President Richard Nixon went to China in 1972 and all he got was two panda bears for the Washington zoo. Okay, that’s how kids of the time may remember it. Nixon’s trip was hailed as a huge diplomatic success by the press, opening the doors for a U.S.-China relationship after a long hard cold war frost from the wars in Korea and Vietnam. The announcement of the China visit also opened the door for a nuclear arms talk with the then USSR. Nixon fed the press with his own sound byte of the occasion, “The week that changed the world.” He framed his impromptu meeting with Chairman Mao as an “encounter with history.”
Those were different times. A different U.S. and a different China. Also a different relationship. I’m not sure what the press expected from President Obama’s trip to China and the other Asian nations last week. Nixon was completing his first 4-year term in office and about to go into the first year of a second. Obama is completing the first year of his first term, about to go into his second year in office. The American press was closed off to key private conversations a week ago as the Chinese people were to public ones. It would be over 30 years later that the true exchanges of Nixon’s trip to China would be revealed.
I always thought these trips in the first year of a Presidency were fact-finding, face-to-face, goodwill and planning missions. I was hearing more about President Obama’s body language — from the bow to the Emperor of Japan to the solo walk along the Great Wall — than the verbal kind that has become his brand of sorts. It was at the Great Wall walk — an orchestrated photo op — that President Obama was able to get a soundbyte for the hometown media:
“It reminds you of the sweep of history. And that our time here on Earth is not that long. So we better make the best of it.”
The quote echoes Nixon’s comment about his meeting with Mao but includes a more sweeping Eastern philosophical lilt. It also reflects a shift of how the President sees himself in historical context. Of course one could argue the meaning of impermanence when Chairman Mao is just as stone cold lying in material state as the Great Wall. Check back in 500 years or more.
In the 24/7 news cycle, there seems to be no time or effort to reset a new narrative or to acknowledge the reality of impermanence, especially where a primary European and Western racial and cultural model is not front and center, hero, subject. Could “mainstream” and “status quo” stand in for another brand of “identity politics”? Some media outlets are perfectly content with the familiar outcomes and expectations that don’t reflect present-day realities for China, the U.S. or the rest of the world. There are 5 Asian countries that make up the G20 (China, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea). That’s not a formula for “invasion, takeover, super power” in the post Cold War world. It reflects interdependence, or another eastern-like philosophy – one cannot exist without the other.
James Fallows kept tabs on the American press’s framing of the Obama in China visit as a “Failed Mission” on his Atlantic Monthly blog (there are 3 entries). He also registered his criticism on NPR’s “On the Media” (November 20, 2009). James Fallows has worked as a journalist in China.
Perhaps Obama could’ve raised a “Mission Accomplished” banner had he scored some Musk deer for the zoo. Perhaps the President’s team should’ve come prepared with stronger framing and their own soundbytes as Nixon had for his carefully orchestrated trip to China for the benefit of the American press. It was unfortunate that established journalists like Wesley Pruden, former editor-in-chief of The Washington Times had to “go there” with his comment about Obama’s bow to the Japanese emperor as a reflection of his being “sired by a Kenyan father, born to a mother attracted to men of the Third World and reared… in Hawaii, a paradise far from the American mainstream.” (hat tip to Undercover Black Man).
Well if we’re going to bring Kenya into it and “go there,” why not say the trip reflected the difference between a sprinter and a long distance runner.