In many ways, looking at the life of Nelson Mandela was like a Rorschach test. Evaluations depended more on the viewpoints of onlookers than what may have been reality.
That certainly was the case regarding Mandela’s funeral Tuesday in South Africa.
The prevailing opinion around the world — and that of this newspaper — is that more than anything else, Mandela was an extraordinary, visionary leader who emerged from 27 years as a political prisoner to reject any sort of revenge on the white minority government that had enslaved his country and cost him more than a quarter of his long life.
But to a sizeable number of conservative Americans, Mandela was a terrorist, an embracer of communism and an enemy of the United States.
Tuesday was the 20th anniversary of the day Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, the last apartheid-policy president of South Africa, received the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing democracy to that country, and the funeral — like Mandela’s life — was many things to many people.
For President Barack Obama, it was a reminder that he is still a rock star away from America. When he and first lady Michelle Obama were shown on the video screen at the stadium where the funeral took place, the crowd of 45,000 erupted in raucous applause, and again cheered wildly during his eulogy of Mandela.
But back home, the president’s quick handshake with Cuban leader Raul Castro at the funeral brought quick condemnation from several Republican critics, including Obama’s 2008 opponent, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
“Why should you shake hands with somebody who’s keeping Americans in prison?” McCain said in an interview. “I mean, what’s the point?”
McCain, who once shook hands with the late Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafy, then came out with this asinine political shot at Obama.
“Neville Chamberlain,” McCain said, “shook hands with Hitler.”
In truth, the internecine battles between tea party and more-traditional Republicans were front and center regarding Mandela. Newt Gingrich, who led the conservative GOP takeover of the House of Representatives in the 1990s, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who spearheaded this year’s government shutdown, both had kind things to say about Mandela after he died.
Both were harshly taken to task by right-wing critics who called Mandela a communist and a lot of less-polite things.
Gingrich reminded Americans on CNN that Winston Churchill shook hands with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. So, of course, did Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman.
Cruz, for his part, stuck to his guns, attended Mandela’s funeral … and left when Castro got up to make his speech.
Mandela was a great man, but political pettiness will obviously take more than one lifetime to overcome.