Praise For Mandela Crosses Borders, Partisan Lines

When Nelson Mandela was in prison, the fight over imposing sanctions on South Africa was politically divisive. But it also produced a kind of unity in the end.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning, I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Let's review a bit of history, and the story of Nelson Mandela. It's the moment when Mandela was imprisoned, and the United States was finally forced to go on the record about South Africa's racial segregation. The fight over imposing sanctions on South Africa was politically divisive. But it also produced a kind of unity in the end, all of which is worth recalling in this divisive time.

Cokie Roberts joins us next, as she does most Mondays. Hi, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: So let's set the scene here. It's 1986, President Ronald Reagan opposed sanctions against South Africa, vetoed a sanctions bill; even addressed the nation, calling for support for his position. But what happened?

ROBERTS: Very different from today, when we see President Obama and Mrs. Obama and President - former President Bush and Mrs. Bush all together on Air Force One, heading to the memorial services. But it took a lot of activity to get to that point where it became such a unified view of many American politicians.

There had been a lot of action by the Black Caucus over the years, calling for sanctions against South Africa. But at the time of the Reagan veto, the single biggest factor in that vote was the voice of Nancy Kassebaum, the Republican senator from Kansas who was chairman of the African Subcommittee of the Foreign Relations Committee. And when she pushed for those sanctions, insisting that to be for them was to, quote, "be on the right side of history," other Republicans couldn't ignore her.

The chief aide to the then-committee chairman Dick Lugar said at the time: Her voice carries a lot more weight than those blowhards out on the floor. And other members of the Senate knew she had done her homework, that she had no political agenda, that she just thought it was the right thing to do for both countries.

And the Republican-controlled Senate ended up voting 78 to 21 to override the president's veto. So it was a big bipartisan vote - in the House as well, 313 to 83. You don't see anything like that on any issue today.

INSKEEP: Which is how sanctions got imposed in the first place. And I should mention, I suppose, that Newt Gingrich, in the House of Representatives, supported sanctions at that time.

ROBERTS: He did. And he said yesterday on CNN that he has been amazed at the negative reaction that he's gotten from his Web postings calling Mandela one of the greatest leaders of our time. He continued to defend Mandela yesterday, comparing him to the revolutionaries who founded this country. But Steve, the vituperativeness of the response clearly surprised the former speaker. Now, that's ironic because, of course, he was the man who really led the way in the kind of scorched earth policy we see in American politics today. But now, it is so much worse than what he got started.

And I'm sure the president is getting blowback for bringing President Bush with him on the plane. There's a view out there - in the extremes on both sides - that even speaking with a member of the other party is evil, much less trying to work with them; which means that we see politicians of both parties trying to make nice with the base of their party before they can even reach out to the middle, to try to get something done.

INSKEEP: Well, something really remarkable - I mean, people were going after Gingrich because they said Mandela was a communist, that - there may have been some truth to that but obviously, it was an oversimplification of his life. But there's a way that we put a label on people. They don't get beyond it - at least, in the minds of some.

ROBERTS: Well, that's absolutely right. And what we've been seeing, again, is that - those labels being placed on American politicians for not being pure enough in their own party caucuses. And we've been seeing the president doing a whole lot of reaching out to his base on income inequality and raising the minimum wage so that he can try again to win over the people who have defected from him; so that he can bring up his approval ratings to try to get something done in this second term.

And you're beginning to see members of Congress realizing they need to do that as well. This animus between them is really a difficulty for them. And it's the reason we might have a budget deal by the end of this week - so that we can avoid another government shutdown early next year.

INSKEEP: We'll see how it goes. Thanks, as always. That's Cokie Roberts, who joins us on Mondays.

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