As a propaganda ploy to make himself look more human and humane, it was a miserable flop. But as an effort to force the hostage issue to the forefront and make Americans think twice about military action, Saddam Hussein's televised appearance with a group of British hostages Thursday may have been more successful.
That was the view offered yesterday by a group of political consultants and other specialists in the art of conveying a message through the television screen. While they disagreed on many questions -- notably what the intended audience of the tape was -- they agreed that the episode was thoroughly bizarre.
"It was like Hitler going to a Seder in the Warsaw ghetto," said Robert Goodman, a Republican media consultant, extending the Bush administration's favorite analogy.
The most disastrous aspect of the film from Saddam's point of view, said Doug Bailey, a Republican media consultant, was the way in which it gave center stage to one of the children being held captive. "There is one rule in all political advertising, which is if you can get a cute kid to make your argument for you, you do that," said Bailey. "But what I don't understand is . . . why did they run it with a kid who never smiled, who never warmed to Saddam in any way."
"It looked like the child was scared to death or that he was ready to spit in Saddam's face -- your heart goes out to the child," added Bailey, the publisher of Hotline, a daily political information service. "All he's done is to solidify people's anger at him."
But Linda DiVall, a Republican political consultant, said that improving his personal image with Americans or other foreigners was probably not Saddam's main goal in issuing the tape. His real goal, she said, was to create a sense of terror over the fate of the hostages. And in this, he may have succeeded.
"It generated a sense of absolute dread in a lot of people that we may be powerless in getting these people out of there," she said. Referring to the hostages, she added: "When you see a human face on the screen, it makes you think twice about taking action."
Josh Muravchik, a foreign policy specialist at the American Enterprise Institute, said that highlighting the hostage issue was certainly one of Saddam's central goals, given the history of the United States's experience with hostages in the past decade.
"We've trained them very well to know that we respond insanely to hostages," Muravchik said. "I don't think it would necessarily have occurred to Saddam Hussein to take the hostages if he hadn't been schooled -- by Ronald Reagan among others -- that American presidents, even if they're tough, go off their rocker about hostages."
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, said she believed Saddam's purpose in the tape had been misinterpreted, and emphasized the importance of the fact that the hostages portrayed were British.
"What he was trying to do is speak to the British and by extension to the rest of the world and say that Britain had carved away Kuwait from Iraq unjustly, and that Britain should not be concerned about his effort to get it back," she said.
Although a lengthy part of Saddam's talk during the taping focused on this issue, she said, Saddam did not understand that having the hostage families on the tape would detract from his central message. "It's a classic instance of misunderstanding the grammar of the Western media," she said.
She also said that Saddam failed in another of his goals, which was to claim that the hostages would not be used as "shields" against attacks. She said Saddam's effort to send a reassuring message got lost in a complicated discussion of the pronunciation and translation of the Arabic language.
Jamieson also called attention to a second tape, which was not widely broadcast in the United States, of a British woman, dubbed over in Arabic, declaring that she had been treated well. This, she said, was a message to the Arab world that Saddam was not violating one of Islam's fundamental norms, that guests should be well-treated. But this tape backfired, too, she said, because the anxiety on the woman's face belied her message.
Marvin Kalb, director of Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Barone Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy, said the tape of Saddam with the hostage families may have had yet another intended audience and message. The Arab masses, he said, might see the Saddam of the tape as a strong leader who held the fate of Westerners in his hands.
Some political consultants interviewed disagreed with the view that Saddam had put on a bad performance for Westerners. "If you turned off the sound and just watched, he used the medium well," Goodman said. "Gadhafi looked like a madman. This guy is very polished; he looked like he was going to a board meeting."
Mandy Grunwald, a Democratic media consultant, said that Saddam was so demonized in the United States that almost anything he did and said would be interpreted negatively. But in other countries, "where he hasn't been quite so demonized, this will be the first they'll see of him, and he looks pretty reasonable in a suit and tie with his hands ruffling kids's hair."
David Culbert, professor of history at Louisiana State University and an expert on the history of propaganda, said there were eerie parallels between Saddam's tape and Japanese and German propaganda films made during World War II that were never released.
The Japanese film was called "Calling Australia" and portrayed Australian prisoners of war being held in Java. "They appeared in a scripted film cavorting in a large swimming pool and eating thick juicy steaks," he said.
To quiet fears about concentration camps, the Germans made a propaganda film at Theresienstadt called "Hitler Gives the Jews a City," portraying Jews living happily under Nazi rule. "It was not released, after someone realized that no matter how you shot it, the film would alarm world Jewry rather than placate world Jewry," Culbert said.
Staff writer David A. Maraniss and special correspondent Jill Walker contributed to this report.