Obama Al-Arabiya Interviewer On How He Snagged President
CNN's Wolf Blitzer spokes with Hisham Melhem, the Al Arabiya Washington bureau chief who conducted the first television interview with President Obama. Melhem tells Blitzer that Obama was "really cool" and that the new president is already "sending the right vibes, the right tone" to the Muslim World. The full transcript:
WOLF BLITZER. CNN ANCHOR: And joining us now, the man who conducted that interview with the president of the United States, Hisham Melhem. He's the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya, and also a good old friend.
Hisham, congratulations on getting this.
HISHAM MELHEM, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, Al ARABIYA: Thank you.
BLITZER: How did you get the first sitting television interview with the new president of the United States?
MELHEM: I guess sheer luck and dogged work. You know, I applied like everybody else and trying to push when he was elected. Also, I pushed really hard after I realized that he was going to address the Muslim world during his first 100 days in office.
And I think a combination of things happened: Gaza, the appointment of George Mitchell, the closing of Guantanamo. And I think there was a debate over the weekend at the White House that -- whether the president should give an interview at this time to the Arab and Muslim world.
And then I was told, much to my own gratification, that when the debate was over about the interview, there was no debate about to whom he should give it.
BLITZER: And they decided Al Arabiya, which is an Arabic language television station seen throughout the Middle East, that was the place to go as opposed to Al Jazeera, for example?
MELHEM: Well, I think -- I mean, I'd like to take some credit myself, but also I think they believe that we give them a fair play. I mean, they -- I mean, definitely I know the difference between being critical and being hostile, definitely can be critical and do your job professionally.
And we have credibility. People watch us. And we don't have an agenda.
And I think they realized that it will be seen -- that we will treat it credibly.
BLITZER: Take us behind the scenes, Hisham, off-camera, what was he like when you spoke with him?
MELHEM: He was really cool. And he was very friendly. He felt at home. I told him that we share an abiding love of Chicago blues. And he just beamed and we began to talk for a couple of minutes about Chicago blues.
And I asked him about his two daughters. Told him about my daughter who happened to be a volunteer and worked for him. And so he felt at home. I felt at ease. He puts you at ease.
BLITZER: He can be a pretty charming guy. Is that what you think?
MELHEM: He -- absolutely, absolutely. But, you know, you realize, you're sitting from a man who has a deep, keen intellect, a sharp analytical mind, supple intelligence. And the way he weaves things, the way he frames issues, whether he's talking about terrorism, talking about different cultures, he has a very sophisticated understanding of the world.
BLITZER: How is it going to be received in the Muslim and Arab world?
MELHEM: Judging by the first quick reaction that we got on our Web site and the letters, the first reaction, the Arab media and others, especially what he said about the Muslim world, the way he spoke about Islam as a religion, when he said, members of my family were Muslims, and I think that was his way of undermining those extremists, al Qaeda and others who are trying to demonize the United States.
It's going to be extremely difficult for them. And he noted that -- laughing, that these people are nervous because of me, because they cannot demonize a man whose full name is Barack Hussein Obama, who has tried to say, I'm extending a hand honestly, who is speaking with clarity and honestly.
And I think he's going to later on when he addresses the Muslim world from a Muslim capital -- even if he shows them some tough love, he would say, look at my deeds, closing down Guantanamo, getting out of Iraq, sending Mitchell to the region, these are deeds that -- can judge me by them.
BLITZER: You know these issues and the region as well as anyone. You've been covering this story for a long time. Will he succeed?
MELHEM: Look, already he is sending the right vibes, the right tone, there is a different approach, there is a different wind coming from Washington, different discourse. In terms of a radical shift, it's too early to say.
He is waiting for the Israeli elections, as you well know. He is waiting for the Iranian election, as you well know. He is sending the right signals at this stage. And I think he will -- is going to force people in the Middle East to listen to him and take him very seriously and to listen to him carefully.
BLITZER: I think you're absolutely right. And as someone who also has covered this region for a long time, he spoke with authority and knowledge. He clearly knew what he was talking about...
BLITZER: ... and he felt very self-confident in that as well. Hisham, good working, thanks for joining us.
MELHEM: Thank you. Appreciate it, Wolf.