Bush vs. Obama: The NYT's Double Standards on Africa's Enthusiasm

On Saturday Barack Obama visited the West African nation of Ghana, held up as a standard of good government (by regional standards) and delivered a "tough love" speech to the entire continent.

Doing his part, New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker delivered a laudatory story: "Obama Delivers Call for Change to a Rapt Africa." (Baker was chided by Slate's "Today's Papers" columnist for overdoing the "heavy-handed symbolism" of an African-American president visiting Africa.)

But just how "rapt" were those Ghanians? Were they any less rapt when President Bush visited Ghana last year?

The visit of the first African-American president, the son of a onetime Kenyan goat herder, electrified this small coastal nation and much of the region. Thousands of people lined streets, crowded rooftops, packed balconies, climbed trees, leaned out windows, even hung off scaffolding to glimpse his motorcade.

His face was everywhere, from billboards to T-shirts to dresses. His name and campaign theme became the refrains of songs played in his honor....Mr. Obama's first trip to sub-Saharan Africa as president was his fourth to the continent that has played a distant yet central role in his life. When he first came as a college student, he had little more than a backpack and a train ticket. On Friday, he arrived on Air Force One....Still, the excitement was hard to miss. At a breakfast with dignitaries, Mr. Obama made his way down the center aisle with President John Atta Mills while a reggae artist, Blakk Rasta, crooned in the background: "Barack, Barack, Barack Obama."

Contrast that view of Obama's reception to Sheryl Gay Stolberg's sniffy report when Bush visited the Ghanian capital in February 2008, headlined "Bush Confronts Hard Questions in Ghana."

Traveling across Africa this week, President Bush has been a little like Santa Claus, a benevolent figure from another land handing out gifts -- American foreign aid -- and generating smiles wherever he goes.

But here in the capital of Ghana on Wednesday, the smiles stopped for a moment as Mr. Bush confronted skepticism about American military policy and his AIDS initiative.

Mr. Bush used a news conference to address the widespread suspicion that the United States planned to establish military bases in Africa as it expanded its strategic role on the continent. And for the first time, he suggested that he might consider dropping a requirement that one-third of AIDS prevention dollars be spent on abstinence programs -- but only if he was convinced that the approach was not working.


Also Wednesday, for the first time on the trip, Mr. Bush faced tough questioning from an African reporter about his administration's requirement that one-third of the AIDS initiative's prevention funds be spent on programs promoting abstinence.

And a few days earlier, on February 18, 2008, Stolberg also had a less-than-gushing take while with Bush in the African nation of Tanzania: "Bush, in Africa, Emphasizes Success Over Conflicts."

But with Kenya ravaged by post-election violence, and a worsening humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan, Mr. Bush could not escape Africa's crises, and the White House spent much of Saturday fending off suggestions that the president should be more engaged as a peacekeeper.

By contrast, Baker didn't trouble Obama with questions about ongoing crises in Africa, like the Sudan, or even Kenya, the birthplace of Obama's father.

And perhaps Ghanians weren't all that particularly enthused over Obama. CNN anchor and Obama cheerleader Don Lemon learned that the hard way during an exchange with an African reporter Saturday.

Lemon seemed taken aback by the suggestion from Nkepile Mabuse that Obama's warm reception in Ghana was not in fact "unprecedented."

DON LEMON, ANCHOR CNN NEWSROOM: Nkepile, I was watching you yesterday on the "Situation Room" with Wolf Blitzer when President Obama was arriving, and they were doing the dancing, and all of the people who were running up to him. For a western leader, I know when presidents come over there, they are usually warmly received. But for a western leader, have you ever seen anything like this? Is this unprecedented?

NKEPILE MABUSE, CORRESPONDENT: It's not unprecedented. When President Bush was here, you will remember, in February, there were people who were drumming, there were dances, and President Bush joined some of them. So, it's not unprecedented. This is a truly African welcome that is given to anybody whether they are from Africa or anywhere else in the world, Don.


Clay Waters
Clay Waters
Clay Waters was director of Times Watch, a former project of the Media Research Center.