Accuracy in Media
Weekly Column

CLINTON'S APOLOGIES: THE MISSING CONTEXT

By Reed Irvine
March 27, 1998


There are many things for which President Clinton should apologize to the American people - from selling slots on Ron Brown's trade missions for $50,000-and-up contributions to the Democratic National Committee to lying about his many extra-marital affairs. He could have avoided a lawsuit that has caused him no end of trouble if he had been willing to apologize for having dropped his pants and exposing himself to Paula Jones. But Bill Clinton is not big on apologizing here in the United States.

On his trip to Africa, however, the president was in an apologetic mood. In Uganda he declared that the United States had "not always done the right thing by Africa." He said, "Going back to the time before we were even a nation, European-Americans received the fruits of the slave trade. And we were wrong in that." The lead headline in The Washington Post the next morning was, "Clinton Says U.S. Wronged Africa." The New York Times headline read, "In Uganda, Clinton Expresses Regret on Slavery in U.S." USA Today's headline was: "Clinton: We were wrong on slavery."

The Washington Times story was unique. Its headlines read, "Clinton nears slavery apology, Museveni says Africans at fault." Correspondent Warren Strobel balanced Clinton's remarks with the report that just two days earlier President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda had described such an apology for slavery as "rubbish." President Museveni had said when asked about a slavery apology, "African chiefs were the ones waging war on each other and capturing their own people and selling them. If anyone should apologize it should be the African chiefs. We still have those traitors here even today."

That was missing from the stories in the other papers. Missing from all the reports was the context found in Keith Richburg's book, "Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa." Richburg, who covered Africa for The Washington Post for several years, said in his book he was lucky that his ancestors came to America, even though they came as slaves. He wrote: "Would I be better off if this great tragedy, this crime of slavery, had not occurred? What would my life be like now?" His answer, as he viewed the victims of the massacres that took the lives of an estimated million people in Rwanda in 1994, was, "There but for the grace of God go I,"

That massacre was the subject of Clinton's second apology. Speaking in Rwanda on March 25, the president said, "We did not act quickly enough after the killing began. We should not have allowed the refugee camps to become safe haven for the killers. We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name: genocide." Mr. Clinton excused his own inaction, saying: "It may seem strange to you here, but all over the world there were people like me sitting in offices, day after day after day, who did not fully appreciate the depth and the speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror."

The stories in our papers alluded to the fact that the U.S., traumatized by our experience in Somalia, had been opposed to any intervention in Rwanda. The New York Times went further, reminding readers that Clinton administration officials had ignored advance warnings from Rwandan Army officers and the U.S. Embassy that widespread violence was being planned. They also ignored a CIA study suggesting that if fighting began, as many as 500,000 people might be killed. Even after hundreds of thousands had been slaughtered, Washington blocked the efforts of the UN Security Council to send 5,500 soldiers to intervene. The president's apology implied that this was a mistake that would not be repeated.

Hillary Clinton beat the reporters covering the trip to a very touching story. In her column in The Washington Times, she wrote that since 1994, a terrorist group based in southern Sudan called the Lord's Resistance Army, LRA, has kidnaped 10,000 children in northern Uganda. The boys are used in battle as shields and soldiers. The girls are enslaved, raped and given away as "wives." On the eve of the presidential trip, "60 Minutes" aired a segment on the treatment of these children, focusing mainly on the kidnaping of 139 girls from a Catholic school. The nuns tracked the kidnappers and rescued 109 of the girls. They had seen and experienced unimaginable brutality. They had been forced to stomp one of their classmates to death because she had tried to escape. Mrs. Clinton appealed to all nations to pressure Sudan into ending its support of the LRA and halting this barbarism.

This is probably what President Museveni had in mind when he said when asked about slavery, "If anyone should apologize it should be the African chiefs. We still have those traitors here even today."


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