Camille Chamoun is 78 now, and takes a nap in the afternoons. Normally as elegant as his old gray Bentley, he has taken to receiving visitors in his undershirt, and he has a distracted air behind the thick dark glasses that delight Arab caricaturists.
But the table-pounding and viltriolic tongue that have kept him at the center of every crisis in Lebanon for four decades and made him one of the country's most powerful figures are still there.
"I am not tired," he says."I will not be tired of fighting until the end."
There is indeed no sign that "Tiger" Chamoun is about to retire from Lebanon's political wars.
Chamoun was a fighter in the struggle for independence from France in 1943. As he said of himself years later, he was "A France in 1943. As he said of himself years later, he was "A main hero, if not the main hero, of the battle of independence."
He was the President who called in the U.S. Marines during a 1958 crisis that seemed to be leading to a radical takeover of the entire Middle East. He was the head of the Christian Front during the civil war of 1975-76, and he is now the point man in a struggle with Syria for control of the country.
It is said that nobody is neutral about Camile Chamoun. As a Western diplomat noted the other day, whatever he proposes will automatically be opposed by others simply because it comes from him. He is the symbol of the militancy of Lebanon's Maronite Christians, of either determination to maintain their identity in a Moslem world.
His critics sneer that he is still fighting the Crusades. But the power and influence of his National Liberal Party and its militia, though not the largest Christian organization, command the respect even of those who do not support its aims. As described by Kamal Salibi, a historian who wrote an authoritative book on the origins of the civil war, the party is "the unrivaled representative of the Christian ethos in Lebanon, its support came from all social levels and from every part of the country."
Chamoun invites strong responses by wading into every situation with strong, often intemperate verbal broadsides. He recently shocked political observers here by attacking President Elias Sarkis for threatening to resign, saying Sarkis "preferred defeat to steadfastness."
In an inteview, he did not hesitate to give his opinions about Syria - "in the hands of the Soviet Union" - or former president Suleman Franjieh - "in the hands of the Syrians" - or accusations that the Maronites want to dominate the country or set up their own state - "communist propoganda."
Showing his agitation by thumping his desk, he dismissed as "lies" Syrian charges that his party and other Christian "gangs" want to partition Labanon if they cannot control it.
"This is Syrian propaganda," he said, "propaganda so that Lebanon should be dominated by Communists or Syrians. Nobody can tell me in what paper, under what circumstances, we have spoken about partition or the will to dominate Lebanon. These are all lies. They lie as much as they eat."
This, by all accounts, is more than just an old man sounding off. Chamoun is widely viewed here as tough, shrewd and powerful, a figure with whom the Syrians are going to have to have to reckon if they are to achieve their objective of forcing the Lebanese Christian parties and their militias to submit to the authority of the central government.
With the aid of his sons, Dory and Dany, who won their spurs in the struggle with the PALESTINIANS AND THE Lebanese left in 1975-76, and in alliance with the Phalange Party of Piere Gemayal, Chamoun is apprently capable of making life miserable for the Syrians if Damascus forces the issue.
Chamoun wants "All foreign military forces" out of the country. That means the Palestians as well as the Syrians, but the Palestinian issue is temporarily on the shelf while the Syrians and the Christians confront each other.
The Syrians, he said, should get out in October when the Arab League mandate legalzing their presence here expires. "If they are not going to withdraw," he said, "we will have to go either to the Arab League or to the Security Council - or to fight back."
Chamoun, a career politician, was born in 1900 in Der Qamar, a village in the Chouf hills southeast of Beirut that was also the home of Druze leftist leader Kamal Jumblatt, an early ally of Chamoun, and later a rival, until his assassination.
Elected president after the 1952 resignation of Bishara Khoury, he served an eventful six years that began with Chamoun aligning himself with the Arab nationalists and ended with Chamoun struggling against the tide of Nasserism.
Chamoun was an early champion of his beachfront house south of Beirut was sacked during the Palestinian devastation of the D Christian town of Damour in 1976, he said he had lived to regret his 30 years of support for them.