Gathering valedictory material on Nelson Mandela as he faded in a Pretoria hospital the other day, I came across a little book called Mandela’s Way. In this 2010 volume, Rick Stengel, the ghostwriter of Mandela’s autobiography, set out to extract “lessons on life, love and courage” he had learned from three years of immersion in Mandela’s life.
Stengel, who is the managing editor of Time magazine, could not resist comparing his hero to another tall, serene, hope-bearing son of Africa: Barack Obama.
“Obama’s self-discipline, his willingness to listen and to share credit, his inclusion of his rivals in his administration and his belief that people want things explained, all seem like a 21-century version of Mandela’s values and persona,” he wrote. “Whatever Mandela may or may not think of the new American president, Obama is in many ways his true successor on the world stage.”
A bit much, yes? Well, Stengel was hardly alone back then in awarding the U.S. president a stature he had scarcely begun to earn. The Nobel Committee, which had awarded its peace prize to Mandela for ending the obscenity of apartheid, bestowed that honor on Obama merely for not being George W. Bush.
Different men, different countries, different times. Perhaps even Mandela — who was more successful liberating South Africa than governing it — could not have lived up to the inflated expectations heaped on Obama. But it is interesting to imagine how Obama’s presidency might be different if he had in fact done it Mandela’s way.
Mandela, in his time on the political stage, was a man of almost ascetic self-discipline. But he also understood how to deploy his moral authority in grand theatrical gestures. Facing capital charges of trying to overthrow the state in the Rivonia Trial, he entered the formal Pretoria courtroom dressed in a traditional Xhosa leopard-skin cape to dramatize that he was an African entering a white man’s jurisdiction. And then he essentially confessed to the crime.
In 1995, Mandela, newly elected president of a still deeply divided country, single-handedly turned the Rugby World Cup — the whitest sporting event in South Africa, long the target of anti-apartheid boycotts — into a festival of interracial harmony. He was, in short, the opposite of “no drama.”
Obama’s sense of political theater peaked at his first inaugural. He rarely deploys the stirring reality that he is the first black man to hold the office. As my New York Times colleague Peter Baker notes, “Obama’s burden as he sees it, different from Mandela’s, is to make the fact that he’s black be a nonissue. Only then will his breakthrough be truly meaningful.” Still, I think Mandela would have sought a way to make a more exciting civic bond out of the pride so many Americans felt in this milestone.
Mandela understood that politics is not mainly a cerebral sport. It is a business of charm and flattery and symbolic gestures and eager listening and little favors. It is above all a business of empathy. To help win over the Afrikaners, he learned their Dutch dialect and let them keep their national anthem. For John Boehner, he’d have learned golf and become a merlot drinker. “You don’t address their brains,” Mandela advised his colleagues, and would surely advise Obama. “You address their hearts.”