A world of intellectual tolerance and insidious hate was jammed into the quadrangle of Columbia University on Monday. Jammed inside a cramped campus hall. And jammed into the big screens of our television sets, and the small screens of the Internet feeds that beamed around the planet.

Outside, protesting Jews, rejoicing Arabs and assorted believers, nonbelievers and disbelievers were wedged side-by-side awaiting this moment of much ado. So much ado that on Fox News, a nearly prostrate academic, his voice ratcheted in rage, opined that this event was akin to Columbia inviting Adolf Hitler to campus to express his freedom of speech.

Inside, Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, had arranged his lectern and his guest’s so far apart that there was no danger of a camera capturing a side-by-side pose with his despotic guest. Then out he came, a small man in a gray suit with dark hair and dark moustache. Suddenly, there commenced something that you could not make up, let alone script or direct: As Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad walked out from behind the gray curtain, he greeted the audience with a most unusual gesture. Keeping his right elbow bent at waist level, he raised his forearm slowly, with his palm facing the audience –and held it there for several seconds. (Timeout: Do it now and see what is happening). Exactly! It was unwitting but true: Ahmadinejad doing his Hitler — or to be more precise, Ahmadinejad was doing Chaplin doing Hitler.

So it was that this bizarre global geopolitical happening began as a mix of meet-and-greet and The Dictator.

It is hard to know from the way it all played out, just what all the parties wanted to get out of the event — hard to know because they all did their jobs so ineptly.

Bollinger no doubt hoped to mollify the university’s alumni, who had denounced this event and threatened to keep their money in their wallets. He began with a tribute to his wisdom for showing off Columbia as a beacon of free discourse. He followed with an introduction-by-denunciation of his guest: “Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator.” I was cheering him on as he said, “You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated.” Then I thought about President Bush, and realized those traits are neither mutually exclusive nor geographically constricted. I wondered if Tehran TV has a Jon Stewart.

Bollinger was at his best in listing Ahmadinejad’s and Iran’s transgressions. He denounced Iran’s president for being “ridiculous” in denying that the Holocaust happened, spoke of “well-documented” evidence that Iran sponsored terrorism, condemned Iran for pursuing its nuclear program, and more. “I doubt that you will have the intellectual courage to answer these questions,” Bollinger said.

But Bollinger went on too long and then didn’t have the wisdom to structure what followed so that his guest would be challenged and pursued on each point.

The moderator, Dean John Coatsworth, tried on the first question: “Do you or your government seek the destruction of the state of Israel?” When Ahmadinejad went into his we-love-all-people dodgeball, Coatsworth smartly asked for a “yes” or “no” answer. Ahmadinejad’s next ploy was to ask the dean to answer “yes” or “no” to whether he believed the plight of the Palestinian people was important. Coatsworth gave an instant “yes” — and he had Ahmmadinejad trapped.

He needed to follow up by asking Iran’s president to do the same — to answer his question with one word: “Yes” or “no.” Alas, the dean blinked and ducked and went on to the next question. That was when it became clear this would be a day of little ado, merely cloaked as much ado. (But this isn’t about beating up on the Q&A failing of an academic — after all, you can see the same ineptitude of follow-up questioning at any White House news conference.)

As the event droned on, Iran’s embarrassment-in-chief persisted in pretending that the Holocaust is just a theory that must be researched. And he drew guffaws by insisting: “In Iran we don’t have homosexuals, like in your country.”

Here we get to Iran’s — and the world’s — greatest hope. This event was beamed to Iran, where it was watched by a large, well-educated middle class that has much in common with Westerners, including America’s middle class. Surely Iranians are embarrassed by their president. Surely they know he and their ruling mullahs are obstacles to their opportunity to share in the planet’s progress and wealth.

Someday, thoughtful and hopeful Iranians will jettison their president and their theocratic dictators. Someday, they will rejoin a world that will welcome them, but isn’t waiting idly for them.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)

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