When the news that the United States had bombed terrorist targets swept through her midtown Manhattan office Thursday, Valerie David felt a predictable knot of emotions: sorrow for the loss of lives, concern about the precision of the attacks, fear about where this would all lead.

But it was threaded with what she described as a surreal, almost comical sense of deja vu." `Wag the Dog,' " David, a copy editor for Avon Products, explained, stifling a chuckle. "Everybody at the office was talking about it - how ironic it was that life was imitating art. We all noticed it."

In the movie, the president's handlers invent a war to distract public attention from his sexual transgressions. In real life, was the Clinton administration doing something similar?

Cynical in the extreme, that was a question that some residents of the New York region could not avoid asking themselves Thursday. And it seemed to reflect not only the bizarre parallels between fiction and fact but also the profound distrust that some Americans have begun to harbor toward a president who acknowledged misleading the public.

These Americans may well represent a minority. A random sampling of opinions around the New York region yielded at least as many people who said that the president's authorization of military force in Afghanistan and the Sudan seemed wholly justified and that the United States could never be too aggressive in its efforts to stamp out and deter terrorists.

Even some of those people who professed antipathy toward President Clinton did not think he would stoop so far as to use military maneuvers to divert people's attention from Monica Lewinsky. The president admitted to having had a relationship with her that was "not appropriate." "I don't think he's that much of a dimwit," said Lina Fetter, an accountant from Morris Plains, N.J.

But there were others for whom the timing of the bombings, coming so fast on the heels of the president's televised address to the country on Monday night, felt a little too tidy, a little too cinematic.

"The first thing that popped into my mind was how convenient this was," said Brian Cooper, an investment banking analyst who works in Manhattan. "My brother called me to tell me what had happened, and I said, `Doesn't this remind you of `Wag the Dog'?"

That Cooper could not be certain whether his suspicions of the president's motives were planted by the movie, or separate from it, was only one of the odd ways in which Hollywood and Washington commingled Thursday.

As it happened, the pool of news reporters assigned to a tent outside the house where the president was staying in Martha's Vineyard had just settled down to watch "Wag the Dog" on pay-per-view television when word came that the president would be interrupting his vacation for an important announcement. That announcement was about the bombings.

Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel investigating the Lewinsky matter, fielded a question about "Wag the Dog" from reporters on the steps of a court house in Little Rock, Ark.

"Yes, I have seen it," Starr said with a chuckle. "Other than that, I'm not going to comment."

And Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, mentioned the movie in his defense of the president's actions Thursday. "I don't think the president would be foolish enough to do a `Wag the Dog,' " he said.

Less charitable reactions could be found on the Internet, which quickly sprouted jokes that cast Clinton's actions as a cunning ploy. In one, a pollster tells the president, "Your speech bombed. I'm being as candid as I can." The president then informs an aide, "It sounds like he said I should bomb Afghanistan."