You'd think that, what with the U.S. economy in tatters, a 9/11 commission that seems determined to uncover nothing about what happened that fateful day, war being waged on endless fronts (Afghanistan, drugs, Iraq, terrorism and, eventually, Iran and Syria) and who knows what else, the office of the world's second-most powerful person would have more important things on its to-do list than worry about three little words.
Seems that U.S. Vice-President Richard (Dick) Cheney did not say what The New York Times, the Reuters wire agency, Agence France-Presse, the Philadelphia Daily News, the Miami Herald, the Star and other news organizations said he said.
And yet, the other day, only the Times, Reuters, Agence France-Presse, the Philly News, the Miami Herald and, yes, the Star, all rated calls from no less a personage than Jennifer Millerwise, Cheney's press secretary, who was seeking corrections.
She got them.
We are being carefully watched, it seems.
We here at the Star take it as a sign that we're doing our job right. Which means we're doing our job left — in the view of George W. Bush's Washington.
Millerwise insisted that Cheney did not — did! not! — say that Saddam Hussein's terrorist-supporting, Al Qaeda-aligned and weapons-of-mass-destruction-concealing regime would "collapse like a house of cards" the instant it caught "the first whiff of gunpowder."
No, the author of those words was Richard Perle, who recently resigned as chair of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, but not from the board itself, under allegations of conflict-of-interest relating to his business dealings and how he may profit from all this "homeland security" hysteria.
But that's another column.
The point is Cheney, who some say — only half-jokingly — is the real power in the White House, did not offer up the "house of cards" metaphor when he suggested that the war on Iraq would be a cakewalk.
(Ooops. He didn't use "cakewalk" either. That was Defense Policy Board member Kenneth Adelman, who in February told the Washington Post that "demolishing Hussein's military power and liberating Iraq" would be easy as pie.)
What Cheney did say was, on the March 16 edition of NBC's Meet The Press, that, "The read we get on the people of Iraq is there is no question but that they want to get rid of Saddam Hussein and they will welcome as liberators the United States when we come to do that.
"My guess is even significant elements of the Republican Guard are likely, as well, to want to avoid conflict with the U.S. forces and are likely to step aside."
Like taking candy from a baby?
Optimistic remarks such as Cheney's were all over the news early last week thanks to the surprising resistance in Iraq, vulnerable military supply lines and other perceived weaknesses in the Pentagon's plan to rid Iraq of its, of its, of its ... well, I haven't checked the reason this week.
Which is why, when he was asked about Cheney's comments, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said that "the vice-president said what he said because he had reason — good reason — to say it."
So did this mean that the Iraqis were on the run, after all?
"I assure you, the vice-president does not say things lightly," Fleischer said. "So, when the vice-president says something like that, he has good reason to say it, and to think it and, therefore, to say it."
So, Cheney kind of said "house of cards" — but didn't.
Either way, he was making the administration look bad.
Last week, the Star's foreign editor, Bill Schiller, who engaged Millerwise in a telephone conversation, was bemused by it all, wondering how it was that Cheney's office could be bothered calling a Canadian paper over "semantics."
When I called her to follow up, she said, "This is (Mr. Cheney's) press office, not the National Security Agency."
She explained that it was not a matter of "semantics" but something far more serious, adding that predicting the war would take "weeks not months" and that Iraqi forces would cry uncle was not the same as saying Saddam Hussein's regime would fall like "a house of cards."
A little later she called me a second time to say that accuracy was extremely important "especially during times of war."
Amen to that. Lord knows, everything coming from Washington these days is the whole truth and nothing but.
And if you believe that, I've got a house of cards to sell you.
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