WASHINGTON — A few blocks from the White House, leaning against a batch of umbrellas for sale in a white bucket, David Opot happily shared his view of President Clinton's visit to Opot's home continent, Africa.
"It's nice. It's welcome," declared the 40-year-old street vendor, who immigrated to the United States from Kenya five years ago. But, he asked with feeling, "will anything good come out of it?"
As Clinton treks through sub-Saharan Africa, an audience thousands of miles away is responding to his trip with a wide range of emotions. African Americans expressed generally favorable views about Clinton's visit to the land of their ancestors in a series of random interviews in Washington, Southern California, Atlanta and Houston.
At the same time, their reactions to Clinton's apologetic words about slavery and the world response to genocide in Rwanda--and even to the fact of the president's journey--often were guarded and complex. Some questioned the value of such gestures, as well as the role of U.S. economic self-interest as a force behind the trip. Still others wondered whether the White House is using Africa to distract the public from the welter of allegations facing Clinton at home.
"It reminded me of [the film] 'Wag the Dog,' when the president was in a faraway place until his spin doctors could calm down the scandal," said Thelma Reyna, principal of South Pasadena High School, noting that Africa "tugs at the heartstrings."
Houston attorney Darlene Taylor, 33, lamented the ongoing problem of racism. But she wondered about the benefits of a formal apology for slavery, which Clinton came close to making in Uganda on Tuesday when he declared that slavery was wrong.
"I don't understand what people want," Taylor said. "Everybody is so far removed from that time and place. I don't see why he feels he has to apologize for it. It's not like we can all go back to Africa now."
Clinton's moves last year to create an advisory board on race, along with his apology for the Tuskegee, Ala., medical experiment in the 1940s in which unsuspecting black men were denied treatment for syphilis, sparked calls for an official apology for slavery. In a different way, his Africa trip has also highlighted the practice of slavery in America and the ancient bond between the two regions.
But those interviewed offered a gamut of views on the worth of an apology--views that included great skepticism.
"It's over and done with," said Tiffany Miller, 25, strolling the Santa Monica Promenade on Friday. "He wasn't there, he didn't do it, so he has nothing to apologize for."
Miller, a receptionist for a telemarketing company, offered a theory for Clinton's sojourn in Africa: "Maybe it was just for him to stay out of trouble and catch a breather from all the stuff that's going on with him."
Others were far more enthusiastic about the high-level trip, Clinton's words on slavery and all the attention the visit is focusing on an often overlooked part of the world. Some maintained that it was high time a U.S. president made the effort to go to Africa and gain a firsthand familiarity with the continent.
Others had only the vaguest knowledge of the trip at all, perhaps reflecting the scant attention many Americans pay to foreign affairs.
"I know he's there, but I don't know why," conceded Alicia Smith, an 18-year-old oil company clerk in Houston, taking a break with her friend Shaquinnsha Jackson in a downtown park. "They do need help in Africa, and if his trip helps, well, that's good."
Informed of Clinton's near-apology for slavery, she said, "I guess it's nice that he apologized for slavery, but it wasn't necessary." Then she added: "And I don't see why he's apologizing. He didn't do it."
Walt Allen, a state of California narcotics enforcement agent who lives in Covina, said he had been too busy at work to follow the details of Clinton's excursion, and he suspected that business and idealism have both played a part in the trip. But Allen also said that the United States has paid insufficient attention to Africa and establishing closer ties would be good for all parties.
"For me, as an African American, any visit to Africa by President Clinton or another president is good," Allen said.
Some of those interviewed also pointed to Africa as a place of prodigious natural wealth that is largely undeveloped.
James Watusi Shirley, a retiree in West Los Angeles, noted, "The president goes everywhere else in the world, why not Africa?" Shirley, sipping coffee outside a restaurant in Venice, grew up with a consciousness of Africa: All the children in his family were given African middle names, he said, to honor their African-born grandparents.
"He's very smart, 'cause if America don't go in there, some other country's going to go in there," Shirley said of Clinton. "Once they [Africans] get themselves together, it's going to be a big market."