mericans love a good hoax. That's why the outlandish stunt by those uninvited guests at the latest White House state dinner has amused as well as perplexed viewers rushing to network and cable news and the Internet for more details.
Along with all the chuckles over the audacity of it have come solemn concerns about what might have happened had the publicity-questing couple turned out to be closet disciples of Osama bin Laden or some other imaginative terrorist leader. The Secret Service, commissioned to insulate and protect the president, has a big, fat order of egg on its face.
The daring couple was accompanied on the way to the White House, but not inside, by a video camera crew. The man and wife - he a Northern Virginia businessman and she a former Washington Redskins cheerleader - managed to get through the elaborate screening process. Then they were photographed with a grinning Vice President Joe Biden and a bit more nonchalant White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Other television appearances were soon in the offing for the party-crashers.
Official Washington is, indeed, in a dither over the hoax. Among the invited guests was NBC News' chief news-reader, Brian Williams, who found himself unexpectedly on the scene of actual news. Later, he dutifully reported to the network an eyewitness account of the couple's arrival at the White House East Gate.
The hijacking of the state dinner pales, however, in comparison to a much more significant White House hoax whose ramifications continue to hold President Barack Obama, the nation's military and its taxpayers hostage to its consequences.
That would be, obviously, the hoax perpetrated by Mr. Obama's Oval Office predecessor in 2002-03 in selling the fake notion that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction poised to imperil his neighbors and Western critics.
That hoax was the basis on which President George W. Bush launched his invasion of Iraq with the modest help of a duped British government and a handful of other countries in Mr. Bush's transparently coerced "coalition of the willing."
The calamitous results of that hoax continue to affect American foreign policy under a new president who as a candidate in 2008 pledged to end the wars in the Middle East but now seems on the brink of sending tens of thousands of more American troops into Afghanistan.
Very belatedly, a British inquiry into the origins of the Iraq war is under way in London by a five-member commission ordered by Prime Minister Gordon Brown. One witness, Sir Christopher Meyer, formerly the British ambassador to the United States, has already testified about a private meeting between then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush at Mr. Bush's Texas ranch in April, 2002, that he suggested persuaded Mr. Blair to commit to the removal of Saddam Hussein. While the quest for his weapons of mass destruction went on, Mr. Meyer testified, "the key problem was to let the military strategy wag the diplomatic and political strategy. It should have been the other way around."
Another witness, Sir William Patey, formerly in charge of the Foreign Office's Middle East department, has said former national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and others had talked of getting rid of the Iraqi strongman even before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "We were aware of those drumbeats from Washington," he said.
The British inquiry, open to the public with a report due later next year, comes in the wake of rising British opposition to the war and 179 British deaths. With much more at stake for Americans, congressional efforts to conduct a similar inquiry into the origins of the war have been resisted by Mr. Obama, who insists U.S. foreign policy should look to the present and future rather than to the past.
But the time is long past when this much more serious hoax is unveiled in all its deviousness by a similar American panel. This country should not have to wait for gray-haired historians to confirm how an unnecessary war was waged - leaving what Mr. Obama now says is a necessary one in Afghanistan to fester, requiring more American troops and treasure today.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is juleswitcov