Amid strife in Libya, Gaddafi’s weirdness moves into spotlight

Laura Rozen

For casual Western news audiences, Muammer Gaddafi has long seemed a permanent fixture in the Middle East. Like other strongman leaders in the region, he's built a cult of personality--while also seizing upon any opportunity to provoke Western (and especially American) sensibilities. But unlike many of his peers, Gaddafi has also displayed a marked--and steadily growing--unpredictable streak.

One telling, if superficial, measure of Gaddafi are the many quirks of character he's displayed during his four decades in power. Below, we supply a brief breakdown of some of the more curious episodes of the dictator's colorful career.

Former State hand describes Bedouin-Arabist influence--and a nascent personality disorder

Gaddafi, a military school-trained cadet born to a Berber tribe, came to power in a 1969 military coup which overthrew Libya's King Idris.

David Mack, a former State Department official who served as translator for the U.S. embassy in Tripoli at the time Gaddafi seized power, explains that early in his career, Gaddafi was an intelligent political thinker, with early signs of a personality disorder that's grown more pronounced.

"Like a lot of young Arabs of that generation, he'd grown up listening to Radio Cairo, the speeches of Gamal Abdel Nasser, and tended to pattern himself a little bit after Nasser," Mack told PBS's NewsHour last week. "He had read a lot of stuff. And there was a strange mixture, a lot of utopian socialism, very much non-Marxist utopian socialism, ideas about the traditional Arab Bedouin tribal code of honor, the idea of Islamic egalitarianism … along with a lot of anti-imperialism, Third World attitudes."

But Mack said, even back in 1969-1970, "there was this feeling that he wasn't all there. And I will admit I was troubled by this."

Click image to see Gaddafi's rise to power through the years

AP File Photo

Former CIA officer describes Gaddafi's evolution into a "whack job."

Frank Anderson, a former CIA officer assigned to Libya in the 1970s, said "this was a kid from a decent but not first ranked tribe, whose uncle took over his education when he was a young kid, sent him to school in Sebha, a little town. And the stories at the time when I was there was he'd been mistreated by townies so he'd developed a dislike for business people and the privileged."

"He was charismatic, but he had a vision," Anderson said. "He was also conspiratorial. And it was the 1950s when he grew up, in this period when the Arab world was really excited about [Egypt's] Nasser. And young men, saw a legitimate path to join the army and take over the country, and he did."

"He's a whack job," Anderson said. "I just don't know anyone like him."

Gaddafi courts U.S. media celebrity

With tensions running high between Libya and the first Bush administration in 1989--three years after the United States' bombing attack--Gaddafi took his grievances to an unlikely outlet: celebrity TV interviewer Barbara Walters, of ABC News' primetime magazine show "20/20."

Walters reported that he was responsible for executing "scores of dissidents" but believed himself to be "misunderstood." You can see the full interview here.

An account of a visit to Gaddafi's "surreal" desert hideaway

"He walked in with white linen pants, loafers with no socks, and a big flowy print shirt, wearing make-up, eye liner … and I thought, Caribbean night in the Libyan desert," a former congressional staffer said, describing being flown out to the desert in late 2009. He was driven by a fleet of SUVs to Gaddafi's desert camp. "It was surreal. … He waved the translator off. He understood everything."

The former staffer said he had been advised to bring a gift to the leader (he did not). It was suggested that an appropriate gift was "hair products--upper class, high priced hair products."

"I walked away from the meeting thinking, if this guy had been born in any other country, he would be in a mental institution or heavily medicated," the former staffer said. "It was sort of a cross between Michael Jackson, with the paranoia and cult of personality."

The staffer was struck by how much effort Gaddafi had put in to masking his age, "the jet-black dyed hair looked silly on his face and skin which was clearly old," said the staffer.

Gaddafi has a taste for flashy, over the top ensembles

The Libyan strongman is known for his outrageous and colorful fashions--including a fur trappers cap, clashing patterns and capes.

Vanity Fair pulled together a slideshow of his greatest looks in 2009, declaring the dictator "simply the most unabashed dresser on the world stage."

The Libyan leader becomes a viral sensation

An Israeli journalist named Noy Alooshe took footage of a Feb. 22 speech where the leader vowed to hunt down protesters and remixed it to a song by rapper Pitbull. The viral video spread quickly--Alooshe even received requests to create a "clean version" (without a dancing woman he had added) so viewers felt comfortable sharing it with their families.

As of Sunday night, the original clip had gotten over 500,000 hits. You can watch the video here

(Photo: Enric Marti/AP)