Moammar Gadhafi droned on for 90 minutes yesterday in rambling prose barely befitting of a head of state. Later up to the lectern was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who also gave longwinded remarks that wandered from topic to topic, desperately searching for a point. Mikhail Gorbachev was infamous for his preachiness. And Cuba’s Fidel Castro once gave a 4-and-a-half-hour oration at the United Nations in the 1960s, probably setting the record.
So why do dictators like to babble?
Time is something that dictators see as a tool in their arsenal, like torture chambers and armies. It is there to be played with, manipulated. Many arrive late to events, to keep things unpredictable. Neil MacFarquhar, in his new book, The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You A Happy Birthday, recalls a three-hour speech by Gadhafi, “the only one I remember leaving because the need to urinate overwhelmed my interest in the information being dispensed.” Dictators are fond of keeping their audience, or guests, waiting. Thomas Friedman recalls in From Beirut to Jerusalem how the PLO used to have him wait for hours before giving him a quote or letting him speak to their leadership.
Dictators are oblivious to having talking points memos. They are able to talk at will to their legions of adoring fans unencumbered by time limits or speech requirements. There’s no worry about inserting “breaks for applause” since the parliament will dutifully stand and applaud no matter what comes out of their mouths (though some, like Stalin, gave fewer speeches in order to hide his Georgian accent). Nor is there any fear that someone from the chamber will yell out “You lie!” The same rules apply when they write letters. Ahmadinejad’s letter to Bush stretched for 17 pages, most of it illegible nonsense (not that his recipient was any great orator).
Luckily, they tend to be pithier in their other writings. Gadhafi’s Green Book runs only 82 pages. Mao did call his communist treatise the Little Red Book. Still, one thing you might expect in this new digital age of Twitter and texting is that dictators would understand that briefer is better. Even the most subjugated of people have shorter attention spans than they did, say, during the cold war. Dictators would be wise to remember there were only 272 words in the Gettysburg Address.