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Malcolm MacPherson | The Interview

A satirical salvo at 'ignorance, arrogance'


Malcolm MacPherson, a former Marine in Vietnam, longtime foreign correspondent for Newsweek magazine, and the author of 12 fiction and nonfiction books, covered the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad for Time magazine in 2003. What he saw there inspired "Hocus POTUS," a hilarious yet passionate antiwar satire that centers on the US search for a WMD to justify invasion and a con man's ingenious plot to supply one. MacPherson's breakneck narrative -- redolent of Carl Hiaasen's exuberance and Elmore Leonard's cynicism -- is an irresistible portrait of greed and incompetence run amok.

MacPherson spoke from his home in Virginia.

Q War correspondents typically write memoirs. Why did you choose satire?

A I thought I would answer farce with farce, fiction with fiction. The folks who produced this war out of Washington have used a great deal of fiction and drama. Bush all costumed up on the aircraft carrier, "Mission accomplished"; L. Paul Bremer wearing combat boots and a Brooks Brothers suit. They had it all scripted out -- Iraqis throwing rose petals, WMDs to justify the production -- and it didn't work that way. I also thought that fiction would have a far greater emotional effect than nonfiction.

Q Did you enjoy writing it?

A I had a ball. I know I shouldn't say that. But by November [2003] I was really annoyed and I sat down and wrote this in a month. I wish I'd spent more time on it in a way, but it just came pouring out. I didn't have to make a whole lot up. When I flew up from Kuwait in a C-130, I was sitting across from an Army guy who was all suited up in Mylar, helmet, machine gun, and I asked him what he was doing there. He said "I'm guarding the cargo." I said "What's the cargo?" He said it was 17 tons of $20 bills. I knew then that I had a book. And I didn't have to make up any of the characters. One night, for example, we heard that they had arrested Ammo Baba, an Iraqi soccer legend. So we went to the stadium where [the Americans] were holding these people in the grimmest circumstances. They were wearing yellow meat tags. We found Ammo. He was with an old guy who had had a heart attack. We got Ammo out. He's in the book. The other guy, I don't know. All they told us was these people had been picked up in the middle of the night with no charges. There was a kid there who had stolen a bicycle.

Q Why is there no violence?

A These characters are too clever to be violent. My friend Douglas, on whom Rick, the protagonist, is based, is about the cleverest man I know. He got involved in this deal over in Iraq and showed me a whole side of reconstruction that was eye-opening. I met all the crooks you could meet.

Q Is it frustrating for you when people ask you about the subject rather than the book?

A I think it's terrific. I wanted people to think about this whole US occupation while they were being entertained. I've read [Siegfried] Sassoon, [Erich Maria] Remarque, [Dalton] Trumbo, [Kurt] Vonnegut, [Joseph] Heller, but that didn't have the kind of authority for me that the movie "Dr. Strangelove" had or "Three Kings" or even "Coming Home." So I was looking at this as a visual thing and it comes off that way for better or worse, because I thought the more vivid and outrageous it is, the more of an impact -- I hate that word -- the more of an impression it would make.

Q Is this very different from your other novels?

A I've written a lot of crap. The only one I really adore and think is any good is "In Cahoots," about some people trying to figure out where Walt Disney is going to put Disneyland. I'm finishing one now that's very similar to "Hocus POTUS" so I might continue along that line.

Q Are you a full-time novelist?

A No, I'm also doing a book right now on two brothers who have been fishing up in the Bering Sea their whole lives. I've spent a lot of time with them up there; I hope it will be a good book. At this point I have to figure out the story.

Q You don't miss war zones?

A I don't. But I'd love to go back to Baghdad. And I'll bet the difference between the time I was there in May 2003 and today is appalling. I don't think you can leave the Green Zone . . . and they're shelling the Green Zone.

Q You say that "ignorance and arrogance" sums up the US approach to Iraq.

A It's trickle-down ignorance and arrogance. Here's an example. One evening in Baghdad, a CIA guy we knew had to escort two young women who were White House connected. Later he told us he couldn't believe how entitled those people felt, screaming at him to stop at stoplights even though they weren't working; there was no electricity. The only qualification one of them had was a Government 101 course at Yale. Multiply people like her a thousand or so times and you've got a disaster.

Q What will those people think of this novel?

A They're so bunkered, they won't read it. They believe what they believe, and nothing will shake that.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a correspondent for the Irish Times. She can be reached via e-mail at