Foreign Policy

Saddam, You Ignorant Slut

Would you tune in for the Bush-Saddam debate?

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Like some American Tariq Aziz, Dan Rather combines wide-ranging affability, unswerving fealty to a cause, and a belief in his own dignity that stays with him even in the most demeaning circumstances. In a way that nobody could have guessed back when there was doubt about whether he could continue the phony-baloney gravitas of Ed Murrow and Walter Cronkite (two world-class frauds lucky enough to live in a less questioning age), Rather has built a career that even his most ardent detractors must recognize as legendary. To name just the famous episodes would require more space than we have here. His appearance in Afghan garb during the Soviet occupation brought the lighter side of Afghanistan to America's living rooms. He has endured countless tired repetitions of jokes about The Frequency. He got an on-air dressing down from the first President Bush over a few Iran-Contra questions (an incident in which Rather, though clearly in the right, still managed to lose the battle of public opinion). He lived through an ill-fated match with Connie Chung that would have finished off a lesser man. Was there any doubt that Rather would bag the coveted interview with Saddam Hussein? The only question is whether he got permission to do a pyrotechnic display in the presidential palace.

Which is why I'm guessing the most intriguing idea that was apparently floated during the interview—a televised debate between Saddam and President George W. Bush—will be a non-starter. Frankly, without a Rather driving the idea, it's hard to see how such a debate could ever come about. Still smarting from having been burned by Captain Janks during coverage of the space shuttle Columbia disaster, Rather demanded to know whether Saddam was kidding with his suggestion. The Iraqi president assured the CBS anchorman that he was seriously challenging President Bush because "war is no joke."

Too true! At the most basic level, the debate idea plays to the ancient and popular notion that wars should be fought in single combat between the leaders rather than en masse by the nation's youth. How did such a forward-looking proposal come from the more benighted of the two antagonists?

Anybody who expects either Bush or Hussein to take the debate in a walk would probably be disappointed. Overweening hubris about Bush's inarticulateness was what prevented Al Gore from finding his footing in his series of debates in 2000. Nor is Saddam likely to be a pushover in the field of longwinded responses. We could expect the dichotomy between radio listeners and television viewers, familiar from the Kennedy-Nixon debates, to be even more pronounced. Bush has little physical appeal for overseas audiences, while Americans instinctively mistrust leaders with facial hair.

The really interesting thing to watch for on tomorrow night's installment of 60 Minutes II will be how deferential Dan Rather had to be in order to keep Saddam talking. It's interesting that Rather has not so far enraged the patriots who threatened to kill Peter Arnett when he interviewed Saddam in 1991. But anybody who saw Fox's footage of Martin Bashir sniveling and wheedling his way into Michael Jackson's heart should at least be aware of the humiliating rituals journalists must perform to gain access. (I suspect the reason reporters frequently become police groupies is wish fulfillment: Cops get to gather all the information they want without ever having to be nice to people.)

Giving Saddam a forum on American TV would, as likely as anything, increase America's distaste for him, but it might hurt the war effort in a more subtle way. We have all become comfortable limiting our exposure to the Iraqi to repeated viewings of that years-old footage of Saddam in his Don Corleone hat, firing his rifle in the air. While there is something redolent of the Two Minutes' Hate in that mindless repetition, it suits our needs. The war has been sold successfully (and probably accurately) as an operation that will require relatively little pain or effort—and mental effort is still effort. The last thing anybody wants is to have to spend even another minute thinking about Iraq.

As always, the only person not in on the joke is Dan Rather.