- - Tuesday, December 10, 2013


Most mourners at a funeral are happy that the occasion isn’t about them, but President Obama wants star billing everywhere he goes, even at the gates of paradise. Speaking Tuesday in Johannesburg at a memorial service for Nelson Mandela, the president imagined that a somber occasion where the eyes of the world were upon him was an appropriate stage for advancing his political agenda at home.

“We know that like South Africa, the United States had to overcome centuries of racial subjugation,” Mr. Obama told assembled thousands and the millions watching on television. “Michelle and I are the beneficiaries of that struggle. But in America and South Africa, and countries around the globe, we cannot allow our progress to cloud the fact that our work is not done.”

With intonation ranging from scolding to scalding, the president made clear he was talking about domestic budget and tax policies. There are too many “who happily embrace [Mr. Mandela‘s] legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality, and there are too many of us … who stand on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.” This was taken by some to be a needle for Raul Castro, the dictator in Havana for whom he earlier had a warm handshake, but it can be read as a broadside against his Republican opponents in Washington. Whoever the target, it was crude disrespect for the man for whom he flew to South Africa to pay respects.

Respect was lacking as well when Mr. Obama earlier commemorated the passing of Mr. Mandela by tweeting a “selfie” showing him in the Robben Island jail cell where Mr. Mandela had been imprisoned. Mr. Obama boasts of a photograph taken of himself with Mr. Mandela, which he keeps in the Oval Office. At the Tuesday obsequies, he took a new, smiling photograph of himself with Denmark’s Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and British Prime Minister David Cameron, perhaps for use on later occasions.

Along with the first lady, Mr. Obama was joined by Attorney General Eric Holder Jr.; Susan Rice, the national security adviser; Obama consigliere Valerie Jarrett; and Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state. Taking this impressive delegation did due honor to Mr. Mandela’s memory, unlike the snub of Margaret Thatcher’s state funeral in Westminster Abbey 2 years ago, which was a slight as well to America’s oldest and closest ally. Mr. Obama had dispatched no Cabinet ministers to London, nor did he order the American flag to half-staff, as he did to honor the memory of Mr. Mandela.

Mr. Mandela deserves tribute. His fight against apartheid and the exclusion of the South African majority from the nation’s affairs commends him to defenders of freedom everywhere. Considering Mr. Mandela’s own earlier praise for socialist and communist revolutionaries in Cuba, the Soviet Union and China, as well as for such thugs as Yasser Arafat and Moammar Gadhafi, Mr. Obama’s shoutout for more taxes and spending as way stations on the road to a socialist state was perhaps of a piece.

Mr. Mandela’s reputation was earned by refusing to become another tin-pot African president-for-life, like Robert Mugabe in neighboring Zimbabwe, who has turned a country that had been a breadbasket into a basket case. Mr. Mandela’s passing is an opportunity to reflect on the accomplishments that earned him a Nobel Peace Prize. Reflections on Mr. Obama’s own claims to greatness can come later. For now, he can reflect on the Nobel Prize that he did nothing to earn.

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