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203 August 20, 1998: President William Jefferson Clinton emerged from the site of his summer vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, to announce that the United States had just bombed a suspected terrorist training camp in Khost, Afghanistan, and a nerve gas manufacturing facility in North Khartoum, Sudan. Seventy-five Cruise missiles launched from US Navy ships in the Red and Arabian seas found their targets hundreds of miles away. The CIA suspected that the camp and the factory were parts of a terrorist organization, headed by the wealthy Saudi Arabian Islamic fundamentalist Osama bin Laden, which was responsible for the bombing of two US embassies in Africa earlier that month. After making his short speech, Clinton boarded a helicopter and headed back to Washington, interrupting his planned two-week vacation. This American military action was the first of its kind in two years. Although it did not eliminate Bin Laden or his operation, the strike displayed the awesome might and reach of US missile hardware, as well as the scope of the growing intelligence-gathering operation on the ground in the Middle East. As Clinton’s earlier initiatives in Somalia, Haiti, Iraq, and Bosnia had also indicated, in the decade after the collapse of the Soviet empire and the end of the Cold War, America’s new military mission was highly diverse, responding to a host of smaller but deadly apparent threats to domestic and world security. No one could then know that Bin Laden’s C H A P T E R 6  HOLLYWOOD WAGS THE DOG, 1990–2000 204 the leading man survival of the rocket attacks that day, to terrorize again, would change American history within only a few years. The immediate public reaction to Clinton’s announcement reflected the mentality of the era that preceded the 9/11 attacks and the war on terror. In their reactions, citizens slighted the grave threats and weighty foreign policy implications with which the president had justified his action. Instead they almost impulsively pulled out of their medium-range memories a Hollywood movie—not a blockbuster, but a moderately successful, critically praised film that had finished its run in the theaters a few months earlier. “Wag the Dog. . . . Everybody at the office was talking about it,” Valerie David, a Manhattan advertising copy editor for Avon Products, told the New York Times—“how ironic it was that life was imitating art. We all noticed it.” “My brother called me to tell me what had happened,” banking analyst Brian Cooper recalled, “and I said, ‘Doesn’t this remind you of Wag the Dog?’” Roger DeWitt, an actor working in his agent’s office on Broadway, noted that he and his co-workers mentioned the movie immediately after hearing Clinton’s announcement. At his briefing at the Pentagon on the air strikes, Defense Secretary William Cohen was asked by a reporter if he had seen Wag the Dog; Cohen did not answer the question, stressing instead that the United States had acting purely on the basis of strong intelligence from the region. In Little Rock, Arkansas, US special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, investigating the president’s finances and personal life, was asked if he had seen film. “Yes, I have seen it,” Starr responded. “Other than that, I’m not going to comment.” At the Capitol, Representative Bob Ney, Democrat of Ohio, told a journalist, “I don’t think the President would be foolish enough to do a Wag the Dog.” The next day, a quickly completed national poll showed that “by a 2-to-1 margin [respondents] believed Mr. Clinton had acted out of genuine military concerns, rather than executing a so-called ‘Wag the Dog’ strategy to shift public attention away from his troubles.” The people interviewed by the journalist Frank Bruni suspected that the bombings were “wholly justified” and doubted that Clinton would be “dumb enough to try bombing to change the subject.” But some suggested that “the timing of the bombings, coming so fast on the heels of his televised confession to the country on Monday night, felt a little too tidy, a little too cinematic.”1 hollywood wags the dog 205 Wag the Dog had opened nationally eight months earlier, on January 9, 1998. That same week, depositions were begun in the sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Paula Corbin Jones, a former employee of the Arkansas state government, against President Clinton. As governor of Arkansas in 1991, Jones alleged, Clinton had cornered...


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