- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 5, 2013

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.

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.

“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.

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

“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.

“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.

“I didn’t necessarily imagine that Nelson Mandela might be released,” Mr. Obama said over the summer, while in South Africa.

The fact that Mr. Mandela, on Feb. 11, 1990, walked out of prison and began a second chapter in his life proved perhaps the single greatest inspiration to Mr. Obama, and one that clearly remains with him.

Just a few weeks ago, Mr. Obama hosted a private White House screening of “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” a biographical film about the South African leader starring Idris Elba.

It was the latest example of the clear impact Mr. Mandela has had on America’s 44th president, which Mr. Obama summed up when he penned the foreword to Mr. Mandela’s 2010 book, “Conversations with Myself.”

“His sacrifice was so great that it called upon people everywhere to do what they could on behalf of human progress,” Mr. Obama said. “In the most modest of ways, I was one of those people who tried to answer his call.”

He added that “even when little sunlight shined into that Robben Island cell, he could see a better future — one worthy of sacrifice.”

Mr. Obama did not say Thursday whether he plans to attend Mr. Mandela’s funeral, but it is expected he, along with former U.S. presidents, will make the trip.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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