The "war on terror," like all wars, is partly a PR campaign, and sometimes you have to hand it to the other side: It knows how to use the American media machine, emerging from the shadows to deliver its own spin.
So Sunday night -- the same day Israel agreed to a cease-fire in Lebanon -- there was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hezbollah's patron and maybe even some kind of monster, sitting down in Tehran to chat all things Middle East with Mike Wallace, journalist emeritus of "60 Minutes."
The whole exercise felt old-school, what TV journalism has produced traditionally -- a colloquy with an archenemy, complete with scary rhetoric and light teasing (Wallace: "You're an interesting fellow, aren't you?" Ahmadinejad: "Maybe these days you don't have a lot of patience to spare.")
In this way it was oddly comforting, redolent of the Cold War, a return to the days when there was evil but you knew its address.
OK, so maybe Ahmadinejad is committed to the destruction of Israel and has suggested that the Holocaust is a European-made myth and wants to rule the Middle East while leading us down the path of mutually assured destruction. But at least you can fly to Tehran and MapQuest it the rest of the way.
Ahmadinejad even requested that the interview with Wallace, which aired as a 25-minute segment on "60 Minutes," be aired in its unedited, hourlong entirety on C-SPAN on Monday night, suggesting that his statements would otherwise be taken out of context.
You did wonder why "60 Minutes" didn't devote the entire program to the interview -- in which he accused the United Nations Security Council of being in the back pocket of the United States and Britain, questioned the way the U.S. treats its own citizens and at one point posed a question of his own to Wallace: "Are you the representative of the Zionist regime or a journalist?" Instead, CBS opted to couple it with a repeat of a Morley Safer piece on Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert. News from the Middle East is seen here only through the prism of the American metabolism for it, filtered by star anchor/reporters who move about easily in a news-o-tainment world.
Shouldn't there be some cultural mechanism in place to prevent Tucker Carlson, seen on the Israeli border one week, from being announced as a celebrity contestant on "Dancing With the Stars" the next?
I'd like to think that someone on Ahmadinejad's staff dinged Carlson as a potential interlocutor after seeing the item on his Google news. The hour on C-SPAN played like the 25 minutes, which is to say I had hoped we would get to see more of the environment of the interview -- the entering and exiting of the participants, the beforehand and aftermath.
This is C-SPAN's stock in trade, the way they leave the cameras running. No such luck, though. Ahmadinejad smiled a lot during the interview, and there was a human moment, shown also on "60 Minutes," when an aide handed him a note, and Wallace demanded to know what it said.
Ahmadinejad revealed that he was being instructed to straighten his jacket. Well played, Mr. President, you have reminded me that you do not look like an Islamic extremist so much as someone who perhaps shops at the Tehran equivalent of Banana Republic.
Wallace seemed focused on bringing Ahmadinejad's rhetoric down to size, though at times his arrogance had the perverse effect of casting the president in an almost humble light. Although some of the Monday morning quarterbacking variously accused Wallace of being too soft or plain rude, he brought to the table his own form of sage bellicoseness, a been-here, done-this attitude, having dropped in over the years on Yasser Arafat, Manuel Noriega, Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini (he and his producers had reportedly been sitting in limbo in an un-air-conditioned hotel waiting to be summoned by Ahmadinejad's men).
There would be no time for B-roll shots of the correspondent strolling with Ahmadinejad. But he did try to confront the Iranian president on vitriolic, anti-Semitic propaganda and grew exasperated with Ahmadinejad's filibustering.
"If I may," Wallace interrupted him after asking about the president's inflammatory Holocaust statements, "what you're suggesting -- one moment -- what you're suggesting then, [is] that Israel should be over in Germany, because that's where the Holocaust took place?"
"I'm not saying that, mind you. Well, if an atrocity was committed in Germany, or Europe for that matter, why should the Palestinians answer for this? ... Why on the pretext of the Holocaust, they have occupied Palestine? This is a question that Western media, mass media, never bothered with, and to date I have not received an answer."
Mass media was the tool the Iranian president was commandeering on this night. Ahmadinejad's "personal interpreter," the broadcast said, was translating his comments, which had the effect of further warming the rhetoric. Finally, word came from off-camera that Ahmadinejad's aides wanted him to wrap up.
"You might have five more hours of questions," Ahmadinejad said.
"Well, of course I might," Wallace said.
"Well, I have other appointments to get to."
"None more important than this, Mr. President."
"It's time for the night prayers."
Wallace rapped his notepad with his pen three times. "Last one," he said, like a schoolteacher calling a class to order. The camera cut to Ahmadinejad, who blanched, as if Wallace had insulted him by burping.