While in Kenya last week, my wife, Ann, a teacher, visited Mukuru-Kayaba Primary School in a Nairobi slum, where the United States helps finance a lunch program that keeps kids coming to class. When she returned from the school visit, she remarked to me that there was a poster on the wall of the school showing Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, during their visit to Kenya last August. The poster said: The Obamas know their HIV status. Do you know yours? The senator and his wife had volunteered to be tested while in Nairobi.
A few days later, my friend Robert Kerr, the U.S. Embassy public affairs officer, told me: "Each of the section chiefs in the embassy was asked to submit names of key contacts to bring to a reception for Obama at the ambassador's residence. Mine included Rose Kimotho, at the time the leader of the Media Owners Association, and Moses Mwangi, founder of the Martin Luther King Foundation for Africa. In recent visits to their offices, I was struck by the prominence they gave to their photos with Obama. Rose had it prominently displayed on the table next to her visitors book. Moses had it on the wall near a photo of Kenya's President Kibaki."
Yes, Obama's father was Kenyan, but nevertheless, that poster and those pictures got me thinking: When was the last time you saw a U.S. president or politician being held up as a role model abroad? It's been a while. And that got me thinking about Obama. It seems to me that the strongest case one could make for an Obama presidency right now is rarely articulated: It is his potential to repair the broken relationship between America and the world.
As I travel around, I have never seen a president and a vice president more disliked in more places than George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Some of the animus arises from an attitude they project of not caring much about what the world thinks. Some of it is spawned by Bush-Cheney policies toward Iraq, Kyoto or the Geneva Conventions. Some of it is unfair: President Bush, for instance, has been at the forefront in combating HIV-AIDS in Africa. And some is nonsense: foreigners blaming America for their own ills. (It annoys me no end to read about how China is now more popular in Asia than America — China, which censors Google and has supported a Sudanese regime engaged in mass murder in Darfur.)
But in some ways, that's the point: The Bush-Cheney team, by its own hand, has undermined its ability to talk about American principles in a way that foreigners will take seriously. They have moral clarity and no moral authority. Foreigners just have to say "Abu Ghraib" or "Guantanamo," and that ends the discussion. It also lets the foreigners off the hook.
I think Obama has the potential to force a new discussion. For now at least, he has a certain moral authority because of his life story, which makes him harder to dismiss. And while he is a good talker, he strikes me as an even better listener. It's amazing what people will let you say to them, if you just listen to them first.
But being a good listener starts at home. I got back from Africa for the climax of the Don Imus controversy, a show on which I've appeared. It underscored how much work we have to do here at home in learning how to listen, talk and, yes, joke with one another across racial, gender and religious lines. My instincts on speech are always to keep the boundaries really wide and to cure speech with speech — and with sunlight — not censorship.
But, I must say, reading the reactions this past week by some of our best black commentators has impressed on me how much hurting has been going on inside those wide boundaries — and how much, with our increasingly diverse society, we need to have a talk about where the line should be today, from morning radio to hip-hop and the Internet.
I wish the whole nation could have heard the conversation between Imus and the impressive Rutgers womens basketball team. We would all have learned something. But now it's gone, and there's no president to moderate a wider discussion. Bush has been such a divider that he's in no position to lead. So people just fire off reactions and go back to their corners and nothing positive is built.
Which brings me back to Obama. I believe that what has propelled his candidacy up to now — more than anything — is that many Americans have projected onto him their hunger for community, their hunger for a president with the voice, instincts and moral authority to make it so much harder for foreigners to be anti-American or for Americans to be anti-one-
New York Times News Service.