A week after President Barack Obama was elected in 2008, Jack Kemp wrote an open letter to his grandchildren. Kemp, Republican candidate for vice president in 1988, served as President George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of Housing.
“You may have expected your grandfather to be disappointed that his friend John McCain lost (and I was),” Kemp wrote. “But there’s a difference between disappointment over a lost election and the historical perspective of a monumental event in the life of our nation.”
What was the monumental event?
“My first thought last week upon learning that a 47-year-old African-American Democrat had won the presidency was, ‘Is this a great country or not?’”
Kemp had a broader — and longer — view than most of his conservative colleagues. He called himself a “bleeding-heart conservative.” But his was not knee-jerk politics. It was an appreciation of the foundations of democracy and what makes America great.
He explained, “The election was free, fair and transformational, in terms of our democracy and given the history of race relations in our nation.”
Kemp quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, “I have an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in mankind.” We can only hope that our first African-American president, speaking in Africa Monday, spoke out of a similar “audacious faith in mankind.”
At a joint press conference with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, President Obama was asked what the United States plans to do to combat terrorism in Ethiopia.
The president responded, “This was part of our conversation both with respect to security, but also with respect to good governance and human rights issues. Our policy is that we oppose terrorism wherever it may occur. And we are opposed to any group that is promoting the violent overthrow of a government, including the government of Ethiopia, that has been democratically elected.”
The last phrase of Mr. Obama has come back to haunt him. Even as he spoke, he tried to backpedal from his characterization of Ethiopia’s government as “democratically elected.”
He added, “We are very mindful of Ethiopia’s history, the hardships that this country has gone through. It has been relatively recently in which the Constitution that was formed, and elections put forward a democratically elected government.” And he emphasized, “There is still more work to do, and I think the prime minister is the first to acknowledge that there is more work to do.”
Well, perhaps the second to acknowledge, if at all.
Human rights groups had been hoping the president would use the occasion as an opportunity to press for greater freedom — in a country notorious for jailing journalists who dare to speak out against the government.
A report from the Committee to Protect Journalists said, “2014 was a busy year for Ethiopia’s judiciary — and a bad one for media professionals. … The wave of arrests prompted at least 30 journalists to flee into exile during 2014, according to CPJ research. By late in the year, 17 journalists were in prison in Ethiopia — more than in any other African country except for Eritrea.”
Along with his acknowledgement that Ethiopia “still has some work to do,” the president also said that Ethiopia “cannot unleash the full potential of its people” if it continues to jail journalists.
To say this is a monumental understatement is a monumental understatement.
However, there is an even more fundamental problem in calling the government of Ethiopia “democratically elected.” Criticism — open and veiled — has come not only from Mr. Obama’s opponents, but even from his own staff. Susan Rice, the president’s national security adviser, was asked about her take on democracy in Ethiopia.
She cited the fact that the election result was a landslide win for Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
Perhaps it was more of a deluge than a landslide. The prime minister won by a majority of 100 percent. Rice conceded that this number did suggest “some concern for the integrity of the electoral process — at least if not in the outcomes, then in some of the mechanisms that supported the process, the freedom for the opposition to campaign.”
Pressing for a more definite statement, reporters asked Rice whether she thought the prime minster was “democratically elected.” In response, she grinned and said, “100 percent.”
Just what is a “democratically elected government”?
A U.S. Department of State publication, “USA Democracy in Brief,” defines “democratic elections” beginning with a quote from Jeane Kirkpatrick, former U.S. representative to the United Nations:
“Democratic elections are not merely symbolic. … They are competitive, periodic, inclusive, definitive elections in which the chief decision-makers in a government are selected by citizens who enjoy broad freedom to criticize government, to publish their criticism, and to present alternatives.”
The election of President Obama is living proof of the success of democracy in the United States. It is his historic role — and obligation — to serve as a model and beacon of genuine democracy for other nations.