WASHINGTON — President Lee Bollinger of Columbia University showed no class when he introduced Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, to a crowd of students and faculty.
Bollinger greeted his guest with a 10-minute insulting tirade. Standing at a lectern across the stage from his guest, Bollinger said:
"Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator," adding: "You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated."
Bollinger told Ahmadinejad that his past denials of the Holocaust "might fool the illiterate and ignorant but when you come to a place like this, it makes you quite ridiculous."
He also accused the Iranian leader of a "fanatical mindset."
A preening Bollinger — enjoying his day before the cameras — went on to say that it was "well documented" that Iran was a state sponsor of terrorism. He also accused Iran of fighting a proxy war against the United States in Iraq and he questioned why Iran has refused to disclose its nuclear program.
So why was Ahmadinejad invited? Could it be that Columbia prides itself — like most universities — in being a market place for the exchange of free ideas — but then had second thoughts about the invitation after widespread criticism of the invitation erupted around the world?
The Iranian leader, listening to Bollinger's tough talk through an interpreter, responded that his country had a tradition that when a speaker is invited, the students and faculty are allowed to judge for themselves without prior complaints about anticipated remarks.
Ahmadinejad's remarks on the Holocaust were off the wall and bizarre, as was his insistence that students and journalists have freedom in Iran.
But he had a point in his riposte:
“If you have created the fifth generation of atomic bombs and are testing them already, who are you to question other people who just want nuclear power?"
"I think politicians who are just after atomic bombs, politically. . . are backward," he added. "Retarded."
Some Western powers want to impose strict sanctions on Iran because they are convinced Iran is seeking to produce its first nuclear weapons.
The drumbeat from America's officialdom for an attack on Iran's facilities is ongoing. So much so that Adm. William Fallon, head of the U.S. Central Command with military responsibility for the Gulf region, including Iraq, has tried to dampen the threatening talk.
According to the newspaper "Politico," Norman Podhoretz — the neo cons' hawkish patriarch — recently told President Bush that time is running out to do something dramatic about Iran's nuclear technology.
The report said he left the White House convinced that Bush would hit Iran before the end of his presidency.
The word from the White House on Iran is that all options are on the table.
The Iranian leader's past belligerency against Israel has made him a threat to Middle East peace, although he has denied in recent interviews that Iran planned any attack on Israel.
In his remarks at Columbia, Ahmadinejad said even if the Holocaust occurred, the Palestinians should not have to pay the price for it.
In his address to the united Nations General Assembly Tuesday, Bush took the high road, barely mentioning Iran except to denounce it as one of the "brutal regimes." He also said little about Iraq — where we have waged war for more than 4 years — citing it as a nation that is struggling for democracy like Afghanistan and Lebanon.
Deeds, not words, as diplomats used to say. When the Palestinians voted for the anti-American Hamas party in Gaza — an election deemed fair by an international team, including former President Jimmy Carter — Bush cut off all aid and slammed the door. But he restored some humanitarian aid after many international appeals.
As for Bollinger, I wonder how he would have introduced Bush to a Columbia gathering. Would he have mentioned that the president invaded Iraq without provocation, still occupies the country and has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis and the destruction of a country?
After his showboating at Ahmadinejad's expense, Bollinger went off to teach a class on free speech.
It would be nice if he gave a lesson on Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson's words in a 1943 court case involving the First Amendment.
"If there is any fixed star in our constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. . ."
© 2007 Hearst Newspapers