My Visit With Gaddafi

It started innocently enough: a phone call from Ida Astute, Photo Editor at ABC, with an assignment.

But, the voice on the other end of the line was hesitant.

"Kim, I don't know if you want to, it's OK to say no... Barbara is interviewing Gaddafi." It was 1989, and I was Barbara Walters' photographer for several years.

Reagan had put a missile into his living room in response the Berlin Discothèque bombings.
And he had agreed to do an interview. His PR machine was up and running overtime looking for outlets. He wanted to show the world he was just a regular guy, one of the people.

I said yes before she could finish speaking. People asked, aren't you scared? Are you crazy? A definitive yes to both questions. But no one asked why I would want to go to such a volatile place. Honestly, it's the juice. I love being a witness to history. Dangerous but not boring. I could stay home, take safe assignments, and get hit by a bus.

Although I had traveled extensively, including a trip to Haiti alone at 14, this would be my second trip to a dictatorial country, but the first of many visits to the Arab world. The desert winds... Lawrence of Arabia... would Gaddafi ride up on his horse, his keffiyeh waving in the wind, and give Barbara Walters give the interview of a lifetime?

The voice on the phone interrupted my little head-trip.

"You will be leaving for Tripoli day after tomorrow." Tripoli? "The Halls of Montezuma to the shores of T..."

"Oh, and The State Department made it clear: they are not responsible if something goes wrong. Journalism 101. You know the deal going in; you're on your own." We have seen this in Egypt, how a situation can suddenly turn violent.

We all gathered at the airport — Barbara, her two producers, the camera and sound guys and the Libyan representative from NYC, who was a nervous wreck. He told me he had never met Gaddafi and wanted to be sure to do a good job. Every Libyan person I would meet along the way conveyed this same sense of paranoia. We flew to Switzerland, and changed planes to a carrier that served Libya. I am the only woman in coach, and everyone is staring. I ignore them, eat, and then get on line for the WC. A man standing behind me politely asks if I am going to meet "the Leader".

"You would not be on this plane, if you were not an invited guest," he said. I started to get an idea of how Mr. Gaddafi ran his country.

We arrived in Libya at night, and went immediately to Gaddafi's compound, now situated in a tent surrounded by sand bags in the middle of Tripoli.

It was cold in the desert at night. We set up and waited. And waited. No sleep, exhausted, hungry and freezing. A little boy enters the tent. He is dressed in full military gear, and carrying an automatic weapon. He sits next to me, gun on his lap, finger on the trigger. He says nothing for what seems like an eternity. So, I do what any respectable journalist does in this situation: I pull my chewing gum and offer him a piece.

I smile. He smiles a little. I'm just glad he used his shooting hand to take the gum. I ask him how old he is. He lays the weapon down on his lap. He shows me 12 fingers.

Do you like music? His eyes flash at me and he bursts into song.

"THRILLER, Thriller..."

In the tent, in the cold, armed to the teeth, in the middle of the night, he's serenading me with "Thriller." An older man yelled to him, and he threw his gun on his shoulder and stood at attention. Then he left immediately.

We waited all night. Finally, they announced the leader would not be coming until tomorrow.
Good, I thought, better lighting.

It was a beautiful morning. We were on the water; the gorgeous sandy beaches were covered with palm trees. Looking out the window, I could have been at any luxury hotel anywhere in the world. After the room service guy tried to exchange black market goods with me in the elevator, we headed to the set.

The inside of the tent was decorated in large, bright triangles of yellow, red and green.
Gaddafi's desk had a "map of the world" clock, a phone, and pad and pen. All he needed to rule the entire Arab world.

The sand was covered with beautiful hand woven rugs. The wallpaper was giving me a headache.

We waited. I looked and felt like hell. Barbara, of course, was radiant in her Chanel suit. Cool and calm, she patiently waited for the leader. She was amazing. Working for her was the best education I would ever get in our business. How to stay cool under duress, and never let them see you sweat. Staying calm and maintaining a sense of humor would be something that came in very handy years later, in Chechnya. But that's another story.

I kept peeking out of the tent, reporting to the rest of the crew. He can, and might just blow us off.

Then it happened.

He drives up in a Volkswagen Beetle, gets out in a beautiful white silk suit, with a shawl over one arm, and kind of floats over to the tent.

His entrance was priceless. And he was charming! That's exactly how rulers lull the people to follow them; it's the smile, the gracious hospitality, and the polite manner of everyone in his entourage.

During the interview, Barbara asks him if he thinks the rumors are true — is he "unstable"?

He looks around the room, giggles, and stares at the ceiling, wiggles in his chair and then gives some canned answer. Is he crazy? I don't know, but he sure is, well, kind of goofy.

The interview went beautifully and then Gaddafi and Barbara tour the compound.

He showed us his former home, which was now a bombed out shell, and used for mandatory field trips for school children. It was oddly lovely. A giant sculpture with a hand holding an empty American missile casing with the helmets of the two American pilots killed in the attack at the base.

We went back to the tent to meet his wife and children. No one smiled, except Gaddafi. The sons looked angry, the girls sad and withdrawn. Everyone said his or her goodbyes, and I left the tent first, hoping to get a picture of him as he left his tent.

He exited alone, and the look on his face said it all. "Click."

This guy wasn't crazy, he was evil.

Photos: Kimberly Butler/ABC TV