Until November 4th, the prospect of recovering America's battered image around the world seemed dismal at best. The prospect of recovering it seemed unlikely until the day that millions of citizens went to the polls freely to elect an articulate and charismatic black man as their next president.
The election was not only historic, it was a validation of a real democracy. We no longer have to preach its virtues. Tens of millions of Americans showed the world how it worked. There were no troops or cops, dogs or water cannons in sight to force voters to go to the polls. Nobody was denied heating, water or other necessities if they did not vote. Moreover, tens of thousands of us went to places like Nevada to register voters for the chance to cast ballots for whomever they wanted. The challenge in the years ahead is to seize the high ground; to restore the reputation that once attracted universal respect for the United States.
Barack Obama has the capacity to overcome the recent image of a global bully by restoring America's reputation as a peace-loving, progressive nation. But he faces far greater priorities during his first weeks and months in office as president than say the future of the Voice of America. An entire generation may well be perplexed by just what the VOA means. But the international buzz caused by President-elect Obama earlier in the month offers him an opportunity to revive what had been a valuable American resource for so many years. In short, the reputation of the Voice needs to be revived and treasured -- not squandered as it has been by the Bush Administration the past eight years.
What the VOA did for so long, particularly during the days of the Cold War, was to give listeners hope. So many of them lived behind the Iron Curtain, they had no access to the truth or a menu of opinions. Was it propaganda? Perhaps. But more importantly, it provided a different point of view. Tens of millions of people around the world gathered their most positive impressions of the United States from the reporting, the interviews and the music transmitted by the Voice of America.
Today, the opportunity exists to erase the images of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, of American troops engaged in the streets of Baghdad, of kicking down doors of innocent Iraqi villagers, of waging war against tribal Afghans, of being occupiers not liberators. And in countries on several continents where populations of color are in the majority, the VOA can subtly project the image of a black president who has been chosen freely by the American people for the first time in our history.
For decades, the Voice broadcast in dozens of foreign languages, but its English-language programming made the VOA a valuable asset to audiences abroad who not only were friendly and curious about the United States. They were people who aspired to visit or study in America. It was not only the news reporting that the VOA transmitted or the features of every day life in America that always intrigued people from abroad.
It was the regularly scheduled broadcasts of Willis Conover, the music maestro who spread the love of American jazz around the world. During the worst of times in the Soviet Union I remember Russian musicians taping Conover's daily programs and then transcribing the music to sheet music for jam sessions of their own. There also were often countless days when Soviet Jews and other political dissidents who had heard VOA programming, would thank me for telling their stories to the outside world in my CBS News radio broadcasts from Moscow that were repeated by the Voice of America.
The curiosity and excitement that followed VOA's opening music theme of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" almost vanished during the past eight years. From my frequent travels around the world, I have been shocked by how negative the image of the United States has become. Largely because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the threats the Bush White House has made toward other countries it disapproved of, the United States created the impression of a global bully.
The Bush Administration never articulated American values in a manner that could be clearly understood around the world. As a consequence, from Africa and part of South Asia to the Arab world, to Latin America, the former Soviet Union and most of Europe, the Voice of America's English language broadcasts virtually vanished. By claiming budgetary shortages, the Broadcasting Board of Governors in Washington two years ago eliminated most of VOA's quality programming in the Arab world by substituting it with a half billion dollar investment in less successful Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa.
From his own travels and life abroad, President-elect Obama knows full well the significance of the Voice of America. What's important is that his support can not only restore its reputation. He can also revive the dignity and image of the nation that he will lead in the years ahead.