The presidential helicopter landed in the small town of Orania, South Africa. It was August, 1995. The President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, had come for tea.
Tea with Betsie Verwoerd, the 94-year old widow of South Africa’s former Prime Minister, Hendrik Verwoerd. It was Mrs. Verwoerd’s husband who, as noted here in this story from the Christian Science Monitor, was known as the “architect of apartheid” — the disgraceful policy of racial segregation that Mandela was famously imprisoned for fighting.
The reason for the overwhelming tidal wave of emotion and celebration of Nelson Mandela’s life and legacy in South Africa is, among other things, precisely for moments like that. Taking time as president to pay a symbolic social call on the widow of apartheid’s white architect — a policy that imprisoned Mandela for 27 years. Mandela’s view, much quoted these past few days, was that part of his job as South Africa’s first black president was to lead his bitterly and racially divided country to a national reconciliation.
“I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination,” he said in his closing statement at his trial in 1964 — shortly before being sent to that now famous prison cell on Robben Island. “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
As the Wall Street Journal noted at his death, the man who “kept portraits of Lenin and Stalin above his desk at home” — images of the architects of a ruthless system of mass murder and totalitarianism — emerged from his decades in prison “at age 71” as “an African Havel.” The latter a reference to the late Czech playwright Vaclav Havel, the onetime dissident who helped overturn Communist rule in his country and, with Communism vanquished, became president of the Czech Republic.
As news of Mandela’s death spread, President Obama stepped in front of cameras to say (bold for emphasis mine):
I am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela's life. My very first political action, the first thing I ever did that involved an issue or a policy or politics, was a protest against apartheid. I studied his words and his writings. The day that he was released from prison gave me a sense of what human beings can do when they’re guided by their hopes and not by their fears. And like so many around the globe, I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example that Nelson Mandela set, and so long as I live I will do what I can to learn from him.
To which one can only respond by asking: Really, Mr. President? Really?
Think again of that moment when President Mandela, the one-time prisoner of the architect of apartheid, Prime Minister Verwoerd, arrives in Orania to knock on the door of his arch-enemy to have tea with his enemy’s widow.
Now let’s contrast this with the actions of President Obama as he deals with his own political opponents in America.
Every year the White House has a series of Christmas parties at this time of the season. There are parties for Congress, the Supreme Court and yes, for the media. At which time the President of the United States, in an old-fashioned American ritual, hosts not only his friends and political allies but his adversaries and political opponents as well.
Who is one of the most famous Obama critics in the land? Yes, that would be Sean Hannity, talk radio and television host. Hannity was described not that long ago by Fox News chairman Roger Ailes as “the nicest guy in the building” — and as legions of Hannity’s conservative and more to the point here his liberal friends know, this is true.
I checked with Hannity to verify something I was certain to be true — and it is. Sean tells me that for the fifth Christmas in a row, the conservative commentator has been left off the Obama White House Christmas party list for the media. I don’t think he cares — he’s amused. But the non-invite is typical of the Obama mentality.
Then there’s Rush Limbaugh. If there is one thing Rush Limbaugh has in common with Barack Obama it certainly isn’t politics — its golf. Both men are famous for their love of the game of golf. So well-known is this that sometime back Limbaugh’s biographer Zev Chafets tells the following tale in his book, Rush Limbaugh: Army of One, as reported here at the time by the New York Post:
When President Obama was asked if he would play a round of golf with his talk-radio nemesis Rush Limbaugh, the response, relayed by a top Democrat, was: “Limbaugh can play with himself.”
This is according to Zev Chafets in his new book, “Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One,” due May 25 from Sentinel.
The caustic comeback is another example of the verbal venom between the White House and the conservative radio star. In an interview with CBS News last month, Obama called the views spelled out by Limbaugh and Fox News Channel’s Glenn Beck “troublesome.”
Chafets reports he encouraged Limbaugh to reach out to the president just after last July’s “Beer Summit” that Obama hosted between Professor Henry Louis Gates and Sgt. Joseph Crowley, the Cambridge cop who arrested Gates after he locked himself out of his own home.
“You guys are both golfers,” Chafets told Limbaugh. “Would you play a round with the president and show the country that there are no hard feelings?”
“He’s the president of the United States,” Limbaugh told Chafets. “If any president asked me to meet him, or play golf with him, I’d do it. But I promise you that will never happen. His base on the left would have a s—t-fit.”
“How about letting me ask?” Chafets said.
“Go ahead,” Limbaugh said. “Nothing will come of it.”
Chafets writes that he reached out to Obama adviser David Axelrod, “whom I know slightly,” but Axelrod didn’t return calls. Then Chafets spoke to “a very senior Democratic activist with whom I’m friendly” who said he would convey the message.
A day or two later the adviser responded, “Limbaugh can play with himself.” Chafets wouldn’t name the aide or say whether the quote was directly from Obama.
Contrast this behavior — which is typical of the Obama presidency — with the story of Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison because of the policies of Hendrik Verwoerd, making a social call on Mrs. Vorwoerd to have a spot of tea.
Barack Obama is one of the most privileged people on planet earth. He has never spent a day in jail because of some policy effectuated by either Hannity or Limbaugh, much less 27 years. Sean and Rush are simply conservative presidential critics. Yet when it comes to what the media is so busy lavishing praise on the late Nelson Mandela for — his efforts at “national reconciliation” — Obama is so far at the other end of the scale in dealing with his own critics as to be off the scale.
Thus, when Mr. Obama says of Mandela….
I am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela's life…. I studied his words and his writings…. and so long as I live I will do what I can to learn from him.
…one knows from experience that this is so much hogwash. Bunk. To be blunter? BS.
A friend who traveled a while back in South Africa tells the tale of meeting some black South Africans who worked for a local limo company, their job to drive around visitors to their country, handle their luggage and so on. My friend says:
We were sitting in the lobby restaurant of the hotel having tea and chatting about the world, politics and their leaders. African, South African and U.S. The discussion inevitably turned to Obama and the conversation went something like this:
People think us South Africans love Obama just because he is black. Or even the first black president. Well, we are not stupid, we see his actions and it doesn't take much to see that he is an extremely arrogant man. Just look at any of his photos and you see that arrogance.
Interesting, but more telling is the tale that followed — a tale of the 2011 visit to South Africa of First Lady Michelle Obama with her daughters. My friend’s story resumes:
They (the limo company employees) then said, it's not just him, his wife is the same. The day of the First Lady’s arrival in South Africa these gentlemen were asked to stay on — after working from very early dawn hours — so they could assist with unloading Mrs. Obama’s luggage and possibly driving some limos in the larger party once her plane landed.
They were positioned near the staircase of Mrs. Obama’s plane and were ready to swing into action. In other words, within earshot. The First Lady stepped out, and having been told these South Africans will be assisting, points to them saying, “I do not want those people touching my luggage.”
Which is to say, the impression delivered to these South Africans — all of them black — directly by Mrs. Obama herself, according to them, was one of arrogance. An impression of the world view inside the Obama White House which is reinforced by the stories like those involving Sean Hannity’s missing White House Christmas party invite or the crude dismissal of the opportunity for the President to play golf with Rush Limbaugh.
No one is suggesting that lifting a cup of eggnog in the Blue Room with Sean Hannity will make Hannity an Obama admirer. No one is suggesting that a round of golf with the President and Rush Limbaugh will magically make Rush a presidential supporter. In Rush’s case, he famously said before the first Obama inaugural he hoped Obama would fail — precisely because he knew where Obama intended to take the country. His view has been vindicated — he certainly isn’t about to abandon that view over a round of golf. That is silly to suggest.
Politics is a tough business — not simply now but always. In a democracy, having pointed opinions about anything or anyone doesn’t have to preclude the necessary socializing that a president — like Nelson Mandela — knew was necessary to successfully lead a country.
There is a photo of Ronald Reagan with one of his own famous media critics. That would be CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite. Cronkite discusses the photo in his memoirs, specifically saying what everyone in the day knew: liberal Cronkite could not abide conservative Reagan’s politics, snidely referring to them as “laissez-faire trickle-down economics, the concept that if the people and industries at the top are successful, prosperity will somehow be visited on all the rest of us.” There are more pointed and critical observations of Reagan from the CBS anchorman — and then Cronkite says something that perfectly and literally illustrates the contrast between Reagan and his successor of today.
When Cronkite was set to retire, he requested a final interview with the President. Reagan graciously said yes. The interview was held in the Oval Office. And when it was over Reagan invited his critic Cronkite to step into his private study off the Oval Office. Walking in Cronkite was stunned to find Vice President Bush, White House Chief of Staff Jim Baker, White House Counselor to the President Ed Meese and press secretary Jim Brady with his assistant David Gergen. Reagan had arranged for cake and champagne and, Cronkite writes, “we spent possibly two hours there in a hilarious exchange of stories — most of them dirty.” Here is the photo that captures that moment of Reagan with one of his liberal media critics — champagne glass in hand, literally doubled over in laughter.
The difference between Reagan and Obama in dealing with their sharpest critics could not be more revealing. Some time ago this story surfaced, a story of Obama complaining about Sean Hannity directly to Hannity’s Fox bosses Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch. As Ailes biographer Zev Chafets details and as was reported in the Hill:
Obama set up a meeting at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan with Ailes and News Corporation owner Rupert Murdoch because he was upset that Fox was portraying him and his campaign negatively, columnist and author Zev Chafets reports in his forthcoming book, Roger Ailes: Off Camera.
Vanity Fair on Wednesday published excerpts of the biography, which shares Ailes account of the meeting.
“Obama arrived with his aide Robert Gibbs, who seated Ailes directly across from Obama, close enough for Ailes to feel the intention was to intimidate him. He didn’t mind; in fact, he rather appreciated the stagecraft, one political professional to another,” writes Chafets.
The book said Obama took particular issue with conservative commentator Sean Hannity, who battered the then-candidate regularly on his nightly show.
Ailes acknowledged that Hannity was opposed to Obama, but simply urged the candidate not to worry about the attacks.
“Nobody who watches Sean’s going to vote for you anyway,” Ailes reportedly said.”
This was, as Ailes noted, nothing more than an attempt to intimidate Hannity — and for that matter Ailes and Murdoch themselves. And once elected, the trait displayed by Obama that day with Ailes and Murdoch got even worse, with a serious move by the Obama White House to delegitimize all of Fox News, even deliberately excluding Fox reporters from interviews with administration personnel.
Put another way?
Reagan invites his major-league liberal media critic Walter Cronkite in for a farewell interview, than serves him up cake and champagne and two hours of swapping funny stories.
Obama sets up a meeting with the bosses of his major-league conservative media critic, Sean Hannity, and spends his time complaining — trying not only to intimidate Murdoch and Ailes but to get them in turn to intimidate Hannity and shut him up. And, of course, there are those non-invites to Hannity for the White House Christmas party for the media.
Which approach reminds of the “national reconciliation” approach of Nelson Mandela? Reagan’s — or Obama’s?
Reagan’s, of course.
The next few days will bring forth a cascade of images and stories about Nelson Mandela, with President Obama in the middle of the funeral story. As with his statement shortly after Mandela’s death, Obama and his staff will seek to push the narrative of how much America’s first black president learned from South Africa’s first black president. It will be dished like this:
I am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela's life…. I studied his words and his writings… and so long as I live I will do what I can to learn from him.
Obama will say some version of this, and his staff will brief the traveling White House press corps with some version of this.
Not a single word of it will be true.
Let’s put it this way: when you see a picture that shows Sean Hannity and Barack Obama in the White House, the two holding glasses of Christmas eggnog and doubled over in laughter, you will know.
When you see a picture of Obama with Rush Limbaugh on the golf course, you will know.
Until then, it’s safe to say Barack Obama hasn’t learned a thing from Nelson Mandela — or Ronald Reagan either.