Wednesday, December 23, 2009

'Countdown with Keith Olbermann' for Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009
video podcast

Guests: Kerry Sanders, John Yang


LAWRENCE O'DONNELL, GUEST HOST (voice-over): Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?

The backlash from the left: President Obama defends the health care bill. He says he didn't campaign on or promise a public option.

Meantime, one Democratic senator says the public option could make a big comeback next year. This as the GOP claims the Dems are using fuzzy math in paying for the reform bill.


SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), ALABAMA: If a private company had done this, a president of a private company and proposed such a bogus scoring system, they would be going to jail.


O'DONNELL: The death panel chatter is back. Instead of feeling shame for uttering the lie of the year, Sarah Palin rewrites history to justify her attacks.

The Republicans pick up a Democrat in the House. But how can the GOP embrace him after spearheading attacks like this?


NARRATOR: Parker Griffith, shameful conduct. He can't be trusted.


O'DONNELL: The nightmare before Christmas. As a massive blast of winter threatens holiday travel plans, a plane skids off the runway in a rainstorm in Jamaica missing the Caribbean Sea by mere feet.

And the nightmare year for Sarah Palin.


LEVI JOHNSTON, FORMER FIANCE OF BRISTOL PALIN: If I wanted to hurt them, you know, if I wanted to crush them, I could.


O'DONNELL: Our tribute to Levi Johnston's efforts to pull back the curtain and reveal the real Sarah Palin.

All that and more - now on Countdown.


SARAH PALIN (R), FORMER ALASKA GOVERNOR: He goes by the name Ricky Hollywood now.



O'DONNELL: Good evening from New York. I'm Lawrence O'Donnell, in for Keith Olbermann.

For the Senate health care bill: tonight was the final hurdle. In our fifth story on the Countdown: Democrats shut down the last obstruction Republicans could use prior to passage of the health care bill, now expected needing only a 51 vote, simple majority at 7:00 a.m. tomorrow morning, Christmas Eve.

The bill requires all Americans to purchase health insurance from private companies and partially subsidizes that purchase for only some of the people who cannot afford it. The Congress never even considered extending health insurance to all Americans.

Gone is the nonprofit government-run insurance plan? Democratic Senator Tom Harkin predicts Democrats will revisit the public option later.

But President Obama is downplaying it and the criticism from the left for dropping it - while the Progressive Change Campaign Committee reminds him of his earlier position in a new TV ad.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Any plan I sign must include an insurance exchange, including a public option, to increase competition and keep insurance companies honest.


O'DONNELL: President Obama is also under fire for telling "The Washington Post," quote, "I didn't campaign on the public option."

True, only if it depends on what the meaning of campaign is. He did not make a public option part of his stump speech or a slogan like "Yes we can," but he did campaign on the public option when addressing groups who cared about it, telling groups, like Health Care for America Now, he supported a public health insurance plan.

Here he is addressing Planned Parenthood.


OBAMA: In my mind, reproductive care is essential care. It is basic care. And so, it is at the center and at the heart of the plan that I proposed. Now, for those of you who are interested in the details - not plugging my Web site - but feel free to go to

But essentially what we're doing is to say that we're going to set up a public plan that all persons and all women can access if they don't have health insurance. It will be a plan that will provide all essential services, including reproductive services.


O'DONNELL: But the bill President Obama now wholeheartedly endorses restricts reproductive coverage and does not include the public option.

The campaign site, however, still says his plan, quote, "offers a public health insurance option."

But it was at the start of his campaign when he needed to rally progressives for momentum going into the Democratic primaries that he spoke most movingly and openly about why he would not only establish a public option, but why it was essential. And when he was asked about health care, the public plan was part of his response, as in the following answer to the editorial board of "The Des Moines Register" in the make-or-break state of Iowa the summer before the caucuses.


OBAMA: We're providing subsidies to people who can't afford health insurance. They have the option of buying into the government plan or they can go out on the private market. But we won't give the subsidy to pay for a plan that does not abide by these basic criteria. And as I've said before, I think insurers can play a legitimate role in the health care system. They should have a seat at the table in how we negotiate moving forward. They should not be able to buy every chair at the table.


O'DONNELL: As the Iowa caucuses loomed larger, President Obama ramped up the notion that he would sideline insurance companies, telling the audience at the Iowa Heartland Presidential Forum on December 1st, 2007, one month before the all-important caucuses, that he would not, quote, "completely eliminate private insurance, but would create the government plan."


OBAMA: If I were designing a system from scratch, I would probably move more in the direction of a single-payer plan. But what we have to do right now, because of people like Deirdre and her daughter, is I want to move to make sure that everybody's got coverage as quickly as possible. And I believe that what that means is we expand SCHIP. It means that we extend eligibility for some of the government programs that we have. We set up a government program as I've described that everyone can buy into.

We will not completely eliminate the private market because half of the people are still getting insurance from the private marketplace. But we will give them a choice so that if they feel as if they are being price gouged, they are going to have a legitimate alternative that they can access.


O'DONNELL: Candidate Obama flatly rejected the fundamental principle underlying the Senate bill he now supports, saying that he could not rely on private insurance alone to meet his goal of insuring all Americans.


OBAMA: It should be health insurance they can count on. We - and the notion that the private marketplace can take care of that is just not true.


O'DONNELL: One month later, Barack Obama handily won the Iowa caucuses, but the public option was not his only broken campaign promise on health care. The flip side of it: mandating the purchase of insurance. The original mandate was something he was on the record opposing when Senator Clinton proposed it.


OBAMA: If a mandate was the solution, we could try to solve homelessness by mandating everybody buy a house. The reason they don't have a house is they don't have the money.


O'DONNELL: Of course, if President Obama wanted to claim truthfully that he did not campaign on the public option, it would help if the public option had not appear in one of his own Internet campaign ads.


OBAMA: Everyone will be able to buy into a new health insurance plan that's similar to the one that every federal employee, from a postal worker in Iowa to a congressman in Washington, currently has for themselves.


O'DONNELL: Let's bring in Ezra Klein, who covers economic and domestic policy for "The Washington Post."

Good evening, Ezra.


O'DONNELL: Ezra, presidents break campaign promises all the time. But why did the administration think that today, with all this pressure on them from the left, the president could get away with saying that he had not campaigned on the public option?

KLEIN: It was a bad idea on a couple of levels. Number one, I reported on that plan when they brought it out, and then I talked to their advisors, and they brought up the public option to me a lot back then.

So, it's not like this was nobody noticed it. They put it in there.

They talked about it. They understood how to put it together.

But more to point, the problem Obama is having a problem right now, and the reason this was not wise, is he's making the left feels like he cut them loose, right? He's not saying, "Look, health care is very important, covering 30 million people is very important. I'm a president not a dictator. I couldn't get everything I wanted through Congress. We'll come back and try to make it better later."

But the left doesn't feel like he lost along with them. They feel like he essentially tossed a public option and then said, "You know what, I never really wanted it anyway."

O'DONNELL: And as far as I could tell in the Democratic primaries between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the only difference in governance going forward, they certainly had a difference historically on where they were on the Iraq war, but the only difference in governance going forward was that Hillary Clinton wanted an individual mandate on health insurance and Barack Obama was opposed to it.

He switched sides on that earlier this year without anyone seeming to notice or care. I'm surprised that it took this long for people to catch up with how many conflicts he is now in with his campaign promises on this, aren't you?

KLEIN: Well, I noticed and I cared. I mean, I was part of a group that thought that the way he acted and spoke about the individual mandate on the campaign trail was a catastrophe. What he said about homelessness and said I was flipped, and there's nothing to do with the way this plans work, and he had to accept it when he had to sit down and figure out, well, how is this plan actually going to work. There's a reason John Edwards and Hillary Clinton both had an individual mandate in their plans.

But, yes, I mean, I think that to a degree that has not been appreciated, I think presidents have a tough time sort of coming to people and saying, "Look, I'm president, not God, and I make changes and I make mistakes," and I think Obama would be better off today if he were explaining sort of the imperfections in the process and the way he adapted to them, rather than pretending that he's actually - this is actually a 100 percent victory for him.

O'DONNELL: Now, he has also said - and I'm going by memory here - in the campaign that he would pay for health care reform simply by allowing the top tax bracket to go back to where it was under Clinton, which wouldn't even require the passage of law. It's scheduled to do that already.

KLEIN: Right.

O'DONNELL: I don't think he said anything about, "I will cut Medicare in order to pay for health care reform," or, "I will come up with a half a dozen new taxes that no one has ever heard of," as the Senate has done, including a tax on union health plans, in order for people's health insurance. So, he's - it seems he's got a very large package of flip-flops on the pay-for side of this, doesn't he?

KLEIN: I'm not sure I would call them flip-flops actually. I think campaigns are always extremely vague on how they're going to pay for what they're promising. And when you start putting things before the CBO and realizing how much money you're actually going to need, things got real specific really quick.

So, I'm not - I'm not sure that he actually is flipping on this stuff, so much as he's, you know, having to deal with realities of being president. And I think that's part of what you're getting here. You know, it's a lot easier when you're campaigning to go before the different audiences, tell them what they want to hear, make - see what the Iowans need to know, tell them what they want to hear. And then suddenly, a president, and you got to do what Joe Lieberman just told you to do.

And I think the chasm between the president's promise and what we expect from them and then what they can actually do in office coming into sharp relief right now.

O'DONNELL: And according to the president and other supporters of the public option, it was intended to keep the insurance companies honest. What is in the bill now that can, in any way, police the insurance companies?

KLEIN: It's a lot of regulations. You know, the big thing here I would say is actually the exchanges. They have what's called credentialed purchasing authority. What it basically means is that if you want to participate in these big exchanges where there can be millions of customers, you have to follow the rules. And not only if you do follow the rules, but if the folks or the regulators running the exchanges don't think this is in the exchanges' best interest, that they don't like your premium increases, they can kick you out.

So, this is now about how strong the regulators are because they have pretty much total power over these insurers.

O'DONNELL: Ezra Klein of "The Washington Post" - thanks for your time tonight.

KLEIN: Thank you.

O'DONNELL: Also joining us tonight is California Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus.

Thanks for joining us tonight.

REP. LYNN WOOLSEY (D), CALIFORNIA: Thank you for having me.

O'DONNELL: I think you'll agree it's beyond dispute that President Obama campaigned on the public option. That's what he told the American people it's was going to be an essential ingredient of his health care reform bill, didn't he?

WOOLSEY: Well, I believed it, yes.

O'DONNELL: And you put out a press release today saying that the final bill must include the public option for you to vote for it in the House. That puts you in direct conflict with the Senate, with Ben Nelson, with Joe Lieberman, who say they won't vote for it if it has that, and therefore, it will never pass the Senate if I has a public option in it.

So, are you prepared to, in effect, kill the bill in the House of Representatives by forcing the public option in?

WOOLSEY: Well, I'm actually prepared to work with the conference and with the leadership so that we can mesh the House bill with the Senate bill, because, you see, there are two chambers in our Congress, the House of Representatives and the Senate. And our House of Representatives runs on a rule that the majority prevails and the Senate seems to run on a rule that the minority rules.

So, I think that if we want to represent this country of ours, we're going to have some kind of government option that will compete with the private insurance companies.

O'DONNELL: You will pardon me if I'd say that supporters of the public option out there now, that sounds like just talk. Can you tell us how you would get a bill with the public option through the Senate with 60 votes? I mean, if you want to tell us that you will come out of conference with a public option, you have to then be willing to tell us you're prepared to see that voted down in the Senate?

WOOLSEY: Well, see, I have to tell you that I'm prepared to give up the title public option for the conference coming out with a plan that will save money, like the public option does, it would actually save $110 billion in startup costs, and a choice of coverage that will provide competition to the insurance companies. Because otherwise, what this bill will do is benefit the insurance industry with 30 million new customers, the price also go up and up because we don't have controls over those when there's no competition, and they don't even - they're even - not even under the antitrust laws, the insurance industry.

So, we have to do something in the conference that will prove to the American people that we really do want this to be affordable for them, not just now, for new uninsured people, but forever and in the ongoing future for those who are uninsured now.

O'DONNELL: Now, if the conference comes back with the Senate tax on union health care plans, will you vote against the conference report?

WOOLSEY: Well, that is one thing I hope comes out. I would think that we could actually tax the wealthiest people in the nation for health care and leave working Americans free to have good insurance. The - actually, the labor groups have given up raises so that they can have good insurance benefits. Now, we're going to tax them on that?

O'DONNELL: Well, it's a tax the president supports, and he said he supports it when he addressed the Joint Session of the Congress. So, it looks like the president supports it, the Senate supports it, it's the only tax that will get 60 votes in the Senate.

So, once again - is the House of Representatives prepared to kill the bill in order to defeat the tax on union health care plans which CBO says will cut benefits in union health care plans?

WOOLSEY: Well, actually, the president also said in the State of the Union that he supported a public option. So, and he - that he.

O'DONNELL: Good point.

WOOLSEY: That would be part of it. So.

O'DONNELL: Representative - go ahead.

WOOLSEY: Well, I want to say that I believe that the paid-for on this one is one of the most debatable issues that we have before us.

O'DONNELL: Right. Representative Lynn Woolsey, Democrat from California - we thank you very much for your time tonight.

WOOLSEY: Thank you for having me.

O'DONNELL: Coming up: Sarah Palin's death panel comment on Facebook earns "Lie of the Year," and Palin actually returns to Facebook to defend her comments and rewrite history.

And later, the Republicans pick up a seat on Capitol Hill. Why Parker Griffith of Alabama said he'd had enough of the Democrats and decided to switch parties even after all the things the GOP said about him.


O'DONNELL: Coming up: the return of the death panels. Sarah Palin is called out for delivering the biggest lie of the year and she probably explains what she really meant to say. But she's lying about that, too.

That and the latest on the plane crash in Jamaica and the brutal blast of winter weather threatening to cripple planes, trains and automobiles.

All ahead on Countdown.


O'DONNELL: Just days after it was named political lie of the year, Sarah Palin not only manages to resuscitate death panel claims, she lies about it again.

Our fourth story on the Countdown: The rights' desperation sinks as Sarah Palin moves the goal post.

On the eve of the health care reform vote, the ex-governor of Alaska rewrites history on Facebook. "Senator Jim DeMint spotted one shocking revelation regarding the section in the bill describing the independent Medicare Advisory Board, which is a panel of bureaucrats charged with cutting health care costs on the backs of patients also known as rationing. In other words, Democrats are protecting this rationing death panel from future change with a procedural hurdle. Though Nancy Pelosi and friends have tried to call death panels the 'lie of the year,' this type of rationing, what the CBO calls 'reduced access to care' and 'diminished quality of care' is precisely what I meant when I used that metaphor."

But a Medicare commission isn't what Palin had originally described as a death panel. Back in August, she specifically cited the House bill's advanced care planning consultation - or end-of-life counseling as a death panel. "The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's death panel so his bureaucrats can decide based on a subjective judgment of their level of productivity in society, whether they are worthy of health care."

And as Think Progress points out, end-of-life counseling was not included in the Senate bill because of the uproar caused by Palin's lie.

Also echoing Palin's new and improved death panel survival, Sister Sarah's soul mate: Michele Bachmann. "Harry Reid slipped in a provision that made it virtually impossible to repeal part of this legislation and it's the part dealing with Medicare Advisory Board - what many people have labeled the death panels because these unelected bureaucracies will decide what we can and can't get in future health insurance policies, that's why they're called death panels."

Joining me now is the Washington editor for "The Nation," Chris Hayes.

Good evening, Chris.


O'DONNELL: Now, Chris, back in August, Palin's death panel met end-of-life counseling. Now, she's referring to a Medicare Advisory Board, a completely different thing.

HAYES: Right.

O'DONNELL: Is there any other politician who would try to get away with that much double talk?

HAYES: Well, I don't know - politicians are a double-talking bunch. I mean, I like the fact that it has now sort of moved from being a stipulation about an actual concrete piece of legislation to a metaphor. So, there's a sort of poetic aspect to what she's saying.

I think that, you know, one of the things that allows her to do is the point that Dave Weigel made on "The Washington Independent" today, which is that she has this - she's created this amazing system in which she interfaces with the press solely through Facebook posts.

There's no other public figure who is allowed to sort of get away with this, where they just put things up in writing and people write about it, and that she never does interviews after, you know - she's never held - hold a single press conference. I don't think she's held a single press conference. And so, she's able to able to put this stuff out. It gets in the bloodstream and she never has to actually answer for it in real-time.

O'DONNELL: She's the Greta Garbo of American politics now. Who knows what we would have heard from Garbo if Facebook had existed.

But, you know, I notice that she's slipping in now all these kinds of fancy government references, like CBO and all that government jargon that I guess gives what she's saying more credibility to her fans who don't even know what CBO is anyway, right?

HAYES: Yes. I mean, you know, it doesn't really quite hang together.

One of the things that's strange about the post is they have these

quotation marks and it's never clear what she's quoting, like the infamous

death panel thing was the level of productivity in this society. Well,

that - that one had never existed anywhere in the legislation. No one was

or, you know, in the claws of the legislation that she was saying.

So, it has this weird kind of - it's sort of fitting that it's on Facebook because it has this weird kind of like corners of the Internet where conspiracy theories are debated and hashed out. It has that kind of, you know, pretense of expertise to it.

O'DONNELL: And does it completely ignore what the real momentum in our politics is on health care? And that momentum is always for more, it's for extending coverage as this health care bill does. It extends coverage to more people, provides more health care for more people, and didn't we see in the recent flap over mammograms when there was.


O'DONNELL: . a recommendation come out that say we don't need to do as many mammograms as we're doing, and then, immediately, the political backlash to that was - no, no, we're not going to cut back on any mammograms at all. We're not going to cut back on care. That's really the way this government tilts, right?

HAYES: Yes. I mean, one of the problems America faces is this -

Shannon Brownlee wrote a great book about this, called "Overtreated," which is the fact that we have, the incentives of the entire system, not just government, private medical care as well, instead of the entire system, is to produce more care as opposed to better care. And, in fact, more care is often worse care because of unnecessary procedures carry risks.

So, you're absolutely right that those are the incentives and those are the ones that we have to attack. It has nothing to do with death panels or whatever else is on Sarah Palin's Facebook page.

O'DONNELL: Chris Hayes of "The Nation" on "Palin patrol" tonight - many thanks.

HAYES: Thank you.

O'DONNELL: Sarah Palin had her own personal death panel for her political career this year. It was chaired by Levi Johnston, his jaw-dropping year in Palin image tarnishing ahead.

And later, the plane crash in Jamaica, the American Airlines flight stopped just short of skidding into the sea. Miraculously, everyone made it out alive. The latest on the investigation - ahead on Countdown.


O'DONNELL: The newest Republican congressman, Parker Griffith, abused cancer patients and hates America, according to Republicans. In our number three story, the fractured mess that is today's GOP is simultaneously hugging the Democratic turncoat as they kick him in the pants. After 12 months in Congress, Alabama freshman Congressman Parker Griffith announced yesterday morning that he was leaving the Democrats to join House Republicans.

The move was reportedly in the works for some time, though it came as a surprise to Alabama Democratic Party Chair Joe Turnum (ph), who called Griffith, quote, "one of the most liberal people I have known." Just like the failed moderate Republican Dede Scozzafava in New York, Griffith earned RNC Chair Michael Steele's stamp of approval, probably a temporary stamp.

As to the reasons for the defection, Griffith today realized one of the fringe benefits of being a Republican, getting booked on Fox News.


REP. PARKER GRIFFITH (R), ALABAMA: I have found that the far left tilt of the Democratic party no longer welcomed me or my ideas. And so I made the decision.


O'DONNELL: Of course, Griffith immediately slots into that dwindling category of Republican, the moderate Republican, the category so many in the GOP are trying to purge. Eric Erickson of the blog Red State spoke for the conservative fringe yesterday, writing, quote, "Griffith was an extremely endangered Democrat. We should now hope him to be an extremely endangered Republican in a primary. We can pick this guy off and get a real Republican in that seat."

Then there are the attack ads paid for last year by the National Republican Congressional committee that they probably wish they could now take back. In one, Republicans claim that Griffith, an oncologist, abused his own cancer patients by stringing out their treatments in order to make more money. In another ad, the NRCC highlighted comments made by Griffith that made him appear to hate America.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 1998, terrorists strike US embassies in Africa;

2000, the USS Cole is attacked; 2001, terrorists attack America; 2008, the Marriott in Pakistan is bombed. But Parker Griffith says we have nothing to fear from radical Islam.

GRIFFITH: We have nothing to fear from radical Islam.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Parker Griffith, wrong for Alabama. The National Republican Congressional Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising.


O'DONNELL: And Republicans continue trying to make gains in the House. "Politico" reporting that Senator John McCain has reached out to Pennsylvania Democratic Congressman Christopher Carney to encourage him to switch parties as well. McCain carried Carney's district by six points.

Time now to call in MSNBC political analyst Richard Wolffe. He is also senior strategist at Public Strategies and the author of "Renegade, The Making of a President."

Good evening, Richard.


O'DONNELL: Let's diagnose this one. Is this move a matter of principled political philosophy, or might it just be - take your time with this one, Richard. Think it over. Might it just be political expedience?

WOLFFE: Oh, there's principal involved, the principal of self-preservation. It's the same principal that Arlen Specter showed and demonstrated when he flipped over the other way.

And, look, if you're looking for principle here, a guide to this man's philosophy, you just have to look at his statement. Griffith said that he could no longer stand being in a party that stood for greater spending and bailouts. Well, you know, maybe 12 months in Congress wasn't enough for him to figure out that the party that boosted spending under President Bush was the Republicans and the party that started all the bailouts was, well, the Republicans, actually. So there is so many contradictions here. The principle has just got to be about self-preservation.

O'DONNELL: I was working in the Senate in 1984 when we lost the Senate and the House in the midterm elections. And very shortly after that, I think a month after that election, we watched Democrat Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama walk across the aisle and join the Republicans. He was then followed in the next couple of months by some major players, actually, in the House of representatives, Billy Townsend among them. Maybe at least a half a dozen followed Shelby, as I recall, that year. Is this the beginning of something or is this a one off like the time Jim Jeffords switched parties and nobody followed?

WOLFFE: It certainly looks like a one-off. Although, you know, you've got a number of very wobbly Democrats who are concerned about their own prospects. There are those fears running around Capital Hill. You've got a lot of Republicans who are grasping at straws, looking for any sign of momentum on their part.

I guess if you put together the Virginia race and this, you may come up with the idea of a pendulum swinging again. But, really, the big impact here is not that there's a wave out there. It's that this affects Democrats who are in conservative districts. And it affects them because they look at their voting pattern, the tough votes they may have ahead of them, and they say, gee, how am I going to have to position myself if the winds blow in the other direction. That's the kind of success that the Republicans have had so far. The idea that being Democratic in certain parts of the country is just unpalatable, is beyond the pale, and Obama is beyond the pale, and you don't want to be associated with them.

That's what kind of intimidation is what lies behind this. And if Democrats want to go wobbly, then they're going to be in this kind of trouble.

O'DONNELL: Michael Steele praised the party switcher, but what's going to happen when Michael Steele discovers that there's a right wing primary challenge to this guy?

WOLFFE: Well, Michael Steele will be just as principled. It's OK because Michael Steele can just give a few speeches and he'll be just fine. And Griffith can string along, because he's surely going to lose any of those Republican primaries. He may well have to give the warmup speech for Michael Steele.

O'DONNELL: Richard Wolffe of MSNBC, author of "Renegade," and also of Public Strategies, many thanks for your time tonight, Richard.

WOLFFE: Thank you, Lawrence.

O'DONNELL: Coming up, the moment of crisis in Jamaica; an American Airlines plane skids off the runway and splits apart. We'll have the latest on what may have gone wrong.

And later, the naked truth from Levi Johnston; his year of revenge against Sarah Palin.

And when Rachel joins you at the top of the hour, Senator Amy Klobuchar on tomorrow's crucial health care vote in the Senate.


O'DONNELL: To our number two story on the Countdown; as parts the country brace for a major winter storm, details about a 737 crash landing in Jamaica emerged. The scene this morning looked deadly, a crippled tail section, two splits in the fuselage. Investigators are now trying to figure out what went wrong with American Airlines Flight 331.

But we do know that, this time, all on board survived. Our correspondent Kerry Sanders.


KERRY SANDERS, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: It is stunning. The 737 stopped less than ten feet before it would have submerged into the Caribbean Sea. The fuselage cracked in several places. Remarkably, with the smell of fuel, in the darkness, everybody on board was able to get out alive.

(voice-over): Horrific moments for 148 passengers and six crew members on American Airlines flight 331.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It literally was like being in a car accident. People were screaming. I was screaming, covering my face and hands, and the next thing you know we're at a stand-still.

SANDERS: The Boeing 737 was in heavy rain as it made it's final approach to the runway. After touchdown, witnesses say the plane failed to slow down, speeding down the runway, careening off the end through a fence. The landing gear collapsed as the plane hit a sandy embankment, past the end of the runway. And the engine sheered off, as they're designed to do.

A piece of the left wing broke off and the fuselage broke apart, with cracks about ten rows from the front and ten rows from the back. Ninety two passengers were transported to local hospitals for evaluation. The flight originated at Washington's Reagan's National Airport and made a stopover at Miami and continued on to Kingston.

Jamaican Aviation authorities are leading the investigation, with the assistance of the National Transportation Safety Board. They will focus on many areas, including the weather and the rain, and whether it created puddles on the runway.

PARK ROSENKER, FMR. NTSB CHAIRMAN: You run a risk of hydroplaning, which means the wheels are actually on top of the water and skating down the runway.

SANDERS: Then there's the issue of a tail went.

TODD SANTOS, "THE WEATHER CHANNEL": It had been raining for a while. Then the rain increased, reducing visibility to about three quarters of a mile. So you're talking about a very wet runway, with about a 15 mile an hour tailwind.

SANDERS: Other areas of investigation will be where the plane touched down on the 8,910-foot long runway. Paul Muttet (ph) was seated in seat 3-A and claims he looked out the window and saw they were already halfway down the runway.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I told them immediately, brace yourself, this is not going to be fun. This is going to be - we're going to hit.

SANDERS (on camera): Investigators have recovered the black box. and it is now with the NTSB on its way to Washington for further analysis. Meantime, the investigation will also focus on the wreckage, on the runway, and the interviews with the pilot and the first officer, who are extremely experienced, and who will be able to give a detailed account of what happened.


O'DONNELL: Kerry Sanders reporting.

Meanwhile, on this night before Christmas Eve, a warning to those on the way to grandma's house: as the Senate moves up their health care vote to avoid a Winter wallop, the Midwest braces for a major storm. This year, a white Christmas means tough travel for holiday travelers. Here's NBC's John Yang.


JOHN YANG, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): From Arizona to Kansas, the storms are wreaking havoc on the roadways.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're coming from Denver and headed towards Missouri, and it's been down to one lane.

YANG: In South Dakota, Governor Mike Rounds declared a state of emergency, warning of treacherous travel conditions.

GOV. MIKE ROUNDS (R), SOUTH DAKOTA: If you can't reach your destination by late afternoon on Wednesday, you probably won't make it there.

YANG: Slippery roads have been blamed for at least six deaths. With millions on the roads, AAA expects 1.3 million stranded motorists during the holidays. Dead batteries, flat tires, cars stuck in the snow.

In the air, it's not much smoother. Flights bound for O'Hare were delayed by more than two hours.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What we're telling people is, if you can, leave earlier or leave later to avoid the inclement weather all together.

YANG: Airlines are waving fees for last minute travel changes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I didn't have to pay. They just changed it. I just called. I called 12 hours before my flight and they changed it.

YANG: In the Northeast, train travel wasn't much better. A power outage outside New York brought trains to a stand still from Washington to Boston.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Who knew that leaving at 10:00 in the morning you would never make a 10:00 appointment, and possibly miss a 1:00 train.

YANG: Even those staying at home are feeling the effects of the storm.

In Rochester, Minnesota, Stacy's house guests showed up early.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I have 12 people in the house and I need a whole lot more groceries.

YANG (on camera): The best bit of travel advice I have heard today, take a book, take a cross word puzzle and take a lot of patience.



O'DONNELL: John Yang, thank you. The holidays will be a frigid one between Sarah Palin and Levi Johnston. With the election behind them all, 2009 was the year Levi stepped outside his family shell and started telling the truth about what life is really like living with the Palins. That easily made him a Countdown favorite of the year. Up next.


O'DONNELL: Ripping Sarah Palin was, at one point, a favorite point of A-list celebrity types. Matt Damon, David Letterman, Ashley Judd, Eminem, Tina Fey and Madonna all took their cracks at Sarah from Alaska at one point or another. Today, singer Tori Amos is taking a whack at the former governor in an interview with England's "Daily Express" newspaper: "if Palin runs again, I'm going to run on a Republican ticket. What I know about Middle Eastern policy could fit on a thumbnail, but I still know more than she does."

In our number one story, the A-list smack-downs will come and go. Levi Johnston is forever. Tonight, the latest in our series of sneak peeks at the Countdown favorites of 2009, the year Sarah Palin's ex-future son-in-law, Levi Johnston, struck back.


LEVI JOHNSTON, FATHER OF SARAH PALIN'S GRANDDAUGHTER: She means a lot to me. I would do just about anything for her. But I really don't think she is - I would vote for her if she ran for president.

OLBERMANN: Whether the engagement was real or just a stunt to spare her having to run for vice president as the mother of an unwed mother, Sarah Palin continues to discover what can happen when somebody you used as a prop starts to talk.

JOHNSTON: She's very smart. But I just don't think she can handle the stress level as governor. I don't think she can handle it as president or vice president.

OLBERMANN: Our third story in the Countdown, the governor's office went into action to respond to Palin's would be former son in law, Levi Johnston, after he talked to investigative political journalist Tyra Banks. One issue, whether the governor thought her daughter was practicing abstinence.

TYRA BANKS, "THE TYRA BANKS SHOW": She knew that you guys were active? You think she knew?

JOHNSTON: I'm pretty sure she probably knew?

BANKS: How are you pretty sure she knew?

JOHNSTON: She's pretty smart.

BANKS: So there were just wardrobe malfunctions?

JOHNSTON: I guess.

BANKS: Really?

JOHNSTON: Yes, I guess so.

BANKS: Every time, you practiced safe sex?


BANKS: Every time?

JOHNSTON: Every time.

BANKS: Levi.

JOHNSTON: Most of the time.

BANKS: Most of the time, there you go.

JOHNSTON: They said I didn't live there. I stayed there. I was like, OK, whatever you want to call it. I had my stuff there. So if you want to call it staying there, that's fine.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You had all your things there? Toothbrush, pajamas, stay there had every night?

JOHNSTON: For a while, yes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So they're lying?

JOHNSTON: Yes. After the running, she had talked about how nice it would be to take some of this money people have been offering us and, you know, just run with it.

She pretty much is trying to blame everything that she could on other people.

If I wanted to hurt them, if I wanted to crush them, I could. That's not what I'm trying to do.

CRAIG CRAWFORD, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: And in tonight's episode of the Wasilla Hillbillies.

OLBERMANN: How did happen that Levi Johnston turns into a Sarah Palin whistle blower?

SARAH PALIN, FMR. GOVERNOR OF ALASKA: Goes by the name Ricky Hollywood now. So if that's the case -

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did Sarah ever make any sexual advances towards you?

JOHNSTON: No, she didn't.

OLBERMANN: The almost son-in-law reveals all in "Vanity Fair."

Our number one story on the Countdown, honestly, if it claimed there had been hanky-panky, it probably would have been better for the ex-governor than what Johnston actually wrote. One survivor story of late Summer and early autumn spent with Sarah Palin's flying circus. She thought her job as governor was too hard. She thought she was running for president. She wanted to keep her daughter's pregnancy a secret. And, perhaps worst of all, she doesn't hunt for her own food, so she makes her kids go fetch Crunch Wrapped Supremes from Taco Bell.

And the politics of pistachios.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Now Levi Johnston does it with protection.

OLBERMANN: Let's just get this one out of the way. Turns out pistachios aren't the only nuts Levi Johnston is selling. Our number one story, Sarah Palin's ex future son in law will pose for "Playgirl." In an effort to become the most famous male model since Zoolander, Levi Johnson has already booked his next gig, centerfold in "Playgirl," an idea that Johnston has been toying with for some time.

On his last photo shoot for "Vanity Fair," Johnston said of "Playgirl," I assume it's where a dude pose force women.

Is there a motif they are going with after that Burt Reynolds "Cosmo" bear skin rug stuff that started all of this as a cliche of cliches from 1972?

MICHAEL MUSTO, "THE VILLAGE VOICE": I think there will be some moose-like body parts, as well as a hint of musk ox, and a soup son of cockatoo, but no beaver. I got an advanced peak at it. So did Bristol.


O'DONNELL: Levi Johnson, a Countdown favorite for 2009. You can watch all the Countdown Favorites of the Year next Monday night at 8:00 pm Eastern. I'll be watching it at 5:00 pm Pacific.

That will do it for this Wednesday edition of Countdown. I'm Lawrence O'Donnell, in for Keith Olbermann, have a Merry Christmas.

Our MSNBC coverage continues now with "THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW." Good evening, Rachel.