Lee Bollinger's big moment

Iran's president does not get a friendly reception at Columbia University.

By Michael Scherer
September 25, 2007 12:59AM (UTC)
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As I wrote in my story today, Republicans have been getting a lot of mileage out of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to Columbia University. The biggest cheers of the Republican Party conference on Mackinac Island this weekend came when John McCain told the crowd, "A man who is directing the maiming and killing of American troops should not be given an invitation to speak at an American university." Fox News has been setting up the outrage for a week, and today Rush Limbaugh explained to America on his show how Columbia is symptomatic of all that is rotten with Ivy League America. But nobody really expected what happened next.

Before Ahmadinejad's address to students Monday, Columbia University president Lee Bollinger gave an introduction, which is likely to go down in history as one of the most bold and critical set-ups in modern memory. Point-blank, he asked the Iranian president how he could deny the Holocaust, why his country silences and arrests political critics, how he could excuse Iran's proxy war in Iraq against U.S. soldiers, how Iran can excuse funding terrorism and its support for wiping Israel "off the map." It went on and on.


At the end of his list of fact-filled questions, Bollinger said this: "Frankly, and in all candor, Mr. President, I doubt that you will have the intellectual courage to answer these questions. But your avoiding them will in itself be meaningful to us. I do expect you to exhibit the fanatical mind-set that characterizes so much of what you say and do ... I am only a professor, who is also a university president, and today I feel all the weight of the modern civilized world yearning to express the revulsion at what you stand for. I only wish I could do better."

The Iranian president responded by departing from his prepared remarks. "I think the text read by the dear gentleman here, more than addressing me, was an insult to information and the knowledge of the audience present here," Ahmadinejad said, according to a translated transcript. "Nonetheless, I should not begin by being affected by this unfriendly treatment."

No surprise there.


Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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