Monday, January 11, 2010

'Countdown with Keith Olbermann' for Monday, January 11th, 2010
video podcast

Guests: Eugene Robinson, Jonathan Alter, Lee Cowan, Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Margaret Carlson, Sharon Waxman


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

The defense of Harry Reid.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There's nothing mean-spirited in what he had to say.


O'DONNELL: The majority leader goes before the cameras for the first time since his comments about President Obama's race became public.


SEN. HARRY REID (D-NEV), MAJORITY LEADER: I'm very proud that, if not the first, one of the first people, to suggest that Barack Obama run for president. I'm very happy about that.


O'DONNELL: And the White House unequivocally stands behind Reid.


RAHM EMANUEL, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: Harry Reid has absolutely the confidence of the president and the rest of the Democratic Caucus to do the job that he needs to do as Senate majority leader and as a senator of Nevada.


O'DONNELL: But the GOP wants blood.


SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), TEXAS: Harry Reid should resign.

MICHAEL STEELE, RNC CHAIRMAN: There's a big double standard here and the thing about it that's interesting is that when Democrats get caught saying racist things, you know, an apology is enough.


O'DONNELL: Tonight - the return of the great American race debate. Is truth a defense to Reid's remarks and the politics of the reactions from the left and the right?

"Game Change" takes us deep inside the presidential campaign. The book says President Clinton told Senator Ted Kennedy that candidate Obama would have been getting them coffee just a couple of years ago.

And then there are the Palin revelations - among them: God wanted her to be V.P. Does God have a position on her new job with FOX? And what would God say about her problem with telling the truth?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There were numerous instances that she said things that were - that were not accurate that ultimately the campaign had to deal with.


O'DONNELL: It sounds like she's a perfect fit for FOX.

NBC's late night shuffle: Jay Leno is officially out at 10:00 p.m. and returning to late night. The big question is: so where does that leave Conan?


JAY LENO, TALK SHOW HOST: NBC is working on a solution they say in which all parties will be screwed equally. So I think.



O'DONNELL: And the bombshell news over at FOX. First, Paula quits.

Now, Simon is out. Is there life after Cowell for "American Idol"?

All of that and more - now on Countdown.


SIMON COWELL, MUSIC PRODUCER: I really, really, really hated that.



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

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has apologized for an admittedly clumsy comment he made during the 2008 primaries in which he enthusiastically endorsed the candidate who would become our nation's first black president. In response, Republicans are now calling for Senator Reid to resign because one of their own majority leaders, Trent Lott, had to step down after he infamously said that he wished the country had elected a racist to the White House.

The majority leader under fire today after a new book reported that Senator Reid was impressed by Senator Obama's performance in the early stages of the 2008 presidential campaign, and in a conversation with the book's authors, described Senator Obama's chances of winning the White House.

"Reid's encouragement of Obama was unequivocal. He was wowed by Obama's oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to endorse a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama - a, quote, 'light-skinned African-American with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,' as he later put it privately."

Senator Reid said in a statement that he deeply regrets using such a poor choice of words. President Obama today accepted Reid's apology. In fact, in an interview for TV One's "Washington Watch" with Roland Martin that will air next Monday on Martin Luther King Day, the president did far more than merely accept Reid's apology.


OBAMA: Harry Reid is a friend of mine. He has been a stalwart champion of voting rights, civil rights. He is spending a lot of his political capital in the middle of an election to provide health care to every American and that's going to have a great impact on African-Americans and Latinos around the country. This is a good man who has always been on the right side of history. For him to have used some inartful language in trying to praise me, and for people to try to make hay out of that makes absolutely no sense.

He's apologized, recognizing that he didn't use appropriate language, but there was nothing mean-spirited in what he had to say and he's always been on the right side of the issues. And I guarantee you, the average person white or black right now, is less concerned about what Harry Reid said in a quote in a book a couple of years ago than they are about how are we going to move the country forward. And that's where we need to direct our attention.


O'DONNELL: Republicans, meanwhile, are in the middle of what is certain to be a temporary fit of racial hypersensitivity. Senator John Cornyn of Texas said that Senator Reid should step down, calling his comments embarrassing and racially insensitive.

GOP Chairman Michael Steele accused the Democrats of a double standard because of what Majority Leader Trent Lott said in December, 2002, at Senator Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party.

You will recall Strom Thurmond ran on a segregationist platform as the segregationist candidate back in 1948.

Let's listen to exactly what Senator Lott of Mississippi had to say about that election.


THEN-SEN. TRENT LOTT (R-MISS.), MAJORITY LEADER: I want to say this about my state. When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it.


LOTT: And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either.


O'DONNELL: Problems indeed - problems such as having to watch Jackie Robinson play Major League Baseball, problems like having to enforce Brown versus the Board of Education, or the Civil Rights Act, or the Voting Rights Act.

The Republicans want you to believe that wishing a segregationist candidate had been elected president is just as bad as using a poor choice of words when supporting - supporting a black candidate in the early stages of his campaign to become the nation's first African-American president. Most of the relentlessly stupid media echo chamber fails to see the utter lack of comparability in the concepts or the sentiments contained in the two senators' statements.

Senator Reid issued another apology this afternoon from Nevada. Senator Reid recalled the day he told Barack Obama he thought he would win the White House.


REID: I am very proud of the fact that I can still remember the meeting that took place in my office with Senator Barack Obama telling him that I think you'll be elected president. And I'm sure there were others, but he was kind of surprised that the Democratic leader was calling this new senator over to suggest that he could be elected president.


O'DONNELL: Lots to talk about tonight with our own political analyst, Eugene Robinson, also an associate editor and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for "The Washington Post."

Good evening, Gene.


O'DONNELL: Gene, first of all, what's your personal reaction to what Harry Reid is partially quoted as having said in the book?

ROBINSON: Harry Reid has his foot in his mouth. Boy, I'm surprised. I've never seen that before. And the suffocating Republican political correctness - where will it end? It can't be - you know, this is - this is - this is almost silly season.

I think - obviously, Harry Reid chose the wrong words to say what he said. You know, I wrote a book a few years ago about the intersection of race and color, a book called "Coal to Cream," and so, I've kind of looked into this issue a lot.

I don't think I would disagree with what he said about light-skinned versus dark-skinned African-Americans and their acceptance by the larger society. But, clearly, he didn't - whatever he was trying to say - he didn't say it the right way.

O'DONNELL: Now, is this really about Republicans pouncing to try to

make life as difficult as possible for a Democrat who's in a really tough

re-election campaign, and the most important Democrat in the Senate who's

pulled off this miraculous legislative feat of getting health care reform passed through that body?

ROBINSON: You bet that's what it's about. It's transparently what this whole thing is about. And the idea, as I said, of the Republican Party, suddenly in a paroxysm of scandal and shock over racially clumsy, perhaps not even insensitive words uttered by a Democrat, this is ridiculous. Of course, it's political. And they want to do as much damage as they can to Harry Reid both here in Washington and outside.

Now, here in Washington, he seems safe, his position as majority leader. There's - the White House has come out firmly behind him, as you noted. His fellow senators are backing him.

And no one has the long knives out. There doesn't seem to be anyone, any Democrat in the Senate who is angling for his job. Then again, what sane Democrat in the Senate would want his job right now?

O'DONNELL: Gene, I'm - when we think of double standard here, I'm trying to remember all of the Republicans who rushed to the microphone to condemn Rush Limbaugh for calling Barack Obama "Barack the Magic Negro." I'm trying to remember Senator Cornyn from Texas rushed up to the microphone to condemn Rush.

Can you think of any Republican senators who condemned Rush Limbaugh for that?

ROBINSON: You know, they're not springing to mind. I'm not going to say that there weren't any. I'd have to go back and look at the clips and see, but I don't recall a similar outpouring in that occasion, Lawrence. Maybe your memory is better than mine.

O'DONNELL: Now, is there any possible impact in this controversy on the health care reform bill? I mean, clearly, they're trying to rock Harry Reid. He has a very difficult job to do every day, whether he's in Nevada or in the capital, in negotiating the compromise bill between the House and the Senate.

Is there anything you see here that could in any way derail the progress of reconciling those two bills and getting to passage in the House and the Senate?

ROBINSON: Not that I se right now, certainly. It's a distraction of at least several days for him and I assume that the Republicans will try to keep this going as long as they can. And, clearly, if he's in front of the microphone apologizing, he's not in the room trying to work out this deal. So, it tends to stretch it out further and further.

But I think, as long as he remains majority leader and I'm confident he will, I don't see any sort of concrete impact on the way this is likely to come out.

O'DONNELL: And, Gene, just a final quick check-in on the health care bill - today, Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO said that the Democrats were headed for a possibly colossal defeat next year at the ballot box if they pass the tax that is in the Senate version of the bill, which is a tax on union health care plans called by some the "Cadillac" tax, Trumka calls it the "Chevy" tax because he believes it hits the middle-class. He really isolated on that today. The president is meeting was meeting with labor today to try to convince them to go along with that tax. Where do you see the state of play on that being reconciled with the House bill right now?

ROBINSON: The president is going to have to work this out. There are a lot of people in the labor movement who really feel very strongly about this. And they make the point that the workers who have the so-called "Cadillac" plans, the way they got them was in negotiation giving up salary and other benefits. So, it's not like they haven't already paid for them.

It's - in the end, I think, labor will probably go along but it will be very grudgingly. This is an important issue for them.

O'DONNELL: Eugene Robinson of "The Washington Post" and MSNBC - great thanks for your time tonight.

ROBINSON: Good to be here, Lawrence.

Let's turn now to associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University, Melissa Harris-Lacewell, also author of "Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought."

Good evening, Melissa.


O'DONNELL: Melissa, you know these kinds of stories are inevitable. Lani Guinier said today that Senator Reid's comments amounted to, quote, "an unfortunate truth about the present." Conservative commentator George Will put it even more bluntly.


GEORGE WILL, CONSERVATIVE COMMENTATOR: I don't think there's a scintilla of racism in what Harry Reid said. At long last, Harry Reid has said something that no one can disagree with and he gets in trouble for it.


O'DONNELL: Professor, we have perhaps the first recorded agreement between Lani Guinier and George Will.

Where do you come down on this?

HARRIS-LACEWELL: You know, I have to say, typically, I really tried to avoid disagreeing with Lani Guinier and, in fact, given that Lani and I are both very light-skinned, well-spoken people, maybe we should run for political office together, given that that seems to be the main way that black folks would get elected.

I think - no, I have to disagree just a bit, which is to say that there is some social science evidence out there suggesting that white Americans have some preference for lighter-skinned African-Americans, some preference for narrower features of the face and that sort of thing. But there is very little evidence that those sorts of preferences make any difference in electoral outcomes.

In other words, an election is such a complicated thing that the idea of like parsing out who Barack Obama is, all of the exceptional parts of his self-presentation, all the exceptional parts of his story and his campaign, and turning it into something that is primarily about his complexion, I think, really does a disservice as much to the white voters who made complicated and sometimes difficult choices to choose Obama over Hillary Clinton in the primaries and then Barack Obama over John McCain in the general election.

So, I'm not sure that I agree that it's kind of obvious that, of course, a light-skinned candidate who has sort of good speaking skills is necessarily more likely to win.

O'DONNELL: Well, isn't that analysis about provoking possible latent, racist tendencies in marginal voters, since what we're talking about in presidential elections frequently is a 2 percent or 3 percent swing voters, and maybe within that group there might be a few hundred thousand in the country who may be more drawn to Barack Obama because of the way he speaks and they find they're more comfortable with that than say the way Al Sharpton speaks? You know what I mean - these very slight differences that voters pick on in those final days when they're finding their comfort zone with casting that vote?

HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, it's certainly possible but it depends on who things. One, which kind of voter you're talking about. African-American voters actually needed Barack Obama early on to be a little more like an African-American speaker in some important ways. They needed him to find a rhythm that was familiar and inspiring in African-American communities, something that he did very well and we saw him do better and better over the course of the campaign.

But the other thing is, you know, the history of American racism, structural racism, systematic racism, did not make these kinds of fine-grained distinctions as a matter of law. Light-skinned blacks were asked to go to the back of the bus as well. Light-skinned African-Americans were still educated in segregated schools. So I think we want to be really careful about what we mean when we're talking about racism.

I think this is what Obama says when he is pointing out Harry Reid's, you know, long voting history around voting rights, around civil rights - is that racism is not so much or even most importantly what comes out of someone's mouth although words matter. Racism is really about those structural inequalities. And Harry Reid's got a pretty clean record on that.

O'DONNELL: Professor, what do you make of both the political reaction to it that you've seen in the last 24 hours, and also the general media reaction to it? Is it something - are we overdoing it? Are we playing it just right? How would you recommend America take one of these stories when they come along like this?

HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, let's be honest. I'm a professor of race, so I like when you guys spend a little bit of time on this. It gives me a chance to bring forward my expertise and have a chance to have a voice. It would be silly to say I don't want to talk about race.

On the other hand, I have to say that I'm worried that these, you know, teachable moments or these moments where we could take sort of, you know, a 2-year-old quote by the Senate majority leader and we could maybe talk about the bigger issues about - again, structural inequalities, about what we mean by racism, they get lost in the din of a sort of partisan call to remove Reid, which is just silly.

You know, again, the point here is to have a reasonable conversation about race that moves us forward as a nation.

O'DONNELL: And finally, how would you phrase the teachable moment in this story?

HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, it's probably a really, really bad idea to call black folks or African-Americans "Negro" in the 21st century. Let's just maybe put it to the side in our public discourse about race and move forward instead with more respect around the monikers that we use.

O'DONNELL: Melissa Harris-Lacewell of Princeton University - great thanks for your time tonight.


O'DONNELL: Coming up: The other headlines from "Game Change," specifically President Clinton's remarks about Senator Obama that may have helped push Ted Kennedy to endorse Mr. Obama, and tensions between candidate Obama and his running mate on the campaign trail.

And the Palin bombshells from the book - she didn't know North and South Korea are two separate countries. She didn't know what the Federal Reserve does. And she had to have history lessons and she had a pesky little problem with the truth. No irony that day these headlines came out, FOX News snatches her up and puts her on the payroll.


O'DONNELL: Coming up: Did President Clinton so upset Ted Kennedy with his demeaning of Barack Obama that he pushed Kennedy into endorsing Obama instead of Hillary? Candidate Obama asks how many times Biden will say stupid things on the campaign trail. And Sarah Palin wasn't nervous because her big national debut because it was God's will she was chosen. Inside the '08 race for president like never before. That's next.

This is Countdown.


O'DONNELL: If the most arresting parts of the book "Game Change" are to be believed, behind the scenes, the 2008 race for president was run as if it were a race for high school president. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is not the only Democrat facing charges his comments in the book about Senator Barack Obama were a bit racially insensitive.

The book reports that former President Bill Clinton called Senator Ted

Kennedy the day after the Iowa caucuses. The weak performance by Kennedy's

best friend, Senator Chris Dodd, meant that Kennedy's endorsement was now

up for grabs. According to the book, quote, "Clinton went on, belittling

Obama in a manner that deeply offended Kennedy, recounting the conversation

later to a friend, Teddy fumed that Clinton had said, 'A few years ago,

this guy would have been getting us coffee.'"

Senator Kennedy later endorsed and campaigned for Senator Obama. Meanwhile, Howard Wolfson and two other top Clinton campaign aides formed a war room within a war room dedicated to managing the threat posed by Bill's libido, specifically an alleged, ongoing affair.

Nor was the political marriage of Senators Obama and Joe Biden a perfect one, the book claims. After Biden's selection as vice presidential candidate, he predicted that Obama would be, quote, "tested early in his presidency."

The book says Mr. Obama hit the ceiling, asking, quote, "How many times is Biden going to say something stupid?"

The book reports that Biden later defended himself, saying in paraphrase, "I guess, it's a good thing I didn't say anything about bitter people who cling to their guns and religion."

The book says Mr. Biden ultimately apologized and the two men reconciled, but a Biden spokesman, a former "Time" magazine colleague of one of the book's co-authors, says in a statement today, quote, "We aren't going to comment on rehashed rumors about the campaign. But I can say that if the authors were concerned with accuracy, they might have checked their reporting with the people on the vice president's staff, they did not."

The authors stand by their accuracy.

Joining us tonight is another campaign trail veteran, MSNBC political analyst, Jonathan Alter, who also serves as national affairs columnist for "Newsweek" magazine.

Good evening, Jonathan.


O'DONNELL: When the spokesman criticizes your methodology but does not dispute your actual facts, doesn't that kind of count as confirmation in your trade?

ALTER: Yes, a bit. A bit, it does. But it's still good to check.

And it doesn't necessarily confirm everything in the full context of this.

For instance, I believe the - that Biden and Obama squabbled during the campaign, but I'm at work now on my own book, which is coming out this spring, on the Obama presidency. And I do know - based on my own reporting - that they have an extremely good relationship now. And, in fact, Obama has delegated a lot more to Joe Biden than people realize.

O'DONNELL: And given him a very important position in the White House, the West Wing office, all of that stuff. It does seem like that is campaign stuff under the bridge, the whole Biden.


O'DONNELL: . as gaffe master.

ALTER: Yes, it is. It could always come back but right now, it's water under the bridge.

O'DONNELL: Now, what about what we're learning, inside the Clinton campaign, it was reported at the time, enough leaked out, that we were all calling it a campaign that was in disarray, or.


O'DONNELL: . certainly less professionally run than any of us expected it to be, but this stuff with Howard Wolfson studying the president's behavior - the former president's behavior and concluding that there was an affair going on there that was probably going to cause trouble for the campaign - this is news, isn't it?

ALTER: Yes. If true, it's news. And I don't have any reason to believe it's not true.

The Clinton campaign was a mess. The former president was behaving badly. I don't think he was behaving in a racist way at all, but he was clearly off his game. He was rusty. He was saying things that were hurting his wife's campaign.

And over all, I do know that her campaign wanted him to shut up and eventually, they did get him to go on radio silence. And he's actually been on pretty good behavior since she's been secretary of state.

O'DONNELL: And the Clinton world is a very high-speed reaction machine to these kinds of quotes when they come out and they're given prominent play. When we've gone this far without a Clinton - an energetic Clinton denial about this, what do you - what do you make of that?

ALTER: Well, I heard the coffee anecdote myself. I first reported on the very angry conversation between Ted Kennedy and Bill Clinton in January of 2008 in "Newsweek" magazine. It was a significant conversation because it was the beginning of Ted Kennedy's indication to Clinton that he was not going to support him. Clinton was so clueless that he didn't realize that Teddy had been drifting for weeks away from Clinton and toward Obama.

But I do think it's important to note that - I agree with something Chris Matthews said in last hour - I don't think Bill Clinton has a racist bone in his body. And it's unfair to him to spin this particular anecdote as being somehow racist.

O'DONNELL: Who - in the background stories told on this book - who seems to come out the worst?

ALTER: I guess I would say the Edwards family and Sarah Palin, maybe a tie between them. Not a good book for either one of them. But I think it's much more significant for Sarah Palin since she has a future in American politics and John Edwards does not. But Steve Schmidt's testimony - he was John McCain's campaign manager - about Sarah Palin not telling the truth and clearly not being capable of being president of the United States is something that Republicans should keep in mind in 2012.

O'DONNELL: Jonathan Alter of "Newsweek" and MSNBC - thanks for your high-speed read of the book.

ALTER: Thanks a lot, Lawrence.

O'DONNELL: The book also pulls back the curtain on the selection of Sarah Palin as vice president and how close it came to Lieberman getting the nod, and the all-out effort Karl Rove made to make sure it wouldn't be Lieberman.

And later, the end of a TV era. Simon Cowell is leaving "American Idol." The reason for the split and what's next for Cowell - ahead on Countdown.


O'DONNELL: Just hours before her debut as John McCain's running mate, campaign manager Steve Schmidt noticed something unusual about Sarah Palin's disposition.


SCHMIDT: She was very calm, nonplussed. I said, you don't seem nervous at all about this. And she said, no. It's God's plan.


O'DONNELL: Also in God's plan for Palin? Contributor to Fox News. The network announcing Palin will not have her own show. But don't worry, she'll appear regularly on other shows. Palin issuing the statement on the Fox News website, "I am thrilled to be joining the great talent and management team at Fox News. It's wonderful to be part of a place that so values fair and balanced news."

Palin's knack for Fox News' style truth-telling confirmed by Steve Schmidt on "60 Minutes."


SCHMIDT: She said things that were not accurate, that ultimately the campaign had to deal with. And that opened the door to criticism that she was being untruthful and inaccurate. And I think that is something that continues to this day.


O'DONNELL: Apparently not in God's plan? Joe Lieberman as McCain's running mate. As we reported Friday, the book "Game Change" reveals that Lieberman was McCain's choice for vice president until just days before the convention. So in order to drum up support for a Lieberman pick, the McCain camp approached Karl Rove.

But Rove thought it was a terrible idea. "Rove took his concerns to Lieberman directly, pleading with the senator by phone to turn down the VP slot if McCain extended his hand. You know him, Rove said. He's so stubborn he may simply get this in his mind and carry it to you. And you may be the only person who can save McCain from himself. Lieberman had no intention of taking Rove's advice."

The McCain campaign made it easy for Lieberman and chose the unknown governor of Alaska instead. Still, Lieberman was called in to help with Palin's disastrous debate prep. Team McCain hoping the senator could help beef up Palin's foreign policy knowledge. After Schmidt gave Palin a reality check as to how things were going, he asked Lieberman to perform another unorthodox intervention: go and pray with Palin.

According to the book, Lieberman, an orthodox Jew, provided Palin, a Pentecostal, with some Talmudic wisdom, spoke of God's relationship with man, and invoked the Covenant of Destiny. "Look, Lieberman said kindly, you got to be saying to yourself, what am I doing here? How did this happen? This is your moment to make it really count for something. Palin seemed touched. Joe, she said, I can't figure any other reason I'm here except that I was meant to be here."

Palin's sentiment of destiny similar to remarks made by the born-again 43rd president. And according to "Game Change," both Palin and Bush suffered from an affliction linguists call metathesis. Turns out she couldn't pronounce the word "nuclear" either.

Joining me now is the Washington editor for "The Week" magazine and columnist for "Bloomberg News," Margaret Carlson. Good evening, Margaret.


O'DONNELL: Apparently, Nicole Wallace had to phonetically write out the word "nuclear" for Palin to pronounce it correctly. And we've already had one divinely directed conservative president who could not - who God could not teach - despite his best efforts, could not teach him to pronounce "nuclear" correctly. What's up with God and nuclear and Republican candidates? What's going on here?

CARLSON: Yeah, well, Nicole Wallace should have done the same for George Bush and maybe it would have helped. But apparently no one, not Karl Rove, phonetically got that one down on paper for him.

You know, this is not what matters. Grammar and phonetics don't matter to the base of Sarah Palin's support. They prefer that you not have this highfalutin desire to pronounce things correctly. It's endearing. Bush's base didn't hold it against him. Palin's base doesn't hold it against her. But, you know, nuclear is a tough one, I guess, for a certain kind of politician.

O'DONNELL: And what are we to make of Joe Lieberman's varied and strange role in the McCain campaign?

CARLSON: Well, only, I guess, in contrast to McCain would Lieberman look reasonable, that, you know, Karl Rove couldn't - you know, the Bushes and the McCain camp never really made peace, even though there were moments during the Bush administration when it looked that way. So it's an example of just how fraught that relationship was, that Karl Rove would go to, well, then a Democrat - you know, not a Republican in name only, not one at all, to Lieberman directly, and plead with him, rather than plead with McCain and his staff.

O'DONNELL: You've got to love that moment. They go to Karl Rove to perform a very important exercise for them. And, of course, Karl Rove goes the other way behind their back. He simply makes the other argument to Lieberman. How shocked were you at that, to discover Karl simply went with his own agenda?

CARLSON: Double agent. Really shocked. And that Lieberman, by the way, wanted to be vice president.



O'DONNELL: Now, we have, of course - and I think there is no surprise about this - more revelations about just the breadth of Sarah Palin's ignorance about the world beyond Alaska, not knowing there's a North Korea and a South Korea, and a border there, kind of an important border. Thinking Saddam Hussein attacked us on 9/11. Who could blame her for that one?


O'DONNELL: But, I mean, this will never hurt her with her base, will it, these demonstrations of ignorance on subjects like this?

CARLSON: It will never hurt her. And it makes people like us, who talk about it, you know, inflame the tea party activists who support her. How dare we ever say anything about not knowing things? Sarah Palin is the latest in a line of populists, but she is very different in one way. Populists have historically have pretended not to know anything. They've actually been part of a fairly intellectual group of people. But she really doesn't know anything. And it's in God's plan, apparently, that she not learn anything.

O'DONNELL: And she is going to go to a network where they won't be bothering to issue any corrections for her on-air mistakes.


O'DONNELL: Margaret Carlson of "Bloomberg TV" and "The Week Magazine," thanks for joining us.

CARLSON: Thanks, Lawrence.

O'DONNELL: Coming up, the late night shakeup. NBC admits the Leno experiment at 10:00 p.m. will end soon and Jay will get his old time slot back. How long that time slot will be is all up to Conan O'Brien.

And an even bigger shuffle at Fox. Simon Cowell announces he's definitely leaving "Idol" at the end of this season to start a whole new show. Can the hit show survive losing Paula and then Simon?


O'DONNELL: Here is a list of the people who might be thrilled Jay Leno is moving back to 11:35 every week night: the scriptwriters for hour-long television dramas, writers who suddenly have five open hours to vie for once again in a prime-time landscape that has already been squeezed over the past many years by non-scripted reality TV, and the hundreds of actors who will appear in those series, and the directors and crew who will film those series.

And, of course, there is Jay Leno and the fans of Jay who preferred him at 11:35.

Then there's the other list, headed by the supremely talented Conan O'Brien, not to mention Andy Richter and Conan's writers, producers, and crew, all of whom have mortgages or rent to pay next month. For how it's all coming down in Burbank, here is NBC's Lee Cowan.


LEE COWAN, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The paint is barely even dry on either one of their new studios, yet both Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien are making jokes about moving again.

JAY LENO, "THE JAY LENO SHOW": I still haven't unpacked from the last show they canceled.

CONAN O'BRIEN, "THE TONIGHT SHOW": NBC lawyers have asked me to refer to this program as the sometime at night show with some white guy. So -

COWAN: In Hollywood speak -

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a big mess. It's a mess for Conan and it's a mess for Jay.

COWAN: The late night shakeup comes, say executives, after NBC's affiliates began crying foul. Despite Leno's repeated plugs -

LENO: Your local news right now.

COWAN: - those local newscasts are suffering. Down on average 30 percent in the ratings since Leno became their lead-in.

JEFF GASPIN, CHAIRMAN, NBC UNIVERSAL: They were afraid that - in some cases, you know, they went from first place to third place - that they would never have a chance to regain that first place position if this went on longer.

COWAN: Assuming all sides agree, NBC's plan would be to move Jay Leno back to where he was winning, at 11:35. Conan O'Brien would pick up at 12:05, followed by Jimmy Fallon at 1:05.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They'd like to keep them all. The question is how do you keep these guys all happy?

COWAN: Jay would get his late night time slot back, though less of it. Conan would keep the venerable title of "Tonight Show" host, but would again be playing second fiddle to Leno.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The only benefit from all of this is Jimmy Fallon is really good at his show. But now he'll be on, as he said, opposite infomercials late at night.

COWAN: All of it still leaves a huge hole in NBC's prime-time lineup.

GASPIN: I think we've learned that the history of 10:00 is still being written.


O'DONNELL: That was NBC's Lee Cowan reporting.

The Fox network is also dealing with a major shakeup as well. Simon Cowell is leaving "American Idol" to start his own show. Is it the beginning of the end for the most popular show on TV?

And when Rachel joins you at the top of the hour, the GOP's politicization of the terror threat. Liz Cheney finds a new low in an attack ad against President Obama over the response to the underwear terrorist.


O'DONNELL: When the 2008 "American Idol" telethon for impoverished children went long because of appearances by Miley Cyrus and Mariah Carey, "Idol" producers had to cut some of the program so it wouldn't go so long. John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama, the next president of the United States, got the boot. Today "American Idol's" biggest star, Simon Cowell, is giving himself the boot and a nice, soft landing as the producer of a future mega-hit, to be sure, on the same Fox network.

Cowell broke the news at the Television Critics Association's winter press tour in Pasadena. This will be his last season as the insult judge on "American Idol," a job that reportedly paid him 45 million dollars a year. Cowell turned down a bigger contract in favor of a new reality show called "X Factor," which is owned by Cowell's production company. "X Factor will launch in 2011 with me judging and executive producing the show," Cowell told reporters today. "I've always said this was my last year. Everyone thought I was negotiating, but that wasn't the reason behind it. I felt like doing something different."

Cowell joins Paula Abdul as the second "Idol" judge to leave the show this year. Abdul was replaced by Ellen DeGeneres last September. Today, Cowell addressed whether or not Paula Abdul will work on his new show. Quoting, "I adore Paula. Whatever happens, I will be working with her in some capacity."

Well, I adore Sharon Waxman, and I am thrilled to be working with her in this capacity this evening. Sharon is the editor-in-chief of And her website is all over this story tonight. Sharon, welcome.

SHARON WAXMAN, THEWRAP.COM: Thank you, Lawrence. What an intro. My gosh.

O'DONNELL: It is tough to over-estimate "Idol's" reach, 26 million viewers. No TV show gets that kind of audience anymore. It's the last big family broadcast left on TV. A mandatory stop for presidential candidates if they can get themselves on the show.

WAXMAN: Without getting cut.

O'DONNELL: Now, Simon Cowell is out. Is this going to turn out to be the equivalent of Chevy Chase leaving "Saturday Night Live"? Everyone thought that was going to kill the show, and it meant that "Saturday Night Live" really only had another 34 years to go after Chevy left?

WAXMAN: I don't really think so. I actually think this is going to be the beginning of the end for "American Idol." Just think about why you watched it or watch it. I'm a big fan. I watch it every season with my kids. But a lot of the reason people watch it is to watch Simon and Paula beat each other up, and flirt, and insult one another.

I mean, a lot - and the other half of the fun is watching Simon insult the contestants. So you don't have the Simon/Paula interplay going on. And you're not going to have the Simon insulting the contestants fun. And the drama of the contestants is only so much so, you know? That's very predictable and all that kind of thing. But really, the characters who we tune in to watch were really Simon and Paula. And they're gone.

O'DONNELL: You know -

WAXMAN: So I think it's -

O'DONNELL: As a network programmer, I think I might feel pretty good about it. This could be looked at as like George Clooney leaving "ER." But he doesn't go off to a movie career. Clooney creates another show for NBC, so that you have "ER" running well, plus a new George Clooney show running well. I mean, Simon's new show is very likely to get a huge audience. And "Idol" is still likely to get a very big audience. So could this be win/win for Fox network?

WAXMAN: I'm not saying it's doom and gloom for Fox. I think they did a very smart thing. I'm kind of surprised to hear you declare Simon Cowell's new show a hit before it's even been on the air. I mean, there is no saying whether people are going to be interested in watching "The Simon Show" or "The Simon And Paula Show" again in a different format. I mean, it may just be that moment is passed.

So what Fox has done, I think, has absolutely made the best out of a bad situation, since they couldn't get Simon Cowell to stay. At least they've still got him in the house.

O'DONNELL: Now, Simon gave a statement today, which I loved. He said, "I didn't think it was right for me to do two shows in America. I can barely do one."

Now, he says this on the day that Ellen DeGeneres is about to have her first broadcast on the show. Ellen, one of the hardest working women in show business, is doing two shows, including "American Idol." Who is he kidding about this two-show thing?

WAXMAN: A daily show. What about Ryan Seacrest, the hardest working man in entertainment, right?

O'DONNELL: There you go.

WAXMAN: Yes. I think Simon Cowell can do whatever he wants. He created that juggernaut. He was one of the foundational people in creating the juggernaut that is "American Idol." And if he chooses to go make more bazillion dollars on a show that he owns, which will be "The X Factor," he can do that. And if you want to call him a slouch, Lawrence, you can do that.

O'DONNELL: Sharon Waxman -

WAXMAN: He doesn't care.

O'DONNELL: Sharon Waxman of, just a joy to work with you tonight, Sharon.

WAXMAN: Oh, the joy was mine, dear. Thank you.

O'DONNELL: That will have to do it for Monday's edition of Countdown. I'm Lawrence O'Donnell, in for Keith Olbermann. Our MSNBC coverage continues now with "THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW." Good evening, Rachel.

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC ANCHOR: Good evening, Lawrence. I feel the joy even from here, I have to tell you.

O'DONNELL: Thanks, Rachel.

MADDOW: Sure. Thank you at home for staying with us for the next hour as well.