Seldom does the death of a foreign leader touch the hearts and minds of Americans as did the passing at age 95 of Nelson Mandela, who suffered, struggled and eventually led South Africa out of the scourge of racial apartheid and became, almost miraculously, its president.
He rose to prominence in his embattled country and eventually throughout the world as the central figure in the fight for racial and human justice after 27 years of harsh imprisonment on a desolate island redoubt. Through it all, he demonstrated remarkable dignity amid a sea of hatred and bitterness that eventually gave way to his determination and will.
President Barack Obama, speaking in somber tones from the White House press briefing room, talked of drawing inspiration in his own life from Mandela's. "My very first political action, the first thing I ever did that involved an issue or a policy or politics," he said, "was a protest against apartheid. I studied his words and his writings. ... I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example Nelson Mandela set, and as long as I live I will do what I can to learn from him."
That sense of purpose brought an early and surprising reward to Mr. Obama, following in Mandela's footsteps as a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 "for extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy." It was an award seen more for the promise of Mr. Obama's future than the sort of concrete achievements that supported Mandela's selection in 1993.
In accepting it, Mr. Obama acknowledged his own limited track record in less than a year in the Oval Office. "Compared to some of the giants of history who've received this prize — Schweitzer and King, Marshall and Mandela," he said, "my accomplishments are slight."
Unlike the South African leader who actively led a revolution that brought down apartheid, Mr. Obama was only a toddler during the 1960s civil rights movement that broke down political barriers for black Americans. After college at Occidental and Columbia, he became a community organizer in 1985 in Chicago's predominantly black South Side, implementing the gains achieved by those civil rights pioneers, and thereafter was president of the Harvard Law Review in 1989.
Also unlike Mandela, whose route to iconic stature was built on his single-minded quest for racial justice and equality, Mr. Obama established a reputation beyond identification by race. His most prominent public image was as a state senator who spoke out against the U.S. invasion of Iraq, calling it "a dumb war," and rising to national prominence in an electrifying speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention and election to the U.S. Senate later that year.
Mr. Obama's election to the presidency in 2008 was accomplished on a broad political base heavily supported by black voters but hardly exclusively by them. He campaigned for peaceful change in the way Washington worked, and basically a return to liberal Democratic orthodoxy. In office he noticeably took a pragmatic path, while continuing to preach the Mandela message of racial and economic equality.
In the process, Mr. Obama caused some rumblings of discontent not only among liberals generally but some members of the Congressional Black Caucus complaining that he has not been sufficiently responsive to the needs of their particular constituency. Yet like Mandela as president of South Africa, Mr. Obama went out of his way not to be seen as a "black president" but as the leader of the American people regardless of race.
Nevertheless, in his heartfelt salute to Nelson Mandela on his passing, Mr. Obama committed himself to carry on in his spirit and path left to others. Saluting him as "a man who took history in his hands and bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice," he said: "We will not likely see the likes of Nelson Mandela again. So it falls to us as best we can to forward the example that he set: to make decisions guided not by hate, but by love; to never discount the difference one person can make; to strive for a future that is worthy of his sacrifice."
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.
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