BROOKE GLADSTONE: The other big story this week also centered on the Middle East -- it was, of course, the death of a man who dominated the headlines for 30 years -- lightning rod, media darling, Yasser Arafat.
LAWRENCE PINTAK: A short guy who's not very good looking, who has a three-day growth of beard is not our idea of a media idol, but he, he certainly traded Che Guevera's beret for the keffiyah, and symbolized the Palestinians.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lawrence Pintak, CBS correspondent in Lebanon in the early '80s, is now a professor at the University of Michigan. Arafat, he says, was the consummate actor -- an entertainer who, from his emergence in the '60s, knew how to pay the press. He displayed that gift in 1968, spinning the story of a standoff with the Israelis in Jordan into a triumph as great, he said, as the Soviet victory over the Germans at Stalingrad. The tale landed him a Time magazine cover -- the first act in a career that made theatre of politics.
LAWRENCE PINTAK: The epitome of that was his appearance at the UN -- his so-called "gun and the olive branch" speech.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Arafat said he had an olive branch in one hand and a freedom fighter's gun. He actually held an olive branch, but because of UN regulations--
LAWRENCE PINTAK: His holster literally was empty. And that just summed the whole thing up. He understood what reporters were looking for.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But it was an event two years earlier that focused the world's attention on the Palestinian cause. Then the stage was not the United Nations but the 1972 Munich Olympics, and the drama was drenched in blood. [TAPE PLAYS]
ANNOUNCER: The seen in the Olympic Village today became the symbol of man's inhumanity to man. As an organization called the Black September movement, a Palestine guerrilla organization, scaled the fences of the Olympic compound, and with machine guns blazing, entered the Israeli compound, killed two men, and are still holding hostages. [TAPE ENDS]
LAWRENCE PINTAK: The Palestinians didn't invent the idea of the symbiotic relationship between terror and the media; they certainly perfected it at Munich. And that immediately vaulted the Palestinian cause to the top of the UN agenda. Literally hundreds of millions of people watched the drama, and they were on stage, and they never really left the stage after that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, against a lurid and bewildering backdrop of violence committed by and against his people, Palestine's public face was center stage in the spotlight and scrupulously on message.
TRUDY RUBIN: From the very first time I interviewed him in 1979, I sensed this calculating mind -- how is this interview going to appear?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Trudy Rubin covered Arafat for a quarter century.
TRUDY RUBIN: The translator in that interview was Shafik Al Hout, and Arafat, who at that time could speak less English than he could speak in later years, was correcting Shafik's translation, although Shafik was a fluent English speaker. Obviously, he understood enough English to want to make sure that the message was just what he wanted to say, and it didn't really matter what the question was.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He tailored his demeanor to fit the message and its intended audience. It could be an audience of millions. It could be an audience of one.
ROBERT MALLEY: So he had a whole repertoire of characters, in a way, that he would be at any given time, and always with the same genuineness and authenticity from one moment to the next.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Robert Malley was a Mid East negotiator for President Clinton from 1998 to 2001. He recalls one famously testy meeting between Arafat and then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
ROBERT MALLEY: Almost taking us by surprise, he got up, said if this is how this meeting is going to proceed, I'm going to leave, and he just slammed the door and left, and an hour later he saw her and President Clinton together, and he made sure to embrace Madeleine Albright, Secretary Albright, and to show President Clinton that not only was he forgiving, but he wanted forgiveness.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But Arafat only sought forgiveness privately of an American president. To the West, his public face flickered. Sometimes it assumed the aspect of a statesman, resolved to find a safe haven for his people. Here, he speaks on the Oslo Peace Accords in 1994. [TAPE PLAYS]
YASSER ARAFAT: Our people do not consider that exercising the right to self-determination could violate the rights of their neighbors or infringe on their security. Rather, putting an end to their feelings of being wronged and of having suffered an historic injustice is the strongest guarantee to achieve co-existence and openness between our two peoples and future generations. [TAPE ENDS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But that measured performance played better in the West than it did at home. The Arabic media would frequently portray Arafat the statesman as a sellout -- a man who would trade their future for a handshake with a prime minister. On the public stage, before an audience at odds, he was panned even as he was praised. Even worse, though he could shape the message, he had no control over how his audience would receive it. Robert Malley.
ROBERT MALLEY: The problem is, when Arafat spoke tough at home, the people at home discounted it, believed he was just saying it because he wanted to act tough, whereas the Israelis believed every word he was saying, and when an Israeli prime minister spoke tough, like Ehud Barak was saying, we're not going to give in, his own constituency, his right wing, would say he's just saying it in order to placate us, and the Palestinians would believe every word he was saying.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So invariably, Arafat the statesman reverted to Arafat the extremist. He walked out of the Camp David peace talks and became, at least in Western eyes, the man for whom compromise, and therefore peace, was not an option. Yasser Arafat offered his defiance to the Israelis in October, 2000. [TAPE PLAYS]
YASSER ARAFAT: My response is our people is continuing their road to Jerusalem, the capital of our independent Palestinian state. To accept or not to accept, let them go to, to hell. [TAPE ENDS]
TEKLA SZYMANSKI: He never transferred from the old Arafat to the new one, to the statesman, to the pragmatic leader who could deliver.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tekla Szymanski was in recent years senior editor for Western Europe and the Middle East for the World Press Review. She says the weak and ailing Arafat had come to symbolize a bygone era.
TEKLA SZYMANSKI: Somebody trapped in his old way of thinking and not be able to rid himself of his baggage.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If Arafat remains the enduring symbol of the Palestinian people, says Szymanski, it's because he is all they have -- really all they have ever had.
TEKLA SZYMANSKI: And Arafat's mystic figure will float somewhere in the air, and he will be a presence. He will be there, and, and I don't think we can get rid of him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the fate of the Palestinian people passes to a new generation. Their prospects for peace may hinge on which Arafat they choose to embrace -- the terrorist or the pragmatist who came to accept a two-state solution over no solution at all. Robert Malley.
ROBERT MALLEY: Whoever succeeds him will have the burden of Arafat's judgment over everything he or she does, and therefore, if the memory of Arafat is simply as the man who said no, it's going to be that much more difficult to say yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Arafat's obituaries are awash in both hatred and hagiography. The final draft of history -- whether he'll be judged merely as a pioneer in the use of terror as a publicity tool or as a patriot who struggled toward yes -- will be written by someone else. [MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD: Up next, allegations of voter fraud make the news media queasy, and John Ashcroft's swan song.