A Is for Air Strike

Future biographers will undoubtedly be fascinated to learn that Chatterbox was swimming contentedly in the placid waters off Martha’s Vineyard when the bombs began falling on terrorist bases in Afghanistan and Sudan. But as this arduous August is abundantly proving, there is no such thing as a day at the beach in the pundit business. The president was still in the air headed back to man the battle stations in Washington, when Chatterbox hit the computer primed to sagely opine, based solely on watching CNN for half an hour.

Nothing better symbolizes the beyond parody weirdness of contemporary life than the scene of Defense Secretary William Cohen being asked at his press conference on the air strikes whether he had seen the movie, Wag the Dog. We have now reached that long-awaited moment when the lines between reality and entertainment have permanently intersected. The old-time ad slogan, “Is it real or is it Memorex?” has ceased to be relevant. It’s all one and the same in the fusion between truth and illusion.

Does anyone seriously believe that Bill Clinton was sitting with an alphabetical listing of the nations of the world trying to choose his diversionary targets? Albania? “Nah, too much like the movie, and anyway Kosova is a mess.” Andorra? “Too small to be a threat.” Austria? “Maybe if Kurt Waldheim were still its president.” Afghanistan? “Bingo!”

But in an X-Files age, everything is a potential conspiracy. That indefatigable publicity hound, Pennsylvania Republican Senator Arlen Specter, quickly grabbed 10 minutes of TV time on CNN for a press conference in which he raised grave doubts about the timing of the attack on the terrorist bases. So what if Specter isn’t a member of the Foreign Relations or the Armed Services Committees? So what if Specter admitted, “The only information I have is what the president said in a short statement”? A lack of facts is never a bar to mouthing off on national television, especially at a time when (surprise!) Specter is running for re-election.

Sure, the air attacks were politically convenient for our embattled president. But that doesn’t mean that the raids were contrived. Too many career officials at the Pentagon and on the national-security staff at the White House were privy to the secret deliberations leading up to the launching of cruise missiles. It strains credulity to believe that they would risk their careers to participate in a trumped-up military exercise solely designed to let Clinton seem presidential. Even Richard Nixon at the end of his tether wasn’t that cynical.

It was telling that John McCain, who is admittedly Chatterbox’s favorite Republican, went on CNN to say, “I think the president did the right thing.” Critics like Specter are already sneering that there was no need for Clinton to interrupt his fun-filled vacation to rush back to Washington. But all presidents–save Ronald “Don’t Wake Me When We’re Bombing Libya” Reagan–relish the breathless atmospherics of crisis. In a week when everyone is rightly toting up Clinton’s sins, commandeering Air Force One for a flight to Washington does seem like a ludicrously minor infraction.

Still, Chatterbox can’t help thinking about the lonely president deciding in the wee small hours of the morning to give his okay to the attack plans. What an evening it must have been for Clinton. His 52nd birthday festivities last night at Chez Vernon Jordan sound like the dinner party from hell. Imagine lifting a celebratory glass with the wife you betrayed and the best friend who just may have sold you out to the grand jury. That’s one scene that not even the creators of Wag the Dog would have had the black humor and the fictional imagination to invent.

Walter Shapiro