The Dictator’s Son

Odai, Qusai, and other progeny of evil.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Ever since Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, the modern tyrant has inhabited his own comedic archetype: the vainglorious, bumbling buffoon. And ever since, high-minded critics have damned this portrayal as a vacuous diversion from reality. But there’s a figure who actually conforms to the Hollywood vision of the slapstick strongman: the dictator’s son.

It was hardly surprising that U.S. forces killed Odai and Qusai Hussein before their father, or that the brothers picked such an obvious hiding place—a cousin’s home. Haplessness is an essential characteristic of the dictator’s son and the root of his unwitting comic genius.

Almost all modern dictators dream of handing power over to their progeny. But aside from a few exceptions (Syria’s Bashar Assad and North Korea’s Kim Jong-il), dictators raise sons who abjectly fail at the family business. In Africa, the children of Jomo Kenyatta, Idi Amin, and Daniel arap Moi have all made a hash of political careers handed to them on platters. Stalin’s son Vasily died a miserable drunk. Despite inheriting his father’s goon squad of Tonton Macoutes, Baby Doc couldn’t hold Haiti for a third generation of Duvaliers. (Even more pathetically, in French exile he squandered $120 million and suffered evictions from multiple villas.) And after failing in a military career, Augusto Pinochet’s boy now wants to exploit his father’s infamy, by marketing Pinochet brand credit cards and Don Augusto wine.

Their failure has nothing to do with diminished capacity for evil. As far as I can discern, no dictator has ever raised a mensch. The biggest difference between father and son is the application of violence. Where the fathers calculatingly use rape, torture, and murder to tighten their grip on power, the sons throw bratty temper tantrums. Odai Hussein was especially prone to flying off the handle. Upon learning that a servant had helped Saddam’s liaison with a mistress, Odai shot the underling dead in front of foreign dignitaries. The son of Liberian strongman Charles Taylor, Chucky, reportedly flogged his chauffeur to death after the driver accidentally hit a dog and scratched his car.

Dictators’ sons are often done in by their lifestyles. Almost to a man, they have drinking and drug problems. At a summit meeting with his South Korean counterpart, Kim Jong-il reportedly knocked back 10 glasses of wine. After swilling whiskey, Odai liked to fire automatic weapons; Baby Doc regularly consumed French Champagne by the case; and Nicu Ceausescu had a fondness for Johnny Walker Black. (In his 1990 trial, Nicu tried to self-exculpate by claiming that he ordered violent crackdowns only when drunk.) Both Marko Milosevic and Chucky Taylor have been accused of turning their own fondness for white lines into profit-making ventures.

This is only the tip of their self-indulgence. Dictators’ sons are often described as “womanizers” and “playboys.” But these words are usually just a euphemism for vicious sexual predation. Odai was a notorious rapist and would beat his wife senseless. Nicu Ceausescu kept a special rape chamber and would collect panties as trophies. According to a former U.S. ambassador, his approach of females often entailed forcefully snatching wives from their husbands. While Nicu availed himself of the wife, his guards would beat the crap out of her husband. (The Times of London has reported that his victims included the gymnast Nadia Comaneci.)

These weaknesses might be surmountable if the sons devoted themselves to political machination. But most sons of dictators would rather pursue vanity projects than expend shoe leather on brutal power-wielding. Because they have the power to do whatever they want—nobody tells a dictator’s son “no”—they fulfill every male’s fantasy of becoming sports stars and impresarios. Marko Milosevic raced cars and Baby Doc raced motorcycles, using the palace gardens as a practice track.

But soccer is the favorite pastime of the dictator’s son. Both Odai Hussein and Saadi Qaddafi spent vast time and resources personally overseeing their national teams. Their motivational techniques and management style come straight from their fathers. After Iraq lost matches, Odai reprimanded his players by caning their feet and forcing them to kick cement balls. Saadi has humbly selected himself to start in the Libyan national squad’s midfield. It’s far from clear that he deserves the spot: One of his Italian coaches told the paper Corriere dello Sport, “as a footballer, he’s worthless.” But when he plays for his Libyan club team, he often looks like Maradona. That’s because his opponents usually position themselves as far as possible from him on the pitch; referees gift his club all sorts of absurd calls. And Libyans have learned the hard way not to protest any of this. In 1996, after fans booed the biased refereeing, Saadi’s bodyguards responded by spraying the stands with gunfire. At the same time Saadi has pursued his playing career, he has tried to invest millions in glamorous European soccer clubs. Thanks to his obsession, the Libyan government is now the second largest shareholder in the most successful Italian club, Juventus, which visits New York next week.

Why do these sons turn out so badly? It will probably not surprise you to learn that dictators make bad dads. The strongman parenting style veers wildly from abuse to neglect. Stalin would blow cigarette smoke in his son Vasily’s face. When Vasily’s teacher sent Papa Joe a letter informing him that his son had composed a suicidal note, it took the tyrant 33 months to reply. And most devastatingly, Stalin refused a proposed prisoner swap that would release his son Yakov from a German POW camp. He quipped, “There are no prisoners of war; there are traitors.” Yakov died in captivity.

If dictators were truly serious about keeping power in their family, they would forget about their sons and focus on their daughters. There’s a long tradition of girls becoming successful heads of state. Indonesia is now ruled by President-for-Life Sukarno’s daughter Megawati Sukarnoputri. Benazir Bhutto has followed her authoritarian father in and out of the Pakistani presidency. Bangledishi politics has been similarly dominated by the daughters of strongmen. There’s an importance difference between these fathers and their daughters. The daughters are less inclined to torture, more prone to compromise, more liberal. Take it away, Carol Gilligan.