This evening, the Africa Society hosted “A Salute to Ambassador Johnnie Carson.” The Event Chair was Congresswoman Karen Bass, and an array of African and US dignitaries were on hand to wish Ambassador Carson the best as he enters retirement. Corporate sponsors, including Chevron and General Electric, funded a delicious culinary spread. I gorged myself on ravioli, salmon, and roast beef. The actor Tim Reid served as the master of ceremonies. In the current tortuous political environment, Africa certainly seems to be something that can bring together both sides of the aisle.
Republicans offered the following tribute to Ambassador Carson:
- Johnny Isakson, Republican Senator from Georgia, probably provided the best short comments of the night. The Senator had recently travelled to the Congo and heard many Congolese officials speaking about “Johnny”; he presumed that knowledge of his African interests had preceded him. Much to his chagrin, he found out that they were talking about remarks recently made by “Johnnie” Carson at a Brookings Institution event.
- Ed Royce, Republican Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, used the occasion to criticize Mugabe (he had visited Zimbabwe when Carson was President there) and lauded Carson as ‘the very best of the State Department.’
From the Democratic side of the aisle:
- Gregory Meeks (D-NY) spoke of the late Donald Payne and honored Ambassador Carson as a “history maker” in short but emotional remarks.
- Keith Ellison (D-MN, known for being the first Muslim to serve in Congress) spoke mostly about Somalia, where he had recently been (his constituency contains many Somalis). He said that the situation there was getting better and that Al-Shabaab was on the run. He spoke of three separate instances where he had interacted with Carson and gave the impression those were the only times they had met.
- Charlie Rangel (D-NY) made some remarks that I cannot particularly recall. He did mention Charles Diggs, an early friend of Africa in Congress, who resigned his seat in 1980 and served time for mail fraud. Perhaps Rangel’s own financial troubles have caused him to increasingly identify with Diggs.
Obama’s Senior Director for African Affairs, the Ambassador of Benin, and representatives from the Constituency for Africa (who gave him the physical award) and Leadership Africa USA also gave remarks.
I did hear mention of AGOA several times. I must confess that I find such references a bit tiresome. I will admit that African economics is not my strong suit, but I understand that AGOA is primarily oriented toward clothing and apparel, and I do not see the African apparel industry as being an economic engine of any significance. In his own remarks, Carson urged American companies to follow GE’s lead and establish a greater presence on the continent, saying that there was no reason Chinese, Indian, Brazilian, and Turkish companies should be crowding the US out. Very interesting indeed that he cited only emerging powers as competitors, and not any of the European colonizers. He added that he was optimistic about Africa and felt fortunate to have had a career that merged his professional interests with his passion.
The Africa Society fills a much needed void in the DC Africanist community by hosting these types of events (it was reported that 17 African ambassadors were in the audience). Unfortunately, I don’t get the sense that they are particularly successful in reaching out to folks that don’t already have Africa on their radar. I would share more of Carson’s optimism if I felt otherwise.