'The Rise and Fall of Ceausescu' examines the Romanian's brutality


If there was ever a life that confirmed Lord Acton's statement "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely," it was that of Nicolae Ceausescu.

Actually, according to Edward Behr's fascinating PBS documentary "The Rise and Fall of Ceausescu," which will be on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, tonight at 9 o'clock, that should be two lives, those of both Nicolae and his wife, Elena.

For almost 20 years, this pair ruled Romania as they constructed a personality cult around themselves with propaganda so powerful that, in the end, even they seemed to believe it.

The Ceausescus fell in December of 1989 -- their trial and execution captured on a crude videotape that ends the program -- as the iron curtain had crumbled.

As Behr notes, what propelled Ceausescu into the international spotlight was his opposition to the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. But, ironically, it was the removal of the possibility of a Russian invasion enforcing his dictatorial rule that allowed the Romanians to rise up against his brutality.

However, his constant surface resistance to Soviet domination allowed Ceausescu to ride a wave of western adulation to the height of his power. Americans from Richard Nixon to Jimmy Carter are shown praising him.

As veteran Newsweek correspondent Behr profiles these rulers, their resemblance to others of their ilk -- Hitler and Stalin particularly -- become evident. Behr is also publishing a book called "Kiss the Hand You Cannot Bite: The Rise and Fall of the Ceausescu."

Of questionable intelligence, with almost no formal academic training, both rose to power by following an instinct for brutality that overwhelmed their more sophisticated opponents.

In interviews with everyone from waiters to translators to film editors to game keepers, Behr shows how the Ceausescus, inspired by visits to China -- where Mao's wife encouraged Elena's higher profile -- and North Korea, constructed elaborate facades for themselves, projecting their larger-than-life image onto the Romanian screen and then setting up an extensive security force to make it required viewing.

Eventually, their megalomania drove them to build a series of elaborate palaces all across their poor country. Many of them they never stayed in. Some had sumptuously furnished ballrooms that were used once every 10 years.

Despite these trappings of grandeur, at heart they remained petty thieves. On a state visit to France, they stripped bare their hotel rooms, removing all sorts of valuable decorative objects and stuffing them in suitcases.

That the Ceausescus could get away with such behavior and maintain their facade makes you appreciate the free press. If Romania had just had a Kitty Kelley, the country would have been a lot better off.

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