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Pulitzer-winning journalist: Why I asked if Clinton's al Qaeda strike was like 'Wag the Dog'
Adam Dupont
Published: Wednesday June 6, 2007
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Reporter's 'lighthearted' query spread like wildfire in media

Hollywood often lifts its stories from the front pages, but nearly nine years ago, a sitting president was accused of doing directly the opposite.

In the summer of 1998, when the United States bombed al Qaeda terrorist targets in Sudan and Afghanistan in retaliation for the Aug. 7, 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, the sex scandal involving former White House intern Monica Lewinsky and President Clinton was on the minds of almost everyone in Washington DC. But at an Aug. 20 Pentagon press briefing, Pulitzer Prize recipient Gaylord Shaw became the first reporter to reference the movie Wag the Dog, a satire about a make-believe war started to deflect media attention from a presidential sex scandal.

Though this question was later taken seriously by many journalists who weren't at the press conference, RAW STORY has learned in an interview with Shaw that he posed his question in a joking and “lighthearted” manner.

“It was kind of lighthearted," Shaw said about his question. "We obviously... I mean, no one seriously thought that the President was bombing targets to change the subject from Monica Lewinsky."

However, Wag the Dog immediately exploded as a metaphor for the idea that President Clinton had attempted to start a war to distract the news media from his troubles. Many have argued that -- faced with skepticism towards his actions in the national media, and with some political pundits being egged on by a Republican-led House of Representatives that was driving towards impeachment -- the Wag the Dog accusations may have even hindered President Clinton's ability to take further action at that time against Osama bin Laden and other foreign terrorists.

Metamorphosis of a metaphor

On Aug. 20, 1998, just three days after President Clinton had admitted to a grand jury that he'd had an affair with Lewinsky, the Pentagon held a press conference about the US retaliatory bombings. Gaylord Shaw, then the Washington Bureau Chief for Newsday, asked Secretary of Defense William Cohen, "Some Americans are going to say this bears a striking resemblance to Wag the Dog. Two questions: Have you seen the movie? And second, how do you respond to people who think that."

(Audio clip of question can be heard at this link)

"The only motivation driving this action today was our absolute obligation to protect the American people from terrorist activities," a taken aback Cohen responded.

Shaw, who was awarded a Pulitzer in 1978 "for a series on unsafe structural conditions at the nation's major dams" published in the LA Times, told RAW STORY that he hadn't seen the movie when he asked the question. But "several of the guys [in the White House press pool] had and they were talking about it," and there arose a "kind of a challenge among us to see who would ask Cohen." When asked if this was a serious challenge among the press pool, Shaw downplayed the notion and defined the challenge as “lighthearted.”

“It was kind of, when you see one of these guys in the hallway or you encounter them for an interview and you talked to them in their office,” Shaw said of his question, “that's sort of something you use to break the ice, you know, that kind of thing,”

When asked if any other journalists wanted to ask the question, he added, “You know, it was kind of humming in the background and I think everyone laughed when I asked it.”

"Well you know, I can't speak for the entire press corps," Shaw told RAW STORY. "There may have been some people who thought Clinton would do that; I didn't, didn't think that that was what was taking place, and I don't think any of my colleagues, folks I know and worked with, they didn't take that as a serious possibility."

But “Wag the Dog” spread like wildfire

On Aug. 20, 1998, anchor Brian Williams introduced NBC Nightly News's "In-Depth" segment with a reference to the movie: "It had some invoking the title of a recent movie in which just that happened. Wag the Dog, it's a work of fiction, but that same thought today had a real feel.” Also that night, CNN's Wolf Blitzer took a "look at the presidency with attention split between the sex scandal in the White House and the military strikes aimed at the terrorists responsible for the U.S. embassy bombings."

In an editorial published the next day, The New York Times backed the strikes, but cautioned the president to "reassure" Americans that they were not intended to distract.

"The United States has every right to attack suspected terrorists if there is credible evidence showing that they were involved in attacks against U.S. citizens or were planning such attacks," the Times editorial said. "That seems to be the case in the missile attacks ordered by President Clinton in the Sudan and Afghanistan....But since those attacks were ordered from a White House weakened by scandal, Clinton needs to take extra care to reassure the country that the attacks were not timed to help repair his shaken presidency."

Andrew Krepinevich wrote for the Aug. 23, 1998 Washington Post, "While the president's decision to retaliate against terrorism is clearly justified based upon the evidence at hand, the propriety of this course of action is undermined by doubts as to the motives for the strikes, coming so close to the president's Monday night scandal speech, and the continuing scandal coverage on the front pages of the national press."

"It has been noted that after the antiterrorist military strikes, the president did not shy away from using the opportunity to appear 'presidential,' giving two speeches on the matter, one after flying back dramatically to Washington from his vacation on Martha's Vineyard," Krepinevich added. "These actions may have been appropriate. Yet a president who lacks credibility must be careful not to present even the appearance that he may be acting out of a personal, rather than a public, interest."

One day after the briefing, columnist David Corn made a direct reference to Shaw's question: “It took only a few minutes for one of the reporters in the Pentagon pressroom to ask Secretary of Defense William Cohen the question on many minds: 'Have you seen the movie?' He was referring to Wag the Dog and the unsettling coincidence between Thursday's military strikes and a movie in which political fixers concoct a war to distract public attention from a presidential sex scandal.”

On Aug. 23, 1998, Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page used Shaw's stature as a veteran journalist to give credibility to “Wag the Dog” accusations against Clinton: “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.”

On the Aug. 21, 1998 edition of MSNBC's Hardball, University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato told anchor Chris Matthews: "Yeah, Chris, two things strike me about it. The first is -- and I think this is an amazing figure -- 36 percent of Americans believe that the Monica Lewinsky scandal had something to do with the president's action to strike in Afghanistan and the -- the Sudan. That is an amazingly high percentage. That's a product of cynicism, and it's cynicism that Bill Clinton has helped to create and to stoke. He is, after all, a self-certified liar now."

References to Wag the Dog and Clinton continued well after August 1998, especially in more "conservative friendly" media outlets such as the New York Post, Washington Times, National Review, and Fox News.

In the New York Post, columnist Andrea Peyser asked, "On the day Monica Lewinsky was testifying before a grand jury, did the president of the United States send innocent people into harm's way for the ugly purpose of changing the subject of national discourse from oral sex and semen-stained dresses to battle scars and blood-stained uniforms?" and Deborah Orin wrote, "Only a majority of Democrats believe President Clinton launched missile strikes primarily to act against terrorism -- while everyone else is more likely to suspect a case of 'the tail wagging the dog,' a new Post Poll shows."

In a Dec. 17, 2001 column for the National Review, Byron York said that after the Aug. 20, 1998 bombings, "Clinton's critics accused him of using military action to change the subject from the sex-and-perjury scandal -- the so-called 'wag the dog' strategy."

York goes on to note that “[a]fter the cruise missile raids, the administration restricted its work to covert actions breaking up terrorist cells,” but also insinuates that Clinton's anti-terrorist actions may have been less than altruistic. He quotes James Woolsey's dismissal of Clinton's tactics as "PR-driven," adding that Clinton's “PR-driven” method of fighting terrorism was “an approach that left the fundamental problem unsolved.”

John Podhoretz was even blunter in a Jul. 16, 2002 column for the New York Post, charging point-blank that President Clinton was guilty of ordering military actions to focus attention away from his domestic problems and urging President Bush to use the same tactics to begin the war in Iraq: “Go on, Mr. President: Wag the dog. ... You're in some domestic political trouble, Mr. President. You need to change the subject. You have the biggest subject-changer of all at your disposal. Use it. I can hear the screaming already from certain quarters. How would such a thing be different from what Bill Clinton did in 1998, when he used cruise missiles twice in response to Osama bin Laden at crucial moments during the Lewinsky scandals? Here's how it would be different, Mr. President: You'd get the job done.”

Republican reactions

Although the majority of Republicans publicly backed the al Qaeda strikes in 1998, a few sitting Congressional members were skeptical of Clinton's motives.

"While there is clearly much more we need to learn about this attack and why it was ordered today, given the president's personal difficulties this week, it is legitimate to question the timing of this action," Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) said in a statement. "Once the president has broken the bond of trust with the American people, as he has done with his repeated lies, it raises questions about everything he does or does not do."

Republican Senators Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and John McCain (R-AZ) didn't go as far as Coates, but both noted that Clinton was "distracted," before slightly reversing themselves later, after House Speaker Newt Gingrich characterized "Wag the Dog" accusations as "sick."

But after Clinton struck targets in Iraq in the winter of 1998, many more Republicans joined the "wag the dog" attack. "Both the timing and the motive are subject to question," Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) was quoted as saying, and Rep. Harold Solomon, (R-NY) said "Never underestimate a desperate president."

Coverage of foreign matters buried in favor of scandal

President Clinton was also trying to get the job done on other issues -- matters we still see in the news today.

From Oct. 15 through Oct. 23, 1998, Clinton was in Wye, Maryland for the Wye River Accord, a meeting between the leaders of Israel and Palestine to continue the peace process. These talks brought Israel's then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat together to discuss how to bring peace to the region. President Clinton focused his attention on mediating the discussions, since issues between the Israelis and Palestinians are always heated. At one point, after Israeli leaders threatened to leave, Clinton launched “a marathon 21-hour session [after which] both Palestinians and Israelis agree to what becomes known as the Wye River Memorandum,“ according to PBS.

On Sep. 21, 1998, Clinton received a standing ovation from world leaders at the United Nations before giving a speech about combating international terrorism. But on the same day, Republican Congressional leaders had the video tape of Clinton's deposition to the grand jury released to the public, which prompted the major networks to show hours of footage from the tape.

In his book The Clinton Wars, Sidney Blumenthal, a senior adviser to Clinton, notes that the media climate at this time was still focused on fallout from the Lewinsky scandal, practically ignoring terrorism and other matters that the White House was working on: “In the media, busy with the tumultuous response to the Starr Report's release, the struggle against terrorism was a mere footnote if it was mentioned at all.”

Legacy of a metaphor

Last year, controversy surrounded ABC when it aired the movie The Path To 9/11 before the 2006 elections. The docudrama, which ABC claimed was based on facts detailed in the 9/11 Commission Report, was critical of the Clinton administration. CNN reported that the movie portrayed “Clinton being too distracted by impeachment and his marital problems to focus on bin Laden.”

Clinton emphatically rebutted this charge in a Sep. 26, 2006 interview on Fox News: “ABC just had a right- wing conservative run in their little Pathway to 9/11, falsely claiming it was based on the 9/11 Commission report, with three things asserted against me directly contradicted by the 9/11 Commission report. ... And I think it's very interesting that all the conservative Republicans, who now say I didn't do enough, claimed that I was too obsessed with bin Laden... They were all trying to get me to withdraw from Somalia in 1993 the next day after we were involved in ‘Black Hawk down,’ and I refused to do it and stayed six months and had an orderly transfer to the United Nations.”

Clinton continued, making a direct mention of Wag the Dog and noting the pressure Republicans who now accuse him of not fighting terrorism placed on him when he attempted to kill bin Laden in the Aug. 20, 1998 attacks: “The people on my political right who say I didn't do enough spent the whole time I was president saying, ‘Why is he so obsessed with bin Laden? That was “wag the dog” when he tried to kill him.’”

Noting the legacy of the “Wag the Dog” metaphor and the power it carries, RAW STORY asked Gaylord Shaw if he had any regrets about being the first reporter to mention the movie. Shaw replied, “No, I don't regret asking the question. I regret that anyone's taking it too seriously,” then added, with a chuckle, “I mean, we got to have a little more faith in our national leaders then that.”