By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Netanyahu snapped, “Because he’s your president, not ours, you smug, potato-faced putz.”
Okay, okay, he didn‘t say this (though I’ll bet he wanted to). Instead, he praised Bush for being a great leader. For if Bibi Netanyahu respects anything, it‘s power, and he knows that America carries the biggest stick. Russert knows it too, which is why he feels entitled to grill foreign politicians as if they were answerable to the United States.
I keep thinking about this interchange each time another pundit launches into talk about America’s might, be it Atlantic Monthly editor Michael Kelly celebrating our unparalleled military strength (“The United States stands alone in the world and in history”) or L.A. Times columnist James B. Pinkerton comparing the U.S. to Spider-Man and quoting the line “With great power comes great responsibility.” Now, that may well be true, but it‘s also true that this country has trouble wielding power gracefully. Just as America’s egalitarian ethos makes us uncomfortable dealing with waiters (most of us come across either too chummy or, by way of overcompensation, too bossy), our belief that we‘re mankind’s last great hope means that we don‘t view our geopolitical maneuvers as being power plays like everyone else’s. We need to believe they‘re idealistic steps toward the universal good -- “We’re your friendly neighborhood superpower.”
But if Americans feel uneasy about embracing power as power, we share a voyeuristic fascination with how it works. New York magazine‘s Michael Wolff recently used the term “power porn” to describe our culture’s prurient interest in the rise and fall of the rich and influential. A couple of generations ago, such curiosity was fed by ambitious novelists -- Norman Mailer deciphering JFK‘s juju, Gore Vidal chipping away at all those heads on Mount Rushmore. These days, we get our power fix from nonfiction: Vanity Fair power lists, gleeful accounts of Michael Ovitz slinking into the darkness like Gollum heading toward Mordor, or Mark Bowden’s profile of Saddam Hussein in May‘s Atlantic, which reminds us that nobody is more fun to read about than an unrepentant dictator.
Naturally, it’s tempting to write off Bowden‘s piece (and Time’s current “Sinister Saddam” cover) as the hawkish media‘s attempt to prepare the country for an attack on Iraq. But while Saddam may look like Ernie Kovacs, right down to the cigar, he truly is a dangerous man, the Arab cousin of all those demonic dictators in Latin American novels, yet possessed of an incomparably more far-reaching megalomania. And his story displays all the cornball ironies of an HBO biopic: Saddam rises to the top through charm -- and Godfather-style murder. He makes intellectuals swoon by praising The Old Man and the Sea, but keeps a library of books on Stalin just to see how the master held the reins. In hopes of being the next Saladin, he publicly keeps up an Islamic front, yet privately keeps mistresses and drinks, of all things, Mateus rose. (Hey, hey, hey.) His is a regime bathed in blood, from the butchering of political rivals and the gassing of the Kurds, to the copy of the Koran he had written in his own blood, slowly drained from his body over several months. Addicted to the darker mysteries of control and domination, “the tyrant” (as Bowden calls him) is a superstitious tribal gangster who dreams of mushroom clouds instead of sheep.
If Saddam is the Dirk Diggler of contemporary power porn, his monkish opposite is surely the late Andrei Sakharov, the Nobel Peace Prize--winning physicist who lived the sort of idealistic if imperfect life that makes one feel ashamed for one’s own pettiness. There‘s not a lurid moment in Richard Lourie’s excellent Sakharov: A Biography, which offers a useful reminder that power comes in many different forms. After spending his first 40-odd years becoming the very symbol of Soviet military muscle -- he was father of that country‘s H-bomb -- Sakharov spent the rest of his life as the symbol of nonviolent resistance to the state and the party. This got him stripped of his privileges and sentenced to internal exile in Gorky; yet deprivation only increased his moral authority, and by the time I visited the Soviet Union in the Gorbachev years, Academician Sakharov, as he was known, was the one figure in the country whom everyone I talked to unequivocally admired (even that famous grouch Alexander Solzhenitsyn adored him). In fact, a recent poll shows that he’s reckoned one of the three most influential Russians of the 20th century, just behind Lenin and Stalin. But what an abyss separates them! Sakharov‘s power came from staring down the brutal state machinery that the other two drove like T-35 tanks, and one can only imagine the shocked looks if Vladimir Ilich and Uncle Joe were somehow to discover that the frail, altruistic Sakharov, whose KGB code name was Ascetic, had outlasted the glorious Soviet fatherland.