- The Washington Times - Friday, October 3, 2003

For weeks now Wes Clark watchers have been intrigued/amused/honestly puzzled/generally nonplused by a mysterious reference the general made last summer in a televised interview with NBC’s Tim Russert.

The general could have been wearing a trench coat with the lapels pulled up and a fedora yanked down over his sharp features as he spoke of a widespread conspiracy — a “concerted effort” to pin the events of September 11, 2001, on poor, innocent Saddam Hussein.

It was a conspiracy so vast, to borrow a phrase from Joe McCarthy, that the spurious accusation “came from the White House, it came from people around the White House, it came from all over. I got a call on September 11. I was on CNN, and I got a call at my home saying, ‘You’ve got to say this is connected. This is state-sponsored terrorism.’ ”

The general could’ve been the guy next to you on the bar stool, letting you in on the straight skinny.

I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d started yammering about the Illuminati, or maybe the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” (I get ‘em confused.) He sounded like something out of “The Da Vinci Code.”

Ever since the general’s feverish comment, the journalistic fraternity has been trying to figure out (a) if Wesley Clark was accusing the White House of circulating the rumor, which is what it sounded like, and (b) just who called him, and why he was making such a big mystery of it.

Playing it coy, which was his favored style before revealing his party and then his presidential candidacy, the general had succeeded only in whetting the press’ appetite. The search for the mysterious caller was on. Did he exist? If so, where? Seldom have so many made so much of so little, beginning with Wesley Clark himself.

Eventually some answers began to materialize, like ghosts at a seance. The general finally acknowledged that, no, the call he got didn’t come from the White House. He added something about a Middle Eastern think tank outside the country, maybe in Canada. (The combination conjured up an image of falafel served on plain white bread.) There was also something about a very close Belgian friend’s brother.

Hmm. Sounds like a case for Hercule Poirot. It was all starting to sound like a game of Clue, which I hadn’t played in the longest time and wasn’t about to resume.

My attention, in short, lagged. Even when the general refused to divulge the name of his mysterious caller, which of course only spurred the hunt. There is nothing that excites the press like a presidential candidate who won’t tell us something, especially something that doesn’t matter much.

My assumption all along was that the general was just rattling on, as retired generals are wont to do, and should be given a pass on the basis of his amateur status. (He didn’t formally turn pro in presidential politics until last week.)

The only clear conclusion to be drawn from the whole overblown matter is that potential presidential candidates should never appear on Tim Russert’s “Meet the Press.” They inevitably wind up saying strange things. Howard Dean didn’t fare well at Mr. Russert’s hands, either. Indeed, his turn on the show had to be the most disastrous in his still young campaign.

I can offer no explanation for why Mr. Russert should exert such an unwholesome effect on seemingly sensible guests; he seems a perfectly plain, straightforward fellow with a good research staff, which may be why he is often worth watching. And yet he reduces guest after guest to babbling, hinting darkly or, in Mr. Clark’s case, both.

But at least the Case of the Mysterious Caller has been solved. I think. A reporter for the Toronto Star says the mystery man is one Thomas Hecht, who runs a one-man office in Montreal for the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies out of Israel. (For some reason, I immediately pictured Garrison Keillor’s Guy Noir in his dingy office waiting for the spike-heeled blonde to enter.) Anyway, Mr. Hecht said he had only called the general to ask him to give a speech, and happened to mention a possible connection between Saddam Hussein and terrorist groups.

“I don’t know why I would be confused with the White House,” Mr. Hecht added. “I don’t even have white paint on my house.” (This is the kind of comment Canadians think of as witty.)

Well, that clears that up. I can’t imagine why so many otherwise serious people, including Wesley K. Clark, should have read so much into one phone call from one guy in one office somewhere in Montreal. From here on out, Mr. Clark would do well to forget the Guy Noir routine — even if he does look good in a trench coat.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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