So let's get this straight. Contrary to what was in former deputy secretary of state (and former Time magazine editor) Strobe Talbott's new book, former Indian defense minister George Fernandes was not exactly strip-searched on two occasions by U.S. airport security workers when he visited in 2002 and 2003. The notion sent the Indians into a tizzy.

But Fernandes told reporters on Wednesday that he had to remove his coat and shoes and raised his arms "like a suspect," according to the Hindustan Times. Sounds like standard "wanding" of the sort often done. Happened just a couple of days ago, in fact, to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) at LaGuardia. Fernandes said he won't be back.

So why is Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, now in India, going on about his "sincere apologies" and what a great guy Fernandes is and hoping he'd please come visit?

One State official said Armitage wasn't groveling and compared his remarks to the very contrite telephone recording about how "all lines are busy . . . we regret any inconvenience . . . your call is very, very important to us."

This is not to say that there has been no tension between diplos and the Transportation Security Agency. The president of the European Union has been wanded, as have foreign nuns, we're told. A North African ambassador here went to an airport to meet a dignitary and was searched when he came back through security because he wasn't on the cleared list -- even though the dignitary was. TSA folks "are bureaucratic automatons," one diplo said, "harassing folks" for no good reason when they should be doing other things.

TSA inspectors, however, have their own grievances. We've received several complaints that State Department officials try to usher not just senior officials around airport security, but senior officials' aides, family members and all manner of hangers-on. And these are not on flights going out of the country, the angry TSA folks say, but rather on flights from New York or Washington to Chicago and Los Angeles.

State and TSA, one source said, "have been working out the kinks of late."

Armitage better remove all metal objects when he leaves New Delhi.

Hollings Is on Fire

It's pretty hard to imagine having a fun time at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on setting new fire safety standards for furniture and such.

But remember, Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) is on the committee. Hollings, who speaks like the cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn, recalled his friendship with President John F. Kennedy.

That prompted Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), who chaired the Wednesday hearing, to say: "Senator Hollings, when you said that you were a friend of Jack Kennedy's, I was afraid you were going to notice I'm no Jack Kennedy."

"You're better-looking than Jack Kennedy," Hollings said. "Yessiree."

"Anyway," Smith tried above the laughter.

"That's the first time I've complimented a Republican," said Hollings, who was first elected to the Senate in 1966 and is retiring this year.

Then later, Hollings wandered into a discourse about the economy and Alexander Hamilton and legendary senator John C. Calhoun and manufacturing and said, "That's what built up this economic giant.

"And the best impression I had, going down with my friend Bob Dole to see the World War II veterans memorial -- incidentally, the wind was blowing, and the fountains were going all over us and everything else, and we renamed it Viagra Falls." Gonna miss that guy.

Sorry, Loop Fans

Forget the calls and e-mails. The answer is no. There will be no Loop contest to pick a successor to Vice President Cheney. His departure is a liberal/media/Alfonse M. D'Amato-concocted mid-July fantasy. Not gonna happen. We don't do contests on such nonsense. (Not usually, anyway.)

Tax Attacks

The Internal Revenue Service posts a daily In the News section on its agency intranet site to keep employees abreast of tax issues in the news. Most are standard articles, many from the trade media, about the IRS and its activities.

But on Tuesday, some employees were surprised to see that the first item listed was not a tax news story but a Wall Street Journal editorial attacking the Democratic presidential ticket's past use of tax loopholes.

Sen. John Edwards's use of one "clever tax dodge" was "especially hypocritical," the newspaper said. Sen. John F. Kerry's finances were too uncomplicated, so the editorial went after the finances of Teresa Heinz Kerry, who's running for the job of first lady.

The candidates "want to tax the most productive people at higher marginal rates and close loopholes for corporations while they themselves dodge taxes by exploiting loopholes they plan to preserve," the paper said.

Caused a bit of a stir at the agency. Some IRS folks complained that highlighting the paper's assessment was improper campaigning on a government Web site. But the clips are put together by career folks in the media office, we were told, and the second item that day was a story crediting Edwards for focusing on middle-class tax concerns. Matters critical of President Bush apparently have been noted in the past.

Former Indian defense minister George Fernandes says he won't return to the United States.