Bob Smith, the Republican senator from New Hampshire and presidential candidate, whose solicitude for circus animals was previously discussed in this column (see “The Elephant Man”) gave a talk this afternoon in Washington to the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group. About 100 people gathered at Tony Cheng’s Seafood Restaurant in Chinatown to hear Smith discuss the future of judicial nominations. After the talk, someone from the audience asked Smith what he thought about the Bill Lann Lee situation. (Bill Lann Lee is acting head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division; because the Senate never confirmed his nomination, many conservatives are incensed that he’s performing the job anyway.)

The event was closed to the media, but according to three people who were present, Smith warmed to the topic right away. He said the Chinese government was threatening national security. He said Energy Secretary Bill Richardson was a good friend of his, but that he’d walked into a hornet’s nest. He said it was a disgrace that the activities of Bill Lann Lee weren’t being watched more carefully. He said people were saying that “the bombing in Kosovo was designed to distract the public’s attention from the Bill Lann Lee matter,” a hypothesis he did not attempt to discredit. “He just kept using the name,” says one person who was there. “Bill Lann Lee this, Bill Lann Lee that.”

After some initial bafflement, the sympathetic audience eventually realized that Smith had Bill Lann Lee confused with Wen Ho Lee, the Taiwan-born Los Alamos scientist alleged to have passed nuclear secrets to the Chinese government. (See “The Post Witholds Credit Where It’s Due.”) But apparently no one said anything, and Smith went on babbling about Bill Lann Lee.

Chatterbox phoned Smith campaign spokeswoman Karen Hickey for a comment. She said “all the senator heard was the gentleman’s last name. … He heard the last name Lee and spoke about the alleged spy.” But if it was just a matter of hearing only the last name, why did Smith keep saying “Bill Lann Lee”? Hickey insisted that she did not recall hearing Smith say “Bill Lann Lee,” only “Lee.” (Chatterbox’s three eyewitnesses all say they’re sure Smith said “Bill Lann Lee.”) She also denied that Smith alluded to the war in Yugoslavia as a means to distract attention from … anybody named Lee.

–Timothy Noah