In Senegal, Bush Speaks Against Slavery

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For George W. Bush, the door to the heart of Africa lies at the end of a low stone hallway opening into the Atlantic Ocean. Visiting a slave quarters on Goree Island off the coast of Senegal Tuesday, the president traced the stutter steps of countless Africans chained and herded down the narrow passage towards the "Door of No Return," the last point of land they touched before the six month sail to America.

As it had for Bill Clinton five years earlier, the tour provided the symbolic backdrop for atonement. In a speech devoted to confronting America's bitter past, Bush called slavery "one of the greatest crimes of history." For a president who promised a humble foreign policy but has been derided as a crusading interventionist, the speech set the tone for a five day, five country tour of Africa meant to show the softer side of Bush's foreign face. But repeating the Clinton approach also suggested that there is a consensus on dealing with Africa: by humbling themselves U.S. presidents hope to create a sympathetic audience for their sermons on achieving democracy, liberty and prosperity.

Speaking under a withering mid-day sun, which forced even the locals to tent the day's program on their heads to sneak some relief, Bush compared the slaves struggle to Christ's torment in a speech that repeatedly returned to religious themes. And he said that it was the slaves who kept the light of liberty alive in America, more so even than the publicly pious who had become corrupted by the "peculiar institution." "Christian men and women became blind to the clearest commands of their faith and added hypocrisy to injustice," said Bush. "A republic founded on equality for all became a prison for millions."

[an error occurred while processing this directive] American slaveholders could not break an indigenous liberty delivered from God and Bush held out their example in what was a clear but largely unstated challenge to Africans now ruled by warlords and dictators. Bush has come to Africa to support the country's democracies in the hopes the spirit will catch fire across the continent. Earlier in the day, he met with leaders of eight African democracies to encourage their efforts, which the administration believes are fundamental to U.S. security interests. "The best way to fight terror is to support the habits of freedom," said a senior administration official "and that was represented in his trip here to West Africa."

The question of what kind of assistance the United States will provide in Liberia continued to overshadow the Bush tour. Once again, he called on President Charles Taylor to leave. At one point, the president appeared to inch closer toward military involvement, saying that the U.S. would "participate" in the peace keeping process, but then insisted that he had not made up his mind on what form that participation would take. Only after he receives a report from a Pentagon team that arrived in Monrovia on Monday to assess the need for assistance, will he make his decision, say White House officials.

The Goree island speech was a stirring one, but the audience's response was muted. Even when the president leaned in to the crowd to shake hands, few rose to snatch a moment with him. Those who did seemed to receive a double dose from an energetic president who looked well cooled by an air conditioning vent built into the platform to push cool air directly under the speaker's feet. As he does in the United States when meeting with African Americans or Hispanics, Bush shook hands and leaned near enough to share a milkshake, a close-hold that has the benefit of ensuring that he is in the in camera frame if any pictures are taken.

Clinton enjoyed more buoyant enthusiasm when he made his ten-day visit here in 1998. Bush was met by protests during his six-hour stop in the West African country and those clots of Senegalese who interrupted their day to watch his motorcade pass by did not wave as is usually the case when the snake of presidential vehicles invades a foreign country, but watched in motionless silence, starring at the spectacle.

Of course, since 9/11 it is impossible for Bush to expose himself to his audiences the way his predecessor did. Goree island appeared abandoned, the brightly painted mustard and rose buildings that cater to vacationers shuttered, flanked only by the occasional uniformed soldier and his strapped carbine. The children who normally would have swarmed the beaches to greet the Senegalese presidential yacht, were kept well out of sight, behind ubiquitous metal cordons. To brighten their penning they draped the bars of the barren blockades with intensely colored local tapestries and played soccer in the dirt courtyard while they waited.

The tight security lead to several clashes between U.S. Secret Service and their Senegalese hosts. Local luminaries in the audience simply bypassed by the security checkpoint constructed on the dock, refusing to suffer the indignity of the metal detector streaming by arguing officials in traditional African one-piece garments that seemed to move independently of their owners. U.S. officials tried their best to gingerly manage the cultural differences, especially with local security forces. "If he wants to keep his gun he's going to have to wear this pin," said a frustrated U.S. Secret Service agent speaking through an interpreter, "so that if there is shooting we know he is a good guy."

White House correspondent John Dickerson is on the road with George W. Bush in Africa, from where he'll file reports throughout the President's five-day, five-country tour.

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