In a brief set of remarks Thursday evening, President Obama praised former South African President Nelson Mandela, who died Thursday at age 95, as a singular figure who pursued a noble set of ideals at great personal cost, and managed to see them become reality.
The president began by recalling how Mandela said at the close of his 1964 trial that he had resisted both white and black domination with equal force: "I've cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
"Nelson Mandela lived for that ideal and he made it real," Obama continued. "He achieved more than could be expected of any man."
Calling him "one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth," Obama said the fact that a human being could go from being imprisoned to the leader of his country "embodied the promise that human beings and countries can change for the better."
Obama, who met Mandela once while serving in the Senate, noted that his first political act was to join in a campus protest against apartheid as a college student.
"I am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela's life," he said. "I would study his words and his writings. The day he was released from prison, it gave me a sense of what human beings can do when they're guided by their hopes and not by their fears. And like so many around the globe, I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example that Nelson Mandela set. And so long as I live, I will do what I can to learn from him."
The president praised Mandela's unique personality, noting, "As he once said, 'I'm not a saint unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.' "
And Obama suggested that he and others would have to try to advance the late leader's ideals, even if they might never measure up to his example.
"We will not likely see the likes of Nelson Mandela again, so it falls to us as best we can to [forward] the example that he set — to make decisions guided not by hate but by love, never discount the difference that one person can make, to strive for a future that is worthy of his sacrifice," the president said. "For now, let us pause and give thanks for the fact that Nelson Mandela lived, a man who took history in his hands and bent the arc of the moral universe towards justice. May God bless his memory and keep him in peace."