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Jewish World Review /August 24, 1998 / 2 Elul, 5758

Clarence Page

Clarence Page Wag the Dog novelist:
Clinton could have looked
'presidential,' but muffed it up!

WASHINGTON When a reporter responded to major American military action last week by asking Defense Secretary William Cohen if he had seen the movie "Wag the Dog," the holes in President Clinton's credibility were exposed like the underwear of a clown who had just split his pants.

A year ago it would have been hard to imagine a reporter as respectable as Newsday's Gaylord Shaw raising such a tacky question in a Pentagon news conference.

But, less than 72 hours earlier, the president had confessed to lying about his tacky relationship with former intern Monica Lewinsky, so anything goes.

As soon as Clinton announced missile strikes against suspected terrorist installations in Afghanistan and Sudan, there were those who, as Shaw said, were "going to say this bears a striking resemblance to 'Wag the Dog.'"

That was the movie in which a presidential spin doctor played by Robert De Niro and a movie producer played by Dustin Hoffman create a phony war to divert public attention from a sex scandal in the Oval Office. Eerily the movie came out just before the Lewinsky scandal broke.

Cohen was not amused. Stiffly he replied that this action was driven only by "our absolute obligation to protect the American people from terrorist activities." Cohen, a Republican ex-senator, has excellent credibility, even if his president these days does not. The strikes also received quick, unequivocal support from House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senator Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who presumably had their bulljive detectors on full alert.

Still there were skeptics. One was Larry Beinhart, a mystery writer who gives slide lectures on the history of war propaganda. He can hear cash registers ring every time a newscaster mentions "Wag the Dog." The movie was based on Beinhart's satirical 1993 novel, American Hero.

Beinhart's book ironically imagines not Clinton, but President Bush staging the Persian Gulf war simply to boost sagging poll ratings. Its major theme is that war has become a TV show, marketed by the war makers like a product to be sold. The movie's presidential sex scandal with an underage girl was added by screenwriters.

But, as well-choreographed television wars go, the latest missile attack fell short, Beinhart told me by telephone from his upstate New York home. First, he said, there was the timing.

"Monday would have been a better day than Thursday," he said. Monday was the day Clinton testified before special prosecutor Kenneth Starr's grand jury.

"Clinton could have instantly diminished the stature of the special prosecutor by excusing himself to launch the missiles. He would have looked presidential and in control. This way he looks like he's sort of flailing around."

Then there was the buildup, or lack of one. "It was too sudden," Beinhart said. "You need to build the public's appetite into a war mood. Bush's buildup in the Gulf War was 10 times longer than the war itself. It's like the Super Bowl. The public needs time to learn the players, the bad guys, the back stories and, of course, why our team's got to win."

Advance promotion is a necessary part of war in the media age, Beinhart said, "Otherwise your consumers won't accept the product. Clinton's people didn't do it. I don't know why they didn't do it."

Why? Could it be that the administration had no choice? Maybe the missile strikes were, for the best of reasons, necessary. Maybe the lack of media stagecraft in this instance helps confirm that the missiles on Thursday were the best option.

Most Americans seemed to buy that possibility, judging by the early polls. In an overnight Gallup poll after the attack, 58 percent of the public said they thought, no, the military action was not a diversionary tactic, but exactly the same percentage agreed that, yes, it is legitimate for members of Congress to question the timing. The "Wag the Dog" possibility lives.

That skepticism is healthy for democracy but trouble for Clinton. It was just a little too cozy of a coincidence when the president who just happened to be wearing Monica's gift necktie on her first day of grand jury testimony just happened to be bombing terrorists on her second day.

In fairness to Clinton, Ronald Reagan faced similar questions when he ordered the invasion of Grenada within days of the disastrous bombing of an American marines barracks in Beirut. Reagan got away with that and Clinton probably will, too.

But the skeptical reaction to his military action shows just how wounded his presidency has become. Hardly anyone raised such questions about his actions in Haiti, Bosnia or other places until the Monica story popped into view. Now any time he seeks public support for some pet project, foreign or domestic, even his supporters are likely to wonder whose tail he's wagging.


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©1998, Tribune Media Services.