Mandela's Powerful Influence On Barack Obama

President Obama offered a remembrance of Nelson Mandela at the White House on Thursday, shortly after news broke of the South African leader's death. Obama talked about Mandela not only as an icon, but as a three-dimensional human being.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Obama spoke of Mandela last night at the White House, describing the late South African leader as a man who took history in his hands.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: His journey from a prisoner to a president embodied the promise that human beings and countries can change for the better.

INSKEEP: And Mandela had a powerful influence on President Obama. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: President Obama looked emotional as he stood in the White House Briefing Room. He said Mandela accomplished more in his life than could be expected of any man.

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OBAMA: And today, he's gone home. You know, we've lost one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this earth.

SHAPIRO: Obama talked about Mandela not only as an icon, but as a three-dimensional human being.

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OBAMA: His commitment to transfer power and reconcile with those who jailed him, set an example that all humanity should aspire to; whether in the lives of nations, or our own personal lives. And the fact that he did it all with grace and good humor and an ability to acknowledge his own imperfections, only makes the man that much more remarkable.

SHAPIRO: The last time the two men met in person was 2005, in Washington. Obama was a senator at the time. An image from that meeting shows Obama, in silhouette, standing next to Mandela, reclining in an armchair. That photo sits on Obama's desk in the Oval Office, a testament to the profound impact the African leader had on the American one.

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OBAMA: Like so many around the globe, I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example that Nelson Mandela set.

SHAPIRO: At the White House last night, the president said Mandela was partly responsible for the young Barack Obama's political awakening.

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OBAMA: My very first political action, the first thing I ever did that involved an issue or a policy or politics, was a protest against apartheid.

SHAPIRO: Obama told this story in more detail this past summer, when he visited Africa. At a press conference in Senegal, Obama described being a college student, absorbing Mandela's writings and speeches; then as a law student, watching Mandela step forward after 27 years in prison.

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OBAMA: For him to say, "I embrace my former captors and my former oppressors; and believe in one nation, and believe in judging people on the basis of their character and not their color" - you know, it gave me a sense of what is possible.

SHAPIRO: During that weeklong trip through Africa, Mandela was sick in the hospital. Obama mentioned him at nearly every stop, especially in South Africa.

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OBAMA: The triumph of Nelson Mandela and this nation speaks to something very deep in the human spirit: the yearning for justice and dignity that transcends boundaries of race and class and faith.

SHAPIRO: Obama had hoped to see Mandela face to face on that trip. The first black of the president of the United States standing beside the first black president of South Africa would have made for a powerful moment. But the former South African leader was too ill. Instead, Obama met with the family in Johannesburg and toured Robben Island, where Mandela spent years behind bars. At the White House last night, Obama acknowledged that millions of people around the world feel their own personal connection to the leader who died yesterday.

OBAMA: We will not likely see the likes of Nelson Mandela again. So it falls to us, as best we can, to forge the example that he set; to make decisions guided not by hate, but by love, to never discount the difference that one person can make, to strive for a future that is worthy of his sacrifice.

SHAPIRO: As long as I live, Obama said, I'll do what I can do learn from him.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG HONORING MANDELA)

INSKEEP: Now, last night, the administration announced that flags will be flown at half-staff at the White House and other public buildings until Monday evening, in honor of Nelson Mandela.

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