Opinion writer June 28, 2013

With Nelson Mandela, the devil would not like the details. We all know that he spent 27 years in jail, much of it on Robben Island. We all know about his remarkable strength, intellect and tolerance. But I did not know that when he was in prison, he studied Afrikaans, the language of his jailers, so he could get to know them better and possibly convert them to his cause. Physically he was a big man. But it is how he conducted himself that made other men seem so small.

Mandela is no demigod. He has his faults, but rage, anger, jealousy, egotism and the need for revenge are not among them. He was born into tribal nobility: he is the son of a counselor to the chief and, later, was a ward of the chief. An easy life was his for the asking. But he chose the path of rebellion against racist apartheid, which is to say he chose to be on the run, to live underground, to forsake the love of the astonishingly attractive Winnie — and yet all the time to pursue knowledge. It seems he did not waste a moment in prison. He was forever studying something.

Richard Cohen writes a weekly political column for The Washington Post. View Archive

On Robben Island, where he spent 18 years, he was largely confined to a fetid cell. He slept on a straw mat. He was persecuted by the guards. He spent his days breaking rocks. Because he was forbidden to wear sunglasses, his eyes were damaged. On occasion, he was put into solitary confinement for the infraction of reading a smuggled newspaper. At night, somehow, he studied for advanced degrees and when, eventually, he got out of prison, he brimmed with forgiveness and demanded a colorblind society.

When Frank Lautenberg died, we noted that he was the last World War II veteran in the Senate. Not many of our politicians have been to war, fewer still have been in solitary and few of those have chosen to forsake the easy life for the deprivations of a cause. They talk — and so do we journalists — about the bravery of this or that political position, but, to my knowledge, only Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Tex.), both prisoners of war in Vietnam, know the utter terror of hearing the approaching footsteps of the torturer.

I remember when Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin met with Ronald Reagan in 1981. The contrast could not have been more vivid. Here was the amiable movie actor, a man who had had an easy, fortunate life. And here was a man who had been a terrorist, a guerrilla fighter, who had lost his family in the Holocaust and had been imprisoned in the Soviet Gulag. At night, “after twelve or fourteen or sixteen hours of work, we had to dig ourselves deep into the snow and go to sleep,” Begin wrote in “White Nights,” a memoir of those days. In the morning, he would awake to find some of his fellow prisoners frozen to death. Reagan probably told Begin some Hollywood story. Begin probably kept his mouth shut.

Most of us are like Ronald Reagan. What do we know of such travails? Could we be as brave, as indomitable and as averse to self-pity? Could we rise above it all as Mandela has or, less successfully, as Begin did? When Mandela’s mother died in 1968, he was not permitted to attend her funeral. When his son died a bit later, he was not allowed to attend his funeral. When his wife Winnie cheated on him, he stood by her, divorcing her only later. When Reagan and Margaret Thatcher sided with the apartheid regime and refused to join the calls for Mandela’s release, he forgave them and later met with them. He is not merely a big man. He is bigger than any man.

What you find often in insurgents is a bitter hatred and the need to carry on the struggle even after it’s over. This is not what happened with Mandela. He was not a freedom fighter looking to continue the fight — a Yasser Arafat unable to put down his gun and take yes for an answer. Mandela was able to administer, to turn to politics, to plead for racial understanding and tolerance. More important, he embodies those qualities. He evened no scores, waged no vendettas, never made himself the cause and casts a shadow across the inner lives of all people. He was the first black president of South Africa. He remains the standard by which we must judge ourselves.

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