For U.S. politicians, civil rights leaders, celebrities and business leaders with a connection to Nelson Mandela, there’s no more prestigious way to pay their respects at his memorial than to arrive in South Africa on Air Force One with President Barack Obama.
It’s an exclusive invitation and, for all but a few who’ve been at the pinnacle of power, an impossible one.
“There are tons of people that want to go,” said Dan K. Rosenthal, 47, who served as President Bill Clinton’s director of advance from 1997 to 2000 and deputy director in 1995 when Clinton traveled to the funeral of slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. “Everyone, given their druthers, would prefer to fly with the president of the United States.”
The White House frequently assembles delegations for overseas events including memorial services, inaugurations and other official functions. The goal is a mix of politicians, relevant members of civilian society, and public luminaries. This time, the White House is limiting the size of the delegation by request of the South African government, which must handle a worldwide influx of dignitaries who want to be at FNB Stadium in Johannesburg for tomorrow’s memorial service.
U.S. Ambassador to South Africa Patrick Gaspard said that while Mandela is beloved worldwide, “he was first and foremost a South African and his fellow citizens need to be accorded our full respect and space as they mourn and celebrate.”
Gaspard, who has been coordinating planning with the White House, said in an e-mail that the U.S. presence “can’t be allowed to be an intrusive imposition.”
That means corporate CEOs with ties to South Africa or Mandela won’t be traveling today on Air Force One. Nor will celebrities with civil rights ties, such as Oprah Winfrey or actor Morgan Freeman, who has portrayed Mandela in film. Some public figures may travel later to attend the burial service on Dec. 15 in Mandela’s home town of Qunu.
Only former U.S. presidents, their spouses and some current and former Obama administration officials and aides were invited to travel with the president when Air Force One departed this morning.
Former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Attorney General Eric Holder joined Obama and first lady Michelle Obama on Air Force One, while former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea Clinton, will travel separately to the event.
On the flight, the Obamas, Bushes and Clinton shared their memories of Mandela, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters aboard Air Force One. “Each of them have their own experiences,” he said.
Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry, who has scheduled congressional testimony on Iran, will stay in Washington. Biden, who signed the condolence book at the South African embassy this morning, plans to speak at a memorial service Dec. 11 at the National Cathedral, according to his office.
The president’s delegation is only part of the U.S. contingent.
Two dozen U.S. lawmakers were set to depart for South Africa before sunrise today aboard a government jet from Joint Base Andrews outside Washington, returning in time for votes on Dec. 12, so that the House of Representatives can begin its holiday break on Dec. 13 as planned.
That is being led by Aaron Schock, an Illinois Republican; Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a tea-party backed Obama critic who praised Mandela as an “inspiration for defenders of liberty;” and 22 House Democrats, mostly members of the Congressional Black Caucus. They include John Lewis of Georgia, a civil rights activist who marched with Martin Luther King Jr.
Mandela, Lewis said in a statement, was among leaders like Gandhi and King, “who come along only once in a generation who are a blessing to all humanity.” Schock said in a phone interview he has long admired Mandela as “somebody who really is the George Washington of our time.”
As Obama, 52, last week joined millions in celebrating the legacy of Mandela, who died Dec. 5 at his home in Johannesburg at age 95, White House logistics and protocol teams and top presidential advisers, including Deputy Chief of Staff Alyssa Mastromonaco were coordinating details from Washington and on the ground in South Africa. They worked with the South African government, Mandela’s family, former U.S. presidents and would-be invitees to determine who goes and how they travel.
“It’s going to be a big deal because the whole world is focused on it,” said Selwa “Lucky” Roosevelt, chief of protocol for President Reagan from 1982 to 1989.
The decision took into account presidential security, the weather, space on planes and landing strips, logistics of public figures’ schedules, and finding a mix that reflects the president’s preferences including Americans who knew and honored the deceased goes into the decision making.
“A lot of the spots on Air Force One are non-discretionary,” including the Secret Service contingent and medical staff, Rosenthal said. “There aren’t all that many to play with.” The president’s plane is a modified Boeing Co. 747-200B airliner.
Some of the dignitaries have their own reasons for traveling separately. Carter will go with a delegation of The Elders, a group former national leaders founded by Mandela in 2007 with backing from Virgin Group founder and Chairman Richard Branson and musician Peter Gabriel, said Lesley-Anne Knight, chief executive officer of the Elders.
Elders in the delegation “dropped everything they’re doing” and flew to London from Geneva, Paris, Helsinki, Ireland and Atlanta to meet up to take a Virgin Atlantic flight to Johannesburg along with Branson and Gabriel.
Staff traveling with Obama include National Security Adviser Susan Rice, senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, Michelle Obama’s Chief of Staff Tina Tchen, press secretary Jay Carney, and Mastromonaco.
For the Rabin funeral, Rosenthal recalled how the Clinton team assembled a delegation of more than 100 people spread over Air Force One and two additional aircraft. Space was so tight people were told they couldn’t bring their spouses, he said. Then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Georgia Republican, showed up with his wife and had be accommodated.
Rabin’s death occurred at “a pretty sensitive point in the peace negotiations” between Israel and the Palestinians. “We wanted to be sure everyone in the U.S. delegations was saying the right things in terms of supporting the peace negotiations,” he said.
It also occurred at a time of tension between Clinton and lawmakers, including Gingrich, over the budget, which led to the 1995-96 government shutdowns weeks later.
“So there were various levels of issues going on.” At the Rabin event, Rosenthal recalled, “I hadn’t slept in like 36 hours. You turn around and bump into, like, Prince Charles. It was a surreal scene. You have dozens of heads of state and monarchs and former heads of states. It’s rare to see that sort of a group come together and have protocol be a secondary concern. They’re there to pay their respects.”
While he’ll be surrounded with other world leaders, Obama doesn’t plan any formal meetings before he flies back to Washington without spending the night.
Mandela won a Nobel peace prize and became a global icon for bringing to an end white-minority rule and becoming the first black president of South Africa in 1994 after spending 27 years in jail for fighting apartheid. South Africa is observing a 10-day mourning period for him.
Obama says his first political speech as a college student in 1981 was inspired by Mandela.
The memorial is taking place at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg, site of the 2010 Soccer World Cup final. The event is to be screened at three other sports facilities, with a combined seating capacity of 215,000, the government said.
Mandela’s body will lie in state in Pretoria from Dec. 11 to Dec. 13 before the funeral in Qunu.