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The Editor Who Puts Dictators In Their Places

By Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 27, 2006

How does one quantify evil into a tidy list?

We ask because Parade magazine published its annual World's Worst Dictators issue last week. (One imagines that it's hotly awaited in the dictator community, sending scoundrels rifling through their Sunday inserts.)

Parade assigned the undertaking to contributing editor David Wallechinsky, author of the "Book of Lists" series and a forthcoming volume about tyrants. He observes the evildoings of evildoers, "like some people follow 'American Idol,' " he says.

When making his selections, Wallechinsky says he considers freedom of expression, the right to vote, etc. "And I give extra credit to dictators who torture and kill their own.

"I hate to sound overly flippant about this."

If you missed last Sunday's Parade: Omar al-Bashir of Sudan wears the winner's laurel again, followed by Kim Jong Il of North Korea, Than Shwe of Burma, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe (up from No. 9 last year) and -- with a bullet -- Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan (up from 15).

You can imagine the barstool debates this might ignite: "How can you say Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea [No. 10] is worse than Boungnang Vorachith of Laos [No. 19]? Gimme a break, pal!"

But that's the sport of it. America loves the linear certainty of lists and rankings, whether it's U.S. News doing colleges or VH1 doing the 50 most awesomely bad songs of all time or despots committing atrocities.

"These are subjective," cautions Wallechinsky, who says he considers data provided by governments and human rights entities. He doesn't run numbers through a computer (number of people tortured, elections denied), but nonetheless serves as a one-man Bowl Championship Series-like ranking service for the planet's most heinous. We debriefed him by phone from his home in Santa Monica, Calif.:

Q. So how do you figure that King Mswati III of Swaziland (No. 12) is only one unit of evil worse than Isayas Afewerki of Eritrea (No. 13)?

A. Afewerki is a worse person. He's more of a thug. But he has less control of his people than Mswati does.

Q. Any potential "hot" dictators we should keep an eye on for next year's rankings?

A. Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia [No. 18]. He keeps getting worse. If his police keep arresting and shooting people, he's definitely gonna be someone to watch.

Q. Do dictators ever call to complain about their rankings?

A. A lot of these governments have PR firms, so I hear from them. I always get letters from Saudi and Chinese apologists.

Q. If you could take a long car trip with any of these dictators, which would it be?

A. Would I have the proper security?

Q. Yes.

A. Okay, first would be Kim Jong Il. He's a real cinema fan. He has a huge collection of movies. He even had an actress and a director kidnapped so they could make movies for him! I was born in Hollywood and love movies, too, so we'd have something to talk about.

I'd also want to take a trip with [Saparmurat] Niyazov of Turkmenistan. You know he banned lip-syncing in his country? If I were a dictator, I would ban lip-syncing, too.

Q. What else would you do if you were a dictator?

A. Nothing like what these guys do.

Q. What kind of feedback have you gotten to the list?

A. About 150 responses on the Internet, through Parade. Response has been good. I was on "The O'Reilly Factor" this week.

Q. Sorry.

A. He wasn't there. But for the most part, whether it's a conservative or liberal show, people are supportive. Nobody likes dictators.

The majority of the complaints I get is that I didn't include George Bush on the list. I'm not a supporter of George Bush, but he's not a dictator. If he canceled the 2008 election, then he'd be a dictator.

Q. Which of these dictatorships would you most like to visit?

A. Burma. It's a beautiful place, except for the dictator [Than Shwe, No. 3].

Q. There are no women on this list. What's up with that?

A. Name me a woman dictator.

Q. Uhhhh . . .

A. Other than in your own home.

Q. Do you worry that women's groups will complain?

A. Well, they've got to work harder at becoming dictators in the future.

Q. One last question.

A. Okay.

Q. Do you have a daughter?

A. No.

Q. If you did, which dictator would you least want her to marry?

A. King Abdullah [Saudi Arabia, No. 7]. Do you know how they treat women in that country?

Q. So you would want your daughter -- your hypothetical daughter -- to marry a dictator of a country where women are better treated?

A. Yes.

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