There was no domestic political benefit to the speech President Bush gave in Senegal last Tuesday (July 8). African Americans are not likely to abandon their support of the Democratic Party because Bush said the right thing about slavery and its terrible aftermath, though for 100 years following the Emancipation Proclamation slavery's descendants mostly voted Republican in the North and in the South when Democrats were forced to allow them to.
The Bush speech - as potent in print as in delivery - was about morality and redemption, two subjects that are this president's strong suit. He delivered his sermon-like address with conviction, passion and humility. A weak man unconvinced of his country's ultimate goodness could not have delivered it.
Bush didn't apologize for slavery, as some black and white Americans have requested, but he came pretty close. Following the briefest acknowledgment to Senegal's president and first lady, Bush quickly got to his point: "For hundreds of years on this island, peoples of different continents met in fear and cruelty .. 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."
You can't get more graphic than that without photos. Bush painted in words a picture of gross immorality tolerated and perpetuated by some of our white ancestors. Of the slaves he said, "They entered societies indifferent to their anguish and made prosperous by their unpaid labor." African-American leaders have been saying for years that the American economy was founded on the backs of free labor. It is their central argument for reparations, though the president spoke of investing for the future, not paying for the irredeemable past.
Bush talked about overcoming, and here, too, his words - penned by his gifted chief speechwriter, Mike Gerson - were delivered with the deepest of religious and political convictions: "All the generations of oppression under the laws of man could not crush the hope of freedom and defeat the purpose of God .. Enslaved Africans discovered a suffering Savior and found He was more like themselves than their masters. Enslaved Africans heard the ringing promises of the Declaration of Independence and asked the self-evident question, then why not me?"
There was this Lincolnesque line: "The rights of African Americans were not the gift of those in authority. Those rights were granted by the Author of Life and regained by the persistence and courage of African Americans themselves." This is classic Bush. He has been redeemed, and he sees the possibility of redemption in others, no matter their circumstances.
In 1858, when he was still struggling over the political (though not the moral) implications of slavery, Lincoln said, "I have made it . plain that I think the Negro is included in the word 'men' used in the Declaration of Independence .. I believe the declara(tion) that 'all men are created equal' is the great fundamental principle upon which our free institutions rest; that Negro slavery is violative of that principle .."
President Clinton spoke often about race, as might be expected from a Democrat who is a white son of the Deep South. But when President Bush speaks of slavery and of those who overcame it, he performs an important service for his country and for Africa, at least in part because he is a conservative Republican, a political party not recently associated with such things.
It does not stretch Bush's points to suggest that the greatest reparation America could pay would be to assist fledgling democracies and free economies in Africa to prosper monetarily and politically.
Fondly do we hope; fervently do we pray.