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Rule of Jaw

All told this year, the media has done a good job identifying the ridiculous arguments launched by Republicans to justify Bill Clinton's impeachment, as well as the tricks Clinton pulled on a daily basis to sidestep his fate. At least until now. The days leading up to the impeachment vote were so filled with specious pronouncements on both sides that it was a struggle to keep up with the spin, much less dissect it.

As the demon's face morphed from that of Bill Clinton to Saddam Hussein— a really bad guy— many newspapers seemed reluctant to denounce the Clinton administration for another round of semantics and propaganda. But the lack of justification for the Iraq attack becomes clear if you think about what the sources said day to day.

It all started last Tuesday, when a White House source told a reporter that the president was "at a loss" for strategies to avoid impeachment. That same day another deep throat let on that chief UNSCOM inspector Richard Butler had submitted a "very troubling" report. Asked about possible air strikes, the source boasted, "We'll set the timetable— not the United Nations and not Saddam Hussein."

On Wednesday, one day before the House was to vote on impeachment, Clinton put his finger on the button, insisting that Saddam's refusal to show off his arsenal constituted a "clear and present danger," warranting immediate air strikes on Baghdad and beyond. Defense Secretary William Cohen announced that the attack's timing "was set primarily by the inspection teams." Other sources said Iraq had provoked the attack. (What happened to that source who said the administration would set the timetable?)

Next, a defense source said the target list included "dairies, breweries, pharmaceutical plants and other facilities" that Saddam might be using for manufacturing weapons. UN inspectors leaked an inventory of deadly microbes that Saddam might be stockpiling, with names like anthrax and camel pox and wheat cover smut. (Unfortunately, nobody matched the poisons with the locations.)

Hit with questions, the administration introduced a series of claims to justify the timing of the attack: 1) It was important to start bombing Wednesday, because Saturday was the beginning of Ramadan in Iraq— and bombing during Ramadan would give the U.S. a bad name. 2) If we don't bomb now, how can we take Saddam by surprise? 3) All Americans should support the bombing, because our kids are risking their lives over there. 4) The U.S. has a "tightly drawn" list of targets, and a clear set of goals. 5) The top goal: to "degrade" Saddam's weapon-making potential.

On Thursday, accused of spinning the UNSCOM report for political purposes, Richard Butler said, "That report was based on the experts. . . . It danced to no one's tune." Clinton said, "I don't believe any serious person would believe any president would do such a thing."

Meanwhile, Pentagon sources let on that the troops were deliberately avoiding the factories, "out of fear of unleashing plumes of poisons and killing civilians." (Is it possible they weren't hitting the factories because they didn't know where they were?)

Over the next few days, the lies continued to fall over Washington, little-white and otherwise. Honest Bob Livingston confessed to having "strayed" and resigned. The House passed two counts of impeachment. Then Clinton went on TV to declare his war was over and to call it a success. "We have inflicted significant damage on Saddam's weapons-of-mass-destruction programs," he claimed— the truth of which depends on the meaning of the word significant.

That night, after the shortlist of actual hits was unveiled, MSNBC military analyst Daniel Goure called the air strike "the mother of all pinpricks" and likened its impact to "painting a mustache on a political figure." In Monday's editorial, The New York Times was left to defend the principle of bombing Iraq— lacking anything good to say about the execution.

If there is any lesson of the year, it's to reject pat explanations from any politicians, especially ones who declare war on the day before they're going to be impeached. And one other thing: don't open anything labeled "wheat cover smut."


The Pod Squad

While Capitol Hill has been testing the limits of politics as theater, the New York Post has launched a quiet experiment in theater as politics. The mission: to remake a mediocre entertainment section into a slick sell. The only man who can do it: John Podhoretz, the right-wing wunderkind who now runs the paper's hyperconservative editorial page.

Podhoretz, a/k/a the Pod, has worn many hats. He is not only the son of Norman Podhoretz, but a former Reagan speechwriter, a cofounder and contributing editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, and a former TV critic for the Post.

In mid October, the Pod assumed day-to-day control of the Post's entertainment section, which has recently emerged with a new name— Living— and a heavily revised masthead. His latest hires are feature writer Vicky Ward, weekend feature editor Michael Lewittes, and drama critic Donald Lyons. Clive Barnes, for years the Post's lead drama critic, has been reassigned to writing daily dance reviews and drama on Sunday. Gone with the wind are former section editor Matt Diebel, film critic Larry Worth, and music critic Lisa Robinson.

In the last several weeks, a new mix has begun to emerge like a negative in a developing pan. The chief film critic is Rod Dreher, who was hired pre-Pod but writes like a longtime protégé, peppering his reviews with gibes at Hollywood and the National Endowment for the Arts. For deputy film critic, the Pod chose Jonathan Foreman, a disaffected lawyer who freelanced for The Weekly Standard and the National Review before becoming a Post editor last spring.

But don't think the arrival of conservatives will displace cheesecake, a longtime staple of the Post. A recent column by section veteran V.A. Musetto offered a checklist of videos in which Nicole Kidman has disrobed, accompanied by a fetching photo of the thespian in a diaphanous dress. And Rod Dreher's rant against Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche ("the planet's most overexposed celebrity lesbians") was accompanied by a blowup of Clinton and the two actresses grinning at each other, as if all any of them could think about was who would win a cunnilingus contest. (How about a Rod Dreher think piece on how hard it is for Republican porn stars to get noticed for their acting skills?)

In his boldest move, Podhoretz has snapped up Donald Lyons, whom he calls "the best writer on theater in America." Of course, it doesn't hurt that Lyons has impeccable conservative credentials. A former classics professor, he contributes to the New Criterion and The Weekly Standard, and was most recently on staff at The Wall Street Journal. (Indeed, he may be the only conservative drama critic in America.)

To cover theater news, the Pod hired Michael Riedel, a Daily News reporter with no particular agenda, but lots of sources and no compunction about dishing the dirt.

Asked if he is using the Living section to work out a conservative manifesto, Podhoretz says he reserves his political views for the editorial pages. "My goal is to get the most interesting and provocative voices I can find, and to bring the Post's cultural coverage up to the next level," he says.

Podhoretz is also seeking more women readers. To that end, art director Dennis Wickman has given the Living section a "soft" look, which one former Post staffer says is modeled after the Femail section of the Daily Mail, the most successful paper in England. (Podhoretz says he has never read the Daily Mail. However, his star writer, Vicky Ward, was a longtime fixture at . . . the Femail section of the Daily Mail.)

Lately, the Living section has begun to run gossipy features that read like an extended-play version of Page Six. In addition to silly grooming advice ("Stop Already With the Plucking!"), they've offered readers the true story behind the bookstore wars in You've Got Mail and an exposé on Cosmopolitan's difficulty launching its new "It" girl.

If more young women start reading the Post, the possibilities for political reeducation are endless. But what budding conservative trend would Robert Novak have spotted in the recent Post headline, "Do Power Girls Canoodle at Moomba?"


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