How did a journalist for an Arab-language broadcaster score the first television interview granted by President Barack Obama? Well, at first, Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief for al-Arabiya, a Saudi-backed news channel headquartered in Dubai, thought he was getting someone else. Not that he hadn't tried like everyone else in Washington to snag the historic first.
When Melhem's bosses in Dubai got a feeler from the White House on Sunday, it seemed that al-Arabiya was about to get an exclusive interview not with Obama but with new Middle East envoy George Mitchell. The previous Friday, Melhem had begun pressing for an interview with Mitchell after learning from sources that the former U.S. Senator and Northern Ireland peace negotiator was heading to the Middle East almost immediately. The White House told al-Arabiya execs to be ready for a major interview on Monday. (See pictures of Obama's campaign behind the scenes.)
Shortly before 9 a.m. on Monday, Melhem knew from the caller ID on his BlackBerry that the White House was phoning him. As Melhem remembers it, "This man says, 'My name is so-and-so, and I'm either going to make your day or ruin your day. Would you like to chat with the President about 5 p.m. today?' I joked, 'I guess I can accommodate the President.' "
Melhem says there apparently was an internal debate at the White House about whether it was the right time for Obama to grant an interview to the Arab media, but that when the decision was made, several advisers recommended it be granted to al-Arabiya. The channel is seen as a prominent voice of moderation in the Middle East, preferring calm analysis to what many see as rival al-Jazeera's more sensational coverage. The Obama scoop came at a good moment for al-Arabiya, which had seen ratings falter as al-Jazeera provided blanket coverage of Palestinian suffering during the recent Israeli war in Gaza. (See pictures of heartbreak in the Middle East.)
Melhem arrived at the White House at 3 p.m., but Obama did not appear for the taping until nearly three hours later. Melhem says Obama put him at ease and that they schmoozed for a while before getting down to the questions. After Melhem told the President that his wife and daughter were enthusiastic supporters of Obama's campaign, the President jotted nice notes to them on White House stationery. When Melhem mentioned that he shared Obama's love of Chicago's blues music, the President beamed with satisfaction while White House aides tapped their feet impatiently. "There we were, two blues fanatics, sitting there talking about Muddy Waters," Melhem says.
Whether it was because of the chemistry between the men or Obama's scripted intention, Melhem came away with an interview that amounted to an unprecedented reach-out to the Muslim world by a U.S. President. Unprompted, Obama spoke about his own Islamic connections, noting that some of his family members are Muslim and that he had lived in the largest Muslim country, Indonesia. "My job is to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world, that the language we use has to be a language of respect," Obama said. (See Obama's family tree.)
Melhem had come close to an Obama interview before. He nearly snared a Q&A during then candidate Obama's visit to the Middle East last summer. Disappointed but hardly deterred, he pressed his source network again after Obama's November election victory. "I began pushing hard when I realized that he was going to be serious about the Muslim world in the first part of his Administration," Melhem told TIME. The White House certainly knew who they were dealing with.
Melhem, long a vocal critic of U.S. Middle East policy, says he was touched by Obama's conciliatory tone and references to his Muslim roots. "You can feel the authenticity about him," he says. "The interview was his way of saying, 'There is a new wind coming from Washington.' Barack Obama definitely sees the world differently from a man named George W. Bush."
Obama's aides cut Melhem off before he could finish all his questions, explaining that the President had a dinner date with his wife. But it seems that in the Obama White House, Arab reporters stand a good chance of getting more scoops. As they concluded the interview and shook hands, Melhem recalls, Obama told him, "There will be more."