Did the usually mild-mannered St. Martin’s Press intentionally fire the latest shot heard round the world? Recently, the explosive ”Swiss tryst” gossip involving President Bush and his former aide Jennifer Fitzgerald mushroomed from a mere 31-line footnote on page 413 of Susan B. Trento’s new book, The Power House, to front pages and TV news leads. Just as surprisingly, while the mainstream press’ attention was new, the ”affair rumor” had been circulating for the past decade and had been printed in at least one alternative paper and two monthly magazines.

Political insiders charge that the author and her publisher pushed the footnote into the spotlight to publicize the book, which might have received scant notice otherwise. The Power House details the workings of special interest groups in Washington, and the note is to a section on the departure of then Vice President Bush’s chief of staff, Adm. Daniel J. Murphy. But, insists Trento, ”My publisher and I intentionally didn’t draw any attention to the footnote.”

Why, then, was the book’s release date pushed from August to early July, immediately before the Democratic convention? Trento’s editor, Bill Thomas, says the decision wasn’t made to exploit the note. ”St. Martin’s was aware that someone might do that,” he admits. ”But we tried to do everything possible to make sure the book was taken on its own terms.”

Others were less shy about the possibilities. In early July, Trento’s Washington agent, Ronald Goldfarb, contacted a Los Angeles Times writer, who decided not to bite. Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz says several Post writers also received faxes he believes came from Democrats not affiliated with Gov. Bill Clinton. New York Post Washington bureau chief Deborah Orin says the footnote was first flagged by a source whose name she won’t reveal.

”Democrats and Republicans were spreading this story,” Orin says. ”There’s always a buzz in Washington whenever there’s an interesting tidbit,” she adds. ”And by August the footnote buzz had reached critical mass.” In other words, it was a rumor whose time had come.