"Wag the Dog" vs. "The Path to 9/11"

Lewinsky and bin Laden: The Times admits an error and ABC adds a scene.

Published September 11, 2006 2:53PM (EDT)

The New York Times claimed last week in a review of "The Path to 9/11" that the 9/11 Commission had "concluded that the [Monica Lewinsky] sex scandal distracted the Clinton administration from the terrorist threat." As we noted Friday, the 9/11 Commission concluded no such thing. The Times has now set the record straight.

In a correction appended to Alessandra Stanley's review, the Times explains: "The commission said the accusation that President Clinton had ordered air strikes against Osama bin Laden in August 1998 to distract attention from the Monica Lewinsky scandal was one of several factors that 'likely had a cumulative effect on future decisions about the use of force' against Mr. bin Laden. It did not conclude that the scandal distracted the Clinton administration from the terrorist threat."

What about "The Path to 9/11" itself? We watched a bit of the show Sunday night -- yeah, yeah, we'll deny it if Nielsen calls -- and what we learned mostly is that people played the drums a lot before 9/11. On the Lewinsky-as-distraction front, we thought the edited version of the show came off as something closer to a wash than we would have expected. Yes, there was the footage of the president denying that he had "sexual relations with that woman." But there was also a new scene in which the actor playing Richard Clarke suggests that Clinton was not distracted by the Lewsinky affair. And then there was the world-gone-mad portrayal of a TV correspondent, reporting from the midst of riotous chaos overseas that Clinton's critics in Congress were claiming that he launched missiles in the direction of bin Laden as a "Wag the Dog" ploy. In our eyes, at least, that short clip brought home pretty well the ridiculousness of the Republicans' focus in the late 1990s and the fallacy of choosing an inadequate president based on a trumped-up notion of restoring "honesty and integrity" to the White House.

Yes, it would have been nice, just then, to see an image of some bin Laden-caused carnage matched with Newt Gingrich's vow to never give another speech as House speaker without mentioning Monica Lewinsky; perhaps that could have run side-by-side with Bush's 2002 pronouncement that he doesn't "spend that much time on" the man who attacked the United States five years ago today. But the edited version of "The Path to 9/11" gave at least a glimpse of what the 9/11 Commission actually concluded: The Republicans' attempts to capitalize on Clinton's affair, rather than the affair itself, may have hampered attempts to neutralize Osama bin Laden before it was too late.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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