All it took was one slip.
One awkward, unscripted moment after a silky-smooth speech and the mystique Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spent more than a half hour crafting for hundreds of scholars and students Monday at Columbia University evaporated into pitiful ether.
Who can take the president of Iran seriously when he looks squarely at an audience at one of the leading universities in the world and insists there are no homosexuals in his country?
"In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon," he said, speaking through an interpreter on a university-wide simulcast. "I don't know who has told you we have it."
That odd declaration came in response to an audience question about the rights of women and the public hanging of two gay teenagers there a few years ago.
At first, it looked like Ahmadinejad would filibuster the question with a lengthy recitation of the rights Iranian women enjoy. Eventually, he moved into a rambling, train-wreck of a diatribe about drug dealers, hostage takers and metaphorical doctors whose mission is to halt the spread of infectious microbes through a society.
Pressed for an answer to the original question, his reply was simply comical. "In Iran, we don't have homosexuals like in your country," he said.
Poof, it was over.
The burst of laughter inside Lerner auditorium quickly morphed to boos, hisses and cat calls. In the Pulitzer World Room at Columbia Journalism School, a similar, more-muffled response showed anxiety easing among roughly 100 aspiring journalists and faculty members gathered for the event.
Professional colleagues with different perceptions of Ahmadinejad had come -- most with open minds -- to hear what he had to say. Lurking quietly was the possibility he might offer something that could divide old friends.
With one crazy statement, his credibility was gone. In an instant, we were together in a world of truth and reality. He was alone on stage.
Earlier, he had rhetorically slipped past questions about the "extinction of Israel" with a cleaver call for free elections in Palestine and the assurance that "We love all nations. We are friends with the Jewish people."
He had turned allegations that he denies the Holocaust back on his inquisitors, embracing some aspects of the accepted history and calling for further research into others.
"We must allow researchers and scholars to investigate into anything... Why do you want to stop the progress of science and research?" he asked. "I am not saying that it (the Holocaust) didn't happen at all. This is not the judgment I am passing here."
Eventually, he repeated longstanding assertions that the International Atomic Energy Agency has verified that Iran's activities are solely for peaceful programs. "We do not believe in nuclear weapons, period," he said. "It goes against the whole grain of humanity."
By that point, however, the damage was done. The unscripted slip about the nonexistence of gay men and lesbians in his country allowed most of us to disengage.
Much has been written about whether Columbia acted appropriately allowing him to speak on campus.
As an adjunct professor of journalism, I agreed with the administration: Allow him to speak with the condition that he spends at least the same amount of time answering questions from faculty and students that he does in his unilateral remarks.
As a former reporter, I wanted to see how he would explain on the record in America the controversial statements our president and corporate American media have attributed to him.
Columbia President Lee Bollinger spoke wisely during his opening remarks when he reminded the audience "it is a critical premise of freedom of speech that we do not honor the dishonorable when we open our public forums to their voices. To hold otherwise would make vigorous debate impossible."
He also spoke compassionately to professors, students and alumni, adding "to those among us who experience hurt and pain as a result of this day, I say on behalf of all of us that we are sorry and wish to do what we can to alleviate it."
In another time, I might not have needed to hear Ahmadinejad myself.
Unfortunately, The New York Times and four broadcast networks lost so much credibility during the run-up to the present war that I still doubt their commitment to stand "without fear or favor" against warmongers who challenge their patriotism.
Worse, President Bush and his administration have lied to us so much about the immoral war we are in now that nothing they say about the Middle East is believable.
So, I heard this man for myself. The market place of ideas worked.
In one unscripted moment, it became crystal clear that Ahmadinejad is either dangerously removed from reality or he is a lying despot who will tell the world anything he wants it to believe about his country.
The frightening thing is the two aren't mutually exclusive.
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