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…