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Washington, Mandela, and a Glance at the Good Guys

Never hurts, can't do it too often

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, December 17, 1997.

For many years, over two hundred, the United States has been able to say that when the fewmets hit the fan blades, we always had the right people - often but not always men - at the right time. It would be hard to imagine the creation of the United States without that unbelievable ensemble of genius, starting with Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Hancock, Hamilton, and of course that one person perfect for his role: Washington. We sometimes forget how astonishing Washington was and it is best for this essay to quote one of many amazed Europeans writing about him after he retired. “Washington has three times been handed absolute military and executive control of his nation, and after obeying its laws and its Congress, three times gave it all back. Nothing more need be said.” You can hear the contemporary intake of breath through the years in those words. He was a man not seen in life before.

So with Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt. America seems always able to shrug in crisis and produce, often unexpectedly, the correct individual to save us. It is something seemingly inherited from England. It is this that has always given the Anglo nations a seemingly divine and snotty superiority over others. Who in retrospect wouldn’t concede superiority to a nation who produced Franklin Roosevelt when yours produced Hitler, or Tojo, or Stalin. When the United States found a General Marshall to blend military and civilian, others had a General Franco or worse. Our Man on Horseback was only a befuddled actor named Ronald Reagan. France got General Boulanger, a defective intellect who shot himself on his mistress’ grave. In short, we have been unbelievably fortunate. Nobody else came close.

Until Nelson Mandela and South Africa. Can it be true that this great, great man just retired as the first black President of what a decade ago was among the most segregated nations on earth? He spent yesterday warning his country that some white politicians hoped to revert to apartheid after his departure, and he deplored that development. But this is more in the manner of Eisenhower warning of a military industrial complex than a prediction of revolution. After all, he is stepping down peacefully, as he promised within the law, and in general, with the adoration of his nation.

And look what he leaves: a nation where the old impulses have not died, true enough, and whose future is not sure, also true, but where all the signs are that a democratic and racially equal government will survive and thrive in an economic powerhouse. How did that happen? How did the African National Congress pull off a relatively peaceful - compared with the predictions of bloodbath - revolution and end up with a nation, if not racially reconciled, at least damned close, maybe closer than we are in the United States. The reasons are complex, and I don’t claim to understand them, but it is so clear that the one critical person to what was an absolute miracle has been Nelson Mandela. Mandela learned Afrikaners, that difficult Dutch language of his oppressors, and negotiated with the most bigoted white supremacist in their own language by appealing to what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. In the long run he rarely, if ever, failed. He did not want to have a guerilla war for decades with the five hundred year old white tribe of South Africa. He sends, to this day, birthday greetings to his predecessors in office, including the most bigoted: P.W. Botha. He is charming and politically perfect in just about everything and this has won him the affection of many of the whites, who are apparently almost shamed that they fought his ascendancy so long. The South African military refers to ‘our President’ with great pride. Who would have predicted that a decade ago?

Where but in the South Africa of Nelson Mandela could we imagine something called a Truth and Reconciliation Commission? Perhaps because race is a rather silly concept to most black South Africans, South Africa continues that amazing purge of collective guilt and shame. In what communist nations made into a fake show trials and western nations never really attempted, South Africa made into an effective national catharsis. Knowing that a Nuremberg trial would set off the violence of revenge, tribunals interrogate both black and white perpetrators of atrocities during the years of conflict between the ANC and the white government. Cases are being closed. Truth often emerges. Forgiveness is seemingly granted in truth. And understanding is apparently often achieved. Compare these hearings with any comparable events, like The Hague’s current visitation to the war in Bosnia. If the commissions are even half as presented, they are among the most important events of this century, for they demonstrate a very different concept of justice than that in western courts. There is little or no vengeance, but close to dispassionate justice. There is little or no vitriolic behavior. There is a deep hope that they are making their common land a nation. If mostly true it is stupendously impressive.

What Mandela has achieved - and we should all reflect on what everyone said was a nation doomed to massive bloodshed and civil war - is as important and impressive as anything this century. A great national patriot, he has become an international symbol to rival anyone produced anywhere. I predict that this nation - that ten years ago referred to its own passport as the green mamba because nobody would touch it - will quite soon be taking snooty pride that it got a Mandela where others got a Castro, a Khomeni, a Clinton. If there is one retiree today who deserves to put his feet up, have a cool drink and a perpetual masseuse and bask in a job well, well done, it is Nelson Mandela. Hail, sir.