Nightly News   |  December 05, 2013

Mandela: a pragmatic politician, ‘the last pure hero on the planet’

Richard Stengel, former Managing Editor for Time magazine and co-author of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom,” has spent a tremendous amount of time with him over the years. Stengel likens Mandela to George Washington, in part because they both stepped down from office – and in doing so, Mandela set a new path for Africa.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>> we are happy to be joined in studio tonight by nelson mandela 's biographer. rick stengel is a journalist, former managing editor of "time" magazine who during his time chronicling the life of nelson mandela for more than one book actually lived with him. he wrote about his time with mandela in " mandela 's way." in fact, mandela is godfather to our oldest son. my favorite quote to start off this conversation, you and i have known this day was coming, of course, for 20 years or more. the last pure hero on the planet.

>> brian , he is, indeed, the last pure hero. if he were here to talk to us he would say he wasn't a hero in the conventional sense. he wasn't a saint, a philosopher. he was a pragmatic politician. there is a lesson in that he had one great goal -- bringing freedom to his people. whatever way took him there he would use it. he was a pragmatist and a politician.

>> i said what's your goal for the people of suetto. he said regular trash pickup. that's the local politician in him.

>> i remember it fondly when we were walking and he would meet a young boy . he would ask him, what did you have for breakfast today? he wanted to make sure there was prosperity for people and freedom. the freedom would bring prosperity. he was a practical politician.

>> talk about your time with him. of course it was years of your life. you said he made you walk a little taller.

>> i had to have nelson mandela in my head which is a wonderful thing for anybody. unfortunately he isn't quite there as prominently as he was. but to think about things the way he did the with moderation, caution, understanding. that's what made him a great leader is that he listened to people. he wasn't doctrinair and may have averted the greatest civil war we could have seen in the 20th century .

>> go back the last 20 years of public life . he doesn't compare to roosevelt or fdr or woodrow wilson . where does he rank among the great public figures and game changers?

>> the person i would liken him to is george washington . he was the father of his country . he was the person who, like george washington , stepped down willingly. african leaders don't do that. they often leave office horizontally. that set the path for africa that had never been there before. he's a man of the ages.

>> finally, as we watch this period of mourning, what should we know about modern south africa ? such a young country. but they had such a relationship with him, often calling him father, often saying about old am age, it's time for him to rest.

>> it's a very young country. the majority of people never experienced nelson mandela as a leader. the legacy of bringing people together, bridging black and white . the legacy of bringing old and new is something that should live on for them. it's a very hopeful time for them and should be. it is the rainbow nation , as he called it.

here is the new yorker magazine cover, a tribute to young mandela , the young freedom fighter . tonight bono wrote, in the end nelson mandela showed us how to love rather than hate. not because he had never surrendered to rage or violence but because he learned that love would do a better job. brian ?

>> andrea mitchell in our d.c. bureau tonight. andrea, thanks.

>>> continuing this theme after a break we'll hear personal reflections from president obama .

>>> we are back with more of our coverage of the passing of nelson mandela at the age of 95. as we have been saying all evening long reaction is pouring in, including some emotional comments from president obama delivered in the briefing room in the white house west wing . for more on that our chief white house correspondent chuck todd is standing by on the north lawn tonight. chuck, when you look at the timeline, nelson mandela kind of strings together so many american presidents from the modern era .

>> reporter: he does. sort of passing the baton. but there is something about the connection that president obama himself feels with nelson mandela . it's something that he shared tonight in a very powerful and poignant statement.

>> i am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from nelson mandela 's life. 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 would study his words and his writings. the day he was released from prison gave me a sense of what human beings can do when they are guided by their hopes and not by their fears. like so many around the globe i cannot fully imagine my own life without the example that nelson mandela set. so long as i live, i will do what i can to learn from him .

>> reporter: since the president learned of the news, brian , and we can show the white house released this photo the president himself has been watching all the coverage, sort of ingesting it, digesting it the way a lot of us are today as a way to remember nelson mandela .

>> chuck todd from the white house for us tonight. chuck, thanks. we are happy that once again we are joined by nelson mandela 's biographer rick stengel, veteran journalist, former managing editor of "time" magazine who had the great privilege of living with nelson mandela and compiling both books. we see the "time" magazine cover story . this being thursday night, you being the former boss of "time." in the parlance of magazines i guess they crashed an issue.

>> it was already done. we knew this day was coming. nancy gibbs, the editor of "time" had it ready. i had written my piece a long time ago. it's a beautiful, great collection. it's one of my favorite pictures of him, the picture on the cover.

>> i was looking at some of the single-word quotes you have used over the years to describe this man. meticulous, a power charmer, stubborn, golden, luminous. you have also cautioned though about use of the word "saint." it's not too early in our remembrance to point out, especially to the generation that came up after his story was well known that his organization, the anc , was not a nonviolent organization. it was rough. he surrounded himself with rough people.

>> right. he started out being nonviolent. when he realized the anc wasn't getting anywhere close to its mission, the group of leaders of the anc decided we need to become a military organization . he start ed [ speaking in a foreign language ] -- spear of the nation which was the military wing of the anc . he taught himself. he read generals. he read caesar. he learned it like he learned everything. it went against his grain but as i was saying before he had won overarching goal. whatever got to the goal he would do. even embracing violence. as you showed earlier, he refused to not embrace violence to get out of prison because he said, i can't negotiate while i'm in prison. that was the leverage he had. he understood that.

>> when you're in south africa , as you know better than most, you don't hear mandela as much as you hear madiba, his clan name .

>> yeah.

>> as i was saying it's parental, paternal, this relationship, even with the born free generation. it's hard to describe.

>> it's one of the things i thought people don't quite understand about him and one of the paradoxes. he's a revolutionary. he was a socialist. but he also embraced that historical technician of africa. he was the son of a head man who was appointed by the white overse overseers. he was raised by the king of the tembu when his father died. he had a royal upbringing and he loved it. even when the anc wanted to get rid of tribalism he said, no, we have to embrace traditional leaders . he had a great fund men duality about him which made him so large and wonderful.

>> rick stengel, biographer for nelson mandela . you helped us so much in our effort to look back and remember this towering figure. thank you for being with us.