FINAL THOUGHTS FROM WASHINGTON: A White Man In The Black House? Posted by: administrator (Jan-25-2009)
Vanguard Online Edition
Written by Eddie IROH
Sunday, 25 January 2009
I was already shutting down and packing up, getting ready to leave my much-loved Washington DC, when Deno Bayagbon, the young editor of the Vanguard newspaper, sent me a text message from his Blackberry asking if I would kindly share my final over-view on the Obama Inauguration with his readers. I texted him back, and as Mario Puzo’s Godfather would do, made Deno an offer he couldn’t refuse. I demanded a certain “bribe” and the editor promptly agreed. If you want to know the nature of the “bribe”, you can send a petition to the EFCC or invoke the un-passed Freedom of Information Bill!
On a more serious note, I felt that there were still several perspectives on the Obama phenomenon worth sharing with Nigerians. The first is that there is a question as to whether Obama will deliver for the African-American community who expect even more than the rest of America from one of their own who is now the 44th American and the first Black man to become President of the United States. Many Black Americans accept that the mere fact that Barack Obama has taken that Oath represents a significant step in their journey to the late Reverend King’s mountain top and the fulfilment of his dream.
To say that expectations of Obama across America and the world are sky high is a gross under-statement. I walked into a bookshop in downtown Washington on Wednesday afternoon and on the first book stand in the shop I counted more than thirty new books on Obama. It is a snapshot of the frightening weight of expectations from the American people. The expectations of his fellow Black Americans are contained less in books than in their vocal expressions. There are many who claim that Obama is not “black enough,” not merely because he is the child of a White mother, raised by a White grandmother, and went to two Ivy League universities [Columbia and Harvard], but that he does not assert his blackness strongly enough.
They point out that his Black credentials were under-stated in both his famous acceptance speech in November and his inaugural address last Tuesday. And observant Africans would add that he made no mention of Africa in his inaugural speech, beyond a fleeting allusion to the village [of an un-named country] from where his father came to the United States. Mind you his inaugural day warning to those who cling to power through corruption and oppression being on the wrong side of history, may have been directed more to the Mugabes and Kibakis of Africa than any other despots in the world.
I would personally say that Black America’s expectations underscore a poor grasp of real politik. The most potent weapon one can hand the Right Wing and Red Necks who still influence much of American politics, especially in the media, is for Obama to be seen primarily as an advocate of Black power or empowerment, rather than the agent for re-powering all of America which he seeks to do. It will also undermine his bi-partisan, multi-racial agenda of reaching out, bridging gaps and healing the old divisions of race, religion, gender and politics.
But I expect that Obama will recognise that while America’s hopes and expectations are high on the contemporary challenges of the economy, energy, wars and global warming, he cannot for long ignore the much older challenges that Black America, 90 percent of who voted for him, has faced for centuries. If he should fail to address the latter, he would be seen as no more than a President concerned with pleasing the White majory to achieve acceptance.
He would be seen as what Nigerians would call a Coca Cola President, black inside and white outside. To be sure Obama has appointed Blacks to key positions in his cabinet, including the first Black Attorney General and first African-American woman as Ambassador to the UN. But his critics within the Black community could say, so what? Afterall he has also included people of Jewish and Asian descent in the Cabinet.
In foreign affairs it will be unrealistic for Nigeria and Black Africa to expect much more from America than previous administrations, except perhaps the Clinton White House. American foreign policy changes much more in style than substance and direction from one administration to the other. US policy follows a path laid out fiftyone years ago by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles who declared on September 1, 1958 that America has no permanent friends, only permanent interests.
That has remained a solid pillar of American foreign policy and practice ever since. The position did not shift in the Bush years even when two African-Americans, General Colin Powell and Dr Condoleeza Rice, were Secretaries of State. Africa did not experience anything approximating Bill Clinton’s African Growth and Opportunity Act, or any bold initiative that would have benefitted the continent.
The other issue that has interested me here is how the inauguration of Barack Obama, like other presidential inaugurations before his, is actually an opportunity for Americans to honour and celebrate their history and tradition as well as the achievement s of their Founding Fathers. Many of the practices that enrich the inauguration process, from the oath, the text of which is clearly spelt out in the second chapter of the constitution, to the inaugural parade, the national day of prayer that follows the swearing-in the next day, the balls and much of the festivities began with the very first American presidency of George Washington some 220 years ago.
Washington, a humble but bold and brilliant man who attained no more than the equivalent of elementary school education, shaped the institutions, offices and political practices of the nation of which he is widely recognised as The Father. Those values and principles guide America till today. Washington was keenly aware that his conduct as president would set precedents for the future of the Office. He chose the site of what is today the nation’s capital, but he did not name it after himself. That came after his death. At the end of his first term in 1792 Washington considered resigning, just as he resigned his military commission after he had defeated the British forces in the War of Independence. He had infact written his farewell address, but yielded to popular pressure to run for a second term. As an all-conquering war hero and founder of the nation, Washington could have changed the constitution and continued to rule America even from a wheelchair. There is a lesson here for Robert Mugabe and other eloganted presidencies in Africa and beyond.
I was struck by the antiquity of this young nation, antiquity in the sense of their preservation of their history and its many building blocks and landmarks. I envied their ability to preserve the relics of their achievements and even setbacks. You saw the Bible Abraham Lincoln swore on 150 years ago. Inside the Oval Office the presidential desk is the same old, hand-carved oak used by President Roosevelt during the Second World War years, even though American technology and ingenuity could produce a supersonic presidential desk today.
Thus you have this marvellous irony where the President of the United States is flown around Air Force One, the most sophisticated, best equipped and most luxurious airplane in the world; but he runs the world from an ancient desk that many an African leader would have discarded as beneath the status and power of his office. And if one day, for any reason whatsoever, a president should decide to replace the historic desk, it would not be chopped up as firewood, but preserved as part of the heritage of the nation, just like Lincoln’s Bible.
On Wednesday, as I was revisiting the inaugural venue, smelling the still fresh and envigorating air of the history that was made the day before, I went over to Barnes and Noble bookshop on 10th Street and G Street. Right across the road where my host parked was Ford’s Theatre where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by actor John Wilkes Booths as Lincoln watched a play called Our American Cousin on Good Friday, April 14, 1865.
Directly opposite the theatre is the house where the unconscious Lincoln was carried to and died nine hours later. Both buildings have been preserved in pristine condition, displaying every piece of furniture and fittings, including the chair Lincoln sat on in the State Box Number 7, and the implements used to treat his wounds in the house. These relics hold important lessons for Americans, especially the younger generation, of the price that some of their leaders had to pay for them to enjoy the freedom that means so much to them today.
On Pennsylvania Avenue, the main inaugural parade route, and not far from the Capitol, America’s own National Assembly Building, America has built a mesuem of quite important significance called Newsuem. It is a momument to something that the Americans hold as dearly as their Declaration of Indepedence, which is the fountain of their constitution. That momument honours the very First Amendment to the US Constituion, and is a tribute to Free Speech, which covers the freedom of the press.
It clearly states that Congress shall not make any laws that abridges the right of the people to free speech, or the right to form a peaceful assembly and or to protest the action of their government. I would suggest that if we still have difficulty in passing the Freedom of Information Bill, but truly believe in unfettered freedom for our press, perhaps we should borrow a leaf from the Americans and include it in the proposed constitutional amendments, because in the full meaning and interpretation of the US First Amendment it would not be necessary to enact a separate FOI Bill.
As Obama began his first day in office on Wednesday after the national day of service, he was aware that the countdown to his first One Hundred Days has already begun. But as Senator Ted Kennedy said when he endorsed Obama during the campaign, and as he himself promised Americans, Obama has shown that he is ready to be president from Day One, to hit the ground running. He entered the Oval Office, took off his jacket, rolled his sleeves [the first American President to be seen at the Oval Office desk without a jacket], and issued a string of Executive Orders in his determination to re-build his nation.
He set a personal example by placing a curb on the pay of senior White House aides, and forbade White House staff who resign from office to become lobbyists and influence peddlers, hitherto a lucrative engagement for ex-White House staffers, for the duration of his presidency. On his second
day in office he began the process of restoring America’s diminished moral stature by issuing four more Executive Orders that address the inhuman treatment of 9/11 and other detainees. I believe Obama was sending a signal that you cannot build a society on the porous ground of hypocrisy and double standards of morality. Obama is clearly saying that if America cannot uphold high moral standards in dealing with the outside world, even their sworn enemies, there is no way she can stand on high moral ground at home.
In ending these series from Washington before returning to my nomal, quieter life in Nigeria, I would like to made a few final observations. I am not one to advocate that we ape and imitate the political practices and ways of other nations, for those are rooted in their experience, culture and history which differ from ours and indeed others.
But I am quite ready to emulate, to adopt and adapt those practices from other societies which have enriched and advanced their nation and its progress. Afterall, in modelling our presidential form of government broadly on the American one, we must have espied something in it that could, with a bit of touching up, serve our nation in an enduring fashion. But we must not just see only the grandeur, the power and symbolism in the system. We must also consider the discipline and good sense underlying that system.
I have been impressed by many things in the American political system which the Obama inauguration has enabled them to proudly display. But nothing touched me more than the manner Americans respond to the urgency of the economic and other crises that confront their nation and the world. We noticed how last October the US Senate gave up their weekend break to pass the emergency economic stimulus package of $700 Billion when the banking crisis reared its ugly head. Even Obama and Maccain suspended their campaigns to vote on the package.
Notice how, at that time, ten months into the year, we were still toying and tinkering with our national budget for 2008. Notice further how the screening of Obama’s cabinet appointees has been thorough, even for people like now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who, as a former senator could have had an easy ride at the confirmation hearing.
She was subjected to the same rigours as any other nominee.
On the other hand, Tim Geithner, nominated as Secretary to the Treasury, had a difficult situation which he put himself into by not paying his taxes before he was nominated. But again note how America put the challenges of the nation first. Even Geithner’s Republican opponents recognised that while the nominee might have been remiss of his civic duty, he was far too suitable for the task of saving the economy to allow the $34,000 he did not pay on time to get in the way of the business of the nation. As i was writing this line, Geithner’s confirmation came trough on the wire service.
There are so much more we can consider. I believe that after nearly 50 years of independence and four three democratic administrations, it is time we stopped the practice of sending a ministerial list without portfolios to the National Assembly. It is neither fair to the Executive branch nor the nation. Indeed it is equally unfair to the nominees, for when we begin to judge and assess their performance, we forget that they, too, may have had different preferences and abilities that would excel in an appropriate portfolio. The US senate is able to do a thorough screening job because they know exactly what the American people expect from the nominees in the positions they are going to occupy. It is not a difficult task to achieve and our nation stands to gain.
Finally, you cannot but admire how America honours her leaders and heroes. There is no American president of outstanding achievement who is not honoured in some way or the other in or around Washington.
I had mentioned in an earlier dispatch the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument, the momumental obelisqjue that pierces the city skyline and can be seen from almost anywhere in the capital. It is because of the Washington Monument that no building is allowed to be higher than 12 storeys, higher than the momument to the Father of the Nation, and no flag flies higher than the American one. Across the Potomac River, in Arlington, Virginia, an eternal flame burns at the grave of John F Kennedy.There are also memorials to Roosevelt and Reagan.
The obvious moral here is that when you honour heroes and leaders, you encourage and inspire potential ones to do heroic acts and offer selfless service, for there is none honoured here about whom Americans have anything but praise for the contributions they made to the growth of the nation they love so dearly.