Nelson Mandela now ‘belongs to the ages’

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The two men were face to face only once, a brief 2005 handshake and conversation in a Washington hotel room.

Then, President Obama was a junior senator from Illinois and was only beginning his meteoric political rise, which ultimately propelled him into the White House in 2008 and into the history books as America’s first black president.

PHOTOS: Nelson Mandela, anti-apartheid icon and statesman

Nelson Mandela, by contrast, was nearing the end of his incredible journey, having emerged from decades in prison during South Africa’s dark apartheid era to become his own nation’s first black leader.

He may not have known it, but Mr. Mandela, who died Thursday at the age of 95 after a lengthy battle with a recurring lung infection, left a mark on the world that went beyond even his own triumphs and trials in South Africa.

Without his inspiration, his ability to achieve what surely once looked impossible, Mr. Obama freely acknowledges that his life may have taken a dramatically different path.

President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks in the briefing room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013, about the death of Nelson Mandela. Obama says the world has lost an influential, courageous and 'profoundly good' man with the death of anti-apartheid icon Mandela. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

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President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks in the briefing room of ... more >

“His journey from a prisoner to a president embodied the promise that human beings, and countries, can change for the better,” a somber Mr. Obama said Thursday, speaking to the nation shortly after news of Mr. Mandela’s death broke and unleashed tributes and words of sadness, respect and gratitude around the globe.

“Through his fierce dignity and unbending will to sacrifice his own freedom for the freedom of others, Madiba transformed South Africa — and moved all of us,” Mr. Obama said, using Mr. Mandela’s clan name.

“I am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela’s life,” Mr. Obama said.

SEE ALSO: Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, dies at age 95

“My very first political action, the first thing I ever did that involved an issue or a policy or politics, was a protest against apartheid. I studied his words and his writings. The day that he was released from prison gave me a sense of what human beings can do when they’re guided by their hopes and not by their fears. And like so many around the globe, I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example that Nelson Mandela set,” the U.S. president said.

With Mr. Mandela’s health worsening this year, Mr. Obama desperately wanted to meet with the iconic leader one more time during a visit to South Africa. The meeting never materialized.

Mr. Obama instead met with members of the Mandela family and visited the Robben Island cell off South Africa’s coast where Mr. Mandela was kept for 18 of his 27 years in prison.

Afterward, he spoke of how he was “humbled” by the experience, writing in a guest book that “the world is grateful for the heroes of Robben Island, who remind us that no shackles or cells can match the strength of the human spirit.”

The two presidents did speak occasionally on the phone, including after the 2008 U.S. election, when Mr. Mandela called Mr. Obama to congratulate him on his victory. The U.S. president called Mr. Mandela in 2010 after the South African leader’s young granddaughter was killed in a car accident.

Mr. Mandela was still in chains — the result of his rising up against South Africa’s white National Party, which had stripped blacks of their citizenship and ruled the nation with an iron fist for decades — when Mr. Obama first entered the political arena.

While a student at Occidental College, Mr. Obama took part in anti-apartheid rallies in 1979 and 1980, later saying he felt inspired to take action because of the injustice he witnessed in South Africa.

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