Christina Patterson: The trouble with charming men

Saif Gaddafi’s eyes flashed, in the way your eyes flash when you know you can have any woman you want (or any PhD)
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The Independent Online

Saif Gaddafi is a charming man. That, at least, is what people who've met him say. The people who've met him are people like Peter Mandelson, Nat Rothschild, Prince Andrew and Tony Blair, and they've met him at places like Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle.

It's possible, of course, that jokes seem funnier and eyes seem twinklier when people are at places like Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, or when the person making the jokes, or gazing at you in a way that gives you a nice warm glow, has access to the kind of wealth that makes Buckingham Palace seem small. But it's also possible, because lots of people say it, that the second son of Muammar Gaddafi really is a charming man.

In the past couple of weeks, it's been rather hard to say. When Saif Gaddafi went on Libyan State TV 10 days ago, he looked, in his very smart suit, and crisp white shirt, and his very expensive glasses, like the kind of man you could imagine walking into a bar and being suddenly surrounded by blondes. The eyes flashed. The mouth was a perfect cupid's bow. The only trouble was the words that came out of it.

He didn't, he said, have "a paper or a document to read from". This, it turned out, was a shame. It was, in fact, quite hard to follow what he was saying, which may be why he might have thought it was a good idea to get some help with his PhD (though I think the £1.5m he gave the LSE might well have helped, too). If you tried to piece the words together, the message seemed to be that there were an awful lot of drug addicts in Libya. The children took drugs. The "Islamic elements" took drugs. The thugs took drugs. All these drug addicts were making a lot of fuss about not very much, and if they carried on, "the West" would steal their country. But the important thing about the speech wasn't really the words. The important thing was the body language.

Saif Gaddafi's eyes did flash, but not in the way your eyes flash when you're talking to someone and you think you'd quite like to wake up tomorrow morning next to them. His eyes flashed in the way your eyes flash when you know you can have any woman you want (or any house, or any yacht, or any PhD) and you've finally settled on one, and you've booked the suite, and you've ordered the champagne, and the ungrateful little whore you've picked on suddenly says she has to leave. His jaw jutted in the way a jaw juts when someone has just said a word you've hardly ever heard, and when that word is "no".

It's not clear what Peter Mandelson, Nat Rothschild, Prince Andrew or Tony Blair thought of the speech, if they watched it, or of the others that followed last week. It's not clear if they thought about conversations at Buckingham Palace, or Windsor Castle, or at villas in Corfu, and wondered if they were as witty as they remembered. But Henry Kissinger, or atleast someone calling himself Henry Kissinger, tweeted that Saif Gaddafi was his godson and that he believed him "to be sincere". As the speech went on, and Twitter was aflutter with the kind of comments you wouldn't want to hear about your godson, the ersatz Kissinger's pride switched to loyalty. "Those," he said, "saying Saif Gaddafi is under the influence tonight are completely out of order. He had a problem once," he added, "and dealt with it."

On this, I'm sure "Henry Kissinger" is right. This, clearly, wasn't a man who was drunk. It wasn't a man (although from what he said, he was the only one in Libya) who was high on drugs. It was a man, maybe a charming man, maybe a narcissistic charming man, who was hooked on power, and whose rational faculties were literally collapsing at the thought of giving it up.

It was the real Henry Kissinger, of course, who said that power is the "ultimate aphrodisiac". I think he was probably talking about the kind of power you have if, say, you're Secretary of State of a superpower, and get given a Nobel prize, or if you're the son of a "mad dog" dictator feted by the West. But there are lots of different kinds of power, and one of them is the power that comes with charm.

There is, I'm afraid, nothing like it. Proper, full, mega-watt charm is like the best champagne. It's like the sun coming out. It's being made to feel that you're the most beautiful person in the world, or the most brilliant, or the most interesting. It's being made to feel that this is what you've waited for all your life.

But proper, full, mega-watt charm often comes at a price. Those of us who have done extensive research in the field can, once we've gathered up the shattered fragments of our hearts, reel off a list of things to look out for. It's the moment you realise that there's a gap between the words and the facts. It's the moment you realise that the other person thinks they're more important than you, more important, in fact, than everyone. It's the moment you realise they think rules are for other people, and that promises, which are things you conjure out of air and then forget, are a tool to make other people do what you want.

Meet a Casanova and you'll need that list. Meet a Kennedy, or a Clinton, and you might find it comes in handy. Combine sexual power with political power, and you might find a man (yes, I do mean a man) who breaks the promises he makes on the floor of the Oval Office, but keeps the ones he makes at the Oval table. But you might find a man who forgets that he can break one kind of promise and keep another, and ends up breaking them both. You might find a man who thinks he's special. Not special in the way his mother thinks he's special, but actually in a category apart.

We all like charm. We like leaders who can make us smile, and make us laugh, and make us believe their promises. We like leaders who can make us weep over a princess. But sometimes people who can make us smile, or laugh, or weep over a princess, can also think that they can slay dragons or oust regimes, and not worry too much about the rules of ousting regimes, because they know they're right and they know they're special. Sometimes, they start off thinking that they're only a little bit special, but when they've spent time with other people who think they're special, and stayed in their palaces, and their villas, and on their yachts, they know that they've left the world of little bits of anything behind, and joined the big league, with big power, and big money.

It wasn't charm that helped save the world from a global banking crisis at the G20, but a prime minister criticised for the lack of it. It won't be charm that gets Ireland out of the very deep economic hole it's fallen into, or that renegotiates the terms of its IMF loans. (Which may be why the Irish have just elected a prime minister who admits he doesn't have "buckets of charisma to dish around".) Charm, even from a master of it, even from a former prime minister he claimed as a friend, didn't, in phone calls last week, persuade Saif's father to give up his fight.

Charm, as your mother probably told you, and as my mother probably wishes she'd told me, is all very well. It is, in fact, the headiest drug known to humankind. There's nothing wrong with a charming man, or a charming prime minister, or even with a charming son of a dictator. Just as long as the man is dependable and competent and, ideally, not mad.;