UNITED NATIONS — He read from a small pale-blue copy of the United Nations charter, before tossing it aside and rifling through scrawled notes on yellow notepaper.
He talked — and talked — about the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy, the deposing of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, the U.S. invasion of Grenada, the International Criminal Court, Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam.
He blew through the 15-minute time-limit set for speeches, and then through the one-hour mark, wearing out his first translator before clocking out at 96 minutes.
In a world of vain, brutal and unpredictable leaders, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has often been called quirky during his 40 year in power, and on Wednesday he proved why again with his debut speech at U.N. headquarters. In the process, he justified White House fears about the behavior of a mercurial man who'd hoped to pitch a Bedouin-style tent in suburban New Jersey for the U.N. meeting before the State Department nixed the idea.
Despite the high hopes President Barack Obama expressed Wednesday for the U.N., and the changes of recent years, the world body often lives up to its reputation as a windy talk shop, where dictators large and small share equal (or more) time with democratically elected leaders.
This year, leaders the U.S. considers less than palatable received a mixed welcome.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who claimed victory in June elections that opponents say were stolen, leading to protests that were violently suppressed, drew more protesters from across North America to New York. Mostly of Iranian descent, they demanded democracy in Iran. Some wore T-shirts bearing the picture of Neda Soltan, the young woman whose shooting death on a Tehran sidewalk was beamed, via Twitter around the world.
Ahmadinejad also has had a hard time finding a venue for a speech outside the U.N. A nonprofit advocacy group, United Against Nuclear Iran, says it has successfully pressured the New York Helmsley hotel and Gotham Hall, a banquet facility, to cancel events where the Iranian leader was to speak.
The Iranian leader gave a relatively muted U.N. speech late Wednesday, and appeared to welcome Obama's stated desire for U.S.-Iranian talks. "Our nation is prepared to warmly shake all those hands that are warmly extended to us," he said.
Speaking to a cavernous hall that was nearly two-thirds empty, Ahmadinejad didn't mention Iran's nuclear program or voice his recently repeated denial of the Holocaust. He stuck to familiar denunciations of capitalism and "Zionist" world influence.
The spotlight, however, was on Gadhafi, who took the floor after Obama, and held it.
Asked if there was any protocol for gaveling down a world leader, a U.N. official replied dryly: "Absolutely nothing at all. Just wait." The official wasn't authorized to speak for the record.
Dressed in a brown embroidered shirt bearing a pin in the shape of Africa, over which he'd thrown a copper-colored toga-like robe, Gadhafi had warm words for Obama, if not for the U.S.
He hailed the 44th president as "our son," referring to Obama's African roots from his Kenyan father, and suggested that Obama should be ruler-for-life of the U.S.
"How can we guarantee America after Obama?" he said. "I'm afraid we may go back to square one."
However eccentric his delivery, Gadhafi's basic complaint about the U.N. is one that many developing nations share, and which other world leaders echoed Wednesday.
The power to deal with issues of war and peace, and to impose sanctions, resides in the 15-member Security Council, whose five permanent, veto-holding members — Britain, China, France, Russia and the U.S. — were the victors of World War II, which ended 64 years ago.
Yet only Gadhafi, perhaps, would mock the world dignitaries' relative impotence as they sat in their seats.
"You are like Hyde Park. . . . You just make a speech, and then disappear," Gadhafi told them, referring to the London park, where on Sundays anyone who wants to can mount a soapbox at Speakers' Corner and talk.
Gadhafi's speech wasn't the longest at the U.N. General Assembly. The unofficial record appears to be held by Cuba's Fidel Castro, who spoke for four and a half hours in 1960. And the longest U.N. speech of any kind was given by V.K. Krishna Menon, who spent nearly eight hours in January 1957, defending India's position on the disputed Kashmir region to the Security Council.
U.S. officials tried to brush off the Libyan leader's rant. Said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs: "It was Gadhafi being Gadhafi."
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McClatchy Newspapers 2009