Urbane Legends

When Saddam Hussein sidekick Tariq Aziz was captured recently, a casual reader scanning the coverage could be forgiven for mistaking the English word "urbane" for the title of Aziz’s Iraqi government job.

Almost everywhere you saw Aziz’s name, the word "urbane" was nearby.

The Washington Post and the San Jose Mercury News independently called him Iraq’s "urbane former deputy prime minister." The Los Angeles Times noted his "urbane manner and effectiveness as a speaker." Agence France Presse called him "the urbane face and international voice of Iraq under Saddam Hussein"; the Sunday London Telegraph, "the urbane public face of the Saddam regime."

Urbane may not have been his actual job title, but clearly Aziz was Saddam Hussein’s official urbane person.

So, what does "urbane" mean? After seeing the word used so frequently to describe a functionary of the Iraqi dictatorship, I thought I’d better double check.

Urbane, says Webster’s, means "polite and courteous in a smooth, polished way; refined."

So, Aziz was the "polite and courteous"-no, "refined"-spokesman for a murderous tyrant. Or so we were informed by numerous news organizations.

This raises interesting questions.

Did all the reporters and commentators who called Aziz "urbane" have first-hand experience of his notorious politeness and courtesy? Had he held open a door for them? Asked them politely to pass the peas? Or was Aziz simply an urbane legend-his high courtesy accepted as common knowledge?

If so, what exactly were Aziz’s attributes, connoting courtesy, that captured the collective imagination of the Western press?

From the reports, it seems that smoking and drinking topped the list.

Immediately after describing Aziz as urbane, the Washington Post noted that he had "a taste for fine cigars."

The Los Angeles Times said reporters who "visited Aziz’s riverfront home in Baghdad" found "a box of his favorite Cuban cigars."

A vivid piece in the Toronto Star that called Aziz an "urbane professional propagandist" noted that in his home, in addition to a crate that "still wafts with the aroma of the 25 Davidoff, Dom Perignon Cuban cigars it once held" there was also the "cardboard entrails of Chivas scotch and Remy Martin Louis XIII cognac."

The Sunday London Times cast into question not only the quality of Scotch Aziz drank, but also his urbanity itself. The "seemingly urbane deputy prime minister," sniffed the Times, "was exposed as a lover of Glasgow’s Grand Old Parr blend."

Yet, whichever label he drinks, Aziz is only the latest in a long line of dictators’ front men who have impressed the press with their urbanity.

A 1999 report in the Ottawa Citizen recalled that Joachim von Ribbentrop, a onetime resident of that Canadian city who later became Hitler’s foreign minister, was "urbane, polished" and "always superbly tailored."

A 1984 Washington Post profile said Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, an acolyte of Joseph Stalin, was "invariably urbane and sophisticated."

The New York Times ran this subhead on a 1986 obituary for Maoist Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai: "Urbane, Infinitely Patient."

Even Yasser Arafat had a mannerly lieutenant. A 1983 piece in the Washington Post referenced "Arafat’s normally cool and urbane deputy Rahman."

Cuba’s dictator, the most famous cigar lover on Earth, needed no whiskey swigging substitute when, in 1979, he wanted to deliver his message to the world. He became his own courteous spokesman. "It was a far more polished and urbane Fidel Castro who addressed the U.N. General Assembly," noted U.S. News and World Report.

Obviously, the word urbane as used in a news reports and commentaries is rarely without irony-intended or unintended. When intended, the word is cautionary: Beware, this bloody dictatorship has a smooth-talking public relations man. When unintended, it reeks of appeasement: Don’t believe it when they call that man a threat to peace-his deputy prime minister is as nice as Miss Manners.

So steeped in irony is the customary use of "urbane" you almost never see it used in a straight-forward sense, as in: The ever-urbane Ronald Reagan, whose smooth manners made him a Hollywood leading man, insisted the Soviet Union was an Evil Empire-even though its foreign minister was the courteous Stalinist, Andrei Gromyko.