Jewish World Review July 7, 2003 / 7 Tamuz 5763

Paul Greenberg

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The return of Baghdad Bob

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | In Cairo, it used to be said that, if you hung around Shepheard's Hotel long enough, eventually you'd see everybody you ever knew. Today it would be everybody you ever saw on television.

Sure enough, the other day Tom Rachman of the Associated Press reported the (non)triumphal return of Baghdad Bob in Cairo. It was like watching an old trouper down on his luck, out of a job, and without the heart to repeat any of his old lines.

What had happened to the snappy patter, the dancing shoes, the costumes from the East? All were gone, packed away, seized by creditors, or maybe by the Third Infantry. Nothing was left to the man, not even the wonderful, visceral curses that don't sound the same in any language but Arabic. ("G-d will roast your stomachs in Hell!" lacks something in mere English.)

Sad. His name should still be up there in lights. Instead, Baghdad Bob has been replaced by this defeated little man, this stumbling imposter, this mere shadow of a comic genius.

Alas! This poor Yorick of the East, we knew him well, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. Even if the humor was unintentional.

How we miss him, or rather the showstopper he used to be. His disappearance has left a hole in the world of journalism that no number of Jayson Blairs or Maureen Dowds can fill.

It's not that what Baghdad Bob had to say was so different from R.W. Apple in The New York Times or Dennis Kucinich on the campaign trail, but how he said it: with flair, with pizzazz, with conviction, like a man enthusiastically springing a trap door on himself.

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Back then, Baghdad Bob had a delight in his own words that no writer for Salon.com could match. He was intoxicated by his own eloquence. He put The New Yorker's Seymour Hersch in the shade when it came to describing the imminent rout of American forces.

Now look at him - a Howard Dean after being interviewed by Tim Russert, a shipwreck afloat in a sea of his own evasions. A shadow of his former electronic self, he can only sit there now and mumble about how much it hurts. Life is cruel - in a way death could never be.

Oh, the glory that was Baghdad Bob, the grandeur that was once the Iraqi information ministry. Now, bereft of black beret and braggadocio, he only hems and haws before the camera. His responses have grown short, clipped, embarrassed. ("Yes," "No," "History will tell.") He could be Gen. Wesley Clark being asked if he'll run for president.

The great jester has been transformed into just another old man with thinning hair and a list of woes. Not worth detaining, he didn't even get his picture on a playing card, like the most wanted. He's the Rodney Dangerfield of the old regime. We rhetoricians get no respect.

Mr. al-Sahhaf, formerly Baghdad Bob, now sits in the ruins and tells sad stories of the past. He could be Arabdom itself, still thinking wistfully of Saladin and wondering what went wrong. Everything was going so splendidly, at least till the 11th century or so.

"What happened was an earthquake," he tells Egyptian television, "a really big earthquake. It was very painful. I am not revealing a secret if I said I felt pain when I saw U.S. tanks in Baghdad." The U.S. tanks that would never make it to Baghdad. The ones that had long since been destroyed.

It must have been like being mauled by a mirage, like waking up in a nightmare. What excuse can he offer? He can only say, like Humphrey Bogart's Rick when asked why he would come to Casablanca for its non-existent waters: "I was misinformed."

What he needs is a handler, a Mama Rose out of Gypsy, to make him a star again. ("I had a dream/ A dream about you, baby/ It's gonna come true, baby/ They said we were through/ But baby .") What with defeatism in the air again, the Vietnam Syndrome stirring back to life, the Pentagon being asked to dispatch more troops, the Democratic presidential primaries about to begin, there's always hope. You could soon see his name back in lights. (BAGHDAD BOB TONIGHT!) Maybe on Broadway in a reprise of his biggest hits. Call it "Quagmire!"

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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