President Bush went to Africa this week and issued a stinging rebuke against the United States’ role in the slave trade, but his comments have not set off the firestorm Bill Clinton’s offhand apology for slavery provoked when he made a similar trip in 1998. Why not? It’s easy to blame politics, but there’s more to it than that.
Bush isn’t known for his eloquence, but the speech he gave Tuesday at Goree Island, Senegal, was one of his finest. “For hundreds of years on this island peoples of different continents met in fear and cruelty,” he said, standing in front of an old slave quarters. “At this place, liberty and life were stolen and sold. Human beings were delivered and sorted, and weighed, and branded with the marks of commercial enterprises, and loaded as cargo on a voyage without return. One of the largest migrations of history was also one of the greatest crimes of history,” he said.
Nor did the president shy away from the horrors of the Middle Passage, describing a “hot, narrow, sunless nightmare” that led some Africans to starve themselves, while others were thrown overboard when they became sick or died in their shackles. And he pointed an accusing finger at those Americans who trafficked in slaves and profited from their labor. “Christian men and women became blind to the clearest commands of their faith and added hypocrisy to injustice,” he reminded all of us.
“My nation’s journey toward justice has not been easy, and it is not over,” the president said, conceding, “The racial bigotry fed by slavery did not end with slavery or with segregation.”
Bill Clinton’s words were far more elliptical in 1998: “Going back to the time before we were even a nation, European-Americans received the fruits of the slave trade, and we were wrong in that,” Clinton said. If Clinton had stopped there, his comments might not have ignited such a furor. Who, after all, won’t admit that America’s role in the slave trade is a blight on this nation’s history?
But Clinton went further to conflate America’s role in slavery with 20th-century American foreign policy. “It is as well not to dwell too much on the past, but I think it is worth pointing out that the United States has not always done the right thing by Africa,” Clinton told an audience in Uganda, adding: “Very often we dealt with countries in Africa and in other parts of the world based more on how they stood in the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union than how they stood in the struggle for their own people’s aspirations to live up to the fullest of their God-given abilities.”
Of course, Clinton failed to remark on the socialist economic policies that impoverished much of Africa during that period or on the thousands of Africans who became canon fodder in the Soviet’s wars of imperialist expansion, not only in Africa, but also in Latin America and Asia.
It was context, not content, however, that most differentiated the two presidents’ pronouncements on slavery. Bill Clinton made his trip at the nadir of his presidency, while reporters were plaguing him to answer questions about sex scandals. Indeed, the most memorable image from his visit was a telephoto shot of him chomping on a cigar while he beat an African drum in Dakar the night he received news that a judge had dismissed Paula Jones’ sexual harassment suit.
Africa was an escapist adventure for Bill Clinton, and no amount of moralizing about America’s past failings could make up for his own moral deficiencies.
When Bush speaks about slavery, we’re not suspicious that he’s trying to deflect attention from his own failures. President Bush has successfully led America through its darkest hours in the terrorist assault against our nation. He has won two wars against our enemies. And he has delivered on his campaign promise to restore honor and dignity to the presidency.
Unlike Clinton’s comments on slavery, Bush’s words carry with them the moral authority of the man himself.