Being part of the press pack that follows the United States President around on his vacation is a mixed blessing. On one hand, there is the prospect of long days of uneventful tedium in which the bright spot might merely be some footage of Bill Clinton taking in a few holes on the golf course with his Washington pal Vernon Jordan. On the other hand, the president's regular holiday spot - the bucolic Massachusetts resort island of Martha's Vineyard - is as nice a place as any to be bored. Thus it was that members of the media posse, twiddling their thumbs awaiting the next Clinton sighting, passed the time on Thursday lunchtime watching a video. The movie? Wag The Dog - the satire starring Robert De Niro as a calculating spin doctor who gets a Hollywood producer to put together a fake war in (for want of anywhere else) Albania, to distract American voters from a scandal involving an oversexed president and a teenage girl. The real-life Monica Lewinsky saga had, of course, already done wonders at the box office for the movie, which raked in US$43 million (HK$333 million) at US theatres and continues to do well. But even that coincidence hardly prepared the Martha's Vineyard press pack for what happened next. Barely had the video started than word came from a presidential aide that the journalists and crews should get their stuff together for a surprise announcement by President Clinton. The news was startling: the US had launched cruise missile attacks against targets in Sudan and Afghanistan linked to Osama bin Laden, the wealthy Saudi exile believed to be behind the recent bombings at US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. After the shock statement, Mr Clinton - who had abandoned his golfing slacks for the presidential suit and tie - hopped on Air Force One to jet back to the capital, leaving the press to scramble in his wake, the calm of their unofficial vacation shattered. Life imitating art? Coming only two days after the nadir of the presidency - the grand jury testimony and appallingly conceived 'mea culpa' speech to the nation - reporters began speculating whether De Niro's shady character might have fired off those Tomahawk missiles himself. Within minutes of the Clinton statement, the Wag The Dog scenario was being waved in the face of an incredulous Defence Secretary, William Cohen, at a Pentagon news briefing. 'The only motivation driving this action today was our absolute obligation to protect the American people from terrorist activities. That is the sole motivation,' said the stony-faced defence chief. Reporters were not the only ones mentally writing their Wag The Dog headlines. Although the vast majority of Congressional reaction was wholly supportive - as is the norm on such national security matters - a gaggle of Republican senators attempted to link the loss of the president's credibility to the unexpected missile strikes. 'While there is clearly much more we need to learn about this attack and why it was ordered today, given the president's personal difficulties this week, it is legitimate to question the timing,' groused Senator Dan Coats. Pennsylvania State University political science professor, Stephen Cimbala, said that Mr Clinton had only himself to blame for being second-guessed. 'The very first question is: is this an effort to distract attention from Clinton's domestic problems?' he said. 'Clinton's critics are going to say that, whether it's true or not.' Whatever effect the strikes will have against the bin Laden network - something that only time will tell - there is no doubting that they achieved something few other events have managed to do for a full seven months: kick Monica Lewinsky off the map. During her five hours of follow-up testimony to the grand jury yesterday, she might as well have been a court stenographer, so little interest was there from the TV news networks. And regardless of who was in charge yesterday - the dog or the tail - the military strikes gave Mr Clinton a superb opportunity to look presidential again. Later in the day, he gave a spirited live TV address, in which he regained all the dignity and stature that had so awfully deserted him two days before. The revitalised president said the fight against terrorists 'will require strength, courage and endurance. We will not yield to this threat. We will meet it no matter how long it may take. This will be a long, ongoing struggle between freedom and fanaticism, between the rule of law and terrorism.' However attractive the Wag The Dog premise, it has to be remembered that the film was a work of fiction, while the 263 people killed at the African embassies were victims of a cruel reality. The administration certainly gave a convincing description of the build-up to a military operation conceived not on a political whim, but one which was a full two weeks in the making, conducted with watertight secrecy. Indeed, even the Clintons' vacation was itself part of the plan to maintain the element of surprise. In the 14 days since the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam bombs, the president has been trying to stay on top of the anti-terrorism plan while simultaneously grappling with the crisis in his private and political life. Four days after the bombings, Mr Clinton cut short a fund-raising visit to California to fly to the White House for a top-secret briefing by National Security Adviser Samuel Berger and his defence and CIA officials. Strong intelligence reports pointed to bin Laden as the culprit - intelligence that seems to have been bolstered by Mohamed Sadiq Odeh, who after being arrested by Pakistani police after flying there from Nairobi on the day of the attacks, had reportedly confessed to his and bin Laden's involvement. The two years of failure in trying to solve the deadly 1996 bombing attack on US troops in Saudi Arabia had frustrated the administration and convinced officials that if evidence against bin Laden was now available, it had to be acted on. Over the next three days, the national security teams held further meetings with the president, as two more factors came into play: reliable intelligence that more terrorists attacks were imminent against US targets abroad, and that a meeting of top bin Laden associates was to take place on August 20 at his compound in Khost, Afghanistan. On August 14, armed with what Mr Berger called the most comprehensive evidence for years, the president gave the go-ahead for the missile strikes, to take place on August 20 unless he pulled the plug before 6am that day. Even as he flew to Martha's Vineyard on Tuesday, he and his aides knew he would be back on Thursday, assuming the strikes went ahead as planned. But no-one in the press caught on - especially The New York Times, which carried a front-page story on the morning of the strikes stating that Washington was at that moment engaged in a diplomatic effort to get the Afghani Taleban government to hand over bin Laden - an off-target story that looks to have been encouraged by administration officials to throw up a smokescreen before US warships launched the missiles only hours later. Mr Clinton was certainly getting little holiday relaxation. On Wednesday, he was up most of the night in last-minute discussions, calling Vice-President Al Gore in Hawaii at 2.30am to inform him of the plans, and asking him to help in the task of calling foreign leaders to explain Washington's unilateral action. At 6am - the deadline for the green light - the president agreed on the attacks, which swung into operation five hours later. A furious round of phone calls were made - including to House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other Congressional leaders, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Chinese President Jiang Zemin, to inform them of the operation. Such calls represented more than mere polite protocol - the support of Security Council partners will be vital in heading off an inevitable backlash at the United Nations. The president then briefed the unsuspecting press and headed back to Washington, where the story is certain to reverberate for days. When the public can next expect to see Ms Lewinsky reclaim the front page remains to be seen. Meanwhile, not even the makers of Wag The Dog are comfortable seeing a moral parallel in Thursday's dramatic events. Simon Halls, spokesman for director Barry Levinson, succinctly summed it up. 'That was a movie. This is life. And one has to separate life from art,' he said.