When the telephone rang in Geneva, Jim Baker picked it up straightaway and heard the familiar voice of his friend and boss, George Bush.

"So, how'd it go with the letter?" Bush asked.

Baker cleared his throat. "He wrote upon it, Re-turn to Sender ... Address unknown. No such person. No such zone."

"Jim?"

"Yes, Mr. President?"

"Did I hand you the letter I'd written to Elvis?"

Let me get this straight. Bush writes a personal letter to Saddam Hussein, and Tariq "Mr. Joy Boy" Aziz opens it up, reads it and decides on his own not to deliver it.

Aziz claimed the language of Bush's letter was too rough for Saddam.

This is a man who gassed his own people, the type of guy who'd nail some poor schmo's head to a coffee table, and the language would offend him?

How did it begin, "Yo! Sand Hog!"?

Pardon my ignorance, but the letter wasn't addressed to Aziz. Is that how it works in the Baghdad Post Office? "Hey, I got a bunch of mail for the Big Kahuna here. Who wants it?" No wonder it's so tough keeping an Iraqi pen pal. (Maybe Aziz saw "GoodFellas" and was considering the scene where the hoods smashed in the mailman's face for delivering that truancy notice.) I'm grateful I wasn't on Aziz's paper route; I might not know the Hindenburg blew up.

Can you imagine if that were the way mail was handled here? "Mr. Kornheiser, this is Pepco calling. Our records indicate you haven't paid your electric bill for December. Do you mind telling us what happened?"

"Oh, that! The bill came the day my Aunt Kate stopped by. She opened it up and tossed it in the can. She said I'd be dismayed at your syntax."

The letter to Saddam wasn't polite enough? Oh please. This is the same guy who just the other day threatened to make Americans "swim in their own blood." Now there's a pleasant turn of phrase. Where did Saddam get that from, Emily Post's evil twin?

What did he want? The FTD "Bombs Away" Bouquet with blood roses and black carnations? A happy face and a note that said, "Oh great and powerful Saddam, we don't mean to be rude, but if it's not terribly inconvenient, could you take one giant step backward. Your obedient servant, George." Saddam is lucky Bush sent him a letter. If Vito Corleone was president, Saddam would have gotten a horse's head.

(A slight digression here, but this is too wild to pass up. I've read where Marion "Another Day in Paradise" Barry was being considered for a teaching gig at UDC's Department of Criminal Justice. Fabulous. What courses would he teach? "Becoming a Criminal"? "Manipulating the Justice System"? Or, would he branch out into the film part of criminal justice and teach students how to appear in their own FBI home video? This is like baseball hiring Pete Rose to give gambling seminars. Where would UDC establish this Barry chair -- in the front seat of that $25,000 Chrysler New Yorker? You gotta love the guy. He defies gravity. He falls up!)

Okay, back to the gulf.

"The letter was not rude," Bush maintained, "The letter was direct."

So what's the problem?

Maybe Bush misspelled Saddam's name. Don't you hate when that happens? You get one of those pseudo-personal solicitations pleading with you to save some endangered species of nocturnal albino muskmole, and the thing comes addressed to "Mr. Tom Korheeser," like they got your name from the kid at Pizza Movers. Maybe Bush wrote, "Dear Mr. Sadyam." Maybe Aziz was offended by the "S.W.A.K." on the envelope -- right under where Dan Quayle crayoned in "D-Liver, D-Letter, D-Sooner, D-Better."

I suspect, though, it was the enclosures in the letter. Conversations with White House insiders suggest the letter may have contained:

1) A photo of Roseanne Barr with an offer to exchange her for Kuwait.

2) A photo of the Rockville Rottweilers with an offer to exchange them for Kuwait.

3) The Watchtower.

4) A copy of that celebrity chain letter from the Netherlands that promises to bring the recipient good luck within four days ... and the handwritten proviso that if he breaks the chain, we'll declare nuclear war.

5) A greeting from Ed McMahon informing "MR. SADDAM HUSSEIN, YOU MAY HAVE WON $1 MILLION DOLLARS IN THE PUBLISHERS CLEARING HOUSE SWEEPSTAKES!"

6) Greetings from Jerry's kids.

By now you know the letter itself was harmless; vintage Bush, just like you remember him from "Saturday Night Live." It read exactly like this: "War? Bad. Saddy? Very bad. Me? Good. People like me. Still high in the polls. Barbara? Fine, thanks. Millie? Could use a dip. Saddy, do the right thing. Kuwait. Get out. Emir. Wants to be back. Nice guy. Tired of hotel rooms. 400,000 troops. Homesick. Want beer. Tired of Bob Hope. Quayle asks, got any souvenir dolls? Go Skins." Inappropriate grammar, sure, but hardly inappropriate language.

What's truly inappropriate is all this windy posturing. Us blaming him, and him blaming us, and everybody saying, "Our hands are tied, it's up to the other side now -- they'll decide if it's war or peace." How important is saving face compared to saving lives?

Because before you know it, everybody's backed into a corner and flat out of bluffs; one word leads to another, and somebody either shoots the Archduke Ferdinand, or does something utterly trivial -- like leaving a letter on a coffee table -- and suddenly we're not just thinking the unthinkable, we're waist high in it.