As the crowds made clear in New York last week, Nelson Mandela has afforded many of us a rare opportunity to cheer for a man of extraordinary courage and intellect. He arrives in Washington today, giving yet another racially divided city a reason to rejoice.

But in wrapping Mandela in the garb of celebrity, we must be careful not to hide the naked truth about him: Nelson Mandela is not free. He is, in fact, a revolutionary in search of a war chest for a life or death struggle against apartheid in South Africa.

The desire to be near such a romantic figure is quite understandable. But to argue, fuss and fight for the opportunity, as some here are doing, shows how easy it is to lose sight of what Mandela stands for even as we seek a glimpse of him.

The commitment, patience and sacrifice that have served the 71-year-old Mandela so well during his lifetime were all but forgotten within hours of the announcement of his Washington schedule.

"If he can go to New York and they can have a ticker-tape parade and he can see Harlem, then he ought to be accessible to the residents of this city," said D.C. Council member Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6), who is attempting to set up her own celebration along Mandela's motorcade route.

What black person would not want to see, touch and celebrate Nelson Mandela? But surely Mandela must wince at those who whine, having made clear during the televised town meeting with ABC-TV newsman Ted Koppel that he frowns on "airing dirty linen" in public.

If ever there was a time for Washington to put its best foot forward, it's now. Mandela needs our unity. Checkbooks, not checkered tales, will make his visit to Washington a success.

"What we need to do is give money, or find ways to collect money, for the African National Congress," said Gwen McKinney, director of the Washington-based Namibia Information Service. "It's okay to pay homage to Mandela for surviving all of those years in prison, but don't let that overshadow what put him in prison in the first place."

"My hope," said the Rev. H. Beecher Hicks, of Metropolitan Baptist Church, who recently returned from South Africa, "is that when the ticker tape is swept up, and when the jockeying for position in the Mandela receiving line is over, the child in Soweto will not be forgotten."

To be sure, it is difficult keeping Mandela's visit in its proper perspective. After the agony and anger of Bensonhurst and Howard Beach in New York, the Stuart case in Boston and the wrenching Barry case here, enter the effervescent Nelson Mandela.

Rarely do black people have a chance to celebrate a leader who is so cool, clean, compelling -- and alive.

Nevertheless, Mandela's cause must take precedence over Mandela the man.

"The irony is that the community's work in the anti-apartheid movement has been able to redirect policy to some extent that Mr. Mandela is now able to meet with heads of state," said Cecelie Counts Blakey, of the National Mandela Welcoming Committee. "The problem is that means that he has less time to spend with the people of D.C."

This should make us proud -- not bitter.

The reality that we have helped, and can continue supporting black South Africa in the struggle against apartheid, should be enough to force aside petty differences among us.

There is no doubt that those responsible for Mandela's only public appearance in Washington could have handled ticket sales much better. Mandela spoke at Yankee Stadium in New York, just as he spoke at soccer stadiums in Soweto. Surely he could have been scheduled to speak at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, instead of the smaller Washington Convention Center.

I especially sympathize with Franklyn Jenifer, president of Howard University, who tried so hard to arrange for Mandela to visit that school. How tough it must have been to watch as Mandela was hauled off to party with Madonna and Eddie Murphy in New York, and then be told that there was not enough time for him to visit the one institution in America that is synonymous with the education of African leadership.

But Jenifer handled disappointment as Mandela might have. When Mandela was asked how he felt about CIA involvement in his imprisonment, he remarked magnanimously, "Let bygones be bygones." And so did Jenifer show his nobilty of purpose by humbly conceding. "I'm sure Mr. Mandela is aware of Howard's role in educating many people from Africa," he said.

Jenifer had not missed the point of Mandela's visit to Washington. Neither should the rest of us.