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Tongues 'Wag' Over Reel Crisis

"Why Albania?" Hollywood producer Dustin Hoffman asks presidential spinmeister Robert De Niro.

"Why not?" De Niro answers.

And so, in the reel world, America launches a fraudulent war against an obscure country to distract the nation from the president's sex scandal.

Eight months following the release of Wag the Dog on Christmas Day, the movie is a reference point in the real-world debate over President Clinton's motivations in bombing Sudan and Afghanistan in retaliation for terrorist attacks at U.S. embassies.

Officials are peppered with questions about the movie and politicians say they couldn't help but think about it. Industry analysts say video rentals are up. The moviemakers say everyone's making too big a deal about a movie.

CBS News correspondent Harry Smith reports that even Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr was asked about it. Starr would only say that he had seen the movie.

Sen. Arlen Specter said, "It's on the front page of The New York Times today that the president was considering doing something presidential to try to focus attention away from his own personal problems."

Larry Beinhart who wrote American Hero, which formed the basis for the movie, responded, "Presidents go to war to get re-elected and get out of trouble. So did kings and dictators. So it's not a new thing. It's just a very media thing."

The similarities are uncanny. The missile attacks on Thursday came days after the president admitted to an inappropriate relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

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From the moment Mr. Clinton went on live television to announce the bombings, Wag the Dog's producer-director Barry Levinson and producer Jane Rosenthal were inundated with requests for comment.

"The world's media right now are giving the filmmakers far too much credit for being clairvoyant," said their spokesman, Simon Halls. "The filmmakers put together a movie that was entertainment, and it was well received, but that's what it was: entertainment. Anything that is happening in the world today really has nothing to do with the movie."

Similar comparisons were made earlier this year when the Clinton administration threatened action against Iraq not long after the Lewinsky story broke and shortly after the movie's release.

One of the first questions asked of Defense Secretary William Cohen at a nationally televised Pentagon news conference was how he would respond to people who think the military action "bears a striking resemblance to Wg the Dog."

Cohen's stern response: "The only motivation driving this action today was our absolute obligation to protect the American people from terrorist activities. That is the sole motivation."

"I don't think any president, regardless of party, would ever take military action to distract from personal problems," Dee Dee Myers, Mr. Clinton's former press secretary, said Thursday on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. "Most of the Congress, most of the American people I think will say, 'I don't believe that our president, regardless of how bad things are, would do that'."

The movie's title comes from an old joke, shown in the film's opening credits: "Why does a dog wag its tail? Because a dog is smarter than its tail. If the tail were smarter, the tail would wag the dog."

The modestly budgeted $15 million movie went on to gross $43 million at the box office, according to industry analyst Paul Dergarabedian. The real-life scandal may have helped the box office, he said.

"It's sort of life imitating art. That sometimes happens when a particular film really hits at exactly the right time, like catching lightning in a bottle," he said.

He said movie rentals may get a bigger boost. Wag the Dog generated an impressive $20.3 million in rental revenue through last weekend, and is still in the top 10 after seven weeks.