Today’s mass memorial for Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg is a reminder that no matter how powerful or compelling a political leader may seem at the height of his career, in the end history renders its own verdict as to that leader’s contributions. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Mandela lived long enough to hear what that verdict was. Long before he passed away last week at the age of 95, he had come to be regarded as one of the most inspiring leaders of the 20th Century. In the words of a Daily Telegraph obituary, Mandela “was the architect of South Africa’s transformation from racial despotism to liberal democracy, saving his country from civil war and becoming its first black president.”
What made Mandela inspirational was his willingness to forgive, and to urge conciliation on others. Despite having been imprisoned for 27 years, he led African nationalists in the pursuit of a negotiated transition to political equality, and he never used the celebrity conferred by his sacrifices or success for personal aggrandizement. Instead, he sought to forge a political order in which ethnic and factional differences were moderated for the greater good. Mandela always said he was less saint than sinner, but his ability to subordinate ego and ideology for the common good has made him one of those rare leaders who will be remembered centuries after their passing.
How many of America’s leaders today can aspire to such a status? Rather than inspiring, the spectacle of partisan paralysis and petty agendas we witness today is a constant reminder of our limitations as a nation and a people. The behavior exhibited in Washington on a daily basis is more indicative of a nation in decline — or on the verge of civil strife — than one led by selfless, capable leaders. Perhaps in Nelson Mandela’s passing, our leaders in both parties can find the strength to admit what they are doing to America, and rise above their provincial concerns. Whether the subject is taxes or defense or infrastructure or healthcare, democracy can’t work without compromise. If this generation of American leaders wants to be remembered as anything other than failures, it needs to learn that lesson from the career of Mandela.
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