A comparison

On January 20, 2001, George W. Bush took the oath of office and became the 43rd President of the United States. In the nearly thirteen years that have passed since then, countless world leaders (both sitting and retired) have died. Two of them (Ronald Reagan in 2004 and Gerald Ford in 2006) were former US presidents. For the purposes of this essay, I’d like to focus on everyone other than Reagan and Ford.

Some of those leaders had been our allies, others our enemies. Some, like Benazir Bhutto, were assassinated. Some died in accidents, such as the plane crash that killed many members of the Polish government. Some, like Yasser Arafat, died in under questionable circumstances. And, of course, some, like Margaret Thatcher earlier this year or Boris Yeltsin a few years ago, died more or less natural deaths.

Of all of those deaths, though, I can only think of two foreign leaders whose deaths resulted in the then-sitting president to declare that American flags be flown at half-staff in honor of the deceased. One each under Bush and Obama. And the contrast between the two can’t be any more stark.

Under the Bush presidency, the death was Pope John Paul II, who died on April 2, 2005. Under Obama, it was Nelson Mandela earlier this week.

Pope John Paul II (born Karol Wotyla) may have been a leader of a country because Vatican City became its own nation under Mussolini’s Italy, but his legacy — even at the time — was the perpetuation of AIDS in Africa and an attempt to impose Catholic doctrine and dogma in places where it was neither welcome nor wanted. While he may deserve some credit for the overthrow of the communist / totalitarian regime in his native Poland, I regard his legacy as more negative than positive. This has since been borne out in greater detail as his knowledge and attitude made the child sex abuse scandals by pedophile priests has come to light in the years since his death.

Nelson Mandela was a freedom fighter. The group he founded may have committed some violent acts while he was in jail, but he is still the model not only for peaceful protest, but also for a lack of desire for retribution when he was finally released. He led South Africa out of a brutal, heinous period in its history and it has emerged, for the most part, better as a result of his leadership.

Ordering the flag flown at half-staff may be one of the most symbolic measures a leader can take. George W. Bush also ordered the flag to half-staff after the September 11 attacks and the 2004 Indian ocean tsunami. Obama did the same after the Sandy Hook massacre and the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Without regard to anything else either of these two men did (or didn’t do) as president, without regard to politics and political opinions, and without regard to the greater legacy of either man relative to the history of the nation, it’s clear to me that, at least on this particular matter, Obama is the better man. At least he honored the more worthy foreign leader in death.

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