Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The sound of one handshake: Yapping

DEAR GOD, AMERICA! SWEET JESUS! WE’RE GOING TO DEFCON ONE!” This, dear readers was pretty much the heart of the right wing’s reaction to something that happened on Tuesday in Soweto at the memorial for Nelson Mandela. Oh, it wasn’t a reaction to the tribute itself; some of them had already gone on the record calling Mandela a Communist, a terrorist, a Soviet dupe, a Communist and a Communist. That much we expected from some of them.

No, the American conservative hair collectively caught fire when — in the spirit of Mandela’s example of reconciliation and in keeping with the uplifting, pacifist tone of the memorial — the president of the United States shook hands with ... the president of Cuba! Oh the humanity!

Yes, on his way to the podium to address the crowd of more than 60,000 people and dignitaries, President Obama stopped in the meet & greet line to briefly and perfunctorily shake hands with Cuban president Raúl Castro. As the Twitter blue bird exploded, Washington conservatives and right-wing media went predictably ape.

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Never mind the precedent already set (President Clinton shook hands with Fidel Castro in 2000 at the United Nations). For conservatives and their media mouthpieces, Obama’s handshake in Soweto was a chance to wave the bloodiest shirt they could find.

“I worry that the Raúl Castro regime will use it as a propaganda coup, and what message does that to the dissidents?” Florida GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said to Fox News. The Cuban born congresswoman said much the same at a congressional hearing. “Sometimes a handshake is just a handshake, but when the leader of the free world shakes the bloody hand of a ruthless dictator like Raúl Castro, it becomes a propaganda coup for the tyrant," Ros-Lehtinen said to Secretary of State John Kerry.

And not to be outdone, or overlooked, talk-radio Doberman and former recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast Rush Limbaugh weighed in. ““Even in death, Mandela is uniting the Communist World,” Limbaugh said. “Obama’s got no business shakin’ the guy’s hand. Castro’s a dumpy little guy that runs a cheap little Communist nation.”

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AND it wouldn’t be a non-controversy without Arizona Maverick® Sen. John McCain jumping in the game with just the right historical overview. “It gives Raul some propaganda to continue to prop up his dictatorial, brutal regime, that's all," McCain said Tuesday on the Takeaway talk-radio show, echoing Ros-Lehtinen. “Why should you shake hands with somebody who's keeping Americans in prison? I mean, what's the point?”

“Neville Chamberlain shook hands with Hitler,” said the senator, whose memory elevator apparently stops before it reaches the floor marked “August 2009,” when he himself shook hands with Muammar Qaddafi, the late Libyan dictator, on a trip to Libya — even appearing to bow before the cartoon tinpot.

Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio let fly, too. “If the president was going to shake his hand, he should have asked him about those basic freedoms Mandela was associated with that are denied in Cuba,” he said.

Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, might have paid as much attention to what Obama said in Soweto as to what he did there. If the senator’d been listening, he’d have heard the president speak — and rather pointedly — to the same human-rights concerns Rubio has with Castro.

“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,” Obama said, invoking Mandela’s clan name. “There are too many who claim solidarity with Madiba's struggle for freedom but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.”

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White House officials tried to put things in perspective, if that was possible. “Nothing was planned in terms of the president's role other than his remarks,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told Reuters and other media reps traveling with the president. “He really didn't do more than exchange greetings with those leaders on his way to speak, it wasn't a substantive discussion.”

Rhodes told the reporters that, to be sure, there are still real differences between Washington and Havana, even though the United States has taken steps to end the chill between the two countries, including relaxation of travel restrictions and enhanced cultural outreach.

“We continue to have the same grave concerns about both the human rights situation in Cuba and Alan Gross," Rhodes said, referring to the U.S. Agency for International Development government contractor jailed in December 2009 and convicted in March 2011 for bringing satellite phones and computer equipment to Cuban Jews. He was sentenced to 15 years.

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IT’S OF course regrettable that more than 50 years have passed since the Kennedy-era existential embargo was put in place, in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis. Other Obama presidential handshakes — with Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China — have taken place with a lot less conservative foaming at the mouth.

But context is everything. The fact of one incidental handshake on a receiving line, at an event intended to honor the memory of a revered world leader, shouldn’t have aroused the furor that ensued. The hue and cry says more about the people complaining than anyone else.

A lot’s been made by conservatives about the “optics” of the handshake in South Africa. It’s a sad commentary on our politics that so many people who oughta know better have such bad geopolitical eyesight.

Image credits: Obama and Castro: SABC via Reuters. McCain and Qaddafi: Associated Press. Gross: Obama and Putin: AP/Carolyn Kaster.

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