Before everyone has a heart attack, President Obama made a very narrow comparison between the two men, pointing out that Mandela stepped down voluntarily after one term just as George Washington did after two terms.
“The outpouring of love that we’ve seen in recent days shows that the triumph of Mandela and this nation speaks to something very deep in the human spirit,” Obama said. “That’s what Mandela represents, that’s what South Africa can represent to the world and what brought me back here.”
Later, when asked about his policy toward Africa, Obama again returned to Mandela.
“Mandela shows what was possible when a priority is placed on human dignity, respect for law, that all people are treated equally,” Obama said.
“And what Nelson Mandela also stood for is that the well-being of the country is more important than the interests of any one person,” Obama continued. “George Washington is admired because after two terms he said enough, I’m going back to being a citizen. There were no term limits, but he said I’m a citizen. I served my time. And it’s time for the next person, because that’s what democracy is about. And Mandela similarly was able to recognize that, despite how revered he was, that part of this transition process was greater than one person.”
At the joint press conference, President Zuma offered an update on Mandela’s health — saying there has been no change in his health but that he hopes he will be able to leave the hospital soon.
“The position of former president Mandela, he remains critical but stable,” Zuma said. “Nothing has changed so far. We are hoping that he is going to improve. With all the prayers and good wishes that have been made, everyone is wishing Mandela well. The doctors who are tending to him are doing everything — these are excellent doctors. We hope that very soon, he will be out of hospital.”
The comparison to Washington is not entirely accurate. Mandela was eased out of the presidency of the African National Congress in 1997. His handpicked successor failed to gain the leadership position, and by that time, Deputy President Thabo Mbeki was ascendant. Mandela never planned to run for a second term — one aspect of Obama’s comparison to Washington that holds true. But if Washington had run again in 1796, he almost certainly would have been chosen unanimously by the electoral college for the third time. Federalists were begging him to run, but Washington, showing a self-abnegation rarely seen in politics, retired and went back to Mount Vernon.
Could Mandela have won a second term if he had run? Almost certainly, yes. But he would have received far fewer votes than the election of 1994 due to the withdrawal of De Klerk and most of the whites from the unity government, and a general unhappiness with the economy.
There is no doubt that Mandela was a great man. Like all great men, the complexities of his life tend to be glossed over when eulogizing him. His association with Communists and terrorists in the ANC is never mentioned, nor is his relative ineffectiveness in managing the South African economy. But as a symbol of hope, he had no equal in Africa and was much admired around the world for his courageous work from prison where he spent 27 years of his life.
It may be overblown to compare Mandela to Washington but politicians can be excused their hyperbole when a great man lies at death’s door and the eulogies begin.