The loudest applause Nelson Mandela received from the joint session of Congress he addressed this week came when he mentioned the very American names of quintessential American heroes. With the Stars and Stripes behind him, he said George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson fought off oppression to demand democracy and human rights, and he was fighting oppression too. There was a standing ovation.
When he had the instinct to immediately follow those names with the names of black American heroes -- Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. DuBois and Martin Luther King Jr., the applause crested again, with the unusually large number of black Americans in the House gallery leading the ovation.
Mandela hit responsive chords with those American names because the truth is that during his visit to the United States he has become a vessel for American emotions about the American experience of freedom struggles and race relations -- an affair Mandela has absolutely nothing to do with.
In fact, Mandela has even resisted any suggestion that he give his opinion of American race relations. The most he has had to say is that he condemns "racialism" wherever it is found and that it can tear at the fabric of a society. And he has said that black Americans do not have to deal with the "color bar" that limits black opportunity and achievement in South Africa. Therefore, he argues, black Americans have expertise and wealth to offer black South Africans.
Later, in response to a question about similarities between the struggles of blacks in South Africa and the United States Mandela pointedly said that American blacks can go to court and appeal to "a legal system which allows them all the basic rights which are available to other population groups ... they can rely on the Constitution and enforce their rights." And in an apparent reference to Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, he added that those American courts include black judges "who have ridden to the top as far as the judiciary is concerned ... who have become famous judicial figures, indeed, and whose judgments are studied throughout the world."
That is hardly radical stuff. In fact, Mandela's words sound very much like a surprising stamp of approval for America's handling of its minority population that might enrage more militant black Americans.
His attitude is in keeping with the generally open-minded attitude black South Africans have toward South African whites; an attitude lacking in the tension evident between black and white Americans. Mandela has repeatedly stressed that the system of apartheid -- not white individuals -- is to blame for the condition of black South Africans. He welcomes whites into his home, into the upper ranks of his anti-apartheid organization and remains friends with his jail guards.
Yet for all his distance from the American reality and emotional feel of American race relations, Mandela has unleashed a spring of emotion in black America and in white America. After his speech to Congress he told a small group that his reception in the United States has been "beyond my wildest dreams." He has been overwhelmed at the emotional outpouring of ticker tape parades and even the mob scenes he generates as he rides by in his car.
The truth is we don't cheer the reality of Mandela so much as we cheer what he stands for in our national psyche. One part of him reminds us of George Washington, another of Martin Luther King Jr. There are elements of conservative and liberal in all he says and does. No matter what our political stripe, we can all pick out a color in the Mandela rainbow that allows us to join in the national celebration of Mandela.
He is an easy hero for all but the most doctrinaire of conservative whites because despite his socialist leanings and advocacy of anti-government violence he is the champion of a clearly oppressed group and he leads them in the name of democracy. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) went up to Mandela after his speech at the Capitol and told him that George Washington was not a pacifist, and the conservatives never asked the freedom fighters in Nicaragua to lay down their arms. Mandela smiled broadly.
Mandela's heroism, like a good American action movie with John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, triggers a psychological high that we all want to experience. Consequently, Mandela's struggle is reduced to good vs. evil, to one man standing strong in the face of oppressive military might. This is what America sees when it rains down ticker tape and hosannas on Nelson Mandela.
In the euphoria, Mandela helps Americans gloss over the difficulties of their own moral choices on troubling issues such as affirmative action. Recently, Jesse Jackson and Black Muslims have been talking about reparations for the victims of slavery. Well, is that every black person or people who can prove they were related to slaves, or what?
Mandela doesn't present us with any of these dilemmas. He is a man who was in jail for 27 years because he opposed the "obscenity" of denying people their humanity because of race. That is not in doubt.
Mandela stands alone, tall, in American eyes because he simply has maintained his sense of purpose in fighting for his rights -- a fight we are familiar with. He is not rich, he doesn't run anything and he doesn't hog TV cameras or credit. We have made him an apolitical character, really. More important, we see him as the underdog who triumphed. Americans love underdogs, and we love winners.
Juan Williams writes for The Washington Post Magazine.