ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE, Dec 9 – Nelson Mandela loomed large for each of the four US presidents set to honor him on Tuesday: as a distant mentor, a personal counselor, a wartime critic and a fellow world sage.
President Barack Obama and former US leader George W. Bush boarded Air Force One early Monday to head to Mandela’s memorial service in Soweto. Former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter were making their own way there.
Obama has long revered Mandela as the political idol who drew him into politics by the power of his example.
As a 19-year-old student in California, the young Obama, disengaged from the world, happened to hear two African National Congress envoys speak of the trials of Mandela and the anti-apartheid struggle.
Inspired, Obama adopted the cause and gave the first, halting speech of a career that would eventually make its own racial history in the echo of Mandela.
“As I look at that 19-year old young man, I’m more forgiving of the fact that the speech might not have been that great,” Obama said in Cape Town during a South Africa trip in June overshadowed by Mandela’s failing health.
“Because I know now that something inside me was stirring at that time, something important. And that was the belief that I could be part of something bigger than myself; that my own salvation was bound up with those of others.”
Obama, in a journey of homage, this year stood with his daughters in the bleak quarry on Robben Island where Mandela spent years breaking rocks, and reflected on his political hero’s story.
While Obama’s emotional and political connection with Mandela is deep — he only knew his hero from a distance. They met briefly when Obama was a newly minted senator in 2005 in Washington and spoke several times by telephone.
But the long-awaited public meeting of the first black presidents of South Africa and the United States never happened: Obama judged Mandela too sick to visit earlier when he was in South Africa.
If Mandela was a mentor to Obama, he was a friend to Clinton, who was in office for the entirety of the prisoner-turned-president’s 1994-1999 rule.
Clinton wrote in his autobiography how Mandela became one of the statesmen with whom he forged the closest personal bond.
But as Clinton remembers Mandela on Tuesday, it may be his role as an emotional counselor that he will reflect upon most fondly.
As he endured a public ritual of repentance after the scandal over his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, Clinton revealed in 1998 how Mandela had helped him deal with his demons.
Clinton said Mandela had taught him how to forgive his enemies — in the US president’s case, Republicans who impeached him and prosecutor Kenneth Starr.
“He said, ‘I realized one day, breaking rocks, that they could take everything away from me — everything — but my mind and my heart. Now those things I would have to give away, and I simply decided I would not give them away,’” Clinton said, relating a conversation with Mandela.
Clinton, in a speech on Martha’s Vineyard, said those words helped slake his own fury.
“The anger, the resentment, the bitterness, the desire for recrimination against people you believe have wronged you — they harden the heart and deaden the spirit and lead to self-inflicted wounds.” Clinton said.
By the time Bush became president Mandela was retired. But displaying the conviction of a former freedom fighter, he lashed the US leader over the pending Iraq war in 2003.
“What I am condemning is that one power, with a president who has no foresight, who cannot think properly, is now wanting to plunge the world into a Holocaust,” Mandela said in a vehemently anti-American speech to the International Women’s Forum.
By 2005, Bush welcomed Mandela to the Oval Office for a visit — and the former South African leader offered gratitude for the US leader’s multi-billion-dollar HIV/AIDS fight in Africa — but did not repudiate his remarks on Iraq.
Bush described Mandela as an icon of “freedom and equality,” after seeing him during his administration as an example for those his Freedom Agenda hoped to inspire.
Mandela was in jail for the entirety of Carter’s presidency. But appropriately for a US leader who is more remembered for what he did in his post-presidency than in office, he came to know Mandela as a fellow ex-statesman.
Carter will attend Tuesday’s memorial events in Soweto alongside other members of “The Elders” group of former world statesmen which Mandela founded.