Volume 75, Number 36 | January 25 - 31, 200

Talking Point

Democrats must change tune and denounce Belafonte

By Ed Koch

An Associated Press dispatch earlier this month reported: “The American singer and activist Harry Belafonte called President George W. Bush ‘the greatest terrorist in the world’ yesterday and said millions of Americans support the socialist revolution of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.”

The report noted that “Belafonte led a delegation of Americans, including the actor Danny Glover and the Princeton University scholar Cornel West, that met with the Venezuelan president for more than six hours late Saturday.” At the meeting, Belafonte referred to the U.S. president as the “greatest tyrant in the world.”

Chavez is viewed in Venezuela as an enemy of the middle class, who have tried to remove him from office by coup and election and failed each time. Many view his authoritarianism as akin to that of the late Juan Peron of Argentina. Chavez actively supports the governments of Iran, North Korea and Cuba, and he has made it clear that he is extremely hostile to the U.S. government and particularly toward President George W. Bush. He has said, “Iran and Venezuela, these two brothers, are and will be together forever. Iran, confronted by the United States, has our solidarity.”

Belafonte has every right to support Chavez. He also has every right to denounce and demean President Bush. But our country is currently at war with international terrorism, and self-restraint is in order. Belafonte and other critics of the president and U.S. policy have obligations as U.S. citizens receiving its protection.

Historically, during wartime there are societal self-imposed limits on what critics can or should say in voicing their disagreements with the president. Telling the truth and not slandering the president is surely one restraint. Can Belafonte honestly and rationally refer to George W. Bush as “the greatest tyrant in the world” and “the greatest terrorist in the world?”

Because of his immense talents as a singer, Belafonte is known in many countries. He is also a United Nations UNICEF goodwill ambassador, and his comments are listened to around the world. Does he really want Saddam Hussein’s supporters in Iraq, who use car bombs and suicide bombers to murder fellow Iraqi civilians, to justify their actions with his characterizations of President Bush? Similarly, does he want the leaders of Iran and North Korea, who are threatening the world with the use of nuclear weaponry, to cite his slanderous words in defense of their threats? How does Belafonte respond to statements by al Qaeda leaders such as Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, who said, “Killing the infidels is our religion, slaughtering them is our religion, until they convert to Islam or pay us tribute”?

Harry Belafonte is widely associated with the Democratic Party, and leaders in the party use him and his musical talents on many occasions for fundraising events. After I read his comments, I expected some Democratic Party leaders to denounce him publicly and distance the party from his slanderous remarks. As far as I know, no one has done so.

Thus far I believe only the Daily News has denounced Belafonte. In its Jan. 14 editorial the News said, “At this point, Harry really shouldn’t be permitted even to wander the grounds of a nursing home without close caregiver supervision so he does not amble away or fall down and hurt himself.” The New York Post has published letters from readers criticizing Belafonte.

Belafonte is not suffering from dementia. He knows exactly what he is saying. The impact of his words is enhanced when no one in the Democratic leadership denounces him. The country’s security and its fate are more important than partisan advantage. Criticism of the president and his policies is not only to be expected but is to be encouraged in debate. But respect and deference for the office of the president is surely extremely important and to be expected from political and cultural leaders in our country.

The expectation that Democrats would take back the House, Senate or both in this year’s general election diminishes with each passing day, and it is not difficult to understand why. In philosophy, the country is much closer to George W. Bush than it is to Ted Kennedy. A sane voice is that of liberal Congressman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), who in response to the recent Alito confirmation hearings said, “George Bush won the election. If you don’t like it, you better win elections.”

In my opinion, the Democratic Party is head and shoulders better for the country than the Republican Party on so many issues, like tax reductions (on who gets the major benefit); Social Security (the people immediately saw through the president’s privatizing scheme); comprehensive national medical insurance (denied to the people by the Republicans at every opportunity); prescription drugs (the public knows that the new law is a sick joke); and on so many others issues.

The failure of John Kerry early on in his presidential campaign to denounce Whoopi Goldberg for her use of vile and obscene attacks on President Bush at Kerry’s Radio City Music Hall fundraiser presaged his ultimate defeat. Why? Because it showed Kerry was unable to stand up and denounce those who engage in conduct unacceptable to the American public, for fear of losing a single vote.

In the words of Pete Seeger, “Oh, when will they ever learn? ”

This commentary first appeared on Bloomberg Radio 1130 AM.

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