"I was not a messiah but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances."
Nelson Mandela (1918–2013)
Nelson Mandela died yesterday at the age of 95, and I have been struggling over what to write about that.
It really seems as if I said all I wanted to say five months ago when the world braced itself for this moment. At that time, to borrow a famous line from Mark Twain, any reports of Mandela's imminent death seemed to have been "greatly exaggerated." Nevertheless, many people the world over began to accept the idea that Mandela was not immortal, that death would come to him eventually as it must to all men.
Mandela emerged from that experience and lived to observe his 95th birthday a few weeks later. Turned out it was his last.
Whatever one's opinion of his politics, it must be said of Nelson Mandela that he was resilient. I think everyone could agree on that.
From there, you could expand your remarks to include additional adjectives with which others might or might not agree. But no one could say that a man who spent nearly three decades in prison for what was widely seen as a quixotic quest to rid South Africa of white minority rule was not resilient.
It was that very resiliency, I'm sure, that prompted so many of his countrymen to resist the idea that he was dying last summer. And their faith was rewarded by what I (and, I am sure, many others) felt was a miraculous recovery.
But the season of miracles held no miracles for Nelson Mandela. His legacy will forever be the miracle in which he played a part in South Africa long before the arrival of this Christmas season.
That would be plenty, but what I will always remember, what I will always appreciate the most about Mandela is his commitment to constitutional government, peace, freedom, democracy, those bedrock values that define the character of the United States and all the countries in the world that have sought to live up to its example.
Not that the United States is perfect, but it makes its transitions of power peacefully, no matter the circumstances. And that is precisely what Mandela sought to achieve when he became South Africa's first black president. He and F.W. de Klerk shared the Nobel Peace Prize for their transition from apartheid to a democratic South Africa.
Mandela was elected president of South Africa once, then chose not to seek a second term. Like George Washington in my own country, Mandela believed that, like the United States, South Africa would benefit from periodically changing its leadership.
He retired from the presidency but not from his involvement in the direction his country was taking.
After all his years in prison, Mandela could have used his position as president to seek retribution. He didn't. He could have used his position to seize power indefinitely and essentially become a dictator. He didn't.
In the New York Times, Lydia Polgreen writes that, with Mandela's death, South Africa is left "without its moral center at a time of growing dissatisfaction with the country's leaders."
You could say the same thing of the rest of the world.