Behind the scenes of interviews with Cindy Adams (2017)
May 30, 2017
New York Post
Gen. Manuel Noriega. I interviewed him in Panama. He was El Supremo. I interviewed him in Florida. He was a prisoner. I knew him when he ran his country. I knew him when our country ran him.
It was 1988. Our first front-page “world exclusive” cover was this exact date — May 31. Our picture together, plus his photo plus the headline “I’ll Never Go!” The caption: “Panama’s drug-dealing dictator reveals his contempt for the US in an interview with The Post’s Cindy Adams.” Plus: “Panamanian dictator Gen. Manuel Noriega laughs as he says he has nothing to fear from the US.”
Our first meeting I was terrified. The plane, dark. Airfield, dark. Car, dark. Night, dark. Streets, dark. Silent armed soldiers drove to a crammed 20-by-12-foot room. Maybe 70 people including bodyguards and, although Noriega spoke English, an interpreter.
I spent two days at the general’s side. He told me then: “I am never nervous. I go to bed at 12, sleep six hours, up at 6. I have no fear. My wife has fear. She is not sure I am coming back. She worries about her man.
“However, if I am killed, it will be in my own land and I will go down fighting.”
Surrounded by colonels and rifles, women kneeling at his boots, men whispering in his ear, me Scotch taped to his side, no way to protect the man. No Plexiglas shield. Power was his ultimate aphrodisiac. Showing those cojones, he said: “I am not so much a fatalist as an optimist.” I thought, yeah, lotsa luck — but how about me?!
Smiling, sipping Scotch, working the room: “I do not say Panama will not survive without Noriega. I say only that Noriega will not survive without Panama.”
His survival plans included a filmed life story. Eating up the adoration as a woman patted his hand, Noriega, 5-foot-4 and swarthy, said: “That guy who was a mayor in California — Clint Eastwood — is who I want to play me. Clint Eastwood is very macho. He doesn’t take — from anybody. Clint Eastwood is a man who, if you mess with him, he’ll kick your ass.”
Staying in touch
Years brought additional interviews, meetings, phone calls, letters, dinners, talks with the family. More years brought drug indictments. The strongman thumbed his nose at Uncle Sam. Bad move. Contending he made billions running drugs to the USA for Colombia’s Medellín cartel, the feds got him. A prisoner of war. Days in a Florida federal courtroom, nights in a basement lockup.
I know. I was there.
From a cell
October 1991, another front page with Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega. This time he’s paler. His skin getting only an hour of sun daily. The eyes developing pouches. And tears. Hair thinner. And he’s reading the Bible.
Fade-in, fade-out. Long years later, possible release rumors. Comes word he needs to speak with me. Forget dialing Prisoner 8 and getting him on the other end. Nor had he his own iPhone to call out at will.
Slowly, laboriously, repeatedly, his lawyers negotiated with the military and prison bureau, and a time was fixed.
It had been a long while since we spoke. I stayed in. Alone. No distractions. Time came. Time went. Nothing. He hadn’t been allowed to make the call.
Weeks later again. Given the limitations, he missed the appointed moment.
When the call finally came hours afterward, I’d left. On a third try, he rang way before it was scheduled. I was out.
A fourth time, I sat there all day. Cradling the landline. Nervous. Not moving. Nobody with me. Just my Yorkie Jazzy on my lap.
Phone rings. Finally . . . his voice. “Cindy, it is the general. Here is what I want to tell you . . .” at which point my 3 ¹/₂-pound dog jumps onto the buttons of the phone and cuts him off.
I never ever heard from Panama’s Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega again.
Seems I’m never going to.
Adams, Cindy. “Behind the Scenes of an Interview with a Dictator” [New York, NY]. Page Six, 31 May 2017, pagesix.com/2017/05/30/behind-the-scenes-of-an-interview-with-a-dictator.