I Have Been in the Presence of Greatness

CBS anchorman Dan Rather, right, and Nelson Mandela Mandela spoke during one of the first interviews Mandela has given since
CBS anchorman Dan Rather, right, and Nelson Mandela Mandela spoke during one of the first interviews Mandela has given since his release last Sunday, after serving 27 years in prison. During the interview at Mandela's Soweto home, Wednesday, Feb. 14, 1990, the African National Congress leader spoke about his years in jail. At rear is the ANC flag. (AP Photo/ John Parkin)

In thinking about Nelson Mandela, his life and his legacy, a metaphor comes to mind: that of a great, one-for-the-ages comet -- not unlike the Comet ISON that recently traveled around the sun.

Mandela was a great comet of a man; we are not likely to see someone like him again anytime soon. He was a man who made a towering difference in history by the sheer force of his character. This included his steel determination, his dedication to forgiveness of and reconciliation with his enemies, and a willingness to grow, adapt and change for the better, for the betterment of his country and, no exaggeration, the world.

His accomplishments put him in a historical line that begins with Mahatma Gandhi and runs through Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. These three -- Gandhi, King and Mandela -- changed the world's thinking and actions about racial justice.

I did not know him well and, although I covered him for a fairly long time as a journalist and interviewed him twice, I did not cover him as long nor as extensively as a number of others, both from within and outside his country. But the times I was in his presence and the several decades spent covering him left indelible memories.

Through a black South African friend and colleague I visited with him in his home the evening he first returned to his house after more than a quarter of a century in prison.

What struck me first and deepest was his calm, self-deprecating, and often mildly humorous demeanor. He was soft spoken, and when he spoke it was much about forgiveness and the need for reconciliation in his country. Yes, there was a time in his life when he was about violence, seeking to effect change through violent acts. And, yes, he had made many mistakes in judgment and actions in both his personal and professional lives. He spoke some of these and his regrets over them.

But he spoke more of the future and how he was determined to be of help in the making of a new and better South Africa. He was proud and confident, but also humble; a humility unexpected given his record and what he had been through. He was both gentle and gentlemanly in manner, smiling peacefully virtually the whole time I was with him. Near the end of my brief stay we spoke a little of our time as boxers; his, a fairly long time as a very good amateur pugilist and mine a very brief and not very successful one. And then it was over. He was to spend the rest of the evening and the next several days with family and close friends.

A few days later, I -- along with many other journalists from around the world -- had roughly a half-hour, one-on-one, on-camera television interview with him.

I recall that this time he spoke more extensively and eloquently of the urgent need for reconciliation in his divided country and his hopes for reunification, renewal and moving forward.

When that interview was over, I remember remarking to myself, "Greatness is an often overused word in describing leaders, but this day I have been in the presence of greatness. Neither I nor anyone else is likely to see a person of such courageous and moral stature again in our lifetimes."

Mandela went on to become a healing president for his country and a moral force for good in the world. But as he himself said many times, he was no saint and was nowhere near perfect. For example, he was painfully slow to recognize the causes and effects of the HIV/AIDS crisis in South Africa and he was slow to recognize the errors of his belief in a (somewhat) Soviet-style economic model.

But he learned, grew, changed and adapted; he had the courage to admit he had been wrong and worked to right those and other wrongs. All the while he rejected any temptations to engage in any sense of revenge or score-settling. Forgiveness was his mantra, for himself and for his country.

His was the life of a hero; not a hero in the mold of, say, Mother Teresa. No, his was the life of a rougher hewed and self-described flawed and vulnerable human; a flesh-and-blood, real-life man with dark as well as admirable sides. He was a hero who stood out all the more because he was not and never claimed to be a saint. As such he became one of the most important figures of the last half of the twentieth century and on into the earliest decades of the twenty-first.

In his time, and now for all time, there was -- there is -- no greater leader.