Handshake Be Damned; Why Is No One Talking About Obama’s Speech?

I woke up this morning to this image all over my news feed.


If you’ve been in a cave all day, that is President Obama arriving at the memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela and (GASP!) shaking hand with Cuban Leader Raul Castro, that nasty Commie.

It was more than a little ridiculous. I mean, I understand the right wing getting all bent out of shape over it, but journalists – real journalists, not just people like Matt Drudge and Glenn Greenwald – were also going crazy over it. What was he supposed to do? Was he supposed to have a hissy fit with the planners, and demand that seating arrangements be changed so he wouldn’t have to walk past Castro? Was he supposed to openly shun the Cuban leader? Yeah, that wouldn’t look bad, would it?

And the same right wing idiots who are complaining about Obama shaking Castro’s hand would have had a field day if he had simply rudely walked past Castro without acknowledging the man. The US President is not just the executive charged with the implementation of laws, or the Commander-in-Chief; he’s also the country’s most important diplomat. It would just look petty and ridiculous to ignore the man. Instead of making himself look small, he made himself look like the leader of the free world.  I suppose, to make wingnuts happy, he should have turned Castro around and gave him a neck rub.

Everyone who is talking about the handshake and not the speech is missing about 90% of the story because, once again, this is where President Obama shined. It was an amazing speech; quite possibly the best speech ever given by a US president in praise of a foreign leader. First, he praised Mandela for being not just a leader, but a man:

Given the sweep of his life, and the adoration that he so rightly earned, it is tempting then to remember Nelson Mandela as an icon, smiling and serene, detached from the tawdry affairs of lesser men. But Madiba himself strongly resisted such a lifeless portrait. Instead, he insisted on sharing with us his doubts and fears; his miscalculations along with his victories. “I’m not a saint,” he said, “unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

It was precisely because he could admit to imperfection – because he could be so full of good humor, even mischief, despite the heavy burdens he carried – that we loved him so. He was not a bust made of marble; he was a man of flesh and blood – a son and husband, a father and a friend. That is why we learned so much from him; that is why we can learn from him still. For nothing he achieved was inevitable. In the arc of his life, we see a man who earned his place in history through struggle and shrewdness; persistence and faith. He tells us what’s possible not just in the pages of dusty history books, but in our own lives as well.

Mandela showed us the power of action; of taking risks on behalf of our ideals. Perhaps Madiba was right that he inherited, “a proud rebelliousness, a stubborn sense of fairness” from his father. Certainly he shared with millions of black and colored South Africans the anger born of, “a thousand slights, a thousand indignities, a thousand unremembered moments…a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people.”


It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailor as well; to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you; to teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but a means of confronting it with inclusion, generosity and truth. He changed laws, but also hearts.

For the people of South Africa, for those he inspired around the globe – Madiba’s passing is rightly a time of mourning, and a time to celebrate his heroic life. But I believe it should also prompt in each of us a time for self-reflection. With honesty, regardless of our station or circumstance, we must ask: how well have I applied his lessons in my own life?

This is an amazing tribute about what was important to know about Mandela. This was a truly great man, who took adversity and turned it on its head. His experience can be rightfully compared to any of the American Founding Fathers. George Washington is rightfully praised for not giving himself more power than he felt the leader of a democratic republic should be entitled to, at a time when he could have. He could have remained president for life, but he willingly stepped down because it was the right thing to do. Mandela did the same, and he spent five years as president, helping the country through a very difficult transition.

And not long after that passage, just minutes after the handshake, he essentially called Castro to task; something that has been missed, because people are more concerned with pictures than actions or words:

It is a question I ask myself – as a man and as a President. We know that like South Africa, the United States had to overcome centuries of racial subjugation. As was true here, it took the sacrifice of countless people – known and unknown – to see the dawn of a new day. Michelle and I are the beneficiaries of that struggle. But in America and South Africa, and countries around the globe, we cannot allow our progress to cloud the fact that our work is not done. The struggles that follow the victory of formal equality and universal franchise may not be as filled with drama and moral clarity as those that came before, but they are no less important. For around the world today, we still see children suffering from hunger, and disease; run-down schools, and few prospects for the future. Around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs; and are still persecuted for what they look like, or how they worship, or who they love.

We, too, must act on behalf of justice. We, too, must act on behalf of peace. There are too many of us who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality. There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people. And there are too many of us who stand on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.

If the modern Republican Party actually embraced racial reconciliation, I’d say that last paragraph was for them.

Watch or read the speech today. That’s the real story. The handshake was a meaningless distraction. The real story is the challenge to people like Castro to reform…

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