Washington D.C. - White House officials denied today that President Ronald Reagan died last week in an effort to divert public attention from scandals surrounding the Bush administration.
The denials, however, have done little to quell speculation that Reagan, a loyal Republican whose vice president just happened to be George W. Bush's father, chose to die at a time when the administration is on the defensive over Iraq, Bush's connection to a CIA leak, the vice president's alleged aid to Halliburton, and the resignation of George Tenet.
"Every time this administration is in trouble, somehow - miraculously -- something happens to distract us," said MoveOn.org spokesman Richard Lebbis.
"The truth is, President Reagan has been ill for years. For years. But he just happens to die now? Isn't that just a little too coincidental?"
Bush's glowing speech on Sunday about his 93-year-old predecessor only escalated suspicions that the White House was involved. Speaking in France, where he was observing the anniversary of D-Day, Bush praised Reagan for having, "the confidence that comes with conviction, the strength that comes with character, the grace that comes with humility, the humor that comes with wisdom, and the timing that comes with years on the stage."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan later insisted the president meant to say "the poise" that comes from years on the stage, but mispronounced it.
While claiming to have no knowledge of Reagan's motives, political analyst and former Reagan staffer David Gergen said his former boss was always underestimated. "I'm not saying he purposely did it, but you'd have to say it's the perfect diversion," Gergen noted. "Probably the only person who really knows is President Reagan, but by choosing the method of distraction he did - by dying - he will never be questioned about it."
In Washington, meanwhile, Vice President Dick Cheney chastised reporters who asked about the Iraqi prison scandal and recent allegations that the vice president helped former employer Halliburton get a no-bid government contract. "Now is not the time for petty questions and concerns," Cheney said. "Now is the time to think only about President Reagan."
The time for petty questions and concerns will return, Cheney added, when the official mourning period ends: Tuesday, Nov. 2.
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