Editor's Note: This column was coauthored by Bob Morrison.
President Obama is receiving plenty of criticism for his selfie cellphone portrait at the funeral of South Africa’s revered leader, Nelson Mandela. What the president had to say in tribute to Africa’s greatest statesman was largely overshadowed by the press pictures of Obama, Prime Minister David Cameron, and Denmark’s shapely blonde chief of government, Helle Thorning Schmidt. The three leaders are shown, dressed appropriately enough in mourning black. But they are seen yucking it up like teenagers while First Lady Michelle Obama sits up attentively, the perfect picture of dignity and respect. And keeping her distance from the antics.
It’s not as if President Obama didn’t have time to prepare himself for the passing of this man he called Madiba. That respectful name is an important one to consider in light of the disrespectful behavior of the three leaders. We have known this day was coming for many years.
One of the first and most symbolic acts of the Obama presidency was his removal of the bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office. That was a signal of many changes to come, not all of them hopeful. Mr. Obama might have learned some lessons from the life and death of Winston Churchill.
For one thing, young Churchill went to South Africa during the Boer War, more than a century ago. Churchill was captured by heirs of those 17th century Dutch settlers whose descendants would later imprison Nelson Mandela. When the Boers put a 25-pound reward on Churchill’s head, seeking his recapture dead or alive, young Winston learned a valuable lesson in freedom. Nelson Mandela learned the same lesson in an almost unbelievable twenty-seven year captivity, much of it on Robben Island.
Churchill hated his captivity and quickly arranged an escape, through a prison lavatory.He came out of that South African prison a world figure, in no small measure because he made himself one. He never believed in hiding his light under a bushel. Young and brash, Churchill resolved to make noise wherever he went.
Nelson Mandela’s long imprisonment taught him restraint and cloaked him with the dignity and spiritual strength of a martyr.