Confident of his political beliefs and goals, he forced us to deal with him on his own terms.
By sheer force of his personality Nelson Mandela accomplished the impossible in Washington. No, he didn't get the money for the African National Congress and he didn't get the commitment he wished for American sanctions to be sustained until such time as he and his political partners give the sign that it is okay to lift them. He did something much more difficult: he took charge of the conversation, blew away the conventional and somewhat nasty debate we were set to have about him and compelled political Washington to receive and comprehend him on his own terms. Unheard of.
The debate we were expected to have turned on whether Mandela's organization was communist and/or terrorist, whether it would forswear armed violence and whether it would settle for a stately (i.e., foot-dragging) pace in the achievement of its aims. The tone was certain to get raw. During that first television exchange on Ted Koppel's program, and in its immediate aftermath, an audience roaring its support whenever Mandela provoked with his refusal to disavow the unholy trinity of Arafat, Castro and Gadhafi, and increasingly angry questioners from the floor and next-day critics pushing back seemed to set it up. And the dispute was legitimate. Mandela dispelled it by making very careful, fine distinctions between the Arafat-Castro-Gadhafi support of his movement and the three men's other activities (on which he declined to comment) and sticking resolutely and unapologetically to his position.
He prevailed. By the end of the week his stand was being sympathetically likened to certain American relationships of expediency with Joseph Stalin and, God help us, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge. Then the issue just sort of vanished. He had stared his critics down and overwhelmed them with his determination and his confidence in his stand.
Woman and girl I have seen an awful lot of big-screen foreign visitors to this city -- exotic, important, mysterious, celebrated, objects of huge curiosity, even political obsession. But I have never seen anything like this. The man just took command of every interview and every political circumstance in which he found himself. This wasn't a result of sycophancy or condescension or opportunism on the part of those he encountered here. It was coming from him, not from his interlocutors.
When I reflected on this after Mandela's departure, I decided his accomplishment was traceable to his much-vaunted discipline. This was his secret weapon -- it is a very secret weapon in Washington, being the scarcest of all political characteristics. Mandela exudes it, and his story is a parable of discipline. Here is a man whose enemies robbed him of his mature life, or tried to or, anyhow, thought they had. He was 27 years in prison, during most of which it seemed certain he would never be released; yet he did not yield to either bitterness, introversion or despair. The rigorous physical program of daily exercise he set himself was matched by an intellectual discipline of learning and developing his political thought, staying as informed, involved and sharp as his condition allowed him to be. Something in him clearly cowed his jailers, as it cowed his political enemies who, despite having sworn they would never do so, became Mandela's negotiating partners.
As with the late Justice Potter Stewart's famous line about pornography, so, too, with discipline in this city. True, we may not have much of it ourselves -- but "we know it when we see it," and we fall back in deference. This, after all, is a virtue we write and talk and worry much about. We call it, with our usual weakness for psychobabble, "deferred gratification." And we are forever telling the fractious, spoiled young and the rampaging consumers and the insistent minions of all the gimme-now lobbies that it is a quality they simply must cultivate, although we here in Political Central live in a great gooey gum of indiscipline ourselves, being masters of short-term advantage for long-term-loss politics. You don't think the federal budget deficit just happened, do you?
In fact, I think people in this city get just a little scared when they are confronted by a person of such self-evidently intense discipline as Nelson Mandela. I don't mean he came across as a glittery-eyed zealot; he was very smiley and gracious in manner. It was just that he clearly had commitments and beliefs and political goals that were larger to him than his own momentary comfort and than any particular desire to ingratiate himself, that were simply beyond compromise or manipulation or disarming by the blandishments of others. He had not succumbed to Afrikaner threats, and he was equally impervious to American charms.
We always get uneasy in this city in the presence of people who seem to know something mystical we don't know, who are driven by causes we can't deflect. We tend to characterize them as troublemakers or nuts, to work hard at undermining their singlemindedness and, when we have succeeded at least to the extent of getting them to participate in a general compromise of some kind, to compliment them on their maturity and, naturally, "moderation." No such luck with Nelson Mandela.
I met his wife eight years ago, when she was still "banned" and exiled to the godforsaken rural town of Brandfort in hostile Afrikaner country. She lived in a tiny impoverished settlement on top of a dusty hill, under constant surveillance. Weekly she walked the couple of miles to her obligatory check-in at the local police station, famously refusing to enter through the designated door for blacks. Her husband, we all assumed, would never come off infamous Robben Island where he was imprisoned -- and now look. I still wish Mandela would say the right words to reassure me on the subject of his feelings about the human-rights travesties of Gadhafi et al. But he does provide another kind of reassurance. He is a man whose life instructs that people can assert control of their personal destiny no matter what the force of the hardships they incur and that they can by their own conduct overwhelm the odds against them. I think everyone in this city, including those who detest Mandela's message and his politics, was aware, by the time he left, of having been in the presence of a big guy.