Saddam's Soap Opera
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 2, 2004; 8:22 AM
The legal commentators are back. The Arab analysts are back. The translators are back. The reporters chasing reaction, from Baghdad to the Beltway, are back.
Saddam TV made its debut yesterday, and looks to be settling in for a long run.
It was a good show, but the chaos on the airwaves made it all but impossible to figure out exactly what was going on.
First there were just pictures of the proceedings, no sound. ABC's Peter Jennings and CNN's Christiane Amanpour got into the courtroom and had some highlights about what Amanpour called Saddam's "bizarre rant"--but neither speaks Arabic and at that point there seemed to be no official translation.
Then parts of the audio were released and there were varying translations, some of which didn't seem to match the earlier reports.
Finally, the networks carried a briefing by John Burns, Baghdad bureau chief of the New York Times, who was the pool reporter and who had a translator's detailed account of what was said (though this conflicted in minor respects with other accounts). Burns said he had not been allowed to tape the hearing.
For all the problems, here's what made it good TV. We hadn't seen Saddam for six months, not since that video of his beard being checked for lice. He played the role of perturbed potentate, refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of the proceedings. And there was an unmistakable feeling of schadenfreude at seeing the once-mighty despot brought low.
By the way, what's with this disclaimer "Video Cleared By U.S. Military"? They plan on deleting testimony they don't like? And I thought the Iraqis were in legal control now.
The proceeding lacked the fireworks of the trial of Scott Peterson, who was described by a former mistress as obsessed with sex. But cable television, which kept rerunning it, obviously thinks the case is a winner (not to mention its importance in geopolitical terms, for the future of the Middle East, and all that jazz).
White House correspondents were asked for the president's reaction to Saddam's charge that he was the "real criminal," only to report that Bush hadn't been watching.
Within two hours, Fox News was debating "Will Saddam's Trial Affect the Election?" (A Republican said it would help Bush and a Democrat disagreed. Of course, it's not likely to start until next year.)
Wolf Blitzer asked a former Iraqi official the significance of Saddam sporting a beard instead of his usual mustache.
There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of suspense about the outcome. But there will be enough twists and turns to keep the world watching.
Saddam may look powerless, but as the Los Angeles Times points out, he could have some tricks up his sleeve:
"Appearing for the first time in an Iraqi court that intends to try him for war crimes, Saddam Hussein made it clear today that he would not be the only one on trial. Hussein's defiant exchange with a youthful judge during a 30-minute court appearance underscored the risk that the former dictator would hijack the case for political purposes.
"With no lawyer at his side, Hussein challenged the legitimacy of the new legal system that seeks to hold him accountable for atrocities that stretched over 40 years. He implied that the judge and the court were under the control of the United States, and he said that as a head of state he could not be tried."
Could Saddam be hiring Johnnie Cochran next?
"The conviction of Saddam Hussein for war crimes looks like a foregone conclusion," says USA Today, "both to his critics cheering for that outcome and to international law experts skeptical that the deposed dictator can receive a fair trial in Baghdad.
"Evidently, Saddam didn't get the memo.
"Saddam's appearance in an Iraqi courtroom Thursday, to hear the reading of charges against him, gave the world a preview of the perils and opportunities that await Iraq's new government as it offers the protections of the law to a man well practiced in its perversion.
"The 67-year-old Saddam mocked the judge, refused to recognize the court's jurisdiction and railed against the proceedings of the Iraqi Special Tribunal as American-inspired 'theater' . . .
"Saddam gave every indication of exploiting every technicality the system affords. He refused even to sign papers indicating that he had been apprised of the charges against him because his lawyers were not present.
"International legal experts said the importance of giving Saddam a fair and public trial outweighs the political risks of providing him a world stage he can use to stir up trouble in Iraq and throughout the Arab world."
I'd be wary of "experts," given that they're often wrong.
The former strongman hasn't exactly been an ideal POW, says the New York Times:
"In the nearly seven months that he was held captive by American forces, Saddam Hussein revealed little of what his interrogators most wanted to know, about his weapons programs and the insurgency in postwar Iraq, senior officials involved in his custody said in a series of recent interviews.
"But Mr. Hussein would occasionally provide startling comments and observations, they said, as when he spoke about his reasons for invading Kuwait in 1990, and precipitated the first gulf war.
"Mr. Hussein told his interrogator on one occasion that a principal reason for invading was his belief that he needed to keep his army occupied."
All this is basically positive for the prez, concludes the Boston Globe:
"If the Bush administration was pleased by the spectacle of Saddam Hussein in the dock yesterday, the televised proceedings also highlighted the risks inherent in Hussein's coming trial by foreshadowing how the former Iraqi dictator may attempt to put the US-led invasion itself on trial while stoking Arab nationalism.
"Much is at stake in how the Iraqi tribunal handles the prosecution of Hussein and his top lieutenants. Human rights groups say a fair trial could establish new respect for the rule of law in the country, while an obvious show trial would undermine the idea that justice, rather than arbitrary political vengeance, has come to Iraqi courtrooms.
"The trial could also affect domestic American politics if it begins before the November presidential election, said University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato. Its daily news accounts would remind voters, he said, that President Bush's decision to invade Iraq did remove a regime that committed atrocities, even if the caches of weapons of mass destruction have not been found and there was no collaboration with Al Qaeda."
David Frum reflects on the enormity of Saddam in the dock:
"Can we pause for a moment in the hurtling forward of events in Iraq to notice what happened?
"The most vicious tyrant in the modern history of the Arab world has been summoned to account for his crimes before his own people in a judicial forum. In itself, this is an astounding upheaval. In the past, tyrants were overthrown and sometimes murdered -- but always by other tyrants, and the successor was usually worse than the one before . . .
"Beyond the mere fact of justice, however, this trial is a watershed.
"As the horrors of Saddam's rule are detailed in open session, the trial will challenge Middle Easterners to reckon with their own history. In his day, Saddam attracted considerable and vociferous support throughout the Arab world, just as Osama bin Laden does now. Saddam's trial is also the trial of those who condoned and justified his crimes in the name of ideology, whether Arab nationalism or basic anti-westernism. It will expose the murderous consequences those hateful ideologies have had -- not only for the direct targets of the hatred, but for the Arabs themselves."
The New Republic's Noam Scheiber is a bit contrarian, citing a recent survey:
"Perhaps the most surprising finding in the poll is what Iraqis consider not to be a priority at all. By a tremendously vast margin--83.7 percent, with the next most-frequent response (about increasing oil production) coming in with only 6 percent--Iraqis are not concerned with 'dealing with the members of the previous government.'
"Today, of course, Saddam Hussein and his 11 cronies were arraigned in an Iraqi court, and expectations run high that a public reckoning of the regime's nearly endless crimes could provide, as The New York Times puts it, "a kind of catharsis." Perhaps that's not in the cards, or at least not until the interim Iraqi government addresses far more pressing concerns about security, employment, independence and political development.
A Wall Street Journal editorial says Kerry doesn't have to make full disclosure--only partial disclosure:
"The press pack is insisting that as a candidate for the presidency, John Kerry has a responsibility to come clean with his family records. We agree with the senator, who says that "it's none of anybody's business, period." On the other hand, he should follow time-honored practice and be as transparent as possible with the American public.
"Contradictory? Not really. The problem is that the media are preoccupied with the wrong papers. The public's right to know does not include the titillating details of a candidate's divorce. But it properly does include his tax returns, as well as those of his family if they have a major impact on his finances. That means Senator Kerry is in the right to keep records of his 1982 divorce private. But it's past time for his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, to release her full filings with the IRS."
I'm sure Kerry will be grateful for the advice.
Some of the comments in this Washington Times op-ed by Jack Wheeler, about the Clinton book, are incredibly ugly and unsubstantiated:
"The sight of all those women lining up to buy his book, to get that book autographed by a serial abuser of women, like prostitutes idolizing their abusive pimp, is sadly illustrative of a bizarre truth . . .
"All of that stuff about Hillary being mad, making him sleep on the couch, going to marriage counselors for a year, yada yada, is all made up. They have had a pact for decades: He gets to fool around with women, and she gets to fool around with women (plus the occasional man like Vince Foster) . . .
"One reason is that women can swoon over Slick Willie but they sure can't over Hanoi John. Mr. Clinton plays the charmingly lovable rogue who can lie through his teeth and get away with it. There is nothing lovable about John Kerry -- pompous, arrogant, stentorian, pretentious and so un-handsome he looks like a cross between Herman Munster and Gomer Pyle."
Columbia Journalism Review spanks the paper:
"We hesitate to even call anyone's attention to this rabid hackery, but when it appears in print in a publication that aspires to be considered a legitimate part of the national conversation it's hard to ignore. So, while we shouldn't have to say this, we will anyway: Ad hominem attacks, rumor-mongering, and character assassination qualify neither as political discourse nor as satire."
The latest liberal columnist to boil over Michael Moore is the WashPost's Richard Cohen:
"The stunning box-office success of 'Fahrenheit 9/11' is not, as proclaimed, a sure sign that Bush is on his way out but is instead a warning to the Democrats to keep the loony left at a safe distance. Speaking just for myself, not only was I dismayed by how prosaic and boring the movie was -- nothing new and utterly predictable -- but I recoiled from Moore's methodology, if it can be called that. For a time, I hated his approach more than I opposed the cartoonishly portrayed Bush.
"The case against Bush is too hard and too serious to turn into some sort of joke, as Moore has done."
Slate's Jack Shafer questions the methodology of certain book critics:
"My Life, Bill Clinton's hulking, 957-page memoir, huffed into anchorage on June 22 where it was greeted by the press mob as if it were the Queen Mary II. The publicity wizards at Clinton's publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, had stoked interest in the admittedly newsworthy book by denying reviewers copies prior to the official June 22 release date . . .
"Every newspaper worth its salt published some sort of news story gleaned from the book's pages on June 23, but the Los Angeles Times, the New York Observer, and the Associated Press ran full-fledged reviews that day. Newsday published its instant review on June 24. The New York Times had beaten everybody by publishing its review on June 20, with its reviewer probably getting My Life on June 18 if her source was the same as the one who provided the Times news pages with a copy.
"The 24- to 48-hour turnaround of these reviews poses the question of whether a barge-size book like My Life can be read in its entirety in such short order -- let alone reviewed. How long might it take to read My Life? Slate assigned one-third of My Life to three staffers for our 'Juicy Bits' feature, and they recorded 27 man-hours of reading and note-taking. Surely a full-fledged review of My Life by one person would require somewhere in the neighborhood of 27 hours for reading, plus sleep breaks, and maybe another couple of hours for composition.
"Are the book blitzers Evelyn Wood speed-reading graduates, vampires who never sleep, corrupt book-skimmers, or hacks? All of the blitzers who spoke about their instant reviews defended their velocity, with some saying their assignment wasn't to judge a masterpiece of literature but to assess a public figure's retelling of events with which everybody is mostly familiar."
Finally, how in the world did I miss this NYT item?
"In May 26-year-old Jessica Cutler was fired by Senator Mike DeWine, an Ohio Republican, from her $25,000-a-year job sorting mail in his office after she was discovered using the Senate computer to write a blog that supposedly chronicled her sexual exploits with six unidentified Washington men, including one she described as a prominent appointee of the Bush administration.
"Now Ms. Cutler has taken what, for generations of young women who have become involved with the powerful, has been the next logical step. She has become a writer. Yesterday she sold a novel based on her exploits to HyperionDisney (Walt). Her agent, Michael Carlisle of Carlisle & Company, said the price was 'a substantial six figures,' and Hyperion would not be more specific."
Wonkette puts the haul at 300K.
"Not only did he sell her novel, he said, but she will also pose nude for the November issue of Playboy. Ms. Cutler's novel will be called 'The Washingtonienne,' after the name of her blog."
Which will sell more: the book, or that issue of Playboy?
© 2004 washingtonpost.com