“Thus you will see how from a silly question many wise answers can be produced, and such is probably the cultural function of naive interviews.” —Umberto Eco
If you caught Mike Wallace's interview with President Ahmadinejad on 60 Minutes last Sunday, it was obvious that Wallace underestimated the sangfroid (GRE word!) of the Iranian president. Wallace confessed that he expected Ahmadinejad to be a "firebrand," rather than a smart professor (he still teaches a graduate level course), and acted accordingly. Wallace tried to badger the President into giving more "concise" answers, cutting him off, and asking him at one point to "just answer...yes or no." It was painful to watch Wallace attempt to get the President to speak more candidly.
Ahmadinejad handled Wallace masterfully. According to CBS's own transcript, the interview didn't even start with a question; Ahmadinejad started with an unequivocal proclamation: "I fully oppose the behavior of the British and the Americans." When Wallace tried to to ask him about Hezbollah, the tables were already turned. Ahmadinejad took control of the interview: "'Are you the representative of the Zionist regime? Or a journalist?' Ahmadinejad asked Wallace." Knowing that Wallace was in retirement and that this was probably his last interview, Ahmadinejad probably knew that this would make Wallace livid. "'I'm a journalist. I am a journalist,' Wallace replied"--pleaded, would be more accurate.
The interview did not get better for Wallace. "I think that you're getting angry," Ahmadinejad remarked. He was right. Wallace acted like a freshman frustrated at a professor's prolix way of answering questions. Ahmadinejad saw right through Wallace's attempt to appear tough and courageous: "'Do you, perhaps want me to say what you want me to say?' Ahmadinejad said to Wallace." Again, in these words, spoken in a very relaxed manner, Ahmadinejad displayed his control of the situation.
For his part, Ahmadinejad was rather successful in justifying his opinions and policies in terms of self-defense, independence, and international law. To justify his support of Hezbollah's actions, he appealed to the charter of the United Nations, which in his words affords every person "the right to defend his house." And to justify his words and actions against the U.S. occupation of Iraq—"I ask you, sir, what is the American army doing inside Iraq? Iraq has a government, a parliament"—he appealed to "international law" which on his account assigns the responsibility for providing security to "the occupying...army." "So," Ahmadinejad reasons, "I ask them...why are they not providing security?"
Moreover, Ahmadinejad deftly cast himself in the role of a great liberator and friend of oppressed people everywhere who desire peace. "I despise heinous action," he claimed, actions including Israel's recent invasion and occupation of Palestine, as well as America's invasion and occupation of Iraq, both of which have resulted in the deaths of thousands of people, including innocent women and children. America, he says, wants to build "an empire," but Iran isn't going to "sit idly by and watch them with our hands...tied." From this interview it is evident that Professor Ahmadinejad has learned all too well, from his experience and his studies, that in the face of empire, if you rest on your laurals, you'll lose them.