Geldof and Bush: Diary From the Road

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White House photo by Eric Draper

George W. Bush and Bob Geldof aboard Air Force One en route to Ghana, Africa, Feb. 19, 2008

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An Emotional Man

At a lunch for Peace Corps volunteers in Ghana, the President introduces the First Lady and Condi. Then he introduces me. It turns into a very funny Geldof roast. Finally, he says, "Anyway, he doesn't look it, but he's all right. And I'm not saying that to blow smoke up his rear just because he's doing some piece on me." Thanks for the compliment, Mr. President. He makes the volunteers relaxed and easy with him. They introduce themselves. One woman tells how six months previously, she was bitten by a cobra and rushed to hospital. As she was passing out, she tells the President, "that little voice whispered to me, 'You'll be all right,' and I was." She pauses, and says meaningfully to him: "You know that little voice, I think?" "Not really," Bush says drily. "I've never been bitten by a cobra." As they tell their stories he refers to them as being among the best of America. "I like courage and compassion. We are a courageous and compassionate people." A middle-aged couple say they gave up their careers and home to come to Africa. "It's important to take risks for the things you believe in," says Bush. Then disarmingly, he says to the man, who lives in a village, "What's social life like here?" "What's social life anywhere at 59?" the man asks his President, who is 61. "Tell me about it," says Bush. "Bed at 6:30!"

I have always heard that Bush mangles language and I've laughed at the satires of his diction. He shrugs them off, but I think he's sensitive about it. He has some verbal tics, but in public and with me he speaks fluently and in wonderful aphorisms, like:

"Stop coming to Africa feeling guilty. Come with love and feeling confident for its future."

"When we see hunger we feed them. Not to spread our influence, but because they're hungry."

"U.S. solutions should not be imposed on African leaders."

"Africa has changed since I've become President. Not because of me, but because of African leaders."

Some of these thoughts, were they applied to Iraq, would have profound implications on the man's understanding of how the world functions. ("U.S. solutions should not be imposed on African leaders!")

Of course, it would be ridiculous to be the President of the U.S. and not change as a person or evolve in your understanding of the world. I suggest that his commitment to Africa has been revolutionary in its interest curve. "That's not true," he says. "In my second debate with Al Gore, I came out for debt cancellation and AIDS relief. I called AIDS a genocide. I felt and still do that it was unacceptable to stand by and let a generation be eradicated."

You forget that Bush has an M.B.A. He thinks like a businessman in terms of the bottom line. Results. Profit and loss. There is an empiricism to a lot of his furthest-reaching policies on Africa. Correctly, he's big on trade. "A 1% increase in trade from Africa," he says, "will mean more money than all the aid put together annually." He's proud that he twice reauthorized the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a modestly revolutionary Clinton Administration initiative that enabled previously heavily taxed exports to enter the U.S. tax-free. Even though oil still accounts for the vast amount of African exports to the U.S., the beneficial impact of AGOA on such places as the tiny country of Lesotho, and its growing textile industry, has been startling.

AGOA represents precisely the sort of coherent thinking that will change things for Africa. But we talk of how the little that Africa does export to other parts of the world is still greater than the amount that it trades within the continent. I say that's because there are more landlocked countries in Africa than anywhere else in the world. "So they can't get their stuff to market?" he asks quickly. "Exactly," I say. "You have to pay so many tariffs at each border that by the time you get to the coast, you're overpriced." "You gotta dismantle borders, then." He's curious and quick.

He is also, I feel, an emotional man. But sometimes he's a sentimentalist, and that's different. He is in love with America. Not the idea of America, but rather an inchoate notion of a space — a glorious metaphysical entity. But it is clear that since its mendacious beginnings, this war has thrown up a series of abuses that disgrace the U.S.'s central proposition. In the need to find morally neutralizing euphemisms to describe torture and abuse, the language itself became tortured and abused. Rendition, waterboarding, Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib — all are codes for what America is not. America has mortally compromised its own essential values of civil liberty while imposing its own idea of freedom on others who may not want it. The Bush regime has been divisive — but not in Africa. I read it has been incompetent — but not in Africa. It has created bitterness — but not here in Africa. Here, his administration has saved millions of lives.

"Guys like me always like to cut ribbons," Bush says mockingly at a ceremonial opening. But it's a dangerous modesty. Congress must still agree to fund the massive spending he's laid out for Africa, and most of it will come after he leaves the White House. It is vital that the new President continues with this policy. "Whoever is President," Bush says, "will understand Africa is in our nation's interest. They are wonderful people."

On Air Force One, Jendayi Frazer, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Bobby Pittman, the National Security Council adviser for Africa, and I stayed awake as the pitch night engulfed us, only punctuated by the giant orange gas flares on the Gulf of Guinea. We ate our popcorn, drank our Cokes and watched Batman Begins as the airspace was cleared for miles around us. America was flying through the warm African night and I was hitching a ride on her.

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