ON THE DAY when Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was threatening to “take the war to Europe”, I happened to be flipping through an old Playboy publication.
It was not — sadly — one of those with an engaging centre spread. In fact, this one didn’t have even one photograph between its 509 pages of tightly-packed wordage.
What The Playboy Interview, Volume II, had, though, was some observations about Gaddafi by Oriana Fallaci, the Italian journalist, who interviewed him in 1979 for the New York Times Magazine. Fallaci, known as much for her tempestuous personality as her dissecting line of questions, is admittedly not the most objective of observers. But her thoughts on her unpleasant encounter with the colonel, as expressed to Robert Scheer in a 1981 interview she gave Playboy (which, ironically, was unpleasant as well), are interesting all the same.
For one, Fallaci’s words shed some light on the man who is arguably the most popular hate-figure in the world today, and there aren’t many who have lasted a full, intimate round with the colonel and managed to tell the tale. Two, the encounter is revealing of the excitable personality and technique of one of the finest — and controversial — political interviewers the world has seen (or perhaps, in Fallaci’s case, her personality is her technique). Also, Scheer’s approach is a study in the art of interviewing. Though less aggressive than Fallaci in style, Scheer, famous for the Playboy interview he did with Jimmy Carter, is nonetheless persistent, refusing to be bullied by his more famous peer.
Here’s how Fallaci begins answering Scheer’s question about her encounter with Gaddafi: “That one was truly scary. Qaddafi (sic) is clinically sick, mentally ill, a certifiable idiot. You cannot deal with him.”
Fallaci was angered by the fact that Gaddafi made her wait “three and a half hours outside his offices in Libya”, and she was stranded in his library for a long time.
“After the first hour,” she tells her interviewer, “I wanted to go make the pee-pee, but they didn’t come to escort me to the bathroom”. So she got infuriated and, in true Fallaci style, “picked up the 1964 copy of Who’s Who and threw it against the wall to express my rage. Finally, Qaddafi came”.
Scheer presses Fallaci to justify her comment about Gaddafi. When, he asks her, did she become convinced Gaddafi was mentally sick?
“You should listen to my tape,” Fallacci responds. “For ten minutes, he is yelling like a broken record, ‘I am the gospel, I am the gospel.’ It’s terrible, because he never stops, never stops. His face — his face is so out of this world while this is going on that I nudge my photographer to take the picture then. But the photographer was scared he couldn’t move his hands, and the interpreter was trembling, too.”
Gaddafi is a good-looking man, is he not? Fallaci is not very charitable on that front either.
“No. They had told me that he was a good-looking man … But when you see him, he has this very stupid face. No matter what are the features, when the person is stupid, stupidity shows. He has very little, little eyes. In the photos, they are bigger. Then he has this enormous chin, enormous! His head is very narrow, because he has very little cerebral inside, very little. He is repellent. I have a physical hate for Qaddafi.”
Such comments about your interviewee, Scheer says, amount to character assassination. Fallaci had made similar comments about Yassar Arafat too, in the introduction she wrote for that interview. Is that fair?
“I don’t care if it was fair or not. I didn’t like Arafat. I think that Arafat is a phony!” And then, “What do you want to do? What do you want to do with me because I don’t like Arafat? I don’t like Arafat!”
What if the introduction to this interview said Oriana has crooked teeth, Scheer asks her.
Fallaci tries to claim her comments about Arafat was “amusing”, but Scheer keeps up the pressure, forcing — no, let me leave you to pick up a copy; let me not spoil the suspense.
But before I go, here is one more excerpt. This one is from Fallaci’s original encounter with Gaddafi in 1979, in the wake of the American embassy hostage crisis in Teheran. After a barrage of challenging questions about his “little hobby of financing international terrorism”, and plenty of taunts (at one point Fallaci tells him he should have lived when Hitler was killing the Jews, as “Hitler would have been a good friend for you”), Fallaci says she wants to ask one last thing. To which Gaddafi, who seemed to have been on the back foot for much of the interview, responds rather grandly:
“Sure, but be brief. The Iranian delegation is awaiting me. I have to get to work to organise the release of those hostages.”
“Do you believe in God?” Fallaci asks.
“Of course, why do you ask me such a question?”
The response is classic Fallaci: “Because I thought you were God.”