AUSTIN, Texas -- Say, that was some "historical memo" there, containing, as the president said, no "intelligence that said there was going to be an attack on America." Except for the title and contents, of course.

            It's always hard to put yourself back in time and pretend you don't know what you know. Hard to say if such a memo just got lost in a continuous flow of information about potentially dangerous situations or if, given the other 40 warnings about Al Qaeda, it should have set your hair on fire, to coin a fresh phrase.

            Meanwhile, in the larger world, it is hard to tell what is happening in Iraq -- is it going south, gone south or are we just slipping a few inches after the dumb decision to close a newspaper?

            The foreign press is markedly more pessimistic than the American press, offering a combination of gloom and "they deserve it." Senior British military officers are reported to be critical of our ham-handedness. For what it's worth, I do not recall ever seeing the American military proceed with such delicacy and caution before, keeping both the mission and the humanity of the Iraqis in mind. Some stunning battlefield posts on the Internet show what a pickle we're in. Calling in mortars and airstrikes has predictably bad results, but if you're in a firefight and need help ...

            Note the interesting little factoids that are being dribbled out as everyone's attention is riveted on the larger slippage in Iraq. Apparently in the spirit of the British civil servant who put out a memo on Sept. 11 advising all departments that today would be a good day to unload any bad news lying around, we now learn that Abu Musad al Zarqawi has two legs.

            This will not strike you as a stop-the-presses moment unless you remember that al Zarqawi was one of Osama bin Laden's Number Two men (we seem to have captured several "Number Two" men already, with more still out there.) Pre-war, the administration claimed the reason it was so certain Saddam Hussein had ties to Al Qaeda was that Zarqawi had gone to Baghdad to get his leg amputated. But now, oops, he has two.

             The main reason we're getting such a muzzy picture from Iraq is found in an April 4 Associated Press report concerning the press office of the U.S.-led coalition, where "Republican Party operatives lead a team of Americans promoting mostly good news about Iraq. Dan Senor, a former press secretary for Spencer Abraham, now the Energy Secretary, heads the office packed with former Bush campaign workers, political appointees and ex-Capitol Hill staff members. A third of the U.S. civilian workers in the press office have GOP ties, running an enterprise that critics see as an outpost of Bush's re-election effort. ... Senor and others inside the coalition say they follow strict guidelines to steer clear of politics. One of the main goals of the Office of Strategic Communication -- known as Stratcom -- is to ensure Americans see the positive side of the Bush administration's invasion, occupation and reconstruction of Iraq, where 600 Americans have died already and a deadly insurgency thrives. 'Beautification Plan for Baghdad Ready to Begin,' one news release in late March said in its headline. Another statement cautioned 'The Reality Is Nothing Like What You See on Television.'"

            In an administration polka-dotted with nepotism, it is unsurprising to learn that several little nepots are running around the place, which is in the happily named Republican Palace. The television contractor Gordon Robison, who helped build the Pentagon-funded television station Al-Iraqiya, told the Herald, "I had the impression in dealing with the civilians in the green room that they viewed their job as essentially political, promoting what the Coalition Provisional Authority is doing in Iraq as a political arm of the Bush administration."

            Meanwhile, The New York Times and other big organizations are now restricting their reporters' travel after an incident where journalists were captured and held for a brief time by insurgents.

            Speaking of reality not being like television, I had the surreal experience of watching the release of the Aug. 6 "historical memo" on Fox News. I sat there listening to a bunch of juvenile clowns react like paid political operatives, as though this had nothing to do with anything but Bush's re-election.

            Ho, ho, this is so nothing, they chortled. They were so busy pooh-poohing it, you could barely figure out what it said. My favorite moment was when Geraldo Rivera, who apparently passes for a deep thinker at Fox, solemnly announced: "I have a dream. A dream that someday George Bush and John Kerry will stand together holding hands and say that the most important thing is to fight terrorism."

            We live in an amazing country.

            To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2004 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.