Human beings, of which I am one, yearn for heroes, men and women who far exceed common human expectations. Even a horse might suffice. I have heard that Secretariat’s stunning 31 length win in the 1973 Belmont Stakes brought golf legend Jack Nicholas to tears watching the event on TV.
In a world which Shakespeare summed up so well with “what fools these mortals be,” to watch the seemingly impossible unfold before our eyes, can sharply elevate our sense of human possibility. Great deeds, especially when they add up to a life of greatness, inspire us to be more than we had imagined.
Even great words alone can do it.
When Jack Kennedy said: “Ask not what your country can do for you….” he inspired many to think in terms of doing something for our country, not just for ourselves. Perhaps you had to be around at the time to appreciate the impact of those words, which exceeded what he was able to accomplish in a life cut short.
Unfortunately Kennedy had a side most of us did not know at the time, that of a womanizer, which has tarnished those earlier shining images of Camelot. Like most heroes, he revealed “feet of clay.”
Our heroes disappoint us because we want them to be angels, but they are all too human. As such, I have been slow to join the chorus of adulation for Nelson Mandela even though I have long held him in high regard. But from the perspective of a casual observer.
Now I have taken a harder look and his stature remains undiminished.
The first thing cynics have argued is that he was a terrorist prior to being jailed for 27 years. However, former Speaker and Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has countered those assertions on his web site with a description of the tyranny blacks faced in South Africa at the time of his arrest, comparing him favorably to our founding fathers, a description that has prompted hostile reactions from the right. (1*)
Others might point out that South Africa remains a particularly violent country with many racial /social problems, but Tim Stanley describes in the Telegraph (UK) ways in which life in South Africa has improved as a result of Mandela’s leadership. Also, it is not just what Mandela did, but what he did not do that is important. He left office after one term instead of consolidating his power in perpetuity, the norm of the successful African “strong man.”
The miracle is that South Africa has not gone the way of Zimbabwe (previously called Rhodesia), where “President” Robert Mugabe has essentially been dictator since 1987, driving whites out of the country and crippling a once healthy economy while benefiting few beyond his closest supporters.
To round out the portrait, I suggest this piece from FoxNews.com by Roelof Frederik “Pik” Botha, a former South African Foreign Minister who served under President Mandela. Previously, he had been a member of the ruling white party for years, often tasked with defending apartheid to other nations. I saw Mike Wallace interview him last Saturday and was struck by his personal admiration and affection for Nelson Mandela.
On the show, Botha admitted Mandela was no angel, but added there are none. Still, when it comes to human beings, especially in the political arena, Nelson Mandela seems as close as we can get.
(*1) Newt Gingrich said he was surprised by the hostile comments stirred by his “few kind words”about Mandela. That surprise seems feigned. He knows very well that the far right of his party would not appreciate praise for a black revolutionary in Africa, even one who brought his country together. They barely tolerate a black president in this country.