In person, Iraqi Ambassador Mohamed Mashat is low-key, almost diffident. His tone is even, his manner gracious.
On television, Mashat is defiant, exasperated, confrontational. As Saddam Hussein's official voice in the United States, he is charged with conveying to the American public Iraq's side of the story. No one's buying it, but it is Mashat's mission to tell it, over and over again, even as journalists interrupt and call him a liar.
The past two weeks have been open season.
On "Crossfire," commentator Michael Kinsley introduced Mashat as the spokesman for a country "run by a brutal power-mad dictator who uses poison gas, excludes journalists and wants to take over the Arab world. ... It's been said an ambassador is a man sent abroad to lie for his country. Tonight we'll find out."
"Why should we believe you?" snarled John McLaughlin on his weekly talk show.
And on last Friday's "Nightline," Barbara Walters and Ted Koppel went two-on-one on Mashat. Koppel flatly told the ambassador that he was "in no position" to know what was happening to the Americans held in Iraq. "Aren't you in contact with your own government?" demanded Walters. At one point, it appeared Mashat was about to cut short his appearance.
Americans want explanations, but they aren't receptive to anything Mashat has to say -- which comes as a surprise to the man who thought he understood the American mind. He lived here for seven years, was married to an American woman and has two children who live in Florida.
His harshest words are for Koppel's ABC colleague, Diane Sawyer, who interviewed Saddam Hussein for a "PrimeTime Live" in June. "We sent her to Iraq and she gave all the assurance of objectivity and assurances that she's going to do fair reporting," he says. "Our president had an interview with her that lasted three hours, because he wanted to give a message to the American people so the American people will know more.
"What happened is this: The whole program was 15 minutes. That means she deceived me. I have to use that word. She deceived us. She was aggressive and then broadcast side issues, not the major issues."
And Mashat says he knows why. "This is the influence of the Israeli lobby in this country."
Mashat was named ambassador to the United States a year ago. His mission: to reverse a tide of unflattering press reports about his country.
He is overshadowed by his predecessor, Nizar Hamdoon, now serving as Iraq's deputy foreign minister. Hamdoon, who was tapped in 1983 to reopen the Iraqi Embassy in the United States after 16 years, was widely regarded as an extraordinarily deft diplomat with a non-confrontational manner and a keen understanding of American media.
Initially keeping a low profile, Mashat emerged from the embassy two weeks after Iraqi tanks rolled into Kuwait to stem what he calls "the avalanche of lies." He moves from interview to interview, attempting to state his case, serving as a lightning rod for all the questions, confusion, fear, derision and rage in this country.
Despite his diplomatic elegance, the new ambassador has not been particularly effective on television. He is hot on a cool medium; more so as interviewers feel free to interrupt his answers. He deflects questions to get at what he sees as the larger issues. He insists on repeating the same information with the expectation that if he keeps stating the facts, he will finally get through to Americans who he thinks have been misled and misinformed about Iraq and Saddam Hussein.
"I didn't realize that the good-hearted American was so influenced by what he hears from the papers, mass media -- which is already biased, slanted against Arabs, against Iraq, managed, controlled by the Israeli lobby," insists Mashat. "And I was struck by the fact that even officials and members of Congress are influenced by it. They take it as a fact without looking into the depth of it."
That lack of depth, he says, was particularly grating during his interview with Barbara Walters.
"This is again one of the hostilities and emotionalism for a big anchor like this to have such an irrational emotional outburst without even permitting me to speak," says Mashat of Walters's persistent questions about Americans held in Iraq and Kuwait. "That means they don't want the truth to be known in America. No other explanation. Why are they calling me in? To be lectured to or to go to a small side issue, as she was trying to do?
"She was trying to single out a little question as a consequence, without going to the reasons, without going to the facts. ... And then she was obnoxious, emotional, aggressive. Only God gave me the patience to withstand her."
Mashat singles out "glimpses of decent treatment": MacNeil-Lehrer and Evans and Novak from Cable News Network. "They have been more decent bringing facts to the people." He praises Ted Koppel's unabridged interview with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz -- "That was the very first time the whole interview was put on your television, which made me happy."
Nothing in Mashat's background prepared him for the last month. He is, at heart and in training, an academic. He believes in facts, he says, in rational discourse, in fairness.
"It is the hardest job in my life," he says. "I never worked so hard -- in any job."
Mashat was born in 1930 in a small town outside of Baghdad. He grew up in comfortable surroundings -- his grandfather and father were in the import-export business, first wood for combs, later tea and coffee.
In 1953, Mashat arrived in Berkeley, Calif., with a law degree and a government scholarship to study criminology at the University of California. He liked the United States; he found Americans friendly and willing to help. But he was dismayed at the lack of knowledge and interest in Arab culture.
"We in Iraq know quite a bit of your history and European history. I found out not only the students, but some teachers' assistants, even professors, don't even know where Iraq lies. When I brought up the fact Iraq is the modern name for Mesopotamia, that we have laid the bricks of today's civilization, some of them knew. And they only remembered Baghdad from 'A Thousand and One Nights.' This of course hurt me."
Mashat received a master's at Berkeley, then came to College Park, where he received a PhD in sociology from the University of Maryland; his dissertation examined social change and delinquency in Iraq. During that time, he met and married an American German Catholic, by whom he had a son and daughter. The couple moved to Iraq and were divorced in 1972; his former wife returned to the United States with the children. Mashat remarried, to an Iraqi, Sammer Hadid. The couple have a 16-year-old son, Kasim; both are with him in Washington.
In Iraq, Mashat taught sociology at Baghdad University and Mohamed V University in Morocco and served as undersecretary of education and undersecretary of labor and social affairs. It was then, during the '60s, that he became active in the socialist Ba'ath Party and met Saddam Hussein.
"It was obvious to me then that this man is a good leader, because he impressed me with his education," says Mashat. "And he educated himself."
Mashat's career continued to zigzag between government service and academics. He was named ambassador to France, president of Mosul University in Iraq, minister of higher education and scientific research, and then ambassador to Austria, France once again and the United Kingdom.
He was tapped to come to the United States last September. "That's my mission, to develop a good relationship with all, deepen it, broaden it." He is reticent about why Saddam selected him for the post. "I guess from previous records they saw, at least, I exert effort.
"And I am happy that I came here. Now I am unhappy because of the development, because of the risk of blood shed unnecessarily in this crisis."
Mashat seems convinced of the truth of his message and a media conspiracy to prevent anyone from hearing it. He faults the American public not for hatred so much as ignorance.
While Mashat does not elaborate on what he sees as Israeli control of the U.S. government and media told a university symposium a week ago that Israel is threatened by a unified Arab world as called for by Saddam Hussein. As for the Arab countries who stand against Iraq -- the gulf states, Egypt, Morocco and Syria -- he dismissed them as "chicken," "conspirators" or "insignificant."
The facts, in Mashat's eyes, are very simple: Iraq did not attack America or its interests. Saddam took military action against Kuwait because of Iraq's national interest. No different than U.S. action in Grenada and Panama, he says -- a comparison that U.S. officials denounce as preposterous.
He is unable to get anyone to accept the threat to Iraq posed by Kuwait's exceeding OPEC quotas, which Mashat claims cost Iraq $1 billion annually at a time when the country was desperate to rebuild after the eight-year war with Iran. He cannot get anyone in the media to discuss Iran's role in the chemical weapons charges against his country, despite a Pentagon report released earlier this year that concluded that both Iran and Iraq used chemical weapons during the war in the Kurdish city of Halabja, which has become a symbol of Iraqi chemical warfare.
As fear for Americans in Kuwait and Iraq escalates, Mashat is expected to explain what will happen to the envoys in Kuwait who will lose their diplomatic status and become ordinary citizens. He says they will all be allowed to leave the country safely. Few in this country believe him.
"I am always patient and I never lose hope. I still have hope that we will not come to a bloody conflict with the Americans unnecessarily. That, of course, depends on America, not on us."