Bad week for hideous men

Who's creepiest, Saddam, Robert Blake or preppie murderer Robert Chambers? Plus: What the Iraqi gangsta doesn't get about playa hatin'.

Published March 6, 2003 10:07PM (EST)

Nothing kills a terrorist's mystique like being rousted out of bed at 3 a.m.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed represented the face of al-Qaida in a snowy white turban and horn-rimmed spectacles -- until he was busted in the dawn raid in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Now we'll forever see him for what he is: a hairy fat thug in a sweaty vest. But is it really fair? Everyone looks like hell in the morning. If you burst into the penthouse suites at the Beverly Hills Hotel at that ungodly hour any morning of the week most of the occupants would look the same way. Perhaps on Mohammed's encrypted computer disks, the feds will find only rewrites of a screenplay.

If one of the world's most wanted men had been nabbed during sweeps week, the only way he could have got so much airtime would have been to sit for an exclusive, in-depth, up-close-and-personal interview with a network news star. At a swell dinner at the Museum of Modern Art's temporary home in Queens to celebrate the "Matisse Picasso" show, the cultural discussion was not of the exhibit but of the TV finale of "Joe Millionaire." "It's puzzling," rumbled Henry Kissinger, "that women want to compete for such a dunce."

Even as the society types peered appreciatively at Matisse's "The Piano Lesson" -- I went round with a legal eagle who was keeping score ("So far it's Matisse 7, Picasso 5") -- their TiVo machines were whirring away back in their darkened apartments on Park Avenue, taping the ratings war. On CBS, the scoop interview with the preppie murderer. On ABC, B-list actor and alleged wife-waster Robert Blake, giving it up for Barbara Walters. And, topping both, of course, Dan Rather's exclusive interview with Saddam. No wonder the network refused a White House demand that Ari Fleischer get free airtime to answer the Iraqi capo. It's sweeps week, guys -- give us the president or forget about it. We can catch Ari's soft-boiled-egg face any night of the week. Has he ever said anything to surprise us, anyway? Try lip-syncing his answers as he says them. You'll be right nine times out of 10.

The preppie murderer's sledgehammer chin and dulcet-voiced therapy talk ("I take full responsibility"; "Do you know how callous it feels?") made even creepier television than the hyperventilating Blake, who was filmed in jail in his orange jumpsuit munching a candy bar and episodically sobbing into the camera. Alongside these two, the beast of Baghdad seemed almost wholesome.

Saddam's astutely corporate performance in the sit-down with Rather did much to upgrade his usual image as a murdering, halitotic toad. He projected a kind of wounded cultural puzzlement. Americans are from Mars, Iraqis are from Venus. I found myself suddenly wondering if the whole weapons of mass destruction thing could be just a huge phallic bluff on Saddam's part to intimidate his neighbors, the nuclear equivalent of Joe Gould's secret. What if the al-Samoud 2 missiles were just megawatt water pistols? (Is that why the Iraqis insisted on crushing them instead of exploding them?) What if the nerve gas was just stink bombs? Saddam would have taken the world hostage like a bandit with a plastic gun. His choice now: lose face -- or be blown off the face of the earth. Tough call.

Macho is even more central to Saddam than to George Bush. When Rather asked Saddam if he felt competitive with Osama bin Laden's owning the Arab street, Saddam replied, "Jealousy is for women." It's the kind of line W likes to come up with. ("And peace is for pussies," Dick Cheney would growl in assent.)

But Saddam has it as wrong about jealousy as about everything else. It's one of the driving forces between alpha males. Think Louis XIV and his ministere principale Nicolas Fouquet (who made the mistake of building a nicer house than the Sun King), LBJ and JFK, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, Rudy Giuliani and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter. Alexander Hamilton was furiously jealous of Thomas Jefferson. The entire Republican Party was jealous of Abraham Lincoln. Much of the animosity toward Bill Clinton was rooted in jealousy. The apparatchiks on the hard right all seem to have that eunuchy Ari Fleischer look, and it made them insane that Clinton combined brains with 6 feet 2 inches of smoking sexual success.

Macho jealousy -- playa hatin' -- is all over gangsta rap. The lyrics of LL Cool J's "Jealous" sound like Bush on Saddam. "I wanna kill him and shoot him/ He's a sucker -- I'd like to execute him/ Recruit him -- put him in my school and school him/ I said something simple, and I knew that I'd fool him/ He's just a monkey, ridin' my back/ In fact I kidnap, ransack, hijack and backslap the fool."

In business, male jealousy is even more rampant than in the 'hood. In fact, you could argue that jealousy, not greed, was behind the whole crisis in CEO compensation. Because firms have to disclose the pay of their top five executives, the big shots competed frantically with each other to get more. Gulfstream envy was a defining '90s dynamic.

A corporate lawyer who has worked on most of the big mergers tells me it is not the financial deal itself that takes the time. The heat comes with what are referred to as the "social issues" -- that is, who gets the title of CEO, the biggest, best-located office, the free apartments in New York and London, the at-will access to the fleet of corporate planes.

Men, since they compete every minute of their lives about everything, may superficially seem to have more equanimity than women. But they have a potential for jealousy that's far more destructive than women's. They have far more power to bring to bear.

Women blow the whistle. Men blow things up.

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By Tina Brown

Tina Brown's column appears every Thursday in Salon.

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