photo by G Milner
As Nelson Mandela lingered in twilight between life and death early this week, clearly to be remembered as one of the giant figures of the 20th century, I pondered who we could actually compare to him.
First I thought of political leaders whose passing left their countrymen feeling adrift and alone. There was Franklin D. Roosevelt, the only American president elected more than twice. He led our country through depression and war, remaking the people’s relationship with the government and the federal government’s relationship with the states. His Democratic Party has been trying to live up to his standard, or what it thinks would be his standard, ever since. But Roosevelt was in office only 13 years, and his prior positions as New York governor and assistant secretary of the Navy did not amount to very much on the national scale. Roosevelt was FDR, but he was no Mandela.
Next I considered Winston Churchill, who rallied his country through the Blitz and saw an exhausted Britain to victory, albeit with significant American and Russian help, over the Nazis. Yet by 1946 his own people had grown weary of his leadership and pushed him into retirement. Churchill was a great historical figure, but he was no Mandela.
Josef Stalin was no Churchill or FDR. He was a ruthless megalomaniac who brutalized his own country and made a pact with Hitler to divide Europe, before Hitler turned on him and drove him into the arms of the Allies. Yet Stalin ruled his country for about three decades and led it through the “Great Patriotic War,” which killed 20 million Soviet citizens or more. When it was over, the Soviet Union had gone from Bolshevik backwater to Cold War superpower. His people must have wondered, with some anxiety, what would come after him. Some - those of skewed values or selective historical memory - still revere him today. Stalin would be at the head of any historical parade of prominent Soviets (it is incorrect to call the Georgian-born Stalin a “Russian”), but however prominent, he was no Mandela either.
Hirohito? His accountability for World War II crimes remains a matter of debate, unlike the indisputable reverence his country accorded him. By the end of his long reign, Japan had risen to global power, collapsed in the rubble of nuclear defeat, and risen once again. Japan might accord Hirohito a Mandela-like stature, but no other nation would consider it.
Mao? No. De Gaulle? Not even close. The Dalai Lama? Perhaps, if his Tibetan homeland were not just as badly off today as when he fled it in 1959.
Marcos, Sukarno, Khomeini, Ho Chi Minh? Dictators and personality cultists dressed up as independence leaders. The big names of mid-century Africa, such as Kenyatta and Nasser? Much the same.
Pope John Paul II is a possibility. So are Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel. All came to symbolize Eastern European resistance to Soviet hegemony, and all are larger-than-life figures in their native lands (Poland in the cases of Walesa and the pontiff; the former Czechoslovakia for Havel). But outside their countries and, in the pope’s case, outside Catholicism, none commanded Mandela’s stature.
Israel would probably nominate Ben-Gurion. Turkey would offer Attaturk. They were founding fathers of their countries, but divisive figures beyond their own borders.
I thought of other personalities from the United States who symbolize freedom’s march: Martin Luther King Jr., of course, but also Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and Jackie Robinson. All were important; none was a Mandela.
In the end I came up with only one name: Mohandas K. Gandhi, better known as Mahatma. Many of the individuals I considered and rejected were revered in their lifetimes by their own people. Only Gandhi and Mandela were similarly revered by all people.
To their own peoples, Gandhi and Mandela went by yet another set of names. Gandhi was “Bapu;” Mandela, “Tata.” Both words mean “father.” Both men were father figures to their nations while serving as inspirational examples to the world.
How often do global leaders like these come along? Maybe only twice in a century. When we lose one, it is worth reflecting on how much they meant to us.