The Magazine

Free Baghdad Bob

Matt Labash, freebie freak.

Jul 28, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 44 • By MATT LABASH
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AT THE RISK of blowing my cover as a debonair man of refinement, I have a confession: I like booty. Not the lust-generating fleshy musculature advertised by J.Lo or Beyoncé Knowles. That would be cheap booty. I like the kind that's free.

Often in this business, prospective subjects assume your journalistic integrity is for sale. In my case, it is. Last year, for instance, a reader who works in the Kentucky legislature mailed me an unsolicited commission as a Kentucky colonel. I've never had much use for Kentucky, other than consuming copious amounts of its fried chicken. Now, however, if you or any of your good-for-nothing friends slander the bluegrass state, you will do so over the dead body of Colonel Matt Labash.

The best little Christmas-in-July freebie I've received in some time came the other day from a British firm calling itself the Baghdad Broadcasting Corporation. It was a simple videocassette, featuring the rapidly-fading-from-memory mug of Baghdad Bob, the former Iraqi information minister who looks like F. Murray Abraham, but who wasn't nearly as good an actor. From the video box--decked in titillating typeset warning "Uncensored!" and "Watching this video may cause SHOCK AND AWE"--you might think you were in for the Iraqi equivalent of the "Girls Gone Wild" video series, with Baghdad Bob doing Jell-O shots out of some Mukhabarat officer's navel.

In actuality, it featured a reflective treatment of "the very best of the Iraqi Information Minister." For Baghdad Bob, aka Mohammed Saeed Al-Sahaf, gave us something more valuable than sex or mature language. He delivered that scarcest of commodities during times of war: He gave us the gift of laughter. Some call him the Rodney Dangerfield of Saddam's regime. He was unfairly omitted from the Iraqi "Most Wanted" deck of cards (unable even to ride the pine as a joker). But Baghdad Bob--or just plain "Bob" to his friends--was far and away the war's breakout comic talent.

Sure, he might not have had the manic energy of King of Diamonds Aziz Salih Numan, or the clockwork timing of Queen of Clubs Kamal Mustafa Abdullah. But Bob picked a persona and, as we theater people say, he committed. The mark of a gifted propagandist is one who tells enough small truths to sell the big lie. But with only 21 days from the start of the war to the fall of Baghdad, Bob had no time for protocol.

Consequently his offerings ranged from the implausible ("Our initial assessment is that they will all die") to the scatalogical ("Their rear is blocked"). He forwent the Churchillian in favor of the vaudevillian: "They are not only wrong, they are criminals and stupid. This is a fact, you can check it." So entertaining was Baghdad Bob, that even George W. Bush admitted interrupting meetings to catch his routine, saying, "He's my man, he was great." Bob, for his part, called Bush an "insane little dwarf."

In both the video and the scores of Baghdad Bob fan sites that are advertised on it, we mainline the wisdom of the guy historians will likely come to regard as a one-man Bartlett's. Only Bob could say, without giggling, "I triple guarantee you, there are no American soldiers in Baghdad." Or "They are nowhere near the airport. . . . they cannot read a compass . . . they are retarded." Or "We defeated them yesterday. God willing, I will provide you with more information." Or "The burden is on the people who think he didn't have weapons of mass destruction to tell the world where they are." Sorry--that last one came from Ari Fleischer. Sometimes I get my propagandists confused.

In the weeks after the war, when Bob disappeared, all sorts of disinformation made the rounds about the information minister. The worst was that Bob had hanged himself, which came as a surprise. Sure, you could see him squirting the tears of a clown. But we fans knew Bob, and he was no suicide. Recently, he resurfaced, giving an interview to an Arabic television network. Still unable to get respect, he had some trouble getting arrested (Americans released him almost immediately after taking him into custody). Life on the lam, it turns out, is no simple task. It's difficult to come by money, friends, and especially Just For Men hair rinse, as evidenced by Bob's overnight transformation from shoe-polish black to silvery ash.

But it's easy to forget that the other side has war heroes too. And Bob is the Iraqis'. By the time American tanks rolled into Baghdad, Saddam had already fled for a new life, presumably selling discount rugs in Dearborn, and Uday had packed away his disco balls and dark-light posters. But Bob stayed at his post and lied like a man. As a Kentucky colonel, I know what kind of courage that entails. And as one military man to another, I salute a guy with enough grace under fire to utter, "We will welcome them with bullets and shoes."

--Matt Labash