Toute nation a le gouvernement qu'elle mérite.
(Every nation gets the government it deserves.)
- Joseph de Maistre
Nelson Mandela’s death has occasioned testimonials of admiration from every society and corner of the globe. These tributes are fitting of a man who lived a life of immense significance, and who repeatedly exercised such mindful statesmanship in moments when lesser leaders would have failed in their duties.
Mandela was a fixture of the news during my childhood. His release after twenty-seven years of imprisonment, his triumph in the 1994 post-apartheid election, and the many efforts to which he dedicated himself as President of South Africa made this political prisoner from the other side of the world a figure of prominence in a living room in a tiny village on the upper Mississippi River. I can’t claim any great depth of knowledge of Mandela’s entire presidency, or of his public life, but the enormity of his achievements resonated all the way to my small corner of the world. I knew who Nelson Mandela was before I ever knew the names of my US Senators, and I even as a child I was particularly attuned to politics.
As my wife and I stood in our kitchen this evening, listening to the BBC report of Mandela’s death, I could see how moved she was by the news. I could feel my mind working through the realization, but I couldn’t feel any emotion. At one point I said, “I suppose the funeral will be next week, maybe on Monday.” Even though it wasn’t the very first thing I said, it still probably seems like such an odd thing to say while the news was still fresh, so I suppose I should explain why that thought was expressed before any emotion.
The first funeral for a head of state I can remember watching was Richard Nixon’s state funeral. Nixon, the man and the politician, has fascinated and confounded and angered me ever since I can remember first learning about Watergate. I can’t precisely remember, but I imagine I first encountered Nixon’s resignation when I began memorizing the Presidents of the United States as a young boy. Somebody gave me a copy of The Buck Stops Here, a book with beautiful illustrations and rhyming couplets about each President. Amazon’s page supplies “Teddy Roosevelt, Twenty-six / Whisper softly, wave big sticks. Buy all the land that’s way out there. Go outdoors in your underwear.” as an example. (You can read the rest of them here. I still remember the last couplet, “And now George Bush is Forty-one. Good luck to him and all to come.” Unfortunately, the luck hasn’t been so good.)
Lyndon Johnson, Thirty-six, more war, more death, more politics.
Here's Thirty-seven! Nixon, R., California's tarnished star.
Gerald Ford, as Thirty-eight, turned down the sound on Watergate.
Modest Carter, Thirty-nine, crossed the Mason-Dixon line.
Reagan, Forty, reached his goal, acting out his favorite role.
Because of that sequence, for an embarrassingly long time I thought Nixon, like Ronald Reagan, the leading man I admired as a small boy, was an actor before he became president. But what was Watergate? The only two copies of the Encyclopedia Britannica I had access to – the late-1950s set my step-dad bought from the small rural high school he taught at, and the mid-1960s set at my grandparents’ house – couldn’t offer anything to the inquisitive mind of an eight year old boy. I must have asked an older relative what Watergate was, or found a book about Nixon at the public library. At any rate, the fascination with Nixon was deeply ingrained by the time of his death in 1994.
Nixon died on 22 April 1994, four days after suffering a stroke that put him into a deep coma. He was 81. His funeral was held in California on 27 April, a Wednesday. For some reason, I was home from school and watched Nixon’s funeral on television. I can remember being fascinated by the living former and current Presidents attending the funeral of a man so widely reviled. (This was Ronald Reagan’s last significant public appearance, though Reagan didn’t announce his Alzheimer’s diagnosis until August of 1994.)
Something about that experience stuck with me. I was in Iraq when Ronald Reagan died. At the time, my unit was assigned to provide counter-battery fire to Al-Asad Airbase, but in addition to that mission, we had been tasked with some interior guard duties, including “protecting” the chow hall. I had gotten to know some of the Indian cooks at the chow hall, and was extended the generosity of eating Indian food with them in the empty chow hall around midnight, when my guard shift typically ended. I had already heard of Reagan’s death, and had worked out that his funeral would correspond with the time I was eating mid-rats with the Indian cooks. Sure enough, I watched Reagan’s funeral on the TV in the fluorescent glow of the chow hall, eating delicious hot curry and talking about Reagan with the Indian chow hall supervisor. It was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. At the time I still admired Reagan and thought of myself as a traditional conservative. I can only wonder what I might have said to my dinner companion, or what he might have thought about this young American Marine and his political views.
Other state funerals followed. I watched Pope John Paul II’s funeral in the Las Pulgas barracks in April 2005, and Gerald Ford’s funeral in my girlfriend’s Chicago apartment in January 2007, just before I moved to Madison to re-start my undergraduate studies. My fascination with state funerals continues. I love history. I love listening to the tributes (sincere and insincere), the recollections, the remembrances. They bring back memories of events of listening to the CBS Evening News as I played with Hot Wheels on the floor of the living room, appearing to my dad like I was playing, but absorbing the stories Dan Rather reported through our tiny black-and-white set. (Years later, my dad told me he finally realized how much attention I paid to the news when I told him that the people inside the Fisher-Price jet I was playing with in my grandparents’ living room were “afraid of the hostages.” My grandmother gave Dad a pretty hard look when she overheard that.)
Richard Nixon’s funeral was on 27 April 1994. That same day, Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa. Though I don’t have a specific memory of hearing about Mandela’s election as I watched coverage of Nixon’s funeral or the news that evening, I must have internalized that date. Somehow, my subconscious was triggered this evening, and I connected Mandela’s death and Nixon’s funeral. It’s pretty safe to say I’ll stay up, or get up, to watch Mandela’s funeral on television.
Getting back to the testimonials that surround the death of figures of great prominence, I’m struck by the sincerity of the statements about people like Mandela. When other prominent people, particularly politicians, die, one can often tell when pro-forma remarks are given to observe the occasion, but which obfuscate the ambivalence or old animosity and disagreements behind a veneer of polite official reflections.
Occasionally, we lose a person of truly tremendous importance, a singular leader, or thinker, or discoverer, or healer. When we lose that kind of person, we’re reminded of how insignificant and, frankly, petty most of our elected leaders are in comparison. We’re given opportunity to reflect on what a leader we truly deserve actually looks like. A person like Martin Luther King, Jr. A person like Andrei Sakharov. A person like Kim Dae-jung. A person like Wangari Maathai. A person like Václav Havel.
A person like Nelson Mandela.
But given our own human inclinations to pettiness, hatred, and violence, perhaps someone like Nelson Mandela is actually a leader we don’t deserve. We live in a world where we too often choose to be led by the cheap arch-divisionists who nourish and capitalize on our sectarian, ideological hate of our neighbors and their dissimilar politics, the too-numerous incompetent creatures of the political establishment, and, perhaps most dispiriting, those who appeal to our better nature, then do secret evils in the dark, trusting that no one will speak or turn against them. We allow our leaders to manipulate our fears and animosities, and to fatten our hopes with hokum, then sell us at market to the highest bidder. We allow our leaders to speak to the worst demons of our nature, and then we listen.
As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison.
Nelson Mandela rejected the political power of hatred, knowing that hatred incarcerates the heart and shackles the mind. Even as our leaders speak truths about Nelson Mandela’s greatness and disregard the truths of Mandela’s greatness with their actions, we ought to contemplate why we haven’t learned this great man’s lesson.