By Rob Burgess
On March 3, George Stephanopoulos, host of ABC’s “This Week”, conducted one of the most staggering interviews I’ve ever seen. The subject was former basketball player Dennis Rodman and the occasion was his recent visit to North Korea with Vice Media to host basketball exhibitions and to meet with Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. Stephanopoulos began the segment with a clip of Col. Stephen Ganyard, former assistant secretary of state, explaining the gravity of the situation.
“There is nobody at the CIA who could tell you more personally about Kim Jong-un than Dennis Rodman,” said Ganyard, “and that in itself is scary.”
For the interview, Rodman decided to don a blue baseball hat, bug-eyed black sunglasses, a flowing scarf around his neck and a suit jacket completely covered in a collage of images of hundred dollar bills. On top of that, he affected some sort of unidentifiable accent. I have to hand it to Stephanopoulos, though. He kept his composure much better than many other interviewers might have. He obviously understood what was on the line and wasn’t about to let Rodman’s Rodman-ness deter him from getting the story. A snippet of the transcript:
RODMAN: [Kim Jong-un] loves power. He loves control. Because others, you know, dad and stuff like that, but he just, he’s a great guy. He’s just a great guy. If you sit down and talk to him, you know, perception is perceiving how things work.
STEPHANOPOULOS: A great guy who puts 200,000 people in prison camps?
RODMAN: Well, you know, guess what, it’s amazing how we do the same thing here.
STEPHANOPOULOS: We have prison camps here in the United States?
RODMAN: We don’t have prison camps, guess what, this is all politics, right? This is all politics, right? And the one thing, he don’t want to do that. He don’t want to do that. But you know what, it’s more like it -- I’m not like a diplomat, I don’t want to do that.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But it sounds like you’re apologizing for him.
RODMAN: No, I’m not apologizing for him. I think the fact that, you know, he’s a good guy to me. Guess what, he’s my friend. Guess what, I don’t condone what he does, but as far as a person to person, he’s my friend. But as far as what he does, you deal with it.
The rest of the interview was just as verbally confusing. Stephanopoulos was able to extract a few pieces of information from Rodman before their time was up, though: Kim Jong-un doesn’t want war, both Kim Jong-un and Barack Obama love basketball and Kim Jong-un wants President Obama to call him. Here’s how the interview ended:
STEPHANOPOULOS: Next time you go back you should bring this report from Human Rights Watch with you and maybe ask him questions about that as well. You might learn a lot more and it might press him as well. But thank you for coming on this morning and sharing your impressions.
RODMAN: But either way, either way, guess what though, guess what, thank you for the report. Guess what, guess what, don’t hate me, don’t hate me, guess what, don’t hate me, guess what, don’t hate me.
Rodman inserted himself into geopolitics at a time when North Korea’s usual chest-thumping has quickly become more vocal than usual.
“North Korea on Friday responded to tougher sanctions from the U.N. Security Council with another barrage of vitriol, repeating a vow to ditch all nonaggression pacts with the South,” reported CNN. “A day after the isolated regime in Pyongyang had threatened a possible ‘pre-emptive nuclear attack,’ something analysts say they think is unlikely, its official news agency reeled off a number of agreements with South Korea that it said would no longer apply.”
North Korea hopefully, probably won’t restart the Korean War any time soon. But if I were President Obama, I’d keep Rodman’s phone number on speed dial just in case. At first glance, Rodman being one of the only Americans Kim Jong-un has ever met in person seems strange. But, if you really think about it, it sort of makes sense. North Korea has been referred to as the “hermit kingdom” for its heavy-handed isolationism. To promote his 1996 autobiography “Bad As I Wanna Be,” Rodman famously wore a wedding dress and said he was marrying himself. Rodman and North Korea are two singularly self-contained entities. Of course they would hang out. Rodman gets to be crazy in public for the same reason North Korea does: they both have the goods to back it up. Rodman, for all his insanity, is still considered one of the best rebounding forwards in the history of professional basketball. North Korea may still be caught in the Stone Age culturally, but they do have nuclear weapons. You can dismiss Dennis Rodman. You can roll your eyes at North Korea. But you do both at your own peril.
Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577, via email at email@example.com or on Twitter at www.twitter.com/robaburg.