Bill Clinton brought his honey-smooth Arkansas twang back to Africa on Tuesday, where he helped celebrate Nelson Mandela's 87th birthday and was treated more like a returning hero than a flawed ex-president in the twilight of a controversial career.

Clinton, 58, white-haired and paunchless in the aftermath of September's heart surgery, displayed all the political gifts that made him an electrifying campaigner. He peered deeply into eyes. He bit his lower lip. No sentiment was too corny, no goal too lofty.

When he told a group of young people involved in community service that his goal in his post-presidential life was "to make sure nobody younger than me dies before their time," the room was rapt. When he finished his speech, which danced lightly on 10,000 years of human history without the benefit of notes, some 200 people pressed forward to shake his hand, give him a hug or a quick peck on the cheek. Cameras clicked, pulses raced.

Hours later, at the panel discussion on African leadership given in honor of Mandela's birthday, anti-apartheid leader Mamphela Ramphele dubbed Clinton "a true and trusted friend of Africa."

Clinton traveled to Africa in a rare presidential visit in 1998. And though he has acknowledged being slow to respond to the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and has been criticized for moving timidly against the continent's looming catastrophe of AIDS, he remains a hero to many here. His marital failings have rarely been a cause for concern on a continent where even revered icons such as the thrice-married Mandela are known to have complex personal histories.

Here, Clinton touted the anti-AIDS efforts of his William J. Clinton Foundation and the virtue of youth service. Onstage with three Nobel Peace Prize winners -- Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai -- Clinton looked at ease as he leaned back and whispered a joke in the ear of Mandela, who burst into audible and indecorous laughter.

Mandela, by contrast, didn't make any public comment. Feted by fireworks and countless tributes over the past two days (his birthday was Monday, and he spent it out of the spotlight in his home village in South Africa's Eastern Cape), he instead waved to an adoring, cheering crowd.

When he rose stiffly at the end of the evening, he leaned heavily on an ivory-colored cane until his wife, Graca Machel, rushed forward to support Mandela's other arm.

His last surviving son died of complications of AIDS in January and Mandela has, in recent years, attempted to cut back his public schedule to spend more time with his family.

In an interview, Clinton said Mandela remained physically fit and mentally sharp, calling him "happy, at peace, alert, still passionately interested in solving the problems of South Africa and the continent."

He added, "It is astonishing how well his body has held up after so many years in prison. Life is a lot less stressful for the happy-hearted than for the angry. And I think that has also helped him to stay alive."

At Tuesday night's tribute, Clinton spoke of Mandela's pivotal role, during his presidency from 1994 to 1999, in leading South Africa through the treacherous first years after the fall of apartheid, when jittery whites were leaving in droves, taking skills and wealth as black-majority rule took hold.

As Clinton recalled, Mandela didn't merely speak of a multiracial society, he incorporated former apartheid leaders into his cabinet, he forgave the prosecutor who once tried to have him executed, he drank tea with the wife of the former South African president who kept him jailed. And in an enduring masterstroke still remembered keenly by white South Africans, he took to the field after the 1995 World Cup of rugby -- traditionally a sport of Afrikaners, the architects of apartheid -- and donned a team jersey.

Clinton suggested that this approach offered a model for other African nations, where divisions of tribe -- if not race -- remain enduring sources of tension.

"You get better leaders if you live in a country where your democracy was more than majority rule. It's also minority rights and fair process. That was this man's genius," Clinton told the packed theater.

"Everybody thought it was so great he brought his jailers to his inauguration," Clinton said. "A clever politician could have done that. You have to be much more than a clever politician to put your oppressors in your government."

Clinton did not miss a chance to weigh in on the hottest issue on the continent -- the government demolition of housing and markets across neighboring Zimbabwe that has left, according to United Nations estimates, more than 500,000 people homeless during the coldest months of the year.

Clinton's criticism of Zimbabwe President Robert G. Mugabe for this, made in a private function Monday night, made the wires here.

"It was wrong for those neighborhoods to be plowed up in Zimbabwe," Clinton said in an interview Tuesday before the Mandela celebration. "The difference in the Mandela approach and the Mugabe approach in governing a formerly apartheid, black-majority society couldn't be more stark."

Then, as Clinton headed for the stage, a man with a point-and-shoot camera begged for a picture. With a friendly smile, Clinton put his arm around the stranger and posed as if they were lifelong friends.