U.S. President Barack Obama called Nelson Mandela’s life and legacy a touchstone for him and an example “that all humanity should aspire to.”
“We will not likely see the likes of Nelson Mandela again,” Obama said yesterday at the White House after the announcement of South African leader’s death at age 95. “So it falls to us as best we can to forward the example that he set.”
Obama probably will travel to South Africa for services for Mandela, according to a person familiar with White House planning who asked for anonymity because the trip hasn’t been announced. The president ordered U.S. flags to be lowered to half-staff until sunset on Dec. 9 in Mandela’s honor, according to a White House proclamation.
Obama, 52, joined leaders worldwide in paying tribute to Mandela, a freedom fighter who emerged from 27 years in prison to become South Africa’s first elected black president.
Prime Minister David Cameron of the U.K. said that “a great light has gone out in the world.”
“My heart goes out to his family, and to all in South Africa and around the world whose lives were changed through his courage,” Cameron said in a statement.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe praised Mandela for setting an example of forgiveness. “After he succeeded in abolishing apartheid following a long struggle, he did not seek revenge, but took the lead in national reconciliation,” Abe said in a statement.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, 67, said Mandela will be remembered “as a man of uncommon grace and compassion, for whom abandoning bitterness and embracing adversaries was not just a political strategy but a way of life.”
Former President George H.W. Bush said Mandela was one of the greatest believers in freedom he had known.
“He was a man of tremendous moral courage, who changed the course in his country,” Bush, 89, said.
Lawmakers of both parties in the U.S. Congress praised Mandela for perseverance in the face of his long imprisonment.
“Nelson Mandela was an unrelenting voice for democracy and his ‘long walk to freedom’ showed an enduring faith in God and respect for human dignity,” said House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican.
Obama, the first black U.S. president, said during his White House remarks that he was “one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Mandela’s life. So long as I live, I will do what I can to learn from him.”
Obama reflected on Mandela’s achievement in standing up to the apartheid government of South Africa, going to jail and emerging to continue a quest for reconciliation and equality.
“His commitment to transfer power and reconcile with those who jailed him set an example that all humanity should aspire to, whether in the lives of nations or our own personal lives,” the president said. “He achieved more than can be expected of any man.”
Obama also spoke by phone tonight with South African President Jacob Zuma to offer condolences and convey “how profoundly Mandela’s extraordinary example of moral courage, kindness and humility influenced his own life,” the White House said in a statement. Obama also reaffirmed the “strong and historic partnership” between the two countries, the White House said.
“A much better man than me, a much better man than almost any man or woman I’ve met in my whole career,” U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said in South Korea. “He inspired us, he challenged us, to do better.”
Obama’s admiration for Mandela was evident during the the U.S. president’s trip to Africa last June.
Throughout his stops in Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania, Obama repeatedly reflected on the legacy of the man who he has credited with influencing his own political ambitions and sense of activism.
While his aides had considered arranging a meeting between the first black presidents of the U.S. and South Africa, Mandela’s failing health prevented a face-to-face session. Instead, Obama met with members of the Mandela’s family and spoke on the telephone with his wife, Graca Machel.
Obama and his wife, Michelle, brought daughters Sasha and Malia to Robben Island during the visit, to tour the lime quarry where Mandela labored as a prisoner and to stand in his apartheid-era cell.
Obama met Mandela just once, as a freshman U.S. senator in 2005 at a Washington hotel. The image captured from that moment -- a silhouetted Obama bending over to gently clasp a smiling Mandela’s hand, hangs in Obama’s private White House residence and a color version, signed by Obama, has sat framed in Mandela’s study.
Obama was moved when Mandela called him after his election and, of all the calls that he received, he considered it one of the most meaningful and surprising, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said earlier this year.
Obama spoke with Mandela in 2010 after his great-granddaughter was killed in a car crash on her way home from the opening concert of the World Cup.
In his White House remarks yesterday, Obama recalled that his first political speech, delivered as a college student, was in opposition to apartheid and inspired by Mandela’s courage.
“Like so many around the globe,” Obama said. “I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example that Nelson Mandela set.”
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at email@example.com