Barack Obama loves to talk, mostly about himself, and he’s never as happy as when he’s talking about America’s faults, even in foreign capitals where tradition says a good citizen doesn’t do that.
The president had a great time in Cuba. As is his right and wont, he doesn’t understand America like the rest of us. It’s not altogether his fault. He obtained his early education in Muslim schools in Indonesia, where whatever pride is taken is pride taken in the exceptionalism of Mr. Mohammed. Most of us learn the customs and rituals of American history in the early years, and Mr. Obama was deprived of that (more’s the pity).
Listening to others taking pride, sometimes even inordinate pride, in the nation’s history makes the president’s toes itch. He has heard plenty about Lincoln’s description of America as “the exceptional nation” — not “an” exceptional nation, but “the” exceptional nation — and enough was finally enough. He filed an exception.
“I believe in American exceptionalism,” he once told an inquiring reporter, “just as I suspect the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks in Greek exceptionalism.” The president had not a clue to what his inquirer was talking about.
And there was more: “Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we’ve got a whole lot to offer does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we’re not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.”
Some of that is true enough, but that is not what American exceptionalism, as Lincoln defined it, means. Mr. Obama, who is said to have learned enough to make good grades as a college student (though he has steadfastly refused to release any of his transcripts, as other presidents have done), apparently cut classes the day his classmates and the teacher talked about Abraham Lincoln and his famous tribute to his exceptional native land.
Mr. Obama had a wonderful opportunity to make his visit to Cuba a teaching moment, to draw a distinction between a government that holds freedom dear, and making sure that freedom is protected and spread to all the people, against a government that restricts freedom, and punishes severely anyone bold enough to try to taste freedom.
Instead, the president went out of his way to equate the freedom that Americans take for granted, because they practice it a hundred times a day, with life in the miserable satrap that is the daily lot of the common people in the Castro dictatorship.
“Here’s my message to the Cuban government and the Cuban people,” the president said in Havana. “The ideals that are the starting point for every revolution — America’s revolution, Cuba’s revolution, the liberation movements around the world — these ideals find their truest expression, I believe, in democracy.”
True enough, as a tribute to the idea of ideals, but there can be no comparison of the American revolution to what passes for a revolution in Cuba. The American revolution grew from the belief that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
The Cuban “revolution” grew out of the barrel of a gun, enforced by brutal repression of despots, and a half-century later the gun is still aimed at anyone who steps out of line. The Cuban revolutionary government was instituted precisely to deny “unalienable rights” without “the consent of the governed.”
To compare the two revolutions makes a mockery of the suffering of thousands of Cuban patriots.
The mockery was most acute of the political prisoners who were suffering pain and abuse in the political prisons at the very moment Mr. Obama and Raul Castro were happily performing “the wave” at a baseball game. President Castro then mocked Mr. Obama himself: “You can give me a list of political prisoners,” he said, “and if we have those political prisoners they will be released before tonight ends.”
A list of 89 such prisoners and the prison where they were held had been presented to Mr. Obama earlier, and this would have been the perfect moment to call the bluff of the Castro brothers: “Let’s go now to the prison to see if we can find any.”
But of course he didn’t. Confronting evil is not Barack Obama’s game. He “leads” from behind. A tango lesson was waiting in Argentina.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.