that this could happen to you. That you have no power. That we have all the power and that we can take anything we want from you, including your life.
There's nothing funning about lynching. There's certainly nothing at all funny or remotely appropriate about the use of a lynching reference to talk about Michelle Obama and the word unless, followed by we'll track it down, is way beyond the pail. I'm almost speechless. But I have more to say, of course.
OLBERMANN: As we both do. Hey, you're right. This is about disenfranchising people. It wasn't just about killing people. The rest were disenfranchised and people were essentially told black people will not take office, there will not be people in government.
ROBINSON: You will not vote. You will not own property that we don't want you to own.
OLBERMANN: We will not do anything. How many incidents like this does it take? And the Silvio's restaurant story and more iced tea now seems to lose all but one of its interpretations. How many of these stories does it take before a fair observer concludes this man is not color blind, he is not reckless with language, he has that insidious kind of low grade prejudice that we see in ordinary American society still, low grade prejudice against black people.
ROBINSON: Well this is enough for me. But here's what's going to happen. By tomorrow morning, some defender will come out and say "I know Bill O'Reilly and he's no racist." And my response is, I don't care. How can anyone know what's in his heart, what's in his soul? That is irrelevant to me. All you can go by is his words and his actions. And he keeps saying these things that sound pretty darn racist to me.
OLBERMANN: He's not going to apologize, he's not going to stop because the moment he would do that, he'd have to admit that he was wrong, there was a reason for him to stop. I mean, do people have to then start nevermind talking to him, but talk to people who are keeping him on the air? Call Westwood One, the radio proprietors of his show, or his boss at FOX News Roger Ailes or the advertisers and say get rid of the guy, suspend him, whatever, or give up being accepted in 21st century American society where this is not tolerated anymore?
ROBINSON: Well I think that's what happens. I think frankly that's basically what happened to Don Imus. And the reason he lost his job at MSNBC and CBS although he's now back on the radio. I think television is a bit different from radio. I don't know that this will create a huge splash. Radio is a more kind of - it's a medium where people can kind of be alone with their prejudices and so it might just slip by.
OLBERMANN: I hope not. Eugene Robinson of the "Washington Post" and MSNBC. Especially under the circumstances, thanks Gene.
ROBINSON: Good to be here, Keith, see you tomorrow night.
OLBERMANN: As we've been reporting this story, a story on the "New York Times" Web site tonight reveals a relationship between Senator John McCain and a 40-year-old lobbyist named Vicki Iseman during the last campaign for president in 2000. The senator and the lobbyist both denying there was a romantic relationship. There is a statement now from Senator McCain's press contact quoting the senator as saying in full, "It is a shame that the 'New York Times' has lowered its standards to engage in a hit and run smear campaign." "John McCain," the statement says on McCain's behalf, "has a 24-year record of serving our country with honor and integrity. He has never violated the public trust, never done favors for special interest or lobbyists and he will not allow a smear campaign," second time that phrase has been used, "to distract from the issues at stake in this election. Americans are sick and tired of this kind of gutter politics and there's nothing in this story to suggest that John McCain has ever violated the principles that have guided his career."
Setting the bar pretty high in the denial, we'll see more on this story throughout the night tonight on MSNBC and certainly all day tomorrow. This is Countdown for this, the 1,757th day since the declaration of mission accomplished in Iraq.
A quick programming reminder, our special post-debate edition of Countdown begins tomorrow night at 10 Eastern. If you must watch it there, we will be here to help you understand it here. I'm Keith Olbermann. Good night, and good luck.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END