(Melina Mara/The Washington Post) (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

As President Obama made his way across the Atlantic for Nelson Mandela's memorial service, Vice President Biden crossed Massachusetts Avenue this morning to pay his own tribute to the late South African leader.

Biden and his wife, Jill,  visited the South African Embassy, a neighbor of the Naval Observatory, where the second couple lives, to sign a condolence book for Mandela, who died last week at 95.

"On behalf of the American people, our deepest condolences to the people of South Africa for the passing of Nelson Mandela.  But more than that, our profound gratitude — for his compassion, his humility, and his courage," Biden wrote. "Through his unflagging, unflinching commitment to human dignity and his willingness to forgive, he inspired us and challenged us all to do better.  He once said that 'a good head and a good heart is a formidable combination.' Mandela’s head and heart lifted a nation to freedom.  We will continue to keep his spirit alive and strive to live by his example."

The Bidens emerged into the chilly morning and stood for several minutes before the bronze statue of Mandela, the dozens of flowers at its base glazed in frost.

The South African Ambassador to Washington, Ebrahim Rasool, told the vice president that the statue's pose, his fist raised, was taken from the first picture of Mandela after his release from prison in 1990.

"I remember seeing the pictures ... 27 years," Mr. Biden said, recounting the amount of time Mandela spent behind bars for his role in leading the opposition to South Africa's apartheid government.

Biden, who as a senator served for years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, recounted for the ambassador his 1977 visit to South Africa, although he was denied the chance to meet with the imprisoned Mandela on that occasion.

"The most remarkable man I met in my whole career," Biden said.

Obama is scheduled to attend a Tuesday memorial service in South Africa. Biden will speak Wednesday at the National Cathedral at an event honoring Mandela.