Tag Archives: Joe Biden

Washington mourns Nelson Mandela

The Stars and Stripes at half-mast over the White HouseThe outpouring of respect, admiration, and affection for Nelson Mandela here in Washington, D.C., since his death on December 5, has been phenomenal. It would be hard to match—apart from in South Africa itself—the reverence and passion felt for Mandela by the residents of this city. After his many visits to the city, Washingtonians responded to Mandela’s passing as if he were a true native son.

The degree of goodwill toward South Africa—as personified by the inimitable and inspirational Mandela—moved me this past week. There are many Americans who care greatly about South Africa and genuinely want it to succeed.

Appreciation of Madiba’s life accomplishments is especially heartfelt in the large African American community and diaspora of Africans from across the continent, both immigrants and diplomats. Resonance between black Americans’ struggle to assert their civil rights and that of black South Africans is self-evident. The local African American community played a critical role in stoking opposition to the Reagan administration’s policy of “constructive engagement” with South Africa’s Nationalist government. Their campaign of seeking arrest at the South African Embassy here in the mid-1980s is well recognized as having been pivotal. Until Barack Obama’s election to the White House, their finest hour was their success in strategizing to oppose U.S. political and economic backing of apartheid South Africa and support growing worldwide disgust at the white minority government’s oppression of the black majority.

Official Washington responded quickly to the news of Madiba’s passing. Within half an hour of South African President Jacob Zuma announcing Mandela’s death, U.S. President Obama delivered stirring comments on Mandela from the White House press briefing room. He also declared, in a rare honour for a foreigner, that flags outside federal buildings would be flown at half-mast for a week out of respect for Mandela.

The top-heavy U.S. delegation to Mandela’s memorial service in Soweto last Tuesday says everything about U.S. regard for Mandela. It is unprecedented that four current and former U.S. presidents (and perhaps a fifth prospective one?) would travel to the memorial service of a former head of state.

President Obama’s speech at the Soweto memorial was unquestionably the rousing center point of the memorial—it was the eulogy of the day. And thank goodness for it. Without it, the speeches would have been rather ho-hum. Obama recognized that it “took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailer as well; to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you; to teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but also a means of confronting it with inclusion, generosity and truth. He changed laws, but also hearts”. He noted, “Nelson Mandela reminds us that it always seems impossible until it is done”.

The pity is that the thoughtful content President Obama offered was overshadowed by the non-controversy of his quick handshake with Cuban President Raul Castro, the stupid reaction to the “selfie” photograph and seat change, and the extremely disconcerting problem of the incompetent, violence-prone signer standing feet away from some of the world’s most important people during the ceremony.

The U.S. national memorial service for Mandela was held in the Washington National Cathedral on December 11, the day after the Soweto memorial service. It was, in many ways, the polar opposite of the chaotic, carnival-like—yet also deliciously revelatory—Soweto service. It was purposeful, reflective, impassioned yet solemn. Unlike the Soweto memorial or yesterday’s dignified Qunu burial, both of which took place with the world’s full attention, this service appears to have received little publicity. Which is a shame, because it was outstanding. I urge readers to watch videos of the proceedings.

The main speeches were very thoughtful. Vice President Joe Biden spoke first, followed later by Andrew Young, Allan Boesak, and finally South African Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool. The last three speeches were essentially powerful “calls to action”. Young admonished mourners that “we have nothing yet to celebrate” as “the hungry can’t eat hope, they can’t drink inspiration … we have to keep on keeping on”. Boesak too reiterated that, in the words of Rev. James Moore’s gospel song, “It ain’t over until God says it’s done”. In a singularly eloquent and well-crafted speech, Rasool acknowledged, “Nelson Mandela’s values are eternal in time, universal in space, and enduring in every circumstance…[and] he always understood that progress only comes from working together.” Rasool ended his comments by noting that “Madiba is not here to light the path with his courage and his sacrifice. Each of us who has been inspired by him and been touched by him and moved by him must continue the long walk”.

There is nothing more ”establishment” or respectable in Washington than a memorial service in your honour at the National Cathedral. I marveled at the irony and majesty of the profound service for the formerly marginalized “terrorist” whose name was too recently removed from the list forbidding entry into the United States. What a long, improbable and incredibly inspiring walk Nelson Mandela undertook.

The South African Embassy in Washington was the locus for daily gatherings of mourners. Many placed flowers by the embassy’s newly unveiled statute of Mandela and signed condolence books. There were also nightly prayer vigils with robust singing and dancing.

There were some grumblings of discontent at the attention showered on Mandela. Some questioned the lowering of the Stars and Stripes, asking why this was ordered for a foreigner. “Were U.S. presidents similarly honoured in foreign countries?” It was also fascinating to learn how conservative supporters of Senator Ted Cruz and former Speaker Newt Gingrich criticized them for offering praise of Mandela. This underscores how much work remains to be done in furthering racial reconciliation and understanding—not only in South Africa, but in the United States too.

Flowers from admirers

A quintessential Washington night

It was the first time for me. Never before had I attended an inaugural party, never mind an official inaugural ball, around a U.S. presidential inauguration.

Aspects of last night will stay with me forever, but the subway ride back to our car at the end of the evening provided some memorable moments. The juxtaposition of riders reflected the assorted diversity of America in snapshot form. The bejeweled, glamorously clad attendees of inaugural celebrations contrasted with other riders. Some were journalists in jeans pushing carts laden with equipment. Others too had clearly put in an extra-long day’s work and seemed drained, relieved to be finally heading home. Some already seated on the train when we boarded had the dazed, weary look of folk who had been on the job all day. Perhaps they had worked since sunrise, preparing to cater to throngs of inauguration viewers? Or maybe they were cleaners who had just finished a shift dealing with the aftermath of the day’s revelry? They looked with seeming indifference at the black-tie folk in their midst. Or was it with bemusement? Disgust? Or even envy? It was hard to read their minds as they surveyed the groups of loud, fancily dressed partygoers standing in the train.

The eclectic combination of people thrown together in our subway carriage included a statuesque woman with an incredibly tall and dramatic gold hat. She seemed Nigerian—or at least her hat did. Perhaps she had attended the widely promoted charity ball that ambassadors from various countries had put together? This lady with the imposing hat didn’t look at all tired. She looked ready for a regal procession or to be part of a family wedding photo.

Men in formal military dress wear, with all kinds of medals filling their lapels, also stood out. They and their wives or dates were clearly fresh from the “Commander-in-Chief’s Ball”, one of two official inaugural balls. One such gentleman, in a splendid Southern drawl, had immediately offered me his seat when we boarded. Such gallantry is not generally expected at that late hour on Washington public transportation.

Like the passengers on the subway last night, Washington encapsulates diversity. The powerful coexist with the relatively powerless, the haves with the have-nots, the chivalrous with the rude. The scene had me thinking about the inaugural speech President Barack Obama delivered earlier that day. He had observed, “For we the people understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it… We do not believe in this country that freedom is reserved for the lucky or happiness for the few.”

D.C.’s Metro system was the great leveler last night. The subway was definitely the most efficient way to get around. The gridlock was as bad as forewarned. Unless you were the president or vice president and travel with police escorts in a motorcade, you were foolish to be wedded to a car. I’m not sure if other chauffeured, limousine-riding VIPs were able to beat the traffic odds. The many road closures around the National Mall where President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were publicly inaugurated earlier in the day were partly to blame. Backups were also due to the sheer volume of vehicles on the road, especially around the Washington Convention Center where the two official inaugural balls were held.

Walking was also extremely popular—despite the frigid weather. A regular sight earlier in the evening was people walking hand-in-hand, bundled in coats, heading toward the Convention Center. Surprisingly often, a man might have been carrying a woman’s pair of impressively high-heeled shoes, with a woman ambling alongside in a pair of flats, holding a clutch bag. Guess the flat shoes were going to be stuffed into coat pockets at the coat check, and the showy, sexy, high pair then given the chance to strut their stuff. Trust ever-practical Americans! Have to get to the event comfortably, but then look good when there!

An inaugural ball myth was exploded for me: Most people DID wear coats, given the fearsome, wind-chilled cold. One is warned about the long coat-check queues at the end of such events, so the recommendation is not to bring a coat to check. The chilliness of the evening showed most to be sensible though. Only a minority seemed to be “underdressed” despite being in black-tie and ball-gown finery.

We attended two events: A sponsored party at one of the Smithsonian Museums, plus one of the two official inaugural balls at the Convention Center. The former was a cocktail party, with delicious food, a wide-ranging bar, quiet music so conversation with fellow attendees was possible, and, most remarkably, the possibility to sit down. The latter was not exactly an intimate affair—we were part of the reputed 40,000 who attended the two official balls. We missed the fleeting appearance and dance of President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, but it really didn’t matter. With so many people present, I doubt we would have been able to get close enough to actually witness the moment with the naked eye. Giant video screens provided a sense of what was happening on stage. That was how we were able to enjoy Stevie Wonder giving his all, belting out his familiar songs while weaving characteristically to the rhythms. No food was available at this event, but champagne, wine, and other sundries could be purchased for a princely sum.

People watching and celebrity spotting were most rewarding. The whole kaleidoscope that is America was present. Local Washingtonians danced in delight to honour Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday it was yesterday, plus to celebrate the re-inaugurated Obama. Many of those filling the expansive dance floor were grassroots activists from out of town who had worked to reelect Obama. Seasoned, older political operatives mingled with young activists. Pride and joy were palpable.

That is the overriding impression: Folk really had fun and enjoyed themselves. And the buzz of happy people was infectious. Even when they were outside in the mind-numbing cold, traipsing from one event to another, they were laughing, smiling, and full of joy. People in Washington are typically intense and usually take themselves too seriously. Last night was different. There was an appealing lightness to the mood.

Hopeful hints of change

When Barack Obama is re-inaugurated as president of the United States this long weekend, the weather is expected to be chilly, bright, and clear. This forecast is symbolically appropriate, as President Obama is beginning to articulate his vision for America with greater clarity, vigor, and purpose.

The team President Obama is assembling around him for his second term suggests an agenda stressing domestic priorities. World events will always compel a U.S. president’s attention, but Obama is signaling clearly that his focus will be on domestic issues. As he emphasized during his reelection campaign, “It’s time for nation building at home”. This is true. The world needs a strengthened America. The world needs an America that has reprioritized and balanced its budget, and bolstered its economy to create more jobs. The world needs an America that has rededicated itself to supporting its citizens with better education, improved infrastructure, accessible healthcare, and other tools to get ahead and provide for themselves and their families into the future.

The administration’s battles with Congress have acquired a different hue lately, hinting at a new dynamic. Despite itself, the Republican-dominated House of Representatives voted for that anathema—tax increases—for those Americans with annual incomes over $400,000.00. Wary of authorizing further spending, Republicans reluctantly also agreed to extend $50 billion in aid to those devastated by Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey last November.

A slim minority of House Republicans breaking with their party and supporting the Democrats to provide the winning votes was essential to passage of these two bills. This is the formula Obama and his team will have to use repeatedly in coming months to get measures through the House of Representatives. Obama will have to keep coaxing such splits in the Republican monolith to enable passage of his legislative priorities. This type of bipartisan behaviour is, of course, how effective democracies should operate.

There is yet another new approach from House Republicans: They announced yesterday they will support extending the government’s borrowing authority for three months, rather than force another fabricated crisis now. This action will give more time to craft agreement on budgets for the new fiscal year, including possible tangible deficit reduction. This extension of the debt ceiling is a most positive and practical concession from the Republican side.

President Obama is also a more seasoned politician and strategist this time round. This past week, he showed how much he has learned from past battles with Congress when he presented very particular proposals for executive and legislative action to curb gun violence. The horrific murders of twenty first-grade students and six adult staff members at their Newtown, Connecticut elementary school in mid-December have galvanized opposition to America’s loose gun laws. Newtown has created the opportunity for changes to America’s permissive gun culture like no other recent mass tragedy involving a gun—and there have, unfortunately, been too many. Shifts in public opinion show majorities of Americans now support, in differing degrees, various specific measures to curb guns.

Since the day of the massacre, which he has described as the “most difficult day” of his presidency, President Obama has appealed for action in common sense, reasonable, and nonpartisan terms. He says Americans will have failed in their duty as parents to keep children safe if they do not act to curtail gun violence.

In making his very specific recommendations for action this week—derived from Vice President Joe Biden’s task force—Obama promised he will “put everything [he’s] got” into getting the announced measures adopted. Having been criticized for “leading from behind” on other issues, his fast, impassioned, and firm response to the gun control challenge is the essence of presidential leadership.

Obama has thrown down the gauntlet to members of Congress and the National Rifle Association. He challenged the American public to put pressure on members of Congress to state their position on the measures “on record” and “…[I]f they say no, ask them why not. Ask them what’s more important: Doing whatever it takes to get an ‘A’ grade from the gun lobby that funds their campaigns, or giving parents some peace of mind when they drop their child off to first grade?” He added, “There will be pundits and politicians and special-interest lobbyists publicly warning of a tyrannical, all-out assault on liberty—not because that’s true, but because they want to gin up fear or higher ratings or revenue for themselves. And behind the scenes, they’ll do everything they can to block any common-sense reform and make sure nothing changes whatsoever.” He has urged members of Congress to “examine their own conscience.”

The NRA’s capture of the legislative process concerning guns at federal, state, and local levels of government has been alarmingly successful until now. Its disturbingly effective modus operandi is to bully legislators to do its bidding. In elections, it spends millions to bolster proponents and, far more importantly, oppose those who reject its viewpoint. The NRA ferociously pursues those who vote against its narrowly defined interests. Republican members of Congress who oppose it have been vulnerable to primary challenges by NRA-sponsored candidates, while Democrats have been vulnerable to general election challenges. Gerrymandered voting districts across America that limit diversity in opinion have further strengthened the hand of the NRA and other special interest groups.

Until now, the NRA has been ruthlessly effective in furthering its agenda. Might the debate about gun control be different after Newtown, especially with such strong presidential sponsorship? How the gun violence prevention debate plays out in Congress could have an enormous impact on President Obama’s second term.

Absolutism in America

There is a disconnect between political elites’ stark rhetorical excesses and extremism and the practical, common sense civility with which most Americans go about their every-day lives. Only absolutist positions seem possible in today’s shrill war of words on the campaign trail. And these seem far removed from the sensible practicality of the majority of Americans.

Yes, Americans are notoriously politically polarized at present, with folk splitting into “blue” and “red” points of view and states. But these acknowledged deep partisan divides are not apparent in their daily engagement with each other. People’s typical every-day behaviour suggests civility, decency, and moderation—despite political differences and the profound economic strains under which too many are living.

Every utterance from politicians is, of course, fair game in democracies, particularly at election time and for those topping the tickets. So it should be. But the rhetoric in this year’s election season is especially vitriolic and nasty in tone, particularly this far from actual voting.

Take the current debate on whether individualism or communalism is more determining of success in America. The initial fodder for the present outburst in this longstanding dualism in Americans was President Barack Obama’s July 13 remarks in Roanoke, Virginia, in which he implied that entrepreneurial success was due, in part, to government’s role, rather than individual initiative.

Republican operatives have seized on two sentences from this speech and are milking them as much as possible in negative “attack” advertisements. Obama said: “If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” On their own, these two sentences are certainly provocative, but the context of these statements is necessary to understand what Obama meant:

“They know they didn’t—look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something—there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.

“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

“The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.“

In context, the comments are less incendiary and not disagreeable. No one is an island, no one lives or succeeds in a vacuum, and no one who has succeeded achieved this alone. Behind any person or company’s success lie the contributions of others, including the government. Of course individual drive, ambition, determination, and luck are needed for particular success, but this is true in any field of endeavour, not only in creating a successful business. It seems ridiculous to even expand on these truisms. But such is the absurdity and absolutism of present U.S. political discourse that even the obvious needs to be said.

This past week, again in Roanoke, Congressman Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s selected vice presidential running mate, declared, “The president makes these comments that reveal his mindset…He believes in a government-centered society and a government-driven economy. And that doesn’t work. It never has worked…Look at what it’s doing to Europe.” He continued, “We have a person in Mitt Romney who knows through experience the challenge that businesses face, how job creation works, that the engine of opportunity, the nucleus of our economy is not government, but the successful small business, the entrepreneurs, the people of this country.”

An enormous sign stating, “We Did Build It!” was displayed behind Ryan as he spoke.  The local small-business owner who introduced him at the rally had earlier refused a visit from and photo opportunity with Vice President Joe Biden due to differences with the Obama campaign.

There are profound philosophical differences between the two campaigns. And these two speeches underscore longstanding, competing solutions to today’s challenges. Obama sees the public and private sectors working together as offering solutions, whereas Romney/Ryan stress the individual and the market as the sources for solutions. In Obama’s communitarian vision, the government helps “level the playing field” and helps support the vulnerable and less successful. Romney and Ryan see a diminished role for government, with greater individual responsibility and greater reliance on market mechanisms. And tax policy is the battleground. Obama recommends raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans to raise government revenue, whereas Romney/Ryan want to extend the Bush tax cuts and indeed slash taxes further to reduce the size and scope of government.

This is an old fissure in American politics and society, and it represents a profound choice for Americans at this sensitive economic juncture. Economic recovery is tentative, while socio-economic inequality is growing. Both campaigns offer vastly different platforms on how to deal with well-recognized problems. We’ll learn on November 6 which vision appeals to most Americans.