Nelson Mandela and President Obama

As President Obama tours South Africa while Nelson Mandela's health is failing, Bill Keller at the New York Times compares the leadership styles of the two icons.

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President Obama visits Nelson Mandela's former prison cell in South Africa (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

As President Obama tours South Africa while Nelson Mandela's health is failing, Bill Keller at the New York Times compares the leadership styles of the two icons.

Mandela, in his time on the political stage, was a man of almost ascetic self-discipline. But he also understood how to deploy his moral authority in grand theatrical gestures. Facing capital charges of trying to overthrow the state in the Rivonia Trial, he entered the formal Pretoria courtroom dressed in a traditional Xhosa leopard-skin cape to dramatize that he was an African entering a white man's jurisdiction. And then he essentially confessed to the crime.

In 1995, Mandela, newly elected president of a still deeply divided country, single-handedly turned the Rugby World Cup — the whitest sporting event in South Africa, long the target of anti-apartheid boycotts — into a festival of interracial harmony. He was, in short, the opposite of "no drama."

Obama's sense of political theater peaked at his first inaugural. He rarely deploys the stirring reality that he is the first black man to hold the office. As my Times colleague Peter Baker notes, "Obama's burden as he sees it, different from Mandela's, is to make the fact that he's black be a nonissue. Only then will his breakthrough be truly meaningful." Still, I think Mandela would have sought a way to make a more exciting civic bond out of the pride so many Americans felt in this milestone.

Read Bill Keller's entire piece at the New York Times.

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