Not often does someone take the country by storm so quietly and so calmly. One of the admirable things about the way Nelson Mandela has conducted himself during his visit to the United States is the way he has floated serenely above the media frenzy that surrounds him.
"Issue One: Mandelamania!" bellowed John McLaughlin at the start of his "McLaughlin Group" show. "Mandelamania!" echoed guest host Al Hunt on CNN's "Capital Gang." Harold Dow, reporting for CBS News from the Mandela stop in Boston, said, "It's being called 'Mandela Magic.' "
Whatever it's being called, the man at the center of the storm keeps up an admirable dignity. "Through it all, he seemed calm and thoughtful," observed Charles Kuralt yesterday on CBS's "Sunday Morning."
One of the speakers at a New York rally was quoted as calling Mandela "the moral leader of the world." That seemed a little excessive. As Morton Kondracke noted on "McLaughlin," Mandela is not Gandhi, not Martin Luther King Jr. He brandishes the raised fist, not the peace sign.
But in an age rather short on heroes, he'll certainly suffice. Mandela's public behavior on television the past few days has been a display mostly of humility and grace.
"Few can remember a time when there has been a greater outpouring of emotion and excitement," said anchor Carole Simpson on ABC's "World News Saturday." Mandela was "greeted like a hero" by crowds in New York and Boston, she said, and CBS's Dow, like many other correspondents, reported Mandela getting "a hero's welcome."
"He's a genuine hero," said Cokie Roberts on ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley." But she had a caveat. "One thing that happens to heroes is, the closer you get to them, the less heroic they seem."
That's partly what happened when Mandela appeared on an extraordinary ABC "Town Meeting" hosted and produced by Ted Koppel, a gathering at the City College of New York that aired as an hour of prime time on Thursday and then spilled over into "Nightline" for another 45 minutes.
To Koppel's great credit, this was the only Mandela encounter up to that point to make other than ceremonial news. Mandela jolted his pacifist image by praising and declaring solidarity with Moammar Gadhafi, Yasser Arafat and Fidel Castro, prominent members of the world's rogues' gallery. "We identify with the PLO," Mandela said -- to eerie cheers from the partisan crowd that were more chilling than Mandela's words.
These discomforting pronouncements of Mandela's came up again and again on news programs and the weekend discussion shows. They gave the visit a hard-news angle, but they didn't necessarily lessen Mandela's stature. They just showed him to be human. He is, said Jack Germond on the "McLaughlin" show, "a very militant, aggressive, tough guy, and anybody who thinks he's just a kindly old man is mistaken."
Mandela also may have shocked viewers -- and seemed to delight the audience at City College -- by getting tough a couple of times with media statesman Koppel. When Koppel asked why Mandela was keeping up the push for sanctions even as the current South African regime appears to be making major concessions on apartheid, Mandela snapped, "I should know better about this matter, Mr. Koppel, than you."
Later, when Koppel referred again to concessions, Mandela said, "No, Mr. Koppel, you are entirely misinformed." When one of Mandela's answers -- which he seemed not to finish -- left Koppel momentarily speechless, Mandela looked at him and, after waiting a second for a response, chided, "I don't know if I have paralyzed you."
Koppel grinned, Mandela smiled, and the crowd laughed. It was a tension-relieving moment. The two men shook hands. Koppel handled the whole thing beautifully. Even he seemed to find it refreshing that somebody dared to snap at him on the air. Mandela, to put it mildly, was not awed by Koppel. In fact, on "Capital Gang," Hunt marveled, "I've never seen anyone dominate Ted Koppel the way Nelson Mandela did."
If Mandela can "dominate Ted Koppel," the implication was, then George Bush will be a pushover.
Mandela is very formal and a little old-fashioned when he speaks. Dow said on CBS that Mandela sounds like somebody from the '50s, which makes sense, considering that's about the last time he was able to speak publicly. He was jailed in the early '60s and stayed there until this year. Mandela's speeches are perhaps less fiery and impassioned than one would have imagined they'd be, but at 71, he is still an effortlessly commanding figure.
He tends to say "racialism" rather than "racism," and he gave a lovely, exotic, African lilt to the word "Massachusetts" while addressing crowds in Boston. In none of his appearances has he lacked eloquence.
Another remarkable thing about the coverage has been the way the face of Jesse Jackson has popped up in shot after shot. It might be said that not only does Jesse Jackson know a good photo opportunity, he is a photo opportunity. You almost have to admire his persistence.
Perhaps the best news footage has been not of Mandela himself, or of his wife, Winnie, but of the crowds who have gathered to see him. His arrival in Washington was delayed so long yesterday -- by four hours at least -- that crowds were not especially huge at National Airport or at the Madison Hotel, his Washington headquarters. But on the faces of those who showed up one could see Mandela's legend growing.
Local news reporters have hardly been immune to his mystique. J.C. Hayward, the WUSA anchor sent to New York to cover Mandela's visit there, has been ecstatic in her reportage, sometimes almost uncontrollably. Susan Kidd, the WRC anchor who covered Mandela's belated arrival in Washington, said she was personally thrilled when, at National Airport, Mandela and his entourage came near her.
"I didn't know whether to stop and gawk or to continue to cover the story," she said on the air -- not really a question she should have been asking herself. The notion of clinging to a stately objectivity in covering Mandela has apparently gone right out the window.
It seems doubtful that the prediction George Will made on the Brinkley show yesterday will come true -- that "a week from now" the visit will be "forgotten." But even if he's right, the moments have been worth savoring. Beyond his status as a crusader against racism, Mandela looms large as one individual standing up to an oppressive state, like the student who faced down a tank in Tiananmen Square, or like any number of stubborn upstarts from the revolution that produced America.
Has there been too much praise, too much adulation? Maybe. But then, Mandela seems to have made everybody feel awfully good, at least for now. The visit has been a gift, and television has been generous in giving it.