THE SPINE SEPTEMBER 28, 2006
The first time I heard of Uganda it was called Buganda, and a friend's husband, Sir Andrew Cohen, governor-general of the protectorate then ruled by the United Kingdom, had exiled the Kabaka to the top floor of Claridge's in London. Kabaka is another word for king. Still, not a bad exile. But, in 1962, the country became independent, with the Kabaka returning as president. Then, his prime minister, Milton Obote, overthrew the government and made himself president, which is the quaint African usage for dictator. This dictator was deposed in 1971 by Idi Amin. Ah, you recognize his name. Maybe you don't; he was thrown out of the presidential palace in 1979, which was long ago. He was exiled to Saudi Arabia where he died three years ago ... a long exile. Oh yes, before he left Uganda, he is said to have murdered (not entirely with his own hands) upwards of 300,000 people, having eaten some of them. Reliable sources say Idi Amin killed no less than half a million people. It was during this murderous period that he became head of the Organization of African Unity. And, also during this period, his country was elected to the U.N. Human Rights Commission.
Another highlight of Idi Amin's career: On June 27, 1976, Palestinian terrorists from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and German sympathizers, hijacked an Air France plane heading from Athens to Paris. The hijackers forced the crew to fly to the pre-arranged destination of Entebbe, Uganda. The plane was met there by other Palestinians and the sympathetic troops of the president. Immediately, Entebbe airport became an Umschlagplatz, a sorting center, separating the Jews and Israelis from the other passengers, kind of like in Treblinka. We go to the end of the drama. On July 4, on the 200 anniversary of the American Declaration of Independence, an Israeli rescue team landed at the airport and rescued the hostages. Some time later, corpulent Idi modestly declared himself "Conqueror of the British Empire." Then he was kicked out.
The big movie in New York and Los Angeles this week is The Last King of Scotland, not a film about Scotland, or one of its kings. It is about Idi Amin or, as he was popularly called, Idi Amin Dada. The reviews in The New York Times and The New York Sun were quite favorable and took the film as historically serious. The subject is demanding. I haven't seen it yet. But I plan to. I once had my own fascination with the president of Uganda.
When I came to The New Republic in 1974, we immediately talked about starting a small book imprint. Which we did. (Starting with early 2006, TNR Books, still a small imprint, has been harbored at the Yale University Press.) And I began to look for manuscripts and for books published abroad to be brought out in the United States. My first important hire at the magazine was Michael Kinsley. History has confirmed just how important that hire was, for the mag and for the country. In any case, he suggested that I take a look at two books published in England and written by Alan Coren, then editor of the weekly Punch.
The first was Collected Bulletins of Idi Amin; the second was Golfing for Cats: Further Bulletins of Idi Amin. This was parody of a very high order. And it was devastating. It is a mark of genius to make tragedy humorous. But it was not like Charlie Chaplin's Hitler, from which you got that he wasn't a serious person. Chaplin's Hitler was slapstick. Therefore, he was not a menace. Coren's Idi Amin, for all his jive pomposity, touched deeply on the real. In any case, these two books were a hard sell even to our staff and to the big publisher, who was actually distributing our books. Many thought it racist. Nonsense. If only whites and blacks alike would have pulled down these cruel tyrants--after all, Idi Amin was not the only one of the type--from their perches 30 years ago, African history would have been very different.
Alas, I can not right now put my hands on either of the collected "bulletins" of Idi Amin. But they are available at in the usual online services. I suppose some of you are interested in knowing why the second volume was titled Golfing for Cats, words that do not have a clear connection to Idi Amin. Let me confuse you further. Under the title was a swastika. So why that too? Before titling his book, Coren wanted to find out what subjects make for the most saleable books in England. Well, golfing and cats and the Nazis. At least, that was so 30 years ago.