Rev'd Up

Bishop Desomd Tutu
Desmond Tutu, the archbishop emeritus of South Africa, on a recent visit to New York. Reading the new biography of his eventful life is, he says, like "strutting in front of a mirror." (Helayne Seidman for The Washington Post)
By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 9, 2006


The cleric is laughing. He laughs a lot. He can't help it. Desmond Tutu is tickled by his life, his faith, his God, so the giggles just bubble out, cresting sometimes in a hilariously showy cackle. The former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, the David to the old Goliath that was apartheid, Tutu can be seized with this joy at just about any time.

He might be talking about weighty issues like the moral imperative, our inherent sense of right and wrong, and how "everyone has an instinct for freedom because God has imbued each one of us with a gift of freedom," and here comes that infectious giggle.

Or he's cracking up as he tells of the "uncanniness" of being at Madame Tussauds' some years ago and wondering, as he watched a workman carrying the waxen Tutu, "What am I doing under his armpit?" Or he's expounding on the limits of racial reconciliation in his homeland, South Africa, and how some whites reacted to him as would an "arrogant, racist, superior being who says, 'What gives you the right to be such a cheeky native?' " And then he's cackling full out, rocking side to side in his chair.

Well, of course he's cheeky! That's the joke! Of course, he's been shameless and pushy in bluntly saying what others at times would not. With a mandate he believes is from God to speak on justice and truth, he is the victorious anti-apartheid campaigner, Nobel laureate, peacemaker and global shepherd who turned cheekiness into an arrow in the quiver of his ecclesiastical mission. It's all laid out in the new biography, "Rabble-Rouser for Peace," published this month by Free Press.

The book makes him somewhat nervous, seeing his life set down in black and white. Reading it is like "strutting in front of a mirror," he says, as if there's no ego in him.

As if.

There, inside the Club Lounge of the Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers last month at the Clinton Global Initiative conference, Tutu's putting on quite the show. He does, indeed, take to the spotlight. Passersby pause, sneaking a peek at him or catching a snatch of his singsong cadence as he holds forth on distinctly unmerry topics of good and evil, torture and terror, apartheid-era South Africa and the United States (he perceives some disturbing parallels).

But now he's antsy. He wants the interview to end.

"I have an appointment," he deadpans, "with God." But he can't hold it. His face breaks. It's those giggles, that cackle, all over again.

A Spiritual Shepherd

There is something indefatigable about Tutu. Even in the midst of intermittent treatment for his prostate cancer, the man seems to be everywhere. In that way, he is like former President Nelson Mandela -- driven and in demand -- though the comparison quickly breaks down, as Tutu is short and impish compared with Mandela's more stately bearing.

And Mandela, the heroic political prisoner turned father of South Africa's democracy when he was elected in 1994, now is 88 and no longer jetting around the globe. Not so for Tutu, South Africa's spiritual shepherd, who is 13 years Mandela's junior.

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