The furious, angry reaction from some conservatives to praise for Nelson Mandela masks the more important change: the leader's steady, inevitable embrace by his one-time opponents. Mandela's power didn't lie in evoking fury. It stemmed from changing minds.
The signal moment in America's relationship to Mandela and South Africa's racist system of apartheid came in 1986, when President Ronald Reagan vetoed a measure that would impose economic sanctions against the country. To lift the sanctions, South Africa would need to meet a number of requirements, including the release of Mandela from the prison in which he'd been held captive since the 1960s. (Captivity initiated, in part, by the CIA tipping off the South African government.)
Congress overrode Reagan's veto, putting the sanctions into place, but not before Reagan convinced a number of senators to his point of view. The Philadelphia Inquirer listed them: "Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Robert Dole of Kansas, Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, Don Nickles of Oklahoma, Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming and Ted Stevens of Alaska" — as well as Barry Goldwater of Arizona.
Cochran and Hatch are still in the Senate, still representing those states. Cochran on Friday announced that he'd seek another term, his seventh. But also on Friday, Cochran also released another statement, making clear that the activist's life had moved into the realm of the admirable. Mandela, he wrote, "will be remembered for his courage, sacrifices and leadership during troubled times." Hatch came around too. His statement read, in part:
From combatting the immoral apartheid regime to his time presiding over the country’s peaceful transition to democracy as President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela’s dignity, courage and conviction made him a lion among men. ... The loss of such a great man will be felt and borne by us all.
Dole and Simpson have similarly recognized Mandela. Last October, Mandela was awarded the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics' Bob Dole leadership prize, with the organization's director declaring that Mandela is "the perfect example of an individual who fought for justice through the political system in place." Simpson, in an interview this summer, had a telling remark: Mandela, he said, "had a look of peace — that he had made peace with himself, peace with the horror of what he went through and decided that – as my mother used to say, 'hatred corrodes the container it's carried in.'"
The progressive watchdog group Media Matters picked out a number of examples in which other conservatives announced following Mandela's death that their minds had been changed — or, in the case of the National Review's Deroy Murdock, that he was (all caps, bolded type) "WRONG."
Nelson Mandela turned out to be one of the 20th Century’s great moral leaders, right up there with Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He also was a statesman of considerable weight. If not as significant on the global stage as FDR, Winston Churchill, and Ronald Reagan, he approaches Margaret Thatcher as a national leader with major international reach.
Matt Lewis, at the conservative Daily Caller, outlined how Mandela "surprised" the right. "In hindsight, of course, some Americans now have egg on their faces," Lewis writes. "It’s always safer to assume the worst and then beg forgiveness later."
One of the most important assessments was that of F. W. de Klerk, the last president of apartheid-era South Africa and the leader that preceded Mandela. De Klerk long held that the country's incarceration of Mandela and its racist past were unfathomable errors, but as the one-time embodiment of them, his embrace of Mandela wasn't a certainty. In the wake of Mandela's death, de Klerk described the beginning of the relationship that resulted in their jointly winning the Nobel Peace Prize. "He had an aura around him, an aura of dignity and an aura of authority [that] I immediately felt," News24 reports his saying. "My gut reaction was, 'I like this man'."
Another other world leader offered praise to Mandela who might not be expected to: Ronald Reagan. Near the end of his presidency — but only two years after that vote in the Senate — Reagan demanded that Mandela be released from prison. From The New York Times' report that year:
In Santa Barbara, Calif., near President Reagan's ranch, where he is on vacation, the White House spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, issued a statement appealing for Mr. Mandela's release. The statement said Mr. Mandela was widely recognized ''as the embodiment of black aspirations in South Africa.''
''On the occasion of his 70th birthday we renew our appeal to the South African Government to release Nelson Mandela, and other political prisoners,'' the statement said, adding, ''Their release would contribute greatly to creating an environment that fosters serious, broad-based negotiations for the abolition of apartheid and establishment of a nonracial democracy in South Africa.''
Two years later, Mandela was freed, and became the first black man to be president of South Africa.