CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts — Sometimes in the world of journalism the story writes itself. And other times that square peg has to be pounded into the round hole with a fury that can only be fueled by the overwhelming desire to prove some preordained vision of it true. Such were my thoughts as I sat with other reporters at the Kennedy School of Government yesterday watching the bomb sniffing dogs head in to get a whiff of my computer and waiting for former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami to grace us with his presence.
“It’s so exciting to have a chance to hear a moderate, democratic Islamic voice from the Middle East,” a young female reporter with an NPR knapsack gushed. “Our government’s got everybody convinced they don’t exist.”
“Well, an Iranian liberal is probably isn’t all that democratic or moderate,” a middle-aged male reporter responded with a sheepish smile, as if he’d just broken some taboo.
“Go to Canada and they’ll say the same thing about America,” she snapped back, her own smile quickly fading, annoyed that the good vibes train had come to a halt. “And they wouldn’t be totally off base, either.”
A few minutes later Khatami bounded into the room, three floors of Harvard students craning their necks over banisters to try to get a look at him. It’s exceedingly easy to see how people get taken in by the man. Whatever terrible things you know he’s condoned, Khatami nevertheless has an easy smile and an exuberant presence. If current Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad looks the Persian cousin of one of the murderously primitive rubes from Deliverance, Khatami has a comforting grandfatherly aura.
When during his introduction, for example, it was noted President Bush himself had granted the former Iranian president a visa because he was, as he put it, “interested in learning more about the Iranian government, how they think, what people think within the government,” Khatami looked on with a wry, can-you-believe-it grin, as if he was Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears had just endorsed his new record.
Yet, while Khatami’s demeanor fit the storyline, the rhetoric most certainly did not. Oh, there were plenty of rejections of violence, including a jab or two at Osama bin Laden for defaming Islam, and there were plenty of paeans to democracy, which Khatami labeled “the most fitting method of collective life and progress.” Nevertheless, any criticism he had of his own sphere of influence was for “the East” and not Iran directly, while his attacks on American policy and its culture’s lack of “spirituality” were acidic and unforgiving. Not the best combo for a supposed bridge-building outreach tour.
It’s true that Khatami finds much to be admired in America’s grand experiment. Unfortunately most of what he admires occurred before the actual founding of the Republic. “The pleasant ring of the word ‘Puritan’ has always delighted the lovers of freedom, compassion and humanity,” Khatami said early on in his speech, praising the Puritans’ desire to “combine worldly success and wealth with spirituality.” (It’s almost as if this guy doesn’t believe in the separation of church and state.) Somehow America went and screwed it all up, though. “Relying on the remarkable power of America,” Khatami continued, “politicians who ought to have followed the free spirit of the Puritans” — you know, witch hunts, retrograde biblical interpretations — “started to nurse dreams of world domination.”
Ironically enough, the unannounced subtitle of Khatami’s speech “The Ethics of Tolerance in the Age of Violence,” seemed to be, “Please Harvard, Save Iran!”
“Can the American nation and particularly its well-meaning elites cast a new glance at international affairs informed by their own history and free from the delusional atmosphere created by the powerful?” Khatami asked.
Because only progressive Harvard can return us to our Puritan roots, right?
FOR THOSE UNFAMILIAR with the anthropological tics of the modern journalist, allow me to share one bit. Many carry around some sort of recording device with a little numbered counter that allows them to easily return to a certain segment of the speech, interview or what have you. So when observing a reporter in his or her natural habitat you can tell when they’ve discovered what devotees of Andrew Sullivan call the “money quote” because suddenly they’ll shoot a hard glance at the recording device.
It’s very telling. It allows you to see what a reporter finds of real consequence; and what he’s going to be pursuing as a direct quote rather than paraphrasing. It quickly became apparent that the young female reporter’s preference — Americans can learn a thing or two from Iranian moderate — was indeed the preferred storyline.
Thus, for example, when asked whether he agreed with current Iranian President’s “proposition that the world would be better off if Israel were wiped off the map,” Khatami answered, “I have never wanted the elimination of any person or nation from the international sphere, but” — you have to love a “but” halfway through a sentence like that — “we must not forget that for the last 50 years both in theory and in practice a nation by the name of Palestine has been eliminated from the map,” drawing the loudest applause of the afternoon. A quick glance over at my fellow reporters, however, confirmed that this was not a money quote.
“So long as we are thinking killing and eliminating we will not find a solution from our problems,” Khatami added. “We should not be thinking about how we can kill each other better. We should be thinking about how we can live and coexist together.”
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