I think Barack Obama took a swing and a miss in his eulogy of Nelson Mandela this morning. In a rare moment, I believe he misread his audience.
In fairness, it’s easy to get caught up in the dignity of the moment, and the fact that nearly 100 world leaders – the single largest gathering in history – were in attendance. It was easy to be somber and reflective. It was easy to point to his struggle and his imprisonment.
Even Obama himself recognized this at one point:
Given the sweep of his life, and the adoration that he so rightly earned, it is tempting then to remember Nelson Mandela as an icon, smiling and serene, detached from the tawdry affairs of lesser men. But Madiba himself strongly resisted such a lifeless portrait. Instead, he insisted on sharing with us his doubts and fears; his miscalculations along with his victories. "I'm not a saint," he said, "unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying."
It was precisely because he could admit to imperfection - because he could be so full of good humor, even mischief, despite the heavy burdens he carried - that we loved him so. He was not a bust made of marble; he was a man of flesh and blood - a son and husband, a father and a friend. That is why we learned so much from him; that is why we can learn from him still. For nothing he achieved was inevitable. In the arc of his life, we see a man who earned his place in history through struggle and shrewdness; persistence and faith. He tells us what's possible not just in the pages of dusty history books, but in our own lives as well.
And yet, much of the front half of his speech was precisely an attempt to chisel in stone Mandela’s legacy to his people and to the world and in so doing, made him and the people of South Africa a portraiture.
And it wasn’t until President Obama began to talk about Ubuntu, the oneness of spirit of humankind, that we began to see a fleshing out of Mandela. He was a wise man, a far better man than this world deserved, and with his existence, he lifted all of us – black, white, American, African, Asian – a little out of the abyss to stand on his shoulders and see a farther horizon.
In that moment in his speech, he began to lift the spirits of people he veered precariously close to sobering up. The people of South Africa, the people of Mvezo, Qunu and Soweto, had come to party, as mourning had passed.
It was interesting to watch as people streamed off buses from all over the nation, and dance into the stadium. I was abruptly reminded of how petty and small Americans can be. We would be somber. We would demand dignity and silence, for our mourning is not the mourning of a death, but the mourning of our dimunition.
As another example, over the weekend there was no “moment of silence” at real football – excuse me, soccer – games around the world. Mandela was warmly, enthusiastically, and lovingly cheered and applauded for an entire minute. It was a “thank you,” not a goodbye, and it made all the difference.
And even that moment of silence, that selfish display of faux sincerity, had some Americans up in arms. We truly are a vain and petty people.
One last warming note before I wrap this up, so I can go out on a high note: it was tremendous to hear the ovation that Barack Obama got from the people of South Africa. I imagine it has been a long time since he’s heard that kind of endorsement of what he means to the world. He certainly would never heard that in South Carolina.
Oh, PS: the handshake. It’s time to normalize relations with Cuba. He could finally earn that Peace Prize.