Ten years ago, domestic problems, slavery haunted Clinton on historic tour
President Bill Clinton’s trip to Africa couldn’t have come at a better time. Daily news reports of extramarital affairs had the White House staff in a tizzy, constantly scrambling from one subpoena to another with no end in sight, never knowing what bombshell would drop next.
The latest one had come on Sunday, March 15, 1998, a little more than a week before Clinton was scheduled to start his 11-day, six-nation tour. Kathleen Willey, a former White House aide, appeared on CBS’ “60 Minutes” and told Ed Bradley — and 30 million viewers — how the president had groped her against her will.
As bad as that was, the show could have been worse — Kenneth Starr was scheduled to appear on the segment, but the independent investigator backed out after lengthy negotiations with CBS. Starr’s appearance didn’t matter. He already had the name Monica Lewinsky and had expanded his obstruction of justice investigation to probe possible witness tampering.
It later came out that Willey’s claims of unwanted advances were dishonest. But the damage was done. Perceptions are reality, especially in image-conscious Washington, D.C., and even though Willey had written numerous friendly letters to Clinton after the alleged unwanted advance, they really didn’t matter.
On Monday, March 23, 1998, the president was boarding Air Force One, with the Rev. Jesse Jackson and BET founder Bob Johnson in tow, heading to the Motherland.
The mission of the trip — at least officially — was to reshape America’s perception of Africa from one of a backward, debt-ridden continent to one filled with emerging and dynamic economies worthy not just of simple aid packages, but of more trade and U.S. investment.
Underneath those laudable goals was another mission that at least some White House staffers had for the trip: an official apology for slavery.
The apology question was not much of a problem to most of the other senior-level White House staff. In fact, the official stance was clearly articulated by White House spokesman Mike McCurry when reporters asked if Clinton would make such an apology during the trip.
“Getting into an issue that, for most Americans, is extraneous and off-point [is] not something that he intends to do,” McCurry said. “He certainly is going to talk about the legacy of slavery and the scar that it represents on America. But this other question … is very far off the mark when it comes to what real work we need to do.”
The apology issue was raised eight months earlier in a congressional resolution introduced by U.S. Rep. Tony Hall, D-Ohio. Clinton was cool to Hall’s proposal. Clinton also declined to address the matter through his national dialogue on race relations, but did pass the issue to his race advisory board, which never took it up.
The reason was pretty clear. The upper echelon of the White House was against it, largely because an apology would open the door for countless claims against the U.S. government by the descendants of African slaves seeking reparations.
The first day of the president’s trip was eye-opening. Tens of thousands of people packed Independence Square in Accra, Ghana, to listen to Clinton, the first American president ever to visit the country.
“It’s time for Americans to put a new Africa on our map,” Clinton said during a speech frequently interrupted by enthusiastic cheers and ovations. “My dream for this trip is that together we might do the things so that 100 years from now, your grandchildren and mine will look back and say this was the beginning of a new African renaissance.”
Clinton would come close to making an apology on the next stop in Uganda. During a visit to a primary school near the capital Kampala, according to several published reports, hundreds of schoolchildren and dignitaries, as well as Uganda President Yoweri Museveni, listened to Clinton acknowledge that the United States was wrong to benefit from slavery. Clinton further said that perhaps the United States’ worst sins in Africa had been neglect and ignorance.
The president, however, stopped short of an explicit apology.
President Museveni came to Clinton’s aid, saying he blamed “black traitors” more than white Europeans for the 17th and 18th century trade in African people, according to a British Broadcasting Co. (BBC) report.
“African chiefs were the ones waging war on each other and capturing their own people and selling them,” Museveni said. “If anyone should apologize, it should be the African chiefs. We still have those traitors here even today.”
But Clinton had more immediate problems. He was seven time zones away, and still couldn’t get away from the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Back in the States, White House lawyers invoked executive privilege for conversations between presidential aide Sidney Blumenthal and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. The move sparked a legal fight with independent counsel Kenneth Starr over what testimony a grand jury would hear from top White House aides.
Clinton grew testier and testier with the constant questions about domestic problems while he was overseas.
The president had to forcibly restrain his temper during a photo session with the Ugandan president. According to a Washington Post story, one reporter asked why people should not conclude that Clinton’s assertion of executive privilege was “an effort to hide something from them.”
“Look, that’s a question that’s being asked and answered back home by the people who are responsible to do that,” Clinton snapped. “I don’t believe I should be discussing that here.”
The questions continued. With Washington so hostile, a reporter asked, is it better to be away in Africa?
“I’ve looked forward to this [trip] for years,” he said tersely. “And I think most Americans want me to do the job I was elected to do.”
Truth be told, the trip to Africa was five years in the making. The recommendation for Clinton to go was made in 1993 at the first White House Conference on Africa. C. Payne Lucas of Africare had pushed for the trip. A delegation was assembled and included a mix of politicians, businessmen and civil rights activists: former U.S. Rep. Ron Dellums; Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer; Denver Mayor Wellington Webb; Alma Brown, wife of the late U.S. Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown; Ernest Green, a member of the Little Rock Nine; NAACP CEO Kweisi Mfume; and Ilyasah Shabazz, Malcolm X’s daughter.
Clinton, the first American president to visit South Africa, made a point to acknowledge the delegation during his first speech there.
“It is especially important for them to be here because it was not so long ago in the long span of human history that their ancestors were uprooted from this continent and sold into slavery into the United States,” he said in his address to the South African parliament in Cape Town.
South Africa was the longest leg of the trip and represented an effort by Clinton to highlight the incredible process of ethnic reconciliation that occurred in the country. Clinton went to Soweto and laid a wreath in memory of the black children shot by police in 1976.
“This solemn place commemorates forever the death of one young boy that shocked the world into a new recognition of the vast evil of apartheid,” Clinton told the dignitaries gathered at the memorial of Hector Pieterson, the first child to die during the “Soweto uprising” demonstration against apartheid.
Clinton also toured the Robben Island prison, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years for his role as a leader of the African National Congress. Arm-in-arm, the BBC reported, Mandela and Clinton visited Section B, prison cell No. 5.
“Thank God that the person who occupied the cell was able to live all those years in that way without having his heart turned to stone, without giving up his dream for South Africa,” Clinton said.
Not everything was harmonious between Mandela and Clinton. Mandela defended South Africa’s friendly relations with Iran, Libya and Cuba, despite the U.S. government’s attempt to isolate them from the international community.
“Our moral authority dictates that we should not abandon those who helped us in the darkest hour of the history of this country,” Mandela told reporters. “Those South Africans who berate me for being loyal to our friends, literally, they can go and throw themselves into a pool.”
Mandela later explained that he respected Clinton. “But I’d like to declare that, when we have differed on an issue, at the end of that my respect for him is enhanced,” Mandela said.
By then, the potential for an apology came down to the last leg of the trip.
Gorée Island, located just off the coast of Senegal, was a major point of departure during the slave trade. By the 16th century, Gorée had “become a bustling port where slaves from western and central Africa were assembled, examined and branded before being sent to the Americas,” according to an entry in “Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience.” Gorée was the site of great cruelty, brutality and violence.
The slave quarters had been preserved over the years, and now hosted a museum including exhibits of the chains and ankle bracelets used to bound adults and children. The mere site of the quarters, still haunted by the suffering and death of thousands, has brought many visitors to tears.
Clinton was one of them.
He broke down and cried.
“Gorée Island is a part of Africa’s history,” Clinton said. “The long journey of African Americans proves that the spirit can never be enslaved. And that long journey is today embodied by the children of Africans who now lead America in all phases of our common life.”
But no apology.
Clinton did receive a bit of good news on the last day of his trip: U.S. District Judge Susan W. Wright had dismissed the suit filed by former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones claiming Clinton had sexually harassed her.
“There are no genuine issues for trial in this case,” the federal judge ruled.
Given the storm of scandalous news back home, Clinton initially asked his attorney calling from Washington, D.C., if the judge’s decision were an April Fool’s joke, according to multiple published reports.
It was no joke. In her 39-page ruling, The Washington Post reported, Wright never addressed whether Clinton, then Arkansas governor, actually dropped his pants and asked Jones, a low-level state clerk, for oral sex in a suite at Little Rock’s Excelsior Hotel on May 8, 1991.
Instead, Wright characterized Clinton’s alleged behavior as “boorish and offensive” — but those accusations did not constitute harassment, considering that Jones never filed a grievance, sought counseling or missed a day of work.
But the Jones case led to the investigation of Monica Lewinsky, according to several published reports. In sworn testimony, both Lewinsky and Clinton initially denied the allegations of their sexual relationship, but independent investigator Starr had audiotape recordings of Lewinsky describing their 18-month affair and efforts by the president to keep her quiet.
None of that appeared to bother Clinton as he enjoyed his last day in Dakar, Senegal.
“The president is pleased to receive the vindication that he’s been waiting a long time for,” said an understated McCurry, the White House press secretary.
Clinton was happy. According to multiple published reports, he sat in his hotel room after receiving the news, chewing on a cigar and beating on an African drum.
Five months later, Clinton offered a partial apology to the American public for his conduct in the Lewinsky scandal.
“As you know, in a deposition in January, I was asked questions about my relationship with Monica Lewinsky,” Clinton said during a televised address on Aug. 17, 1998. “While my answers were legally accurate, I did not volunteer information.
“Indeed,” Clinton explained, “I did have a relationship with Ms. Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong. It constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible. I know that my public comments and my silence about this matter gave a false impression. I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret that.”
But it would take another month — after heated criticisms about his combative, non-apology apology — before Clinton appeared with a broken and contrite heart.
“I don’t think there’s a fancy way to say that I have sinned,” Clinton said on Sept. 11, 1998. “It is important to me that everyone who has been hurt know that the sorrow I feel is genuine — first and most important, my family, my friends, my staff, my cabinet, Monica Lewinsky and her family, and the American people. I have asked all for their forgiveness.”
As U.S. president, Clinton never apologized for slavery.
|President Clinton acknowledges cheers from children of the Margaret Amidon Elementary School in Washington, D.C., during his visit to Gorée Island, off Senegal’s coast, on April 2, 1998. Thousands of Africans were sent into slavery from Senegal, where Clinton closed out his tour of sub-Saharan Africa by paying homage to those who endured the horrid passage to slavery in a new continent. (AP photo/Greg Gibson)
(top) Clinton (center) watches African leaders sign an agreement on the prevention of genocide at the Entebbe Summit for Peace and Prosperity, held in Entebbe, Uganda, on March 25, 1998, during Clinton’s 12-day, six-nation African tour. (From left): Presidents Pasteur Bizimungu of Rwanda, Laurent Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, Yowery Museveni of Uganda, Daniel arap Moi of Kenya, and Benjamin Mkapa of Tanzania. (AP photo/Greg Gibson)
(bottom) President Bill Clinton applauds while sitting with South African President Nelson Mandela during a visit to Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, on March 26, 1998, the first day of Clinton’s historic visit to the nation. Clinton became the first American head of state to visit South Africa, long a pariah in the international community, and called for a partnership of mutual respect and mutual reward. (AP photo/Greg Gibson)