Guptagate, US edition: A parable

By J Brooks Spector 21 May 2013

The highly irregular arrival of a commercial jet carrying high-powered delegation of Kenyan business figures, including several relatives of the US president and a cousin of Uhuru Kenyatta, at Joint Base Andrews has drawn ridicule and howls of protest from every possible quarter. The Tea Party is spluttering with indignation. Calls for scandal-beleaguered President Obama’s resignation, if not his head, have been peppered with words such as “corrupt”, “ridiculous”, “embarrassing”, “cringe-worthy”, “crass” and “laughable”. Eventually they succeeded. J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Retired Colonel Al “Yankee Doodle” Dandy was one of those obsessive but knowledgeable people whose hobby had become watching the big craft line up for their approach runs into Joint Base Andrews – in suburban Prince Georges Country just outside Washington, DC. Andrews was where Air Force One was usually based and it was a busy airport with dozens of departures a day for destinations all over the world. Dandy had, himself, been a military pilot for two decades until night blindness forced him out of flying and into retirement. There he cultivated his hobby as a photographer who specialised in evocative portrayals of military craft and their activities – usually in a kind of heroic mode.

Many of his photographs decorated the walls of offices and homes of military and civilian defence personnel alike – his careful observations of those big jets had made his work the first choice for many. Because of his constant scrutiny of Andrews’ aerial approach lanes, Dandy thought he knew the configurations of most of the planes usually based at Andrews, as well as their flight schedules when they were on their regular duties. That’s why he was surprised to see an unfamiliar commercial jet with a foreign registration coming into land at Andrews. Out came his biggest telephoto lens to capture the moment – just before the passenger jet finally landed and taxied to a stop on the apron.

Dandy wasn’t sure whose plane it was, so he sent out his digital photographs on Facebook, the other social media platforms he often used, as well as on an unclassified Internet listserv that reached the universe of other military plane enthusiasts around the world. Within minutes his iPad pinged with an incoming response from TJ “Slim” Pickens, an old flying buddy who was currently assigned to the US military’s Africom headquarters in Stuttgart. Pickens had been a US military attaché three times in Africa and knew his way around the continent. Pickens’s message read, “Kenya registration, UhuruAir, charter. Connected 2 UKenyatta. Why?” Dandy typed out his quick response, “Why Andrews 1500hrs GMT? Who here?”

Pickens didn’t answer immediately, but, a bit later, he sent Dandy a couple of digital scans of articles that had appeared in two Nairobi dailies a few days earlier. The articles described how a high-powered delegation of Kenyan business figures included many young businessmen from towns like Rachuonyo, well outside the country’s main cities of Nairobi and Mombasa. The articles added the project was jointly sponsored by USAID, the US Department of Commerce, several other American agencies and Kenyan small business export promotion agencies – and was a new initiative from the country’s new president, eager to earn international respect, despite that unfair ICC indictment hanging over his head. In the last paragraph of both articles was the information that the business group included several relatives of the incumbent US president, as well as a cousin of President Uhuru Kenyatta, an aspiring young IT entrepreneur and call centre operator.

Dandy was more than a little astonished. Of course he had seen aircraft bearing heads of state land at Andrews over the years, and he often saw Air Force One out on the giant air base’s runways, but it was certainly more than a bit rare to catch a sighting of a commercial charter jet land there. Quickly he banged out a couple of notes for those aircraft enthusiast blogs, describing the unusual landing, the time it took place, where it had happened, and what he now knew about the passengers on the plane.  Then, just as suddenly, Air Force One’s scheduled take off on the far runway distracted him. He quickly rolled off a whole run of shots because of the way the late afternoon sunlight glinted off the ascending jet.

But within a day, Dandy’s short email caught the attention of a military liaison officer assigned to Congress who happened to be dating a staffer on the House of Representatives House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. That staffer then passed a copy of that note with a handwritten “???” on it, over to California Republican Congressman and committee chair, Darrell Issa. Issa just happened to be leading the charge against President Obama administration’s handling of the Benghazi talking points, as well as the way the IRS had dealt with requests for tax-exempt 501 (c) 4 status from thousands of Tea Party-leaning civic groups. This latest bit of news astonished Issa. For one thing it seemed to him to be a clear misuse of military air space – but it also seemed like it might just be a potentially major conflict of interest as well on the part of the president, the so-called “smoking gun”.

Given the public furore that he and his congressional colleagues had been generating already over the issues of IRS’s handling of tax-exempt requests, the Benghazi talking points and those Justice Department subpoenas of AP phone records, Issa and his congressional allies felt justified in announcing that they would insist on a joint Senate and House of Representatives hearing on this newest outrage in the next few weeks. At issue would be the presumed illegal use of a military base, military staff and support services; an unauthorised flight into restricted air space; and malfeasance – or worse – in the use of US foreign trade and investment support funds and aid grants.

Naturally enough with all the other acrimonious debate already swirling around from the other three scandals, even though the White House had been on a serious push to turn things around by pointing out how far away from the president’s actual personal actions any of those had been, this newest issue turned the momentum back the other way. Things only got more difficult when one of Obama’s distant cousins on the trip – seeking his moment of fame – produced a letter in which the president seemed to be greeting him personally, welcoming him to join this trade delegation “to meet and get to know real Americans” and “to find ways to improve and increase Kenyan exports to America”.

The fact that every member of this young business leaders’ trade group had also received an identical Robowriter-signed letter from the president as part of their briefing packet of pamphlets and orientation materials designed to give participants a sense of being part of an impressive international venture, quickly got lost in the media shuffle. Unfortunately, every journalist writing, broadcasting or blogging about this newest, juicy story, essentially ignored this salient fact in the ensuing media crush.

Of course Obama’s position wasn’t entirely helped when comedian John Stewart’s on air quip – “Well, at least it wasn’t a planeload of Columbian drug lords carrying samples of new product lines” – went viral on YouTube, recording more hits than Psy’s newest music video. Peggy Noonan, Ronald Reagan’s old speechwriter and now a frequent columnist at the Wall Street Journal, wrote that this latest outrage, “smacked of the worst kind of third world-style enrichment of extended families at the expense of hardworking, overtaxed American men and women. If Barack Obama had any shame at all, he would disavow his appalling letter, disclaim any intention – unconscious or conscious – to help export American jobs to a medieval authoritarian dictatorship like Kenya’s where child labour reigns supreme, and then pack up and resign – or be made to go.” Once Noonan had said it in print, other columnists now had no choice but to write about the idea and debate it – regardless of whether they stood for or against on the matter.

The defence from Obama’s supporters was essentially that he had absolutely no idea his distant relatives, let alone one of Kenyatta’s, had even been picked for the programme. The plane they were on had been authorised for a landing at Andrews, following an Embassy recommendation and that that recommendation was agreed to after routine consultations between the State, Commerce, and the Defence Departments. Moreover, nobody in the White House could have reasonably been expected to note the quite distant relationships between the president and two of the 75 members of this trade promotion mission – especially since they, respectively, had quite different surnames and had never met.

Unfortunately, the eventual public knowledge that Kenyatta’s relative was also part of the group – helping negotiate some business programmes for the two Obama relatives – led to yet further charges Obama was caught in a complex kind of influence peddling arrangement, even if he was not personally involved or even aware of it. Newspaper opinion columns were filled with criticism. Charles Krauthammer wrote, for example, that, “Recent events meant that at best the Obama team had been guilty of incompetence – or something worse.” Others were less kind.

Within in a month, the House of Representatives, under the public goading of Michele Bachmann and Paul Ryan, but backed by the others in what was effectively the Tea Party caucus, as well as Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin on radio and TV, agreed to convene a special committee to investigate charges for a bill of impeachment under Article 4, Section 4 of the Constitution. On a straight party vote, the committee approved the measure and it quickly was sent on to the Senate for the actual trial of impeachment, presided by the Supreme Court’s chief justice. For only the third time in American history, a president stood charged with “high crimes and misdemeanours”, even though, as the conservative conscience of  the New York Times, David Brooks, together with the usually liberal-leaning Harvard constitutional law professor, Lawrence Tribe, in a strongly worded, joint column that was reprinted in dozens of newspapers across the nation, argued, “If Obama was guilty of anything, it was allowing low-level bureaucrats to speak in his name and carry out egregiously stupid enterprises, without demanding that they or their superiors behave as adults – or go. That may be a definition of incompetence, but it is much less than a crime, let alone a ‘high crime’. Watergate, this is not.” But it was too late.

In the end, Barack Obama demonstrated a kind of statesmanship that may end up defining his ultimate place in history. Calling upon all his rhetorical talent, he told the nation its best days were still ahead. He thanked his staff for their loyalty; his supporters for their vigorous defence of his administration; and said that none of these so-called scandals were major blemishes on the hard work his team had accomplished in restoring the economy and steering a careful course through difficult international times. But that, nevertheless, to save the country he loved with all his heart any further embarrassment, he would sign the formal documents that surrendered his authority to his vice president later that same evening. He then congratulated Vice President Biden; wished him Godspeed; and urged all Americans – Democrats and Republicans alike, black and white, rich and poor, young and old – to unite around and support their new president.

Of course, the last laugh may have been on the Republicans after all. The next day, the new president announced he would nominate Hillary Rodham Clinton as his new vice president in accordance with the Constitution and he asked the Senate – still in Democratic hands, it should not be forgotten – to confirm her nomination as speedily as possible. These were perilous times at home and abroad, and the country’s circumstances demanded a full complement of top officials. And so they did – that very day.

Naw, couldn’t happen there, or in South Africa, now could it? DM

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with South African President Jacob Zuma during their meeting at Blair House in Washington D.C. April 11, 2010. REUTERS/Richard  Clement


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