Ted Koppel: Mandela's Long Prison Term Helped Preserve His Image

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Former Nightline host and NPR contributor Ted Koppel interviewed Nelson Mandela. Koppel says that Mandela is deservedly seen as a great man, but that one of the keys to his exalted status is that for 27 years he was behind bars, hidden from the kind of scrutiny and decision-making that can turn heroes into mere mortals.


It's been a week of remembrances following the death of Nelson Mandela. From world leaders to ordinary South Africans, all that celebrated not just his achievements but the man himself. A great man, it's been said.

NPR commentator Ted Koppel agrees but cautions Mandela might be the last of his kind.

TED KOPPEL, BYLINE: During the 1930s and '40s, the world was teeming with giants: some good, some evil; but huge: Hitler, Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin, Mao, De Gaulle, Gandhi. It may have been the times, but I've challenged groups today to come up with a current list. Go ahead, I'll say, sing out the names. And usually there'll be a moment of slightly embarrassed silence and finally, inevitably, someone will yell out: Mandela. A great man? Yes, definitely, Mandela.

But if you're wondering how he made the cut, when so few others even come to mind these days, consider the one advantage that 27 years in prison bestows on a man: privacy. It is clearly not the life that Nelson Mandela would have chosen for himself. It savaged his family, destroyed his health, ruined his eyesight. No one can possibly know how often he struggled with the soul numbing impact of enforced isolation.

But contrary to all of their intentions, those who sent him to Robben Island were shielding Mandela from the constant probing, the thousands of tiny intrusions that scratch and scar, and often destroy the reputations of so many of our public figures.

Nelson Mandela, the tall, grizzled veteran who emerged from Victor Verster Prison at the side of his wife, Winnie, with his right fist clenched above his head, was already a living legend. His image had been shaped in our imaginations. We knew nothing of the political jealousies and the power struggles during the early years on Robben Island. We had, by then, shrugged off the alliances that Mandela sought and never renounced with Cuba's Castro, Libya's Gadhafi and the PLO's Yasser Arafat.

In June of 1990, I hosted Mandela at a broadcast town meeting in Harlem. I questioned his choice of allies. I think I know better than you, Mr. Koppel, he began. And the largely African-American crowd exploded in laughter and cheers. There were many years, after all, when most of the world's leaders were not lining up to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela. He took his friends where he could find them.

The man who came out of prison in 1990 was a tough, pragmatic politician, in the very best sense of that word. When, as president, Mandela reached out the hand of reconciliation to his former enemies and jailers, he did so not as some sort of secular saint, but as a clear-eyed, single-minded leader who knew what had to be done to avoid a blood bath.

All kinds of media legends have crystallized around the invisible, imprisoned Mandela, but that one public act of political reconciliation is what made him great.

That's NPR commentator Ted Koppel.

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