I know Saddam Hussein is a monster, the “Butcher of Baghdad.” I know that he ruthlessly seized power, killed rivals and colleagues and family members, gassed his own people, commissioned a copy of the Koran written in his own blood.
I know, I know!
But I still can’t help feeling sympathy for the old codger. How sad it is to see him looking disheveled and out of it, like King Lear. I know I’m not the only one who feels sorry for him now-stuck in that prison, no more 78 palaces, no more dips in the pool every morning, no more fresh food flown in and prepared by fancy, European-trained chefs.
Fact is, I’m going to miss the guy. After all, he’s been in my life for nearly half of it, and he’s been America’s chief Bad Guy since 1990. I miss the Bond villain Saddam, the guy who listened to Frank Sinatra, adored The Godfather and The Old Man and the Sea , dug Winston Churchill and had a whole library filled with books about Stalin.
And lately, I’ve been wondering: Surely Saddam has some redeeming qualities.
I decided to ask New Yorkers if they felt the same way. Could they think of anything positive to say about him? I was startled by some of the responses, such as those from liberals who seemed to feel that Saddam would make a far peachier President than George W. Bush, and from New York women who admired him, without irony, for his ability to commit. Nothing, however, surprised me more than the general impression many of the New Yorkers I spoke with had, that Iraqis had submitted to Saddam because of his “communication skills,” as opposed to his armed-to-the-teeth private army. As if Saddam was just a very good motivational speaker.
Me, I just know I’ll miss the guy.
First stop, an artsy party celebrating a 12,000-square-foot carpet “installation” inside Grand Central Terminal.
“Apparently he wrote some good short stories,” said writer Valerie Shields, who recalled reading one of his romantic fables in Harper’s . “I actually enjoyed reading that short story.”
“I think he takes male bonding to another level,” said her friend Cay Sophie Rabinowitz, an editor at Parkett , a contemporary arts magazine. “And he’s committed . Actually, he’s not duplicitous. I think he’s very much open about what he believes and what he will do with his power, which is actually unlike Bush, who is incredibly duplicitous and lies .”
Ms. Rabinowitz went on, saying there was no false advertising with Saddam. “The package is the product,” she said. “I mean, it is what it is. What else? He doesn’t mind being alone-I mean, strength of conviction is a powerful thing, and so he has stamina. I suppose he’s a very successful dictator.”
Next, I met a man who said he was a “media artist” named Gunther Selichar.
“He was able to at least somehow keep his country together,” he said. “The question is raised, actually, if the situation like it is now is really so much better than it was before.”
“He gave work to many, many sculptors,” said photographer and author Rose Hartman. “He’s a larger-than-life character. He was quite motivated, and accomplished what he needed to accomplish. Unfortunately his desire for power, I think, took over, and that then lessened his ability to lead. Because too many people had to die in the process so that he could maintain his power.
“I don’t think I would say he thought he was a good man,” she continued. “But I think he thought he was a very powerful leader who had the country in check , in a way. Like a Mussolini.”
“Bush should stay on his ranch.”
“You know what really bummed me out?” said photographer Todd Eberle. “One of my favorite lines to quote is from To Sir, With Love : ‘How can you thank someone who’s taken you from crayons to perfume?’ Saddam went from perfume to crayons, from those palaces to that bunker. It was the fact that he had known that extreme in lifestyle. He had all those statues to himself, and then he’s in a hole in the ground? He just looks so feeble and sad. He seems pathetic to me, as pathetic as Bush. It’s all sad. It makes me so sad, all of it.”
Mr. Eberle said he was almost sent to Iraq to photograph Saddam’s palaces. “How I coveted to photograph them, and they were all destroyed.”
Next stop, the Maritime Hotel’s outdoor cabanas. Two girls were drinking mojitos.
“I mean, for what he did, he did it well,” said Laura. “Like taking a country like that and totally controlling it and like, mind power. Like Hitler!”
Her friend Amy agreed. “He knew how to take advantage of a situation, he knew how to manipulate people, and he knew how to skew the public opinion to make him powerful.”
“For doing evil, Saddam did it great,” Laura said. “It takes a certain type of person to be a dictator-not everyone can be a dictator and run a country.”
“George Bush sucks!” said Amy.
“He effectively bilked the U.N.,” said Jim Horowitz, a 46-year-old investor. “I envy his interior decorator. He managed his interview with Dan Rather very well-he’s a monster.”
“He’s clever,” said a singer named Wendy, wearing a blue sundress. “Extremely clever . Obviously he outwitted us in terms of finding a way to bring down the Twin Towers-and I hate that, but you gotta give him credit.”
I didn’t have the energy to explain to her that Saddam has nothing to do with 9/11. I mean, would you?
“The fact of the matter is, he’s an intense and crazy dictator,” said a 29-year-old Brooklyn screenwriter who gave his name as Ryan. ” However , because he’s been in power for so long, he’s able to play his country people like pawns, and he controls them. You know how many people sat in their coffee shops, restaurants, living rooms waiting to hear him speak ? They just wanted to listen to his voice. Because you know, they’ve been listening to it for 25 years, and I’m sorry, our country, France, England, Germany-they don’t have people that are in power for that long. Therefore, there must be something that is right with him. He knows how to influence people, and that is his power …. It takes nerve to be able to kill people, nerve to be able to feel like they’re playing God, and that is what he’s doing. Hey, you know what? You have to respect an individual for doing that. Look, I don’t agree with him, I think he’s evil. He’s a monster. But you know, he did it. And on some level, you have to say: ‘That takes an incredible human being to rise to that power and sustain it.’”
The next day, at a cigar store in East Hampton, I spotted Alec Baldwin and asked him the question. He paused. “He survived a spider hole,” Mr. Baldwin said, then scampered away.
That evening, I attended a Fourth of July party thrown by literary agent Ed Victor. When it began pouring rain, his guests-among them Candice Bergen, Jerry Della Femina, Judith Miller, Jason Epstein, Ken Auletta and Patricia Duff-crammed into the living room. I asked Mel Brooks about Saddam.
“The way he looks, he looks so tired and he looks troubled,” he said. “He would be a great poster boy for NyQuil. NyQuil should get him, pay him whatever he wants, and he should say, ‘Had I taken NyQuil, I would have looked a lot better.’”
Don Hewitt, the executive producer of 60 Minutes, said he’d recently seen something on a Middle East Web site. “They claim that a couple of guys had their eye on the ransom money,” Mr. Hewitt said. “They stashed him down there-he didn’t voluntarily go down there. They called up the Americans, they said, ‘You know that $10 million? You want to double that to 20, we’ll tell you where he is.’ It makes a lot of sense to me. It made no sense to me that Saddam Hussein voluntarily was living down there with the spiders and the ants and God knows what else. They put him down there for safekeeping, called up the Americans and said, ‘We know where he is.’
“The fact that we screwed up badly does not mean that Saddam Hussein was any kind of a humanitarian,” Mr. Hewitt continued. “He was a terrible, awful man. But there were a lot of terrible, awful men in the world, and we picked the one guy who could hold us at bay, the one guy who has probably increased the terror threat for America by our going there, and I just don’t think we handled it very well. I’m glad the guy’s going to go to trial. I hate the sonofabitch, but I don’t think we handled it very well.”
Later on, at the Sony PlayStation 2 house in Bridgehampton, there was a party for Paris Hilton’s new record label, Heiress. By the pool were some Paris wannabes-go-go dancers, socialites, publicists. I asked about Saddam.
“He’s obviously a good leader who can motivate people,” said a skinny blonde.
“He gave it his best shot, stuck it out to the end,” said publicist Norah Lawlor. “Other people would have given in; he went right to the end.”
Singer Samantha Cole, 27, was wearing a white, lacy baby-doll dress.
“He dresses nice,” she said. “I think he has a really nice smile , but I don’t think he’s a very nice person . He reminds me of Hitler in a way, but like a darker version.”
“He ruled with an iron fist,” said nightclub promoter Josh Sagman, who was sitting on a white bed next to a big-screen TV. “Which means if you stole, you robbed, you raped, you were executed. In our country, you go through the legal system and after five years, 10 years, one year with a good lawyer, you get out. So my feeling is maybe you need to be a little bit more strict when it comes to things that shouldn’t be allowed to happen.”
Mr. Sagman said he didn’t admire Saddam, but “if I had to say something positive, he could go to a nightclub, point to a girl, and you know he’s getting laid that night.”
Mike Heller, a 26-year-old lawyer, said Saddam was one of the best liars ever.
“I definitely think he’s hiding chemicals up his ass, for sure,” he said. “Although people are supposed to look at him as larger than life, I look at him as the smallest thing in this world. At least he’s got a good tan. I think he’s got big balls, but I also think he’s delusional.”
By midnight, everyone had left for the afterparty at a nightclub named Boutique Lounge in Bridgehampton.
“It’s very simple: He kept millions of people from killing each other,” said Boutique’s attorney, Peter Marinis. “Unfortunately, history has taught us that you need monsters like that-otherwise the North would have been killing the South and everything in between.”
Three tables away, Paris Hilton was sitting with her boyfriend from the Backstreet Boys. I thought I’d give it a shot.
“I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to talk about politics,” she said. “It gets me into trouble.”