Olbermann Plugs Justice O'Connor's "Dictatorship" Attack on Conservatives

On Friday's Countdown show, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann highlighted recent comments by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, delivered during a speech at Georgetown University, seemingly directed at such conservatives as Tom DeLay and President Bush for some of their criticisms of the judiciary, criticisms which O'Connor argued put America's government at risk of heading toward dictatorship. Olbermann, who has several times compared the state of post-9/11 civil liberties in America to George Orwell's novel 1984, began his show seeming to trumpet the boost in credibility afforded to this comparison when a Supreme Court justice raises similar concerns: "It's one thing for us to throw around references to what seemed to be details from George Orwell's novel 1984 springing to life, thanks to post-9/11 thinking. It's quite another when the same kind of comments come from a just-retired justice of the U.S. Supreme Court..." Olbermann also compared actions by Republicans to those in communist countries that had "allowed dictatorships to flourish." Guest Mike Allen of Time magazine later gushed with hope that Olbermann's attention to the matter would inspire greater coverage of O'Connor's comments and "launch a thousand op-eds." (Complete transcript follows.)

As Olbermann teased his Friday show, he was so impressed with O'Connor's use of the word "dictatorship" that the Countdown host repeated the word several times just during the teaser: "The beginnings of a dictatorship? Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor actually talked about the beginnings of a dictatorship here in America? A dictatorship? D-I-C-T-A-T-O-R-ship? A dictatorship, did you say? Justice O'Connor's remarkable speech and remarkable poll numbers. Nearly seven out of ten of us think the country is headed in the wrong direction. Dictatorship, huh?"

Olbermann opened his show: "Good evening from Tampa, Florida. Dictatorship, not Dick Cheney, dictatorship. Our fifth story on the Countdown, it's one thing for us to throw around references to what seemed to be details from George Orwell's novel 1984 springing to life, thanks to post-9/11 thinking. It's quite another when the same kind of comments come from a just-retired justice of the U.S. Supreme Court at a major American institution of learning on the subject of political interference in judicial decision-making and the subject of dictatorship, or at least its earliest embryonic form."

Olbermann then recited quotes from O'Connor, as reported by NPR's Nina Totenberg: "It takes a lot of degeneration before a country falls into dictatorship, but we should avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings." More O'Connor: "Attacks on the judiciary by some Republican leaders pose a direct threat to our constitutional freedoms. I am against judicial reforms driven by nakedly partisan reasoning. We must be ever-vigilant against those who would strong-arm the judiciary into adopting their preferred policies." (See transcript or listen to audio for Totenberg's report.)

The Countdown host then moved on to compare actions by DeLay and other Republicans to those in communist countries as he paraphrased more remarks from O'Connor: "She noted that interference with an independent judiciary, not unlike that attempted by Mr. DeLay and other Republicans, had allowed dictatorship to flourish in countries formerly subjected to communist rule." Notably, an examination of Totenberg's account of the speech does not clearly convey whether O'Connor was specifically arguing that actions taken against the judiciary in communist dictatorships were actually similar to those actions supported by Republicans, so Olbermann's qualification that actions in communist dictatorships were "not unlike that attempted by Mr. DeLay and other Republicans" seems to be his own interpretation.

As Olbermann proceeded to relay the latest poll, from the Associated Press, showing President Bush with a low public approval rating, the Countdown host seemed to further attempt to bolster the legitimacy of civil liberties concerns by implying a connection between such fears and the President's low ratings. After the aforementioned comparison to communism, Olbermann continued: "Those specifics might be a little strong for the average American, but not the general point. Sixty-seven percent of those polled by the Associated Press saying the country is on the wrong track. Only 30 percent now thinking we are headed in the right direction."

The Countdown host then brought aboard Time magazine correspondent Mike Allen to further discuss the O'Connor story, and posed the question: "What Justice O'Connor said, surely that is as remarkable a speech as has been given at least this year. Where's the coverage? Where's the outrage?"

Allen relayed his joy that Olbermann was bringing attention to the story: "Oh, Keith, I'm so glad that you picked up on this, and I think now that you've called attention to it, it's going to launch 1,000 op-eds because there was very little coverage of this today."

Resisting the temptation to label statements by Republicans as "extreme," he later continued: "I think what you're going to see here is even people who are traditionally in the President's corner ... are concerned about some of the more, let's say, I was going to say 'extreme,' but you don't want to say that, but some of the more vociferous Republican statements."

After pointing out that O'Connor's criticisms were directed toward statements made by DeLay, Senator John Cornyn and even President Bush, Allen relayed his belief that politicians will have to "answer for" civil liberties concerns: "These concerns about civil liberties and freedom of expression are something that I think people running this fall, and certainly the candidates who are running in '08, and you're going to get to them later in your show, are going to be asked about and are going to have to answer for."

The Time correspondent later seemed to confuse the left's general strategy of imposing their agenda through judicial activism with the anti-judicial activism agenda of conservatives as he argued that Republicans can use the judiciary to "get parts of their agenda made into public policy." Allen: "This is a way that Republicans can get things done even after they don't have the White House or even if you're in a situation, as you're pointing out now, where the President doesn't have a lot of mojo, by having judges that they've appointed that are congruent with their beliefs, they can still get parts of their agenda made into public policy."

In his conclusion, after earlier saying he did not want to label aforementioned statements by Republicans as "extreme," Allen ended up doing so anyway: "I think that she took one of the, some of the more extreme statements and seized on them. These weren't necessarily representative of the views that these lawmakers gave all the time."

Below is a complete transcript of the segment from the Friday March 10 Countdown show:

Keith Olbermann, in opening teaser: "Which of these stories will you talking about tomorrow? The beginnings of a dictatorship? Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor actually talked about the beginnings of a dictatorship here in America? A dictatorship? D-I-C-T-A-T-O-R-ship? A dictatorship, did you say? Justice O'Connor's remarkable speech and remarkable poll numbers. Nearly seven out of ten of us think the country is headed in the wrong direction. Dictatorship, huh?"

Olbermann opened the show: "Good evening from Tampa, Florida. Dictatorship, not Dick Cheney, dictatorship. Our fifth story on the Countdown, it's one thing for us to throw around references to what seemed to be details from George Orwell's novel 1984 springing to life, thanks to post-9/11 thinking. It's quite another when the same kind of comments come from a just-retired justice of the U.S. Supreme Court at a major American institution of learning on the subject of political interference in judicial decision-making and the subject of dictatorship, or at least its earliest embryonic form. Sandra Day O'Connor making those remarks in a speech recorded neither on video nor publicly on audiotape at Georgetown University. According to National Public Radio, she told the assembly there that, 'It takes a lot of degeneration before a country falls into dictatorship, but we should avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings.' Wait, there's more, and there's a name. As recapped by NPR, O'Connor also said, 'attacks on the judiciary by some Republican leaders pose a direct threat to our constitutional freedoms. I am against judicial reforms driven by nakedly partisan reasoning. We must be ever-vigilant against those who would strong-arm the judiciary into adopting their preferred policies.'"

Olbermann: "Those last remarks appear to refer specifically to the former House Minority Leader, Tom DeLay. Though O'Connor did not mention his name, but quoted his attacks on judges at meetings last year of Justice Sunday, the conservative Christian group to which DeLay vented after the Terri Schiavo rulings. The retired justice pulled no punches. She noted that interference with an independent judiciary, not unlike that attempted by Mr. DeLay and other Republicans, had allowed dictatorship to flourish in countries formerly subjected to communist rule. Those specifics might be a little strong for the average American, but not the general point. Sixty-seven percent of those polled by the Associated Press saying the country is on the wrong track. Only 30 percent now thinking we are headed in the right direction. The man in charge of the direction and the country not faring much better in the same poll. Sixty percent say they disapprove of the job Mr. Bush is doing. Thirty-seven percent approve. The lowest rating in the AP poll during Mr. Bush's presidency. Not that such numbers bother him."

George W. Bush: "You have to believe in what you're doing, see? You have to believe in certain principles and beliefs. And you can't let the public opinion polls and focus groups cause you to you abandon what you believe and become the reason for making decisions."

Olbermann: "Joining us now, Mike Allen, the White House correspondent for Time magazine. Thanks for your time tonight, sir."

Mike Allen, Time magazine: "Happy Friday, Keith."

Olbermann: "The poll numbers are old news. I don't think the President or his critics seem to think they're going to go much differently, or certainly not going to get much better, although the President seemed kind of honked off by the question there. But what Justice O'Connor said, surely that is as remarkable a speech as has been given at least this year. Where's the coverage? Where's the outrage?"

Allen: "Oh, Keith, I'm so glad that you picked up on this, and I think now that you've called attention to it, it's going to launch 1,000 op-eds because there was very little coverage of this today. A chief justice, any justice, as you know, chooses their words very carefully, and Justice O'Connor, former justice, well knew the ripples that this would cause. And Nina Totenberg of NPR, who covered this speech and provides the only public record of it so far said that at some points, Justice O'Connor's voice was dripping with sarcasm. And so I think what you're going to see here is even people who are traditionally in the President's corner -- and, as you know, the justice was a Republican legislator appointed by President Reagan, nominated by President Reagan -- are concerned about some of the more, let's say, I was going to say 'extreme,' but you don't want to say that, but some of the more vociferous Republican statements. And Nina Totenberg sort of decoded the speech and pointed out, as you did, that the House Majority, former House Majority Leader, Tom DeLay, had made some of these statements. Senator John Cornyn of Texas had made some other ones, and Justice O'Connor pointed out that death threats against judges have increased, and you quoted that passage where she's concerned about judicial reforms driven by ideology. And that seems to point a finger at some of the statements that the President has made. So this is a reminder that the Republican Party, at this moment, is many parties. And these concerns about civil liberties and freedom of expression are something that I think people running this fall, and certainly the candidates who are running in '08, and you're going to get to them later in your show, are going to be asked about and are going to have to answer for."

Olbermann: "She might as well have accused Tom DeLay of trying to alter checks and balances in the Constitution, what she said there. But what I'm wondering here is: Do you think, would she have discussed the political ramifications of this with anybody in advance? Would this have been kind of a stalking horse speech for more moderate people inside the Republican Party?"

Allen: "You know, that's an interesting question, Keith, that I hadn't thought about. You know, when you're Justice O'Connor, you can pretty well say what you want. You don't need to run it by anyone, but I think that we can assume that this reflects a certain point-of-view, people maybe who are her friends, people who are talked to. What was interesting about this was clearly these were feelings that had been bottled up in Justice O'Connor. She waited until she got off the bench to talk about them. These remarks have been made from when she was on the bench. And I think it's sort of a leading indicator, Keith, of what we're going to be seeing as people who are maybe now in public life, maybe people who are now in high-level positions, as they become freer to talk, may express reservations about some of what has been done. And the judicial issue has been used very aggressively by Republicans to gin up their people. I mean, Keith, surprisingly, when the President speaks at fundraisers, other Republican officials, it always amazes me that judges are one of the biggest applause line because it's a little abstract to you and me, but going down to the county courthouse level, the appointment of judges is always very political. And this is a way that Republicans can get things done even after they don't have the White House or even if you're in a situation, as you're pointing out now, where the President doesn't have a lot of mojo, by having judges that they've appointed that are congruent with their beliefs, they can still get parts of their agenda made into public policy."

Olbermann: "If this might have an effect on Republicans and conservatives, Mike, what about liberals and Democrats? If they hear a former Supreme Court justice use, apparently use the word 'dictatorship' twice in a speech talking about this country, them's fighting words. What do the party, the loyal opposition try to do with it?"

Allen: "Well, Keith, I think that's very astute, and that's why, you know, I mentioned, I think this will launch a lot of columns. I think we have to pause here and make it clear to viewers who follow the Supreme individuals, Supreme Court justices somewhat elliptically, that Justice O'Connor has been a more moderate Republican to the degree that she remained a Republican. That's why people talked about her as a swing vote. That's why her seat was so important. And so it's not as if, you know, one of the President's own was turning on him. And I think that she took one of the, some of the more extreme statements and seized on them. These weren't necessarily representative of the views that these lawmakers gave all the time."

Olbermann: "The White House correspondent of Time magazine, Mike Allen, great thanks for you joining us tonight to help us work on the O'Connor story."

Allen: "Happy weekend, Keith."

Olbermann: "And to you."