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Nelson Mandela should rank as the Man of the 20th Century and I would go so far as to say the honor is really not in dispute. If Franklin Roosevelt overcame a broken body and marshaled the world to conquer a monster, remember that 27 years in prison should have broken both a body and a spirit, and appreciate that Mandela had no global army to conquer his beast. There were other democratic founders who were tested in prison—Walesa, Havel—but no one else mastered conciliation so skillfully that they made their captors voluntarily negotiate the terms of their own political demise.
There were other visionaries who spoke to the soul, from Gandhi and John Paul II to Martin Luther King, but no one but Mandela translated vision to power deftly enough to re-make a nation so thoroughly and so swiftly.
Another measure of his stature is that to emulate him seems superhuman. The moral nature of Mandela, from the forbearance to the forgiveness to the restraints he self-imposed in response to a people who would have made him a civil king, is about as foreign to our fractious ways, and our self-promoting mindset, as our technology would be to a caveman.
There is one other aspect to Mandela that gets overlooked. He understood that the measure of a society is not its elegant constitutions or robust markets or even the most egalitarian laws but the extent to which its culture enshrines mutual respect. (Pay attention, liberals and conservatives!) The heartbreak of his life may well have been watching the ways apartheid kept diminishing his country, years after its rules were buried: the insidious manner in which the children of apartheid were too predisposed to turn into thugs; or demagogues who stuffed their pockets; or men who abused their women or women who debased their own bodies. The most gifted politician of the 20th Century knew that politics by itself cannot rebuild what a culture breaks.
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