What Nelson Mandela can teach politicians

December 6, 2013

The passing of Nelson Mandela Thursday led to an outpouring of mourning and praise from politicians across parties and across the country.  Those same people would do well to study the former South African president's life and career to understand some deep truths about the art of politics.

Here are three.

1. Words have power. Mandela understood one of the most powerful tools at a politician's disposal. He was silenced for the better part of three decades for speaking out; he could send and receive one letter every six months, and he wielded his words wisely. On trial for sabotage in 1964, Mandela offered these words in his defense: "I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die." Thirty years later, in his inaugural speech as president of South Africa, Mandela told the audience: "We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of the millions of our people. We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity -- a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world." Every time the eyes of his country (and the world) shined on Mandela, he recognized the moment and found the right words to say.

2. Sports can bridge (seemingly) unbridgeable gaps. Mandela's support for South Africa's Springboks rugby team -- the team traditionally associated with white South Africans -- in the 1995 World Cup (a moment immortalized in the film "Invictus") was seen as a moment of real racial healing after the country's long history of oppression. Mandela understood that no matter how many differences there were in a society, sports was a common passion on which much could be built. "Sport has the power to unite people in a way that little else can," he said. "It can create hope where once there was only despair. It breaks down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of discrimination. Sport speaks to people in a language they can understand." We've written before in this space about how President Obama uses sport-as-cultural-bridge in much the same way Mandela did. Obama's annual filling-out of an NCAA bracket and open fandom for all Chicago pro sports teams is in keeping with the lessons that Mandela taught.

3. You have to be able to laugh at yourself. Humility and its cousin humor may be the two most undervalued qualities in most successful politicians. People like their politicians to be (or at least appear) humble, and there is nothing like a self-deprecating sense of humor to accomplish that task. Mandela had such a sense of humor. Here's Mandela in 2000: "My bosses always say that I have had 27 years in prison to loaf. It is now time to do some catching up." Or Mandela on his biggest regret: "My greatest regret in life is that I never became the heavyweight boxing champion of the world." He understood laughter had the power to disarm even your sworn enemies. It's not by accident that the enduring image of Mandela is of him laughing/smiling.

Fixbits:

Here's how lawmakers mourned the death of Mandela.

The White House now says Obama briefly lived with his uncle in the 1980s.

The House extended current health plans for members and staffers if necessary.

Speaking in New Hampshire, Scott Brown started to say he was in Massachusetts before catching himself.

"I think Joe Biden will go down in history as one of the best vice presidents — ever," Obama said in an interview.

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear (D) slammed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R) opposition to Obamacare.

Senate Majority PAC is up with an ad defending Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) on Obamacare.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) said climate change could have an upside for his state.

Must-reads: 

"Mandela’s cause shaped Obama’s political awakening" -- Scott Wilson, Washington Post

"Think tank’s criticism of Elizabeth Warren’s populist policies leads to Democratic feud" -- Holy Yeager, Washington Post

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Sean Sullivan | December 5, 2013