As American and world leaders offer high praise to the magnificent and courageous man known as Nelson Mandela, I propose we mourn his passing not merely with words of praise for the greatness of Mandela but with challenges for bold action in the spirit of Mandela.
Mandela was a giant whose greatness words cannot fully express. Mandela gave up almost three decades of his freedom for his country and his ideals after being called a communist, terrorist and criminal because of his support for freedom, justice and equality.
Mandela emerged from political prisons with a generosity of spirit and a passionate dream for democracy that changed his nation and moved the world. Mandela not only sacrificed his freedom for his cause, he risked his life, for most of his lifetime, for his cause, which should be our cause.
When I consider the best way to honor Nelson Mandela as we say farewell to his lifetime of greatness, I think of former President Kennedy. Kennedy said that politics should not be a set of promises, it should be a set of challenges. Kennedy said we should do things not because they are easy, but because they are hard. It is easy for politicians to honor Mandela. It is hard for politicians to emulate him.
I would like to see President Obama, when the tributes to Mandela are concluded, seek ways to emulate his courage, daring and boldness. What the life of Mandela taught is that politics is not about the self-image and self-interest of political players, it is about taking great risks and offering great sacrifice for the greater good of others.
Our politics today has far too many profiles and far too little courage from both parties on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue and in corridors of power around the world.
I would hope that the lesson that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would consider from Mandela is that great achievements only come from taking great risks and that the safe and cautious path might be the counsel of consultants but is never the foundation of heroic and historic leaders.
I would hope that Speaker John Boehner would consider that Mandela had the courage, wisdom and judgment to directly confront some of his own allies when he believed they were disastrously wrong.
I appreciated the words of tribute to Mandela from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and hope he might show the same generosity of spirit towards Palestinians that Mandela showed to white South Africans. Similarly and equally, I would hope Palestinian leaders would act in the spirit of Mandela and reach out with equal vigor to Israelis. The great crime was never Mandela championing freedom; it is when children are maimed and murdered by the sins of their elders, whether they are Muslim, Jewish or Christian.
I appreciated the words of tribute to Mandela from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. I hope that Rouhani, who does offer some hope for change, would consider that Mandela would never countenance violent and ugly words towards Israel. And Mandela would also have surely counseled Netanyahu to make a good-faith effort to reconcile differences with diplomacy rather than war.
I came of political age in a world when racists ruled South Africa and Mandela was imprisoned, when Lech Wałęsa and Václav Havel were abused in communist prisons, when young people were gunned down at Tiananmen Square, when blacks were beaten by hoses and civil rights workers were murdered in churches, when American blacks and women could not seriously dream of being president, when Latin America was ruled by right-wing dictators and great writers were imprisoned in Soviet gulags.
Nelson Mandela was one of the great leaders of his century. His story is one of the great triumphs of our century. Slowly but surely the rights of man and woman take center stage in a changing world.
We live in an America where politics is held in wide disrepute and the popularity of the Congress, the president and political institutions have all fallen like rocks down an avalanche. Yet nothing changes in a system dominated by cash, managed by consultants and governed by cowardice.
Let’s honor Mandela, one of the greatest men who ever walked the earth, with this:
Ask not how you can praise Mandela. Ask how you can be more like him.