Spoiled brat that I am, I have never received a negative review. It has been nothing but valentines and chocolates. Until now.
I think of a story that Ed Koch told about Ronald Reagan. During a presidential visit to New York, Koch rode in Reagan’s limo. People were cheering the motorcade. All of a sudden, Reagan said, “Hey, did you see that guy give me the finger?” Koch said, “Mr. President, all these people are cheering you and hailing you. And you care about a guy with a finger?”
Reagan replied, “That’s what Nancy says: I always see the guy with the finger.”
My finger comes from Harper’s Magazine, in a brief review of my new book, Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators. Obviously, people are entitled to their opinions, and authors need to suck it up — they will get their share of negative reviews. I have certainly written a number myself.
But this particular negative review is a little screwy, it seems to me. And I thought I’d write about it. Not merely to make myself feel good, although that is a motivation — but because I think the material will make for an interesting column. See if you agree.
‐The reviewer says that my “favorite analytic category is ‘evil.’” I’m not sure about the word “favorite.” But my book certainly involves Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and other such beauties. There is a lot of mass murder going on. So that word, “evil,” will come up.
So too, there are sons of dictators who relish their license, and the opportunity for evil that comes with it. I think of Vasily Stalin, Nicu Ceauşescu, a few of the Qaddafi boys, both of Saddam’s boys, and others.
But there is much gray in this book, in the form of sons and daughters who are torn between loyalty to their dictator father and an awareness that dictatorship and murder are not exactly kosher. Many of the sons and daughters are both victimizers and victims. Dictators create all sorts of wreckage.
Moreover, some of the worst of the dictators are okay fathers, even good fathers — Pol Pot, for one; Idi Amin, for another.
In brief, the idea that my book is merely black and white will not be entertained by anyone who reads the book. At the same time, there come moments for moral clarity.
‐Take a passage from the Harper’s review: “alleged rapists and torturers Uday Hussein, Vasily Stalin, and Nicu Ceausescu.” Um, I don’t know about the niceties or necessities of legalese — but th’ain’t nothin’ alleged about it, believe me (or believe their victims).
‐The reviewer writes, “Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, was an avid reader of National Review, where Nordlinger is a senior editor. (Even so, she does not receive a free pass. Her remarks on the similarities between the United States and the U.S.S.R. are in line with ‘any number of professors on American campuses.’)”
I figured that line would rankle some reviewers, or other readers. I knew it when I wrote it.
But before I go any further, I’d like to congratulate Harper’s for referring to NR as “National Review” rather than “The National Review.” I can’t tell you how rare this is, even in the right-leaning media.
Back to Svetlana: She did not remark on “similarities between the United States and the U.S.S.R.” During one period of her life, she said they were morally equal, and equally guilty.
The passage cited in Harper’s comes from the concluding paragraphs of my chapter on the Stalin children, and, in particular, Svetlana. I am praising Svetlana for her greatness, and explaining the nature of that greatness. May I lay the last two paragraphs on you?
In Only One Year [one of her three memoirs], [Svetlana] writes, “Many people today find it easier to think of [Stalin] as a coarse physical monster. Actually, he was a moral and spiritual monster. This is far more terrifying. But it’s the truth.” She also knew the truth about freedom and unfreedom. Yes, there came a time when she talked moral equivalence: saying that between the United States and the Soviet Union, there was nothing to choose. But how did that make her different from any number of professors on American campuses?
Svetlana could have stayed quiet in Switzerland, enjoying a lovely bucolic and Alpine life. But she went to a place where she told the truth. She was sometimes laudatory of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian dissident, and sometimes petulantly critical. But, to a large degree, she followed the Solzhenitsyn maxim of “Live not by lies.” This is why we might say — why I maintain — that in Svetlana lay a greatness.
‐Amazingly, the Harper’s reviewer tries to finger me for misogyny, or so it seems to me. Does it seem this way to you?
“But how should a woman be?” she writes. “Carmen Franco and Raghad Hussein are tsked for having plastic surgery, while the twin sisters Mobutu took as wife and mistress ‘grew plump with time.’ Saddam’s second wife, Samira, was a ‘femme fatale.’ Albania’s Ermal Hoxha married a ‘hot tamale.’”
Yes. Let’s go case by case …
‐Franco’s only child, Carmen, married an aristocrat and playboy who was also a heart surgeon. Cristóbal Martínez-Bordiú, was his name. I will now quote from my book:
In addition to being a heart surgeon, Martínez-Bordiú was a plastic surgeon — and this leads me to an aside (and a somewhat rude one at that): Much plastic surgery has been conducted on Doña Carmen. This is not a matter of a nip here and a tuck there — her appearance has been dramatically altered, as can be seen in photos, taken down the years.
If you were writing a sketch of Carmen Franco, wouldn’t you include that? Even if this observation, as I note, apologetically, is “somewhat rude”?
My critic says that I have “tsked” Doña Carmen. Have I?
Raghad Hussein, I am happy to tsk, and more. She is one of Saddam’s daughters, and has earned the name “Little Saddam.” She is a keeper of her father’s flame, a perpetuator of his legacy. Raghad is a backer of ISIS and other malevolent forces. Not for nothing has Interpol issued a warrant for her arrest. Not for nothing has Der Spiegel dubbed her Terrorpatin, or “Terror Godmother.”
An excerpt from Children of Monsters:
She lives the high life in Amman, the life of a filthy-rich exile. She is the ex-princess of a dictatorship, or the princess of an ex-dictatorship. She is a rather chic lady, a fashionplate. She looks like her father, especially in the eyes, which flash and glower. She has a penchant for designer shoes and handbags and other luxury items. One of her favorite shops in her adoptive city is Boutique de France. By all reports, she is none too polite with staff. She is still the dictator’s daughter.
And while I am in the mode of gossip, I should say about Raghad what I said, chapters ago, about Carmen Franco: She is a frequent customer of the plastic surgeons.
Yup. My purpose in this book is to tell people about the sons and daughters of dictators, not to withhold information about them. You know?
Bad as Raghad Hussein is, she has had bad things happen to her — terrible things. First, she was born Saddam’s daughter. Who chose that? Second, he killed her husband — not an easy thing to deal with, to say the least …
(Other dictator’s daughters have had to deal with the same thing. Including one of Raghad’s sisters.)
‐Now to Mobutu, the dictator of Zaire (as he renamed his nation). His second wife was Bobi Ladawa, and his mistress was her identical twin, Kossia. That made for quite interesting situations. Anyway, I am tsked for saying that the twins “grew plump with time.” But perhaps you would like to see the context:
In a conversation with me, Brandon Grove, a U.S. ambassador to Zaire in the 1980s, provided an example of what he called Mobutu’s “childlike humor.” “We would be sitting and talking in his splendid marble palace,” he said, “and in would walk an African woman of some proportions.” (The twins grew plump with time.) “Mobutu would say to me, ‘Have you met my wife?’ I would duly stand up and shake her hand. Then he would turn to me and say, ‘That’s not my wife.’” No, she was the mistress twin. Mobutu got a kick out of this game.
Do you see why I jotted the parenthetical aside? It is not gratuitous, is it?
‐Back to Saddam Hussein — whose second wife, Samira Shahbandar, I call a “femme fatale.” She was married to an official of Iraqi Airways. Saddam took a shine to her. He kidnapped her husband and gave him a choice: He could divorce his wife or die. The man opted for divorce. And Saddam had his second wife (while keeping the first, too).
Saddam was not entirely unsympathetic to Samira’s former husband. In compensation, he offered him a choice of his — the dictator’s — ex-mistresses.
Anyway, Saddam’s relationship with Samira rubbed some people the wrong way. It led his son Uday to kill Saddam’s favorite servant, his valet Kamel Hana Gegeo — who, like a good valet, had facilitated trysts between Saddam and Samira.
Also, Saddam’s first wife’s brother, Adnan, apparently chided the dictator about this second marriage. Adnan was Saddam’s cousin and defense minister, in addition to his brother-in-law.
Saddam didn’t appreciate the criticism — and killed Adnan.
You could argue that Samira Shahbandar was not just a femme fatale in the general sense but a literal femme fatale.
‐What else am I guilty of? Oh, yes: “hot tamale.” In Albania, one of the grandchildren of the late dictator Enver Hoxha was recently arrested in a bust of the Colombian drug operation. His name is Ermal.
He married an Albanian pop star, Rezarta Shkurta. Dear reader, do me a favor: Look up this young woman on Google images and tell me whether she’s a hot tamale. Is there any other word or phrase? Come on!
‐A final word. The Harper’s reviewer writes that I characterize my project as, “in part, a psychological study, I suppose.” These words seem kind of dumb, kind of flaky, out of context. Would you like to see the context? From my foreword:
My book is, in part, a psychological study, I suppose. Obviously, there are themes, patterns, and connections among the children. These individuals share that “very strange position.” But they are also that: individuals. And they have coped with their situation in various ways.
I know that, in a brief review, you cut corners, and I know that, in a brief review, context sometimes has to be left behind. I’ve occasionally grumbled, “I would have been fairer if I had had more space.” Still, there are limits to the corners one must cut.
But I should thank Harper’s Magazine for attention to my book — even attention of this kind! — which I do.