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AND I QUOTE / What Political Books Are Saying : THE EMPEROR: Downfall of an Autocrat, By Ryszard Kapuscinski (Translated from the Polish by William R. Brand and Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand; originally published by Henry Holt in 1983; currently available in paperback from Vintage International, $9)

June 09, 1996|John Balzar

"The emperor (of Ethiopia) began his day by listening to informers' reports. The night breeds dangerous conspiracies, and Haile Selassie knew that what happens at night is more important than what happens during the day. During the day he kept an eye on everyone; at night that was impossible. For that reason, he attached great importance to the morning reports. And here I would like to make one thing clear: His venerable majesty was no reader. . . . The custom of relating things by word of mouth had this advantage: If need be, the emperor could say that a given dignitary had told him something quite different from what had really been said. . . . It was the same with writing, for our monarch not only never used his ability to read, but he also never wrote anything and never signed anything in his own hand. Though he ruled for half a century, not even those closest to him knew what his signature looked like."

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Pat Caddell, a consultant whose influence has been felt in many American elections, once told me this was his favorite book about politics: the study of power and the fall of Ethiopia's Salassie as told by Polish journalist Kapuscinski, himself a master of mood, nuance, intrigue and paradox. The form blends oral history and narrative journalism; the effect is universally allegorical. Americans are wary and ambivalent about authority. We elect "the most powerful leader in the world" and then demand that the president yield to our fickle whims. Here, a fine storyteller explores the other extreme of power unchecked.

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