Harry Carey, the Los Angeles pipefitter and air-conditioning mechanic, will be relieved. Roger Wilkins is on the case. It had been Carey's concern that admirers of Nelson Mandela, who is expected to begin a 10-day visit to the United States on June 20, will "use him up."
"Can't you write something urging people to remember the man's age and medical history and give him a break?" Carey urged in a phone call from the Los Angeles office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, where he is a volunteer with the Southern Africa Resource Center. "I know we all want to lay down palm leaves and touch the hem of his garment, and I know he will want to be as cooperative as he can. But eight cities in 10 days is already too much. Please urge our people not to make it worse by laying on unnecessary events."
Carey says he has been trying to bring his colleagues in the antiapartheid movement to his point of view, but it hasn't been easy.
"The initial response is that Mandela knows himself and his physical limitations," he said. "But when I go into the litany of his illnesses -- the prostate surgery, the tuberculosis and the rest -- they start to soften. Then I talk about the way President Reagan was treated, how his people husbanded his energies and used him only in situations where he could be uniquely effective, and I get more sympathy for my position.
"But then the draw of having him here starts to overwhelm them. They see how just having him on stage at their event will enhance their political impact, their ability to raise funds and their own prestige, and they go on with their preparations that, if unchecked, will have him participating in five or six events in every city he visits. They know he is fragile, but they see themselves as a part of a juggernaut they can't control."
Wilkins, a history professor at George Mason University and a founding member of the Free South Africa movement, shares the feeling -- which is why he has consented to serve as coordinator of the Mandela visit.
"We had a big meeting on May 11 of antiapartheid people from all over the country, and I was struck by the number of people who, while they understood the man's physical limitations, were nevertheless saying, 'He's got to see us' or 'He's got to meet with my group,' Wilkins said.
"I reminded them that we are talking about a human being, not an ambulatory photo opportunity. This is a 72-year-old man, not a 27-year-old athlete. His job is to lead the struggle for social and political justice in South Africa, not to polish the egos and inflate the status of individual Americans. And our job is to take care of him, to provide him security, and to make sure that his physical well-being is attended to at all times. We can't allow ourselves to just eat him up."
And yet the temptation to do just that is all but irresistible. In fact, it strikes me as a mistake to stretch his itinerary to include not just New York and Washington but also Los Angeles and the Bay Area -- an itinerary that was set before Wilkins took over.
Nor is it just his admirers who will want a piece of Mandela. There's hardly a network anchor or top reporter who wouldn't covet a chance for an exclusive interview, hardly an advocate for racial justice who doubts that even a brief appearance by Mandela would make the critical difference, hardly an American who would pass up a chance to be in the presence of the great man.
Carey counts himself in this number. But he insists, correctly, that we should all be willing to pass up such self-gratification in the interest of the greater good the Mandela visit could accomplish.
"Our focus should be to see to it that the visit has some legislative impact in the United States," he says. "There should be a bill in the Congress by the time he leaves calling at least for military aid -- or at the very least, humanitarian aid that can quickly be transformed into economic aid -- for the African National Congress. For that to happen, his visit should be limited to New York and Washington, and though I would love to see him, the hell with L.A. We need to focus on where his presence would do the most good."
Wilkins, though his concern is logistics, not strategy, would agree.
"Mandela wants to speak to the American people, and he will do that in a variety of ways," he said. "Our job is to help him to do it in a way that will let him go home with his health improved and his political stature enhanced for the difficult negotiations in South Africa."