A couple of weeks ago on Meet the Press, Tim Russert leaned his gargantuan ego toward the camera and asked Benyamin Netanyahu, “Why is the Israeli government refusing to listen to President Bush?”

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.

Powerful men, like the rest of us, are rarely as vicious as Saddam or as virtuous as Sakharov. They’re more like the Lyndon Johnson in Robert Caro‘s Master of the Senate, which grips you despite a whopping length (over 1,100 pages) that would’ve made even Theodore Dreiser blanch. Caro is a far better storyteller than most novelists, even if this makes him an unreliable historian (he cares less for balance than he does for drama). Having spent his first two Johnson books (The Path to Power and Means of Ascent) treating the former president as a power-mad sumbitch, Caro now seems eager to redeem him. But not before he spends hundreds of pages giving us still more of the scheming Lone Star vulgarian. We watch LBJ woo Georgia‘s redoubtful (but lonely) Senator Richard Russell to become majority leader; we watch him cheat on Lady Bird, berate his employees — he could use the word nigger like a lash — and whip out his penis, nicknamed Jumbo, as an earthy form of intimidation.

Yet just when his crudeness has you ready to cede Texas back to Mexico, Caro builds to a 200-page climax that demonstrates how the workings of power are trickier than you might think. Earlier in Johnson’s career, personal ambition had always trumped doing the right thing, but by the mid-1950s, he had grasped that he‘d never become president without showing some support for civil rights. And so — in pursuit of his own presidential ambitions, and in defiance of his own palpable racism — he used his wiles and his power to push through the groundbreaking Civil Rights Act of 1957, a piece of legislation that no one else, least of all a high-minded idealist, could ever have gotten through the Senate. And though many still insist that Johnson was driven more by an insatiable hunger for personal glory than any concern for millions of black Americans, in the end that matters very little. History judges not what the powerful were thinking but what they actually did. Or didn’t do.

In early 1995, I flew into the Rwandan capital of Kigali, a city shell-shocked from genocidal slaughter a few months earlier — corpses were still stacked like bloody timber in nearby churches. Stopping by the bar at the luxurious Hotel des Mille Collines, I found myself chatting amiably with a Greek aid worker who‘d witnessed the systematic murder of the Tutsi people by their Hutu neighbors. After a couple of drinks, his mood darkened and he glared across the table: “You Americans have all the power in the world. Why didn’t your Clinton do anything?”

A good question. Although I muttered a few words about domestic politics, I never knew the full, disgraceful answer until I came across Samantha Power‘s revelatory “A Problem From Hell”: America in the Age of Genocide. It turns out Clinton didn’t do anything because his administration was worried about the 1994 congressional elections and wouldn‘t risk another Black Hawk Down in Africa. Naturally, this didn’t stop our government from preaching morality in contexts that could‘ve been scripted by P.J. O’Rourke. On April 8, 1994, two days after the mass killings began, State Department spokesman Michael McCurry gave a press conference in which he chastised certain foreign governments for banning Schindler‘s List.

“The most effective way to avoid the recurrence of genocidal tragedy,” he sanctimoniously intoned, “is to ensure that past acts of genocide are never forgotten.”

Within days, Power notes, the same State Department would vehemently oppose calling the Rwandan massacres “genocide” — not because it wasn’t the case, but because such a label would force the U.S. to act under the terms of the U.N. General Assembly‘s 1948 genocide convention. And so the killings were termed “ethnic cleansing,” and 800,000 Tutsis died violently, and the Clinton administration was so afraid of losing its power that it failed to do the decent thing, the thing that would’ve shown it deserved to have power in the first place.

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