A Classless Act from President Obama
The White House announced today that President Obama and the First Lady will be traveling to South Africa next week to pay their respects to the memory of Nelson Mandela. That’s as it should be. While the media’s rush to canonize Mandela is a bit overwrought (his ultimate legacy was unquestionably positive, but that shouldn’t be allowed to obscure his many faults, which are presented in an admirably balanced fashion in National Review’s editorial on his life), his was still a deeply significant life, worthy of presidential recognition.
Given that sentiment, you may be wondering what the “classless act” I’m referring to in the title is. It’s not paying homage to Mandela; it’s the contrast with the events of eight months ago, when this happened:
Friends and allies of Baroness Thatcher expressed ’surprise and disappointment’ last night as it emerged President Obama is not planning to send any serving member of his administration to her funeral.
… a US embassy spokesman confirmed that no serving member of his administration would be present to pay their last respects, citing a busy week in US domestic politics.
Obviously, the President — with his signature policy initiative currently on life support — is no less pressed for time now than he was upon Lady Thatcher’s death. It doesn’t take too deep a dive into his intellectual biography to find the root cause of this double standard: Obama has been open about his identification with Mandela; Thatcher was clearly a figure he regarded as alien at best, an attitude he seems to apply to the British with some regularity.
Obama is perfectly within his rights as an individual to hold some world figures in higher esteem than others. As President, however, he ought to feel obligated to remember the importance of his ceremonial role — one in which he is a totem of the United States, even if it occasionally puts him in positions that make him squeamish. Nelson Mandela deserves his recognition; Margaret Thatcher did too. It’s a shame that he couldn’t rise above his own university campus provincialism to pay her that respect.