Crisis averted in the nick of Timex - and Albania breathes again

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THE president's watch is safe. Phew! In the Pentagon, generals dabbed sweat off their foreheads and rolled up the maps of Albania. Navy SEALs pulled out the wet wipes and scrubbed off their camouflage, while the ghost planes of the CIA slipped into the hangar and back under their white sheets.

The most powerful man in the world's $25 Timex Indiglo is back on his wrist and Operation Infinite Tick-Tock has been stepped down. Or, at least, that is what the White House has said, which, considering its earlier conviction that WMDs were in Iraq and Saddam Hussein had a hand in 9/11, means that even George W Bush should check in case he's now wearing, after a departmental typo, a new Rolex.

The case of the missing Timex will delight conspiracy theorists who can pore over the footage of the president weighing into the crowd in the farming village of Fushe Kruje, as they have done the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination from Dallas. We've already got enough contradictory statements to keep them busy.

If you look at the footage, it appears as if the watch disappeared after a burly hand had been placed around the president's wrist. Yet, according to one witness, the watch fell to the ground and was picked up by a member of the president's Secret Service team. The White House spokesman, Tony Snow, insisted, however, that neither was correct and, instead, Mr Bush had simply removed his watch and placed it in his pocket.

THIS raises the question: what alerted Mr Bush to the fact that his watch might be in imminent danger of disappearing? According to another White House spokesman, Mr Bush "took it off about the one-minute mark".

So, let's imagine the situation: the president is happily shaking hands, receiving kisses on the cheek and even having the presidential hair ruffled, when, suddenly, he notices that the next group of villagers are eyeing up his watch. He's not in fear for his life, but his Timex, which has the presidential seal on it and was a gift from an old Yale classmate. So, displaying the dexterity of a card-sharp, he swiftly removes it from his wrist and discreetly slips it into his pocket.

It's easy to imagine a future press conference: "I looked into this young man's soul and I saw a tea-leaf. I saw intent to do harm to my timepiece and so I took pre-emptive action. An assault on the timepiece of one American is an assault on the timepieces of all Americans, and it will not stand."

So, if the president is such a good judge of potential danger to his property, I'd like to know in what other cities, towns or countries he has taken such a precaution. Does the Secret Service issue a daily briefing to POTUS (code for President of the United States) on the risk-rating of his wrist-wear? "Sir, we'll be doing a walkabout in downtown Detroit today - you might want to go with the knock-off Seiko."

MEANWHILE, the government of Albania is delighted that the watch wasn't lifted by a light-fingered citizen. The country could probably have survived a military strike, yet after reading about the American judge who this week sued his local laundry for 33 million for a lost pair of trousers, their GDP shrank at the thought of a presidential lawsuit.

Sure, Judge Roy L Pearson jun's trousers, from a Hickey Freeman suit, cost 575, considerably more than the president's watch, but George W Bush could, at least, claim his timepiece was one of a kind, not to mention the emotional damage that would come from being fleeced while, arguably, the most-protected man on the planet.

In order to calculate such a horrendous sum, Judge Pearson took a complicated formula, and argued that under Washington's consumer protection laws, the laundry owners, Soo and Jin Chung, and their son, Ki, each owe him a largely daily fine for each of 12 different infractions, backdated over the past few years. Oh, and he's also charged them for 7,620 to rent a car, for the next ten years, to take him to another dry cleaner.

When Judge Pearson appeared in court on Tuesday and spoke of how the laundry tried to pass off a cheaper pair of trousers as his own, he began to weep and had to take a break. Critics of the case have described it as "egregious or wilful misconduct", but the same could have been said about Florida in 2000.