Long time readers will know I had a great dislike for the lack of curiosity that President Bush exhibited for, well, everything. (In general people who lack curiosity about things baffle me, then bore me.) When traveling overseas Bush showed no interest in any historical aspect to the places he visited. I think this was a character flaw, and underscored his lack of having a curious mind. He may have attended fine schools in his youth, but he never mastered the love of learning, or the fascination of coming to appreciate things he did not already understand. What a sad way to go through life.
While in Vietnam Bush missed any true local flavor as he darted and dashed, as is his custom, more intent on leaving than on learning. As President of the United States he could have set a very much different schedule to accommodate a normal healthy curiosity. After all this was his first time to Vietnam. Instead, Bush left his desire to broaden his understandings of another culture behind him. On Saturday he had only one nonofficial event that lasted 15 minutes, with almost no Vietnamese to interact with. How could anyone visit a country they had never seen before and not wish to visit the places that history books tell us so much about?
But now we have a President with a keen and curious mind, and a student of history. Who could not have been proud when we saw the photos of President Obama exploring the sights of the places he traveled this past week? I am so proud of the mind and intellect of Barack Obama.
President Barack Obama, dressed in white slacks, navy-blue polo shirt and walking shoes, looked like any other tourist as he gazed at the Great Pyramid in Giza, Egypt.
“Pretty neat, huh?” he said to a bystander as he walked down a long slope toward the Great Sphinx.
Were it not for the herd of reporters charting his every step, “I’d get on a camel,” the president said, gesturing toward four of the saddled beasts lolling under a scorching North African sun.
As Obama concludes his fourth trip abroad as president, he has added to his portfolio, playing First Tourist in a world that has grown increasingly hostile to the United States.
From Ottawa to Paris, his often unexpected appearances win the attention of the local citizenry while serving up a sharp contrast to the style of his predecessor, who rarely took in the sights and sounds of the countries he visited.
“Barack Obama is both America’s first tourist and an universal ambassador,” said Allan Lichtman, a political history professor at American University in Washington. He’s “a persuader who is attempting to restore a foreign policy of diplomacy, positive example, and the speaking of the truth.”
Obama, a self-described “student of history,” was particularly enthusiastic about visiting the pyramids, aides said. While inside a small underground tomb at Giza, he pointed to a figure on a wall covered with hieroglyphics and said:
“Hey that looks like me. Look at those ears!”
In Paris yesterday the president, his wife, Michelle, and their daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, took a sightseeing excursion past the Champs Elysees and the Place dela Concorde, across the Seine river and through the Latin quarter as bystanders cheered and applauded their motorcade.
The Obama family also toured the cathedral of Notre Dame, where they climbed to the top of the landmark. Obama returns to Washington today. The first lady and the girls will return later.
“There’s obviously a lot of work to be done on these trips,” said White House senior adviser David Axelrod. Such cultural excursions are “fascinating to him and the visits are symbolically important.”
By paying homage to his host nation’s cultural shrines and institutions — such as Obama’s visit June 4 to the Sultan Hassan mosque in Cairo, one of the largest in the Muslim world, or the refurbished Church of Our Lady in Dresden, Germany, June 5 — the president shows he is attuned to others’ national sensibilities.
“Obama’s excursions reinforce a key message: the importance of acknowledging and respecting cultural diversity and local history,” said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “They also help communicate a brand of U.S. engagement that is about broad social contact, not just the stuff of high diplomacy.”