On Friday's edition of The Diane Rehm Show that's broadcast on many NPR stations from Washington, the host mangled her presidential history, but her guests and producers all humored her, like you might humor a nice lady who's 77. No one suggested a gold watch and an open space for a younger NPR liberal behind the mic.
As Rehm and a crew of reporters aerobically compared Barack Obama to Nelson Mandela, Rehm claimed Reagan was president in 1979 when she first took the microphone at WAMU-FM in Washington and he didn't want the U.S. involved in any anti-apartheid activities (video below):
"It was during the Reagan administration – 1979 was the first year I took over this microphone – President Reagan did not want to have the United States participate in anti-apartheid activity," Rehm said, throwing the floor to Gerald Seib of The Wall Street Journal, who agreed without correcting her that Reagan wasn't president until January 20, 1981: "No, and I think it’s easy to forget now how completely the South African debate was wrapped up with the Cold War environment."
Discussing Mandela in the first hour of Friday's show was strange, since it's usually split between reporters discussing domestic politics in the first hour, then international issues in the second. But they wanted to start the show by rubbing Mandela all over Obama instead of starting with, say, Healthcare.gov -- which they eventually discussed.
Rehm began the show by quoting Michael Shear in The New York Times: “Without Mandela, there might never have been a President Obama.” She called that a “fact.” Shear’s story oozed: “Mr. Mandela and Mr. Obama served as the first black leaders of their nations and both were looked to by some as the vehicles for reconciliation between polarized electorates. Both won the Nobel Peace Prize, in part for their charisma and their ability to inspire and communicate.”
Rehm doesn’t seem to read anything conservative. (The one time I was a guest, every newspaper clip in front of her was from the Times or The Washington Post.)
This allowed Sheryl Gay Stolberg of the Times to energetically compare the two leaders:
STOLBERG: President Obama came of age at a time when there was a great movement towards anti-apartheid. There was a movement on the campuses of American universities to force business to divest from South Africa, and President Obama was very inspired by Nelson Mandela and by that movement. The first political speech he ever gave in 1979, when he was 18 years old, at Occidental College in California, was an anti-apartheid speech, and he went on to try to recruit leaders form the African National Congress to speak on campus there, and he made this his cause, and I think you know the comparisons between Mandela and Obama are inevitable, even though the pres has shied away from them.
But of course both of them were the first black presidents of their country. Both have been Nobel Prize winners. Both are lawyers – Nelson Mandela was among the first black lawyers in South Africa. President Obama, of course, the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. As I said, the president always shied away from those comparisons, but it is clear that Nelson Mandela has truly been his inspiration, and you could see it when he came and spoke last night at the White House about Mandela’s death.
Stolberg may also be in error about Obama’s first political speech, at least its timing. In his biography of Barack Obama, Washington Post editor David Maraniss asserted on page 377:
However it started, he got into it more every week, and eventually it led him to one of the key moments of his time at Oxy, the first public political speech of his life. It came on a Wednesday afternoon, February 18, 1981, the same day the new president, Ronald Reagan, one month into his presidency, delivered an address to a joint session of Congress outlining his plan for national economic recovery.
Robert Costa (on his way to The Washington Post after a stint a National Review) at least noted that in his diaries, Reagan wrote about how his team “detests apartheid.” In fact, liberal historian Douglas Brinkley included that in his book The Reagan Diaries, page 142:
“Pres. Kaunda of Zambia arrived. A good meeting & lunch. I think he feels good about the trip. We made clear we detest Apartheid but believe we can do better with S. Africa by persuasion.”