December 9, 2013

Since everyone is sharing their Nelson Mandela stories, I will offer mine. I feel privileged to have one, even though it isn’t necessarily flattering to my political allegiance. My exchange with him took place in front of several others, so I don’t feel like I’m violating a confidence.

In 2003, I was in Johannesburg for Nelson Mandela’s 85th birthday celebration. Once again, life had put me in a place where I didn’t really belong: A client of my firm had been one of the principal organizers of the event, so somehow I got invited.

The official celebration was a gala event, with more than 1,600 people in attendance. Bono, former president Bill Clinton, Naomi Campbell — the whole gang was there.

The night before the gala, there was also a smaller surprise party for Mandela. After the guest of honor entered the room, he made his way around the dinner tables, greeting familiar faces with obvious delight. When we were introduced, my host told the great man, “This is one of our Republican friends from Washington.”

With that, Mandela strengthened the grip of our handshake and, in a voice and with an intensity that surprised me, went off about President George W. Bush. He leaned forward, looked me in the eye and asked me if I thought Bush was crazy.

He was not asking rhetorically; he wanted to know if I thought Bush’s “brain was working properly.” I was taken aback. Some would say I handled it diplomatically. If Margaret Thatcher had been there, she probably would have said I “went wobbly.” Others might say I totally bailed on Bush and threw him under the bus.

Anyway, I don’t remember all the details, and I’m a Bush fan and a reliable supporter — both then and now — but for the next couple of days Mandela and I exchanged friendly nods. Ultimately, in 2005, Mandela paid a call to Bush at the White House, and what that meeting says about their relationship speaks for itself.

I wondered after our encounter in Johannesburg why I never heard much about Mandela’s views of world leaders. Generally, I wondered why Mandela was as low-key as he was. His grace and dignity, as well as the examples he set, gave him an almost spiritual appeal to many, including me. I guess if he had been more engaged in the topical political fray, the inspiration he gave the world would have been diminished.

Symbols need to have a little mystery and to be apart from us for them to represent something bigger. I never got the sense that Mandela was a poser. Just being who he was made us reverent, taught mankind some great lessons and leaves more of a legacy than a louder voice would have.

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