“Better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody,” said that talented student of human motivation, Tom Ripley, and Tammy Phillips might well agree. How else to explain the former stripper and Playboy model’s assertion that she and George W. Bush had a torrid affair? On its face, the claim was so implausible that the National Enquirer, which is to journalism what professional wrestling is to sports, felt duty-bound to refute it in an early January story. (When did the supermarket tabloids start refuting gossip? Coming soon: “Phil Gramm is not an alien!!!”) Still, it managed to see the light of day. How? Why? And what’s happened, or not happened, since?

According to the author of the Enquirer article, David Wright, and his editor, Steve Plamann, a tipster alerted the paper to Phillips’ allegations in early December. Within hours, Wright was on a plane to Dallas to interview the 35-year-old, who co-owns a gym in nearby Carrollton called the Training Zone. He met with her on half a dozen occasions during the next three days, and at first, he says, “she seemed to be extremely credible.” The gist of her tale, told with dollar signs in her eyes, was that she was introduced to Bush at a December 1997 political function in Midland by her uncle, a prominent Georgia Republican. “It was instant combustion,” she said. They made love that day, she said, and a few days later they met again at a Houston motel. Phillips claims there were six more trysts over the next eighteen months, the final one in San Diego last June.

If Phillips was lying, Wright soon discovered, she’d done her homework: He says that newspaper clippings revealed that Bush had indeed been in at least three of the cities where the trysts supposedly took place on the dates in question. But it all fell apart when he tracked down the uncle, with whom Phillips had inexplicably failed to coordinate her story. After receiving assurances that his name would not be printed, the uncle produced documents proving he wasn’t in Midland on that day. Moreover, he said, he didn’t know Bush — and he hadn’t been in contact with his niece since she was three months old, when his brother divorced her mother. And those weren’t the only reasons to doubt Phillips’ credibility. “Other things we didn’t have room to publish were red flags,” Plamann says. For instance, she has a rap sheet: In 1988 she pleaded no contest to falsely accusing her boyfriend of kidnapping.

Perhaps the reddest flag of all was Phillips’ mother, who — a close family source says — believes her daughter’s story to be “totally fabricated.” According to the source, shortly before Phillips talked to the Enquirer, she called her mother with questions about her uncle, who’s battling cancer, and his relationship with Bush. Phillips had heard — incorrectly — that Bush had offered to fly her uncle to Houston to be treated at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center. When Phillips’ mother asked her why she was suddenly so curious about an uncle she’d barely met, she replied, “None of your business.” When Phillips’ mother read the Enquirer, the source says, her reaction was: “She’s forcing me to choose between her and the truth. At the moment, they’re not compatible.”

Since the story appeared, Phillips has predictably been barraged with press calls, says her California publicist R. J. Garis, whose illustrious roster of past clients includes Tonya Harding and some members of the Heaven’s Gate cult. Initially she wouldn’t grant interviews because she wanted to sell her story — along with a handwritten note from Bush, cell phone records, and other corroborating evidence she insists she has — to the highest bidder. Then she wouldn’t talk because she planned to sue the Enquirer for violating an agreement she says they signed promising to pay her and let her see the story before it was published (Plamann won’t comment on whether there ever was such an agreement). Most recently, Garis reports, Phillips is lying low from the press because she’s having second thoughts about the whole thing and is considering putting her planned lawsuit on hold.

By contrast, Bush’s communications director, Karen Hughes, is happy to talk. “It’s disgusting,” Hughes says of the Enquirer story. But, really, she couldn’t have planned it better. Each time a crackpot levels a charge against Bush, a boy-who-cried-wolf mentality sets in and future accusations are discounted. First there was hit-man-hiring biographer J. H. Hatfield. Now there’s Phillips, the prevaricating pinup. With enemies like these, who needs friends?