Amidst all the more substantial reflections on the life of Nelson Mandela, it feels ridiculously trivial to keep thinking of my own fleeting moment of meeting him back in 1994. But keep thinking of it I do. I was a terribly junior staffer in the Clinton White House then, a writer and editor of presidential prose, at least for those texts unimportant enough for the more senior members of the staff to worry about keeping for themselves. Mandela was the newly elected President of South Africa, in town for an official state visit to the White House, and to address what turned out to be massive crowds in various other venues around town. He was a rock star.
It was a spectacular early fall day, and four or five of us juniors had ventured outside to loiter next to the small driveway that separates the West Wing from (what was then called) the Old Executive Office Building. Ostensibly, someone had wanted to smoke. In reality, as had to have been completely evident as the group edged toward the side of the drive that would afford the best view of Mandela addressing the press outside West Wing reception after he left his oval office meeting, we were hoping to catch a last glimpse. We weren’t disappointed – soon there he was, not 40 feet away, taking his place at the outside podium, calmly taking questions, saying who knew what to the similarly adoring press (we were too far away to hear the exchange).
The press was dispersing, and we were about to, too, when he turned away from his own waiting staff and began walking toward us, all by himself. Those long moments it took him to cross what seemed like far too great a distance to be worth the trouble, I kept thinking that there must be someone else, someone more senior, behind us. Or that one of my young colleagues was actually his secret godchild. Or anything that would reasonably explain why Nelson Mandela would take the time to walk an extra 40 feet in our direction. But it wasn’t any of that. He was just walking over to say hello. To shake our hands, each in turn.
When my turn came, I could barely remember my name. “And what do you do, Deborah?” he asked, shaking my hand, as gracious as anyone I had met – vastly more gracious than most I had met – in Washington so far. I must’ve said something because he gently nodded and laughed before moving on to my colleague. By then I was marveling at how gentle he seemed, how peaceful. And wondering how he and the President had gotten along. How he had approached the small talk in those conversations – the man on the one side whose ascendancy to the presidency had been a historically modest political triumph, the man on the other side who had become president by changing the world.
There was something else, too, that I couldn’t quite put my finger on at first. Not until he had turned to walk away. He had looked me in the eyes when he shook my hand – had done so to each of us I think. It was an unfamiliar sensation in professional Washington. Out in social D.C., folks would commonly look past me, over my shoulder to whomever was older, more interesting, more important. On White House territory, everyone’s gaze almost always flickered chest-ward on first meeting – to the security badge whose color distinguished the status of those who had access to the West Wing from those who didn’t. One could explain Mandela’s difference in this regard easily enough I suppose. He didn’t know the badge code. He had already met all the more senior people he needed to meet. Had no one at all he needed yet to impress. Had the gift of the greatest of politicians – the ability to make one feel as if one matters most in the world.
All of that is probably true. It is also true that he knew what it meant, human dignity. He knew what it was worth. And what was so very remarkable about him – he never stopped teaching by example.