Saddam interview and Rather's cult of personality

Posted: Feb 28, 2003 12:00 AM
Saddam Hussein has been terrorizing Iraq and neighboring countries for more than 20 years. Even casual observers know him to be: a) a liar, and b) an especially vicious piece of work. So just what is newsworthy about getting him to sit down for a one-on-one interview? Did the executives at CBS expect him to announce his hopes for a career in professional baseball? Did they suppose he'd hand over his weapons of mass destruction to Dan Rather personally? Maybe so. Rather and CBS went to no little trouble snagging this interview with the Big Fish. When has CBS ever permitted an American president to control the cameras? They reportedly permitted that privilege to Saddam's men. There may have been other ground rules as well. And CBS does not deny that it enlisted the good offices of none other than Ramsey Clark, who took time away from his busy schedule indicting the United States for war crimes (which he has done in Libya, North Korea, Iran, Vietnam and Panama, to name just a few) to put in a word for Rather with his friend Saddam. The Ramsey Clark endorsement set the tone for the whole interview, because it was all about personality -- Dan Rather's mostly, but also Saddam's. And while Rather claims, in response to White House criticism, that everything was placed in its proper context, that's not quite true. There was that moment, for example, when Rather dwelled upon Saddam's chivalry toward former President George Bush. As his translators were reviewing a section of the transcript, Hussein interrupted to correct them: "I did not say 'Bush,' I said 'Mr. Bush.' We respect the humanity of all people." What a guy! Except Rather did not see fit to ask Saddam if traditional Iraqi courtesy also includes trying to assassinate people -- since Saddam tried and failed to have the senior "Mr." Bush killed. Though Rather tried to ask journalistically relevant questions ("Do you plan to destroy the missiles?") his lack of follow up and facial expression told the real story. "Here I am, the winner of the journalistic grand prix! I'm sitting across from Saddam Hussein! I'm the story!" Did I say lack of follow up? Tough journalist Dan Rather sat and nodded as Saddam Hussein proclaimed that in his first election in 1995, "I received 99.6 percent of the vote. And in 2003, I received 100 percent." Rather said "One hundred percent?" Saddam confirmed it. You've got to go to CBS to get the breaking news. In the hallowed tradition of left of center journalism, Rather did not see fit to ask this particular dictator any embarrassing questions about his human rights abuses, his murders or his torture chambers. He preferred the "how do you feel" sort of questions. He reviewed the history of the Gulf War, suggesting that Saddam had lost that war. Saddam corrected him and insisted that Iraq had "lost a battle but we were not defeated." Fine. Rather doesn't have to argue each and every point with Hussein. Viewers are capable of making up their own minds. But then Rather went again for the Barbara Walters touch. Now, he said, an even stronger and more sophisticated American military, along with a coalition of other nations, had a vast war machine "aimed at your heart and your throat." Well, not exactly. It's aimed at command and control, military targets and infrastructure. But that's less dramatic. Saddam then went into one of those nauseating religious talks this secular socialist has taken to adopting in the past 10 years. "We are believers," he said, "our fates are in the hands of Allah." Still, he's not stupid. He knew just how to play to Rather's vanity. Suggesting a debate between himself (murderer, child killer, war criminal) and the president of the United States on worldwide television, he had Rather's full attention. "Who would moderate such a debate?" the CBS champion demanded. Smiling benevolently, Saddam said, "You, Mr. Dan Rather." It was getting chummy, but Rather could not forget the dire times in which we live. He thanked Saddam for remembering that he had interviewed him before the Gulf War as well. And then he asked, "What are the chances that this is the last time we will meet?" It's all about Dan, you see.