- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 12, 2003

ABUJA, Nigeria — President Bush last night returned from Africa, where his messages on AIDS, trade and freedom were somewhat eclipsed by a stowaway, amorous elephants and a 4-month-old speech.

“I’ve spent this week visiting Africa, a continent of great challenge and promise,” Mr. Bush said from Nigeria in his weekly radio address. “Throughout this journey and in meetings with leaders of more than 10 countries, I have reaffirmed America’s strong commitment to a more peaceful and prosperous future for all the peoples of Africa.”

But the radio address was largely overshadowed by the fifth consecutive day of reporters grilling White House officials — and at times the president himself — about a questionable allegation against Iraq included in Mr. Bush’s State of the Union address in January.

Yesterday was White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer’s turn. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice already had been thoroughly questioned during the previous two days.

Asked whether the State of the Union flap had overshadowed the president’s five-day, five-nation trip to Africa, Mr. Fleischer said he wasn’t sure.

“There has been ample reporting on both,” he said. “I am not in a position to gauge which report the American people pay the most attention to. I think people probably pay attention to both.

“But again, I think when people hear about the trip to Africa and the focus on AIDS, the impression people have is we are, indeed, a compassionate nation,” he added. “Our tax dollars are going to a good purpose.”

Miss Rice, one of the most prominent black members of the Bush administration, said she has been profoundly affected by the journey to Africa, especially the visit to an infamous slave house on Goree Island, Senegal.

“The incongruity of it,” she said. “You can almost imagine these stolen people suddenly arriving on the shore of this absolutely beautiful place and being put in these horrible cells where large numbers of them would die.”

She said she still has “a lump in my throat” from viewing the house’s “Gate of No Return,” through which slaves were said to have been loaded onto ships for America and other nations. Miss Rice said it was “incredibly moving” to contemplate “which one of my ancestors might have actually gone through that gate on their way to the United States.”

Mr. Powell, another prominent black member of the Bush team, dismissed suggestions by Democrats and the press that the trip was a glorified photo op for his boss, who wants to increase his support among blacks before next year’s election.

“The purpose of the trip was not a political exercise and was not designed to influence the election of next year,” he said. “It was designed to deal with real problems facing people in need in Africa.”

Still, there were distractions during the 17,000-mile journey that were not limited to questions about the president’s State of the Union address.

For example, a major security breach in the presidential entourage was exposed when a stowaway managed to hitch a ride on the Bush press plane from South Africa to Uganda. And a presidential photo op at a Botswana game preserve was spoiled when two elephants tried to mate in front of Mr. Bush, first lady Laura Bush and their 21-year-old daughter, Barbara.

There were also a few protests throughout the journey, although they did not attract large numbers of demonstrators. By contrast, there were thousands of well-wishers who lined the streets from Senegal to Nigeria and waved as the American president traversed their struggling nations.

Yet even during these outpourings of support for Mr. Bush, he seemed forever in danger of being overshadowed by events beyond his control.

Yesterday, for example, as he wrapped up his journey with a ride to the airport in Abuja, Mr. Bush passed a large sign proclaiming the name of the street that was lined with smiling Africans.

“Bill Clinton Way.”

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