Monday, March 6, 2006

'Countdown with Keith Olbermann' for March 6

Guests: Jim Gray, Michael Musto, Bob Edgar, Josh White

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC ANCHOR: Which of these stories will you talk about tomorrow? Beat the press: If you can't plug the leaks, why not just plug the media. A new White House investigation Targeting leakers of classified information and the journalists who publish it.

Arab protests overseas finally hitting home here: Nine coeds literally rundown on the University of North Carolina campus.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you tell me why did he do this?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Really to punish the government of the United States for their actions around the world.


OLBERMANN: No birth control, no strip joints, no premarital sex, but lots of pepperoni. An entire Florida village entirely for those of the Catholic faith, brought to you by the guy who founded Domino's Pizza. Your mass in 20 minutes or less, or it's free.

And it was the best of times...


JACK NICHOLSON, ACTOR: And the Oscar goes to "Crash."


OLBERMANN: It was the worst of times.


JON STEWART, HOST: Congratulations to us.


OLBERMANN: The lessons of last night's top flick "Crash" and the lessons the Academy could learn for next year's Oscars, like more pimps. Next year, get more pimps. All that and more now on Countdown.

I'm reporting to you tonight from Tampa, Florida, for arcane reasons which I'll explain presently. Good evening.

As the Bush administration continues to evermore resemble the character Sideshow Bob from "The Simpsons," forever stepping on another rake, its primary issue is not the rake nor why it keeps leaving them on the ground, nor even the cleaning up they were meant for. These people are much more worried about who had the audacity to reveal the existence of the rakes in the first place.

Our head story on the Countdown, the Bush administration on the hunt for anyone who might have leaked word of the NSA domestic spying program to the media. Amid further word tonight that there may even be more secret spying going on than thought previously. Absent any hint of irony, the administration launching several investigations to nab any federal official who may have blown the whistle on its warrant-free surveillance programs, as well as its secret CIA prisons.

President Bush, you will recall, calling the NSA leak a, quote, "shameful act" that was, quote, "helping the enemy." Nevermind the members of his own senior staff who saw fit to leak the name of a covert CIA operative, mainly because her husband had said something critical about he White House.

The "Washington Post" reported that dozens of employees at the CIA, NSA and other intelligence agencies have been interviewed by the FBI already. At the same time, the Justice Department warning reporters that they could be prosecuted under espionage laws.

Pretty soon Senator Arlen Specter could find himself being investigated for this. The Republican from Pennsylvania saying today he might call Attorney General Alberto Gonzales back before his Judiciary Committee for another round of questioning because of his concerns that there might be more secret surveillance programs.

Al, you and me both.

Senator Specter wondering what Mr. Gongales was referring to in a letter he had sent the committee after his testimony last month, in which he wrote, quote, I did not and could not address any other classified intelligence activities. And another rake hits somebody in the forehead.

Time now to call in our own Craig Crawford, columnist for "Congressional Quarterly," and author of "Attack the Messenger: Hop Politicians Turn You Against the Media."

Good evening, Craig.


OLBERMANN: That's excellent, Jim. Thanks for getting the monthly plug out of the way early. You got your sequel, pitting the public against the media is not enough. Now the administration threatening to prosecute reporters who uncover the misdeeds and the wrongdoing of the Alien and Sedition Acts, that repassed in the weekend I was away from my computer?

CRAWFORD: It's like the old Ed Bradley in "All the President's Men." It's not like any of this matters, except maybe for the Constitution and the future of the country. This idea that the government has criminalized leaks leads to us a place where the only get is official information. We've all seen talking points. We know that's not very informative.

OLBERMANN: What happened to First Amendment and freedom of the press, if we're go in those Bradley-an terms? Or if you are the leaker, what happened to the Whistleblower Act?

CRAWFORD: Well, I wrote in my book that the politicians had won the war against the media. These are the spoils of victory, Keith. Partly, we have a court system that makes it possible to put reporters in jail if they don't reveal their sources. It really does raise the question, is there any freedom of the press left if that sort of activity is considered criminal?

OLBERMANN: And there's an extra dimension, of course. Any time you see something like this attempted in a government - in this country or any other, you turn black into white and white into black, leaking the existence of secret CIA prisons or domestic spying that may or may not be legal, but certainly is without warrant, those acts, that's illegal, but leaking the name of a covert CIA operative whose husband criticized the administration is not illegal. How - what's the consistency here? Where do we get...

CRAWFORD: There isn't any. It's called situational ethics, I believe. And we have gotten to a place, I think, where, you know, democracy is threatened when the freedom of the press in this context, in the protection of sources so that we get independent information that is independent of government spin and propaganda, that is the essence of democracy. I don't think you have a democracy without a free press, and I don't think you have a free press with a legal system like we have now. There's an irony in that we are exporting democracy abroad and cutting a major artery of our own democracy here at home.

OLBERMANN: Yes, maybe we should serve here before we start shipping. The senators charged Mr. Specter today that there could be other secret surveillance programs based on what the attorney general had written. First of all, do we fear he might right? Or is it sour grapes because he was not consulted about the spying, or what is behind all this?

CRAWFORD: I think there's a big issue with members of Congress, Republican leaders. So many Republican senators, Keith, I've always found - and Democrats, too, as a matter of fact, consider themselves senators first, protecting their branch of government, and then secondly their members of their party and protecting their president in power.

And then you have the interesting dynamic often in Washington, when even leaders in Congress who have a president from their own party, eventually there's conflict because of that traditional balance of power, the hostility between the branches.

So I think what's happening is a lot of members of Republicans in Congress are beginning to realize the Bush era is almost over, and they're starting preparing for the next era, and positioning themselves to be in power for that.

OLBERMANN: The Katrina tapes last week, specifically the release by the administration officials, or White House sources was the way "Newsweek" had put to the reference to the transcripts of the tapes from August 29 that put the president in a good light, not this stuff from the day before, which we're looking at here now.

But would it be a stretch to say that had someone in the administration take it upon himself, or herself, to leak that one tape before and absence of any of the other ones being leaked that that person might be under investigation right about now for releasing something the White House claimed was protected by executive privilege?

CRAWFORD: I wouldn't have foresaw the idea that there will be investigations of the leaks of tapes they didn't want released, as opposed to those that did.

We have an administration here that is really conducting a war on information that they don't want out, and those who disseminate information they don't want out. And I really think it's become a fairly serious matter.

OLBERMANN: Fortunately, the August 28th tapes were handed out by FEMA. So the idea where there was this huge crush to try to secretize everything, make secret every thing that the White House wants secret. Unfortunately, there's another branch of government that just sort of throwing tapes out there. So perhaps our best defense against infringement on democracy is the stupidity of the people trying to infringe upon it.

CRAWFORD: Always. It's still as we said before, a good time to reread George Orwell.

OLBERMANN: And yes, it's a quick read. And you can buy it a long with Craig's book. MSNBC political analyst Craig Crawford, also "Congressional Quarterly." As always, friend, great thanks.


OLBERMANN: The Bush administration no doubt less enamored of another new investigation tonight opened on its watch, a criminal investigation into the friendly fire death of the former National Football League star Pat Tillman, two years ago next month. The latest demanded by the Defense Department's own inspector general. That there have already been three inquiries is one of the most shameful aspects of the sad and tragic death of a pro sports star who walked away from that world because he saw too much that troubled him in the real one.

Before we talk with Josh White of "The Washington Post" about whether we can expect this fourth probe to be any different, the details tonight from our correspondent Peter Alexander.


PETER ALEXANDER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It will be the fourth investigation into one of the most high profile and heartbreaking deaths in the war on terror. Pat Tillman, the NFL star turned patriotic hero, was killed fighting in Afghanistan in 2004.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Peter Pace says the new investigation will address unanswered questions.

GEN. PETER PACE, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: The investigators did not specifically look at whether or not there was criminal activity, criminal activity being when Corporal Tillman was killed by friendly fire.

ALEXANDER: Army investigators are expected to examining all the facts surrounding Tillman's death and how they were reported to the military.

(on camera): NBC News has learned it was the Tillman family request that will lead to this new investigation. Still, Tillman's parents remains skeptical.

(voice-over): His father told "The Washington Post," quote, "I think it's another step. But if you send investigators to re-investigate an investigation that was falsified in the first place, what do you think you're going to get?"

The Pentagon will not take a fresh to determine whether Pat Tillman's death was an accident or a crime.

Peter Alexander, NBC News, Los Angeles.


OLBERMANN: For a reality check on this latest of the four Tillman investigations, let's call on "Washington Post" Pentagon reporter Josh White.

Thanks for your time tonight, sir.

JOSH WHITE, "WASHINGTON POST": Oh, it's my pleasure, Keith.

OLBERMANN: There were already two unit-level investigations done by the 75th Rangers. There was the one conducted by Army special operations command. Is there anything that should make us, or especially the Tillman family and the people who loved Pat Tillman, any less skeptical of this latest investigation?

WHITE: Well, they certainly are skeptical, and it's in large part because these facts, the evidence that exists against those people who actually shot Pat Tillman out in the field has existed since the very beginning. And the soldiers who were on the ground and the commanders of those units knew right away that this was a friendly-fire incident.

The question remains whether it was actually criminal, whether the soldiers who shot Tillman out in the field are guilty of an actual crime.

Now, this probe comes after almost now two years of the story changing. Initially we know the soldiers on the ground shot at targets they didn't know were friendly, obviously. They shot an Afghan militia forces soldier and their own Pat Tillman. But the family and the public were told immediately that Tillman was charging a hill, that this was - that he was killed by enemy fire, that this was a totally different thing. Evidence was destroyed. His uniform was burned. Bullets that could have determined which guns actually fired that killed him disappeared. The case spun quickly very into something it wasn't. And the family was never told the truth until far later. It was several weeks after he was memorialized publicly on national television they were told that it was friendly fire.

Each subsequent investigation has raised a number of questions for the family, and rightfully so, they keep pushing. Whether or not this is going to answer all of the questions and get to the bottom of it is still yet to be seen, but I'm sure we'll still going to be learning about this well after this investigation is over.

OLBERMANN: And, Josh, to be clear, when we hear criminal negligence, the first thought I think that probably jumps into a lot of people's minds as somebody shot him on purpose. That's not what we're talking about here; it's about a cover-up right, and an embellishment perhaps to try to sell the death of Pat Tillman as a heroic self-sacrifice when it was a horrible accident. Is that the worst-case scenario, or is there something worse in here?

WHITE: Well, the Criminal Investigations command hasn't specified exactly what the scope of this investigation is going to be, but initially what they're likely to focus on is whether or not the soldiers who actually shot him were negligent in doing so, not that they intended to kill him, but what they did was so out of the norm and against regulation that it led to his death.

Certainly one would imagine that in looking at that, it would then broaden out into what happened afterwards. Who was told not to talk, as we heard the unit was told specifically not to talk to the family, not to tell the public about what had happened. What evidence was destroyed? What was moved? What people were told to say.

In the initial investigation, we can't forget, found that there was gross negligence on the part of the soldiers that were actually on the ground, which indicates that really within days the Army knew, senior leaders knew, that this was a friendly-fire case. But what we were told back here and what the family was told, was that this was enemy forces that he was killed, you know, obviously going out after the terrorists in Afghanistan, and that spin has really angered the family. It is something that, you know, really has changed the course of these investigations. The follow-up investigations just looked at whether or not those previous investigations covered all the base and tried to answer the questions from the family.

OLBERMANN: If this were Pat Smith and not Pat Tillman, would we know anything about this, or would the mistakes and/or culpable actions have taken place in a vacuum?

WHITE: Well, it's a very good question. Certainly, the Army knew that the death of Pat Tillman was going to be big news, whether or not it was enemy forces or friendly fire.

The fact that it was friendly fire certainly added a level of potential embarrassment that may explain why things went the way they did.

But a story that I covered earlier this year of the specialist who was killed in Iraq under similar circumstances. The family was told it was an accident, turned out to be friendly fire; they weren't told for several months. These questions hung around that case, and continue to hang around that case. So again, we may not have heard about it, but these things do happen, and even if the case of people you haven't heard of.

OLBERMANN: Josh White of "The Washington Post," great thanks for your time and your perspective, sir.

WHITE: You're very welcome.

OLBERMANN: Also tonight, a University of North Carolina graduate behind bars facing nine counts of attempted murder, in his own words, "to avenge deaths of Muslims around the world at the hands of the U.S." A chilling 911 call.

And religious extremes of a much different variety. Ave Maria (ph), Florida, a new exclusivity Catholic community in the state from which we're reporting tonight. Has separation of church and state been thrown out the window? Does it really exist?

You are Countdown on MSNBC.


OLBERMANN: Breaking news and sad news from the world of sports, and for all those who've ever been to the state Minnesota. Kirby Puckett, the star outfielder of the Minnesota Twins from 1984 until the spring of 1996 has died at the age of 44 after a stroke suffered yesterday at his home in Arizona. Emergency surgery was performed at that time. Puckett was taken to a hospital there obviously for the surgery. He was listed in extremely critical condition and lingered into today, but died of the stroke at the age of 44, the Minnesota Twins outfielder and baseball Hall-of-Famer.

We will continue to follow the breaking news of the death of Kirby Puckett along with the rest the night's news as Countdown continues after this.


OLBERMANN: In a very real sense, it could be viewed as the first instance of international terrorism on U.S. soil since September 11th. No organized plot, no awful death toll. But the fear was present. One of the nation's most famous college campuses, Chapel Hill, the University of North Carolina. Our fourth story on the Countdown tonight, an alumnus of that school drives an SUV through a crowded campus plaza mowing down nine people, then phones the police to tell them what did he and why, "to punish the U.S. government," he says.

Countdown's Monica Novotny joins us now headquarters with the details.

Monica, good evening.


The question tonight, will officials consider this and in fact call this a terrorist attack. Many students in Chapel Hill are calling it that. The FBI is now working with local authorities. And in court today, the man responsible said he was thankful for the opportunity to spread the will of Allah.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Were you trying to kill people?

NOVOTNY (voice-over): A chillingly calm 22-year-old leaving court this morning. Mohammed Taheri-Azar charged with nine counts of attempted murder and nine counts of assault for driving a rented Jeep Cherokee into a crowded campus gathering spot on Friday in Chapel Hill, running down nine innocent bystanders. The Iran native, who authorities believe has spent most of his life here in the U.S., today appeared as unaffected by his actions as he was moment after his incident when he called 911 to turn himself in.

911 OPERATOR: Orange County, 911.

MOHAMMED TAHERI-AZAR: Yes, sir. I just hit several people with a vehicle and...

TAHERI-AZAR: OK, you - sir, you said you hit several people with a vehicle?

NOVOTNY: His explanation?

911 OPERATOR: Can you tell me why you did this?

TAHERI-AZAR: It's really to punish the government of the United States for their actions around the world.

911 OPERATOR: So you did this to punish the government?

TAHERI-AZAR: Yes, sir.

NOVOTNY: Later the psychology and philosophy student who graduated in December was more specific, allegedly telling investigators he intentionally hit people to, quote, "avenge the death of Muslims around the world."

Jeff Hoffman, one of the victims injured in the crash, described what happened on Saturday's "WEEKEND TODAY."

JEFF HOFFMAN: Basically, I look up and I see a car coming through on the middle of campus, which is pretty odd to begin with, and I keep walking, kind of not thinking anything. He's going really slow. It doesn't seem like he has any malicious intent. And then all of sudden, I just hear the car's engine rev, and I look up, and the car is just right there coming straight at me, about five feet from me. So I ended up on the hood, and luckily rolled off without really serious injuries.

NOVOTNY: Fortunately none of the nine victims was seriously hurt. So clearly Taheri-Azar's terror plan could have had deadly results.

HOFFMAN: I think we got really, really lucky.


NOVOTNY: When asked today by reporters if he was trying to kill people, Taheri-Azar said, "Yes." At this point, authorities believe he acted alone. A SWAT searched his apartment and found to dangerous materials, and his bail is set at $5.5 million, and he remains in Central Prison in Raleigh tonight.

Meanwhile, on campus today, students held what they called an anti-terrorism rally - Keith.

OLBERMANN: Countdown's Monica Novotny. Great. Thanks.

About three hours down the Florida coast from which I speak to you tonight, the unexpected result of a lifetime of selling you pizzas in vans. The man who brought you Domino's now serves up the city of Ave Maria, Florida, all Catholic, all the time.

And no, this is unrelated. These are not crusades, nor what the Domino's guy did with the rest of the ingredients of the company's pizza dough. What the heck it is, ahead on Countdown.


OLBERMANN: I mentioned earlier that we come to you tonight from Tampa. There's no good reason for this. I came to see some of baseball's spring training, and I forgot that couldn't make the commute back to headquarters every day.

On that note, saluting the fact that the big offseason acquisition of the Boston Redsox, pitcher Josh Beckett, gave up a homerun this afternoon to the very first batter he ever faced while in a Boston uniform, let's play "Oddball."

We begin here in Florida where one of pros of coming to spring training is that everybody has got a shot to chase down a foul ball, Port St. Lucie. The con? Well, you're going to want to take note of the local wildlife, or not. Good luck to you, kid. I'm sure it all worked out in the end. One less fan.

For more sporting news, we travel to Berlin, Germany for the big Annual Cuddly Toy Winter Olympics. In addition the exposing themselves to huge lawsuits from the real Olympics, these games features everything you would expect from the Winter Games, only with teddy bears, and gold medals made of dough. We got to see a little horsy thing getting the gold for the ski jump. He was later stripped of that award when 400 syringes were found in his owner's toy box.

To Greece, birthplace of the real Olympics, home to the Annual Flour War of Galaxidi. On the 50th day before Orthodox Easter, hundreds of villages taken to streets to throw handfuls of white flour at each other in a frenzy of town price and of bread ingredients. Most participants dressing in protective clothing. The flour is neither safe to breathe, nor is it South Beach friendly, if you knows what I mean. Many residents going to far as to cover their homes in plastic to prevent the inevitable gravy leak come the rains of spring in Galaxidi.

Also tonight, there were the two locks at the Oscars. "Crash" would never win best picture, and Jon Stewart would never crash. Oops. Details ahead.

But first here, Countdown top three newsmakers of this day. Number three: 18-year-old Kayla Alire of Sante Fe, New Mexico. She had just hit two key three-pointers in her high school basketball game when she began experiencing stomach pains on the team bus ride home. Two hours later, she gave birth to a six pound, four ounce baby boy. She had no idea she was pregnant. Kayla is OK, so is the newborn Isaiah, although Kayla might have saved herself some trouble if she'd just drawn a foul for a reach-around.

Number two: Vonette McKithern of Pinevielle, Louisiana. In '89, 1989, she mailed a package to her newlywed daughter and son-in-law and it never arrived. This week after 17 years nearly, the U.S. Postal Service returned it to sender. It had been sitting an office for nearly two decades. Unfortunately, the daughter has since divorced and that pet hamster inside the package died sometime in the early '90s. I made that last part up, it was a purse.

And number one, 83-year-old Marty Peters of Detroit, he's being honored this week by UPS for 60 years on the job delivering packages, began working for big brown in 1946, says he's in no hurry to retire. He's worked nearly every job the company has to offer. And if more people had gone with him, that hamster might still be alive today.

No kidding, there was no hamster, it was a joke.


OLBERMANN: It's not like this thing does not have a history in this country. The pilgrims came to America looking to build a city on a hill. The Mormons went west to establish their own community, ending up in Salt Lake City. The Amish migrated to Pennsylvania to keep themselves insulated from the modern world. But since then, as our next guest will note, the trend has been more the marbling, not the separation of the faiths.

First, in our third story on the Countdown, Catholics who want their own place have it and there's nothing subtle about it. A brand new town, 159 miles south and slightly east from here in Tampa, with the unmistakable name of Ave Maria. But as our correspondent Michelle Kosinski reports, from the point of view of the U.S. Constitution, Ave Maria itself could be a mistake.


MICHELLE KOSINSKI, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A town without condoms or birth control pills, no porn shops of strip joints or premarital sex.

At least that's how the founder of Domino's Pizza envisions Ave Maria, Florida. Thomas Monaghan has bought 5,000 acres to build his dream town, where Catholic doctrines is the rule. It will all be centered around Ave Maria University, which Monaghan also founded.

MEGAN CONWAY, AVE MARIA UNIVERSITY STUDENT: Everything I learn is how to be the best Catholic that I can be in the situation that I'm put in so I can better the world.

KOSINSKI: The town of 11,000 homes will also include public schools, emergency services and a community hospital. Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a Catholic himself, welcomes the idea.

GOV. JEB BUSH (R), FLORIDA: I think it will be a model for sustainable living, not just for Florida but for the country.

KOSINSKI (on camera): But many citizens in surrounding towns are not so thrilled. People of many faiths are drawn to Florida's shores, not necessarily to the world's largest crucifix planned for the town center.

GABRIELLE GILMORE, NAPLES, FLORIDA RESIDENT: I fear that they will try to impose their religious and moral views on the rest of the community.

HOWARD SIMON, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, FLORIDA ACLU: They're going to control the cable T.V. that comes in.

KOSINSKI: The ACLU goes a step further, calling the combination of religious rules and publicly funded services, potentially unconstitutional.

SIMON: Whatever rules the community abides by, they couldn't possibly in America be enforced with the power of government.

KOSINSKI: Still the state's attorney general says if anybody has a problem with the possible restrictions, they may have to take it up with the higher power of the court. Michelle Kosinski, Miami.


OLBERMANN: Town founders say they will not outlaw the sale of contraception and the like, which would be against the Constitution, but that it will be discouraged and they hope to include people of all faiths in the new town.

Not so much though the leaders of Christian Exodus, a group of which you may have already heard, dedicated to moving Christian conservatives to South Carolina. Their plan according to the group's Web site is to get enough like-minded emigrants to seriously influence the 2014 elections there and implement a Christian constitution in South Carolina.

If that doesn't work with Washington, the group says, it would consider seceding from the union. That worked well last time. The group wants to have 2,500 members moving to that state by the end of September next year, which may be slightly ambitious considering that only 20 people have relocated so far. The group's founder is still living in California.

A variation on the push for a god-fearing state in Missouri. Lawmakers there will consider a resolution that supports prayer in school, endorses religious displays, recognizes, quote, "a Christian God." Several local religious leaders have voiced outrage over the proposal, but the speaker of the Missouri House, Carl Bearden, says this resolution would be largely symbolic, with no force of law. Probably the appropriate time to call in Bob Edgar, the general secretary of the National Council of Churches. Nice to speak with you again, tonight, sir.

BOB EDGAR, NATIONAL COUNCIL OF CHURCHES: It's good to be with you, Keith.

OLBERMANN: Are the Christian Exodus and the town of Ave Maria's story the same issue when it comes to church and state or church v. state, or are they different ones and do we need to analyze them separately?

EDGAR: Well I think we have to look at them separately. They have a common theme. They all deal with constitutional issues which will eventually end up in the courts. My biggest concern is the Missouri resolution because I think it sets a really bad precedent, thinking that this is a Christian nation.

The founding fathers and mothers I believe were smart enough after a long series of trials and some persecution, to figure out that we needed to model the pluralism of religion and respect each others religious tradition. And so we're not a Christian nation or should we be a Christian state. We are a nation that respects each other's faith tradition.

I would also say the thing that troubles me about the Florida experience and the South Carolina experience is that it almost lends itself to becoming like Iraq in the sense that Shiites are in one place, Sunnis in the other and you've got different religious pockets.

We have done a good job in this country of respecting each other's community and inviting and being open to each other to worship, to work, and to live together and to learn from each other. And we ought to be modeling, clearly that ability to live together and not putting ourselves off in isolation or in the case of South Carolina, I think it's really a cult setting.

OLBERMANN: But obviously, and as I mentioned before, we have the founding of the country to some degree by the Pilgrims from England. We have the Mormons who first went into Illinois and then Missouri and then finally in Utah and they were chased around to that point because they wanted a community of their own with their own laws and their standards would apply. And the Amish are celebrated and celebrate their own singularity and their 19th century Luddite traditions, essentially, there.

Why is another - something that at least seemingly on the surface, be categorized with those other kinds of solo religion places. Why would another one be a problem?

EDGAR: Oh, I don't think it's a big problem. I think in the case of the Florida experience, the head of Domino's, who bought the land and bought property has already indicated he's not going to take it that far. And there are cults and small communities of religious faith, many places.

But I think the pilgrims are a good illustration. They came here to get away from religious persecution, and after a period of time they did some persecuting on their own. But after a period of time, we all believed that it was important for us to live in community with each other. Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians, Protestant Christians, historic black church persons, Jews, Muslims and others find this nation a place where their faith tradition is respected.

And there will always be these small clusters of communities, and in some cases even in the Protestant tradition, there are homes for retired ministers; in the Roman Catholic tradition there are mother houses for Roman Catholic nuns and priests who have a special place to live. But I think it's in our best interest as a nation to be open, to not build another segregated society, but to learn from Dr. Martin Luther King that all of us must fight any kind of racism and sexism and attempts to isolate different parts of our society and somehow say they are bad.

OLBERMANN: The Reverend Bob Edgar, the general secretary of the National Council of Churches. Always a pleasure having you on the newscast, sir.

EDGAR: Good to be with you, Keith.

OLBERMANN: Thank you again.

Also tonight, without any solace, Kirby Puckett, the Minnesota Twins great outfielder who had to retire at the age of 34, has passed away at the age of 44, a day after suffering a stroke. Remembering Kirby Puckett, when Countdown continues.


OLBERMANN: He was once one of baseball's most untarnished heroes. Then a series of personal tragedies and personal controversies affected the life and the reputation of Kirby Puckett, a first ballot Baseball Hall of Famer who had to retire at 34, and who died today after a stroke at the age of 44. Sports commentator and reporter Jim Gray will join me. That's next. This is Countdown.


OLBERMANN: Twenty-one years ago this spring in this state of Florida, a little or perhaps unknown outfielder named Kirby Puckett made the roster of the Minnesota Twins. He was to say the least an improbable candidate to be a Major League Baseball player: Short, stocky, but surprisingly fast and extraordinarily adept, and within a few short seasons he was one of the best players in Major League Baseball.

The news cut through the baseball training camps here in Florida tonight, when even the professionals began to wonder if an errant pitch thrown 11 seasons ago has caused a tragedy today.

Our No. 2 story on the Countdown, Hall of Fame baseball player Kirby Puckett, the hero of all heroes of the Minnesota Twins, even after his personal life went sour, has died tonight. He was operated on yesterday, shortly after being stricken by a stroke at his home in Arizona. He was an outfielder. He had a batting average of .318 lifetime. He was a 10-time All-Star and he led the Minnesota Twins to world championships in 1987 and again in 1991.

But his career ended not long after he was hit in the eye by a pitch from Dennis Martinez of Cleveland in 1994.

By the spring of 1996, he had begun to experience blurred vision and ultimately glaucoma, which would rob him of sight in that eye.

Kirby Puckett had a stroke yesterday, had emergency surgery to relieve pressure and bleeding in the brain, and died today at the age of just 44.

Joining me now, Jim Gray, my colleague and friend from ESPN and ABC Sports. Jim, thanks for your time tonight.

JIM GRAY, ESPN & ABC SPORTS: Well, I wish I could come under better circumstances, Keith, but this is - this really is upsetting to all of us who had covered and gotten to have known Kirby over the years. And when he was out there on the baseball field, he was a tremendous joy to watch. And the joy that he had for the game took us back to a time that a lot of us had experienced in our childhoods, and we saw a lot of the past in Kirby Puckett, and we liked what he was doing in the present when he was playing.

OLBERMANN: "I don't know where I would have ended up if it weren't for Kirby Puckett." That was a quote that was said today by Tom Kelly, who when Kirby Puckett arrived in baseball in 1984 was a coach with the Minnesota Twins and then became the manager of those two world championship teams.

Is that not reflective to some degree, Jim, of who Kirby Puckett was as a player? It was almost as if he was running the Minnesota Twins and not some manager or general manager or owner or anybody else?

GRAY: Well, it's cliche, but he literally played every game and every inning as though if it was his last. And he had a boundless enthusiasm. And he was the ultimate teammate. Everybody always spoke very, very highly of him. He was a guy that people were able to gather around and rally around, and he brought those championships, and of course he hit that homerun that baseball fans will never forget, in 1991, in the 11th inning, game six, to beat the Atlanta Braves in a very hotly contested series. And yeah, Tom Kelly, there's probably a lot of his teammates who would probably say the same thing.

OLBERMANN: Around baseball, to a certain degree - and we don't have to go into great detail on this on the occasion of the man's passing - but the image of the beloved Kirby Puckett might have been tarnished by details that came out about his marriage, allegations about events involving other women. But in Minnesota, is there a way to convey what he was - how he was - how he was loved there before that news came out, and even how he has remained simply number 34 Kirby Puckett of the Minnesota Twins ever since that time?

GRAY: I don't think it can really be expressed. I mean, certain people in certain cities will always be loved, and these things that happened after baseball, I think it astonished a lot of us who had covered him, and the flaws and the allegations and all the things that came out. I don't think that anybody, you know, nobody really knows what's going on with anybody is the bottom line, Keith, but I think in particular, because he was so beloved and because of the way that he had played and the way that people had thought they had gotten to know him, you know, people just didn't want to believe - believe it, and in many respects just wanted to look the other direction. And certainly on the occasion of his passing away, hopefully all of us will do that as well.

Julius Irving said something to me one time that I never forgot, the great Dr. J of the Philadelphia 76'ers and of the NBA. He said do you know anybody who is truly great or really successful that doesn't have one major quirk or personality flaw? So, you know, Kirby Puckett was great. He was at the top. And obviously he was flawed and he had some problems later in his life.

OLBERMANN: Jim there is one other thing that I think must be mentioned in this time, that Kirby Puckett grew up under dire circumstances in Chicago. The idea of the great smiling athlete and whatever else might have happened in his personal life is almost irrelevant in even that - in any context, but, as I said, especially today. But this man came from the bottom of the ladder, true?

GRAY: Yes. It was a remarkable story, particularly up until the time that he had to quit when he was stricken in the eye and later went blind in that eye. I mean, this was one of the truly - if you want to talk about a guy who came from total ashes and rose up and a guy who experienced the very depths of bottom to reach all the way to the pinnacle in 1987 and 1991 and playing 10 all-star games, it really is remarkable.

It's a story of which movies are made, of which, you know, if you wrote this thing and took it in to a script writer, you know, people would tell you go away, this couldn't possibly be realistic or happen. But it did happen to him.

And Kirby Puckett was a great, great baseball player and it was a great, great story. And what happened later on in life, you know, saddened everybody, and, you know, it's difficult to kind of put it into words and explain it. Are you finding it the same, Keith?

OLBERMANN: Absolutely. There's perseverance and effort and transcendence. And those are the things that come to mind. And hopefully we can focus on that just at least for the short term and in the long-term picture of Kirby Puckett.

Jim Gray of ESPN and ABC sports on great short notice under these sad circumstances, thanks as always for your time tonight.

GRAY: Thank you, Keith.

OLBERMANN: Up next, we're going to talk Oscars, the good, the bad, the ugly. Michael Musto of "The Village Voice" joins me.


OLBERMANN: Johnny Carson took the reigns five times. The number was eight for Billy Crystal so far. For Bob Hope, 18. Though he sometimes shared his duties, first as part of a radio broadcast, later on TV hosting the Academy Awards.

For a chosen few, no problem. For others - in our number one story on the countdown tonight, why is it that hosting a TV show should be so difficult for a guy who hosts a TV show?

Joining me now, the columnist of "The Village Voice," Michael Musto.

Michael, good evening.


OLBERMANN: By the end of Jon Stewart's monologue, we already had two pre-recorded bits and look at this piece of tape with me. There seems to be moments where he did not...

MUSTO: Do I have to?

OLBERMANN:... where he did not know where to go next. Look at this.


JON STEWART, HOST OF ACADEMY AWARDS: I don't really have a joke here. I just thought you should know a lot of people are saying that. I'm not really sure what my point was about that, but I will say this. Charlton Heston is cut.


OLBERMANN: Carson did the Oscar Oscars. Billy Crystal did the Oscars. What with Jon Stewart? What happened?

MUSTO: First of all, he is wrong. I happen to know Charlton Heston is uncut, but in any case Jon Stewart was de-fanged even more than Siegfried and Roy's latest bunch of pets. That's the tragedy. I mean, why hire him to host when you are not going to let him trash the administration? That's what he does.

It's like hiring Kathy Griffin to write greeting cards or Sarah Silverman to host at the massage parlor. It was a terrible idea even on paper.

OLBERMANN: One of the movie montages was about the important speeches that have been made in Hollywood, genocide, racism. It was the Jimmy Stewart speech from "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." It was Peter Finch from "Network." And after this huge portentous thing, Jon Stewart came back with this.


STEWART: And none of those issues were ever a problem again.


OLBERMANN: Was that it in an essence there to some degree, Michael, that you can't be all snark? If the segment is about how Hollywood is supposed to be serious or tried to be serious, you can't destroy the moment even if you have a good line. Don't you have to be a little respectful under those circumstances?

MUSTO: I guess so. And you also have to kind of lie to feed into that self importance, which is out of control. I mean, Hollywood has really done nothing for social issues. They come out with crappy sequel after crappy sequel just going for the "cha-ching."

And George Clooney in his speech I thought went overboard when he said Hollywood was the first people to talk about AIDS. They were the last people. They didn't make an AIDS movie until 93. He also gave credit to the Academy for giving an Oscar to Hattie McDaniel in 1939 when blacks had to sit in the back of the theater.

What he left out, true story, Keith, is Hattie had to sit in the back of the Oscar theater the night of her triumph. It's a disgrace. And Butterfly McQueen deserved it anyway.

OLBERMANN: Yes, the cleaning up of history is what Hollywood actually specializes in.

MUSTO: Oh congratulations, yes.

OLBERMANN: The ratings were down depending on which number you look at, 10 percent, 8 percent, even though they had a song about pimps winning the Oscars. Is there something wrong with the premise? Is there just too much television to compete with it? What's wrong this and can it be fixed?

MUSTO: I think there was some highlights that you're leaving out. Katherine Zeta reading her text messages in the audiences. The penguin puppet. The montages, which you mentioned, which were very informative. I didn't know there were things like film noir and musicals.

And the "Crash" musical number was even better than the pimp number. It was like Lilith Fair meets Cirque du Soleil via a great white concert with the flames. You're right it's awful. It's unsalvageable. Get rid of it. Don Knotts was smart to die too late for the death montage.

OLBERMANN: Oh dear. Don Knotts. Last question, quickly, do you have to star in a Hollywood movie to be able to host the Oscars? I mean Jon Stewart was only a part-timer in "Half Baked."

MUSTO: He has fine credentials. I looked him up on In "Half Baked" I believe he was the pizza delivery boy. He is the voice of a man in the upcoming movie. He is better qualified than Howie Mandel.

OLBERMANN: He is next year. The one and only Michael Musto.

MUSTO: I'm next year. That's what they are getting.

OLBERMANN: You, me, and him. We're next year.

MUSTO: I got my Oscar cookies for the best actor category. Three pimps and two gays. I'm going to chomp on them right now.

OLBERMANN: Michael Musto in "The Village Voice" many thanks.

MUSTO: Thank you Keith.

OLBERMANN: And that's Countdown for this, the 1,040 day since the declaration mission accomplished in Iraq. I'm Keith Olbermann from Tampa. Good night and good luck.

Our MSNBC coverage continues now with "RITA COSBY LIVE AND DIRECT."

Good evening Rita.

RITA COSBY, MSNBC ANCHOR: Good evening Keith. And good evening everybody. I am live and direct from the falls at the busy bar in downtown Manhattan.