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It was surreal. Before Bill Clinton walked into the gym of the Edgartown, Mass., school to announce his strike on terrorists, reporters were watching "Wag the Dog."

They had reached the point where a White House spin doctor (Robert De Niro) was scheming with a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) to divert attention from the president's sexcapade with a young girl.

Minutes later, Clinton was winging to the real White House to make his second TV speech of the week. First he told us he lied about sex. Now he told us he'd blasted a terrorists' lair.

"Our target was terror," said Clinton, momentarily discovering a villain to replace Ken Starr.

To add to the bizarre, even as the prez was playing missile-firing commander in chief, 10 blocks away Monica Lewinsky was detailing their steamy liaisons. Don't tell me life isn't zanier than movies.

Suspicion was thick in a city addled by Monica Mania: Had a cornered, frantic Clinton ginned up the missile strike as a PR gimmick to "look presidential" and deflect his sex-and-lies crisis? Had movie buff Clinton wagged the dog?

Here's one answer: Get real.

Sorry, conspiracy nuts, the fantasy that Clinton ordered missile hits in Afghanistan and Sudan to chase the Lewinsky scandal off front pages is ridiculously far-fetched.

Let's see, to pull off a "Wag the Dog" caper, Clinton had to conspire with Defense Secretary William Cohen, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, CIA chief George Tenet and FBI head Louis Freeh.

And that high-powered platoon agreed: "Yeah, great idea, Bill, we'll shoot 75 or 100 missiles so folks forget Monica. So what if terrorists blow up our embassies in revenge? Hey, we care about your poll numbers, boss."

Then there's timing: After the FBI and CIA traced the bombing of U.S. embassies in Africa to terror kingpin Osama bin Laden, the missile raids were plotted Aug. 12. That's five days before the firestorm over Clinton's grand-jury stonewall and TV speech flop.

Asked about a "Wag the Dog" hypothesis, defense chief Cohen turned steely. Voice slow and hard, the ex-Republican senator said, "The sole motivation was to protect American lives from terrorists."

That didn't chill firebrand Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., who wants Clinton to resign: "He's under a cloud of doubt. I'm on the Intelligence Committee, and this is a total surprise. I wonder if the president was desperate to avoid his personal problems?"

Never mind that Republicans hardly friendly to Clinton -- Orrin Hatch, Jesse Helms, Newt Gingrich -- solidly supported him. Asked about conjecture that Clinton unleashed missiles to dodge the Monica storm, Gingrich blurted, "That's sick."

Sure, loopy paranoia about presidents isn't new. Ronald Reagan's two-bit war on Grenada was suspected as a sham to cover Iran-Contra. His raid on Moammar Gadhafi was seen as grandstand saber-rattling. Richard Nixon reportedly called a worldwide armed-forces alert at Watergate's crux.

But the intensity of "Wag the Dog" fantasies about the missile strike shows how deeply pervasive is mistrust of Clinton. Polls show he has the credibility of Joe Isuzu. He lied to us about sex, so why wouldn't he cobble up a phony raid?

To swallow that Robert Ludlum plot, you'd have to believe Clinton's such a ruthless charlatan that he'd fire missiles, kill innocent bystanders and endanger Americans all for a one-day escape from Monica. He may have a zipper problem, but he's no Saddam Hussein.

In truth, the missile strike puts Monica Madness in perspective. Those 260 people killed, 12 of them Americans, and 5,000 injured in the East African embassy truck-bombings were real. That missile-blasted hideout in Afghanistan was real. Fear that Islamic terrorists will target the U.S., perhaps with a VX nerve-gas attack on big-city subways, is real.

Stacked against U.S.-hating terror squads, a mini-scandal about a Rodeo Drive intern is a titillating, minor circus.

What's next, "Armaggedon"? A president covers his hanky-panky by having an outer-space rock smash into Washington? Head for the hills, conspiracy freaks.

Philadelphia Daily News

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