Imagine finding inside this "Moses" -- as Nelson Mandela has been hailed many times on his triumphant tour -- a down-to-earth, tough-minded politician?

The first inkling he gave that he is something more than an elderly icon and a symbol for his people came on Ted Koppel's "Nightline" show when he spoke of being beholden to Yasser Arafat, Moammar Gadhafi and Fidel Castro. His questioners were shocked. Too bad, Mandela coolly replied. Your enemies are not necessarily our enemies, he suggested.

The trio the United States loves to hate had encouraged the African National Congress during its darkest days, he explained. The U.S. government, of course, had not. Or, to put it another way, as former House speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill often said: All politics is local. Mandela is obviously having a lovely time, and he seems as delighted as his audiences, but he had to send messages back to the home folk, messages that show that the sensational reception has not gone to his head.

But it was when he got to the White House lawn that he really showed his stuff. Only a politician would have done what he did to President Bush. Here was a man barely out of prison standing up to the leader of the western world and shoving him back about 10 paces. In effect, Mandela told the president that he did not know what he was talking about in regard to African National Congress violent opposition to South Africa's apartheid system, and lectured Bush on the importance of consulting the ANC before he does anything further.

It was breathtaking boldness, carried off with that strangely endearing dignity. Mandela, with his navy blue suit and his formal speech patterns, seems to come from another era, one that never knew the 30-second sound bite. He never looked at Bush while he was executing this effrontery.

Naturally. He looked straight into the cameras, he talked directly to his legion of new fans -- the people in New York, Boston and Washington -- who stood for hours for a glimpse of him, who greeted him with tears and cheers, who could hardly find words for their admiration. They rarely see conviction. The Republican president got where he is by being supple. The Democrats in Congress hasten to fashion compromises with the care they once applied to legislation they believed in. Mandela, the holdout, is magic and unique.

On the White House lawn, Bush was almost a prop. When his guest had finished, all he did was marvel, "No notes -- wonderful."

Mandela knew he had taken the East Coast by storm. He is a compelling figure, hopelessly non-instructive to local counterparts. Which one of them would stay in jail for 27 years and come out smiling, would have the patience and endurance to tough it out, foreseeing that a decent president like Frederik W. de Klerk would have to release him unconditionally just because he needed someone to talk to?

Although Mandela says fairly convincingly that he wants to "let bygones be bygones" -- his wife Winnie is of a different school -- he can be harsh with de Klerk. On "Nightline," he said de Klerk did "nothing" -- which was probably a way of telling the ANC that he was as militant as ever. On the White House lawn, he was a little kinder to his liberator. He wanted to help de Klerk "maintain his position," he said.

He brought to Washington, which is undergoing the drug-and-perjury trial of its black mayor, Marion Barry, the same sort of healing that he seems to have imparted to New York and Boston. Irritated New Yorkers slowed down to watch him. In Boston, home of liberal causes and racial tensions, black and white joined in common joy at his coming. Outside the White House, tourists shrieked as he passed.

It was as if some sort of general amnesty had been declared. Blacks are proud of him: He is the first world-class leader they have had since Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Whites are grateful to him: He survived the worst that a white government could do to him, and he talks about education and principles and the official, institutionalized racism of apartheid, not the ersatz version claimed by unscrupulous black politicians.

And if he is a politician, he is a good one. He used those long years behind bars to good effect. He not only founded a clandestine institution of higher learning, he organized a headquarters for the ANC behind bars. And he thought things through. So when someone pointed out the contradiction of his saying that the human rights records of Arafat, Gadhafi and Castro were not his business, while demanding the world take a part in South Africa's domestic affairs, he could say, with grandeur, that apartheid is so monstrous a practice that the world has a moral obligation to interfere.