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Sunday, July 06, 2008

Clinton on Mandela: Old story, new context?

Jeffrey Goldberg's hears a "shot" at John McCain in Bill Clinton's remarks at the Aspen Ideas Festival:

Bill Clinton is speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival, and he said just now, apropos of almost nothing (actually, during a long peroration on Nelson Mandela): “Every living soul on this planet has some highly-justified anger. Everyone. If you know anybody who was a P.O.W. for any time, they can be going on for years and all of a sudden something will happen that will trigger all those bad memories.”

Not too subtle. Astonishingly, his interviewer, former Clinton Administration official Jane Wales, didn't follow-up. One subject Clinton didn't talk about at all: Barack Obama. He seemed to go out of his way, in fact, not to mention Obama's name. Which, when you think about, calls into question whether the P.O.W. shot was actually an intentional shot at all. On the other hand, I believe that Bill Clinton doesn't say things by accident.
Goldberg left out some important context here. Clinton was telling a story about Mandela that he's told repeatedly over the years; the upshot is that Mandela, a political prisoner for 27 years, managed to overcome his own hatred and anger in extraordinary fashion. ABC's Jake Tapper recounts how he told the tale at Aspen:
In a conversation about former South African president Nelson Mandela, Clinton talked about Mandela's ability to forgive his captors.

"Didn't you hate them?" Clinton recalled asking Mandela privately, referring to Mandela's final steps as a prisoner walking to freedom.

"'Sure I did,'" Mandela said, per Clinton. "'I felt anger and hatred and fear. And I realized if I kept hating them, once I got in that car and got through the gate I would still be in prison. So I let it go because I wanted to be free.'"

Continued Clinton: "Every living soul on the planet has some often highly justified anger. Everybody… If you know anybody who was a P.O.W. for any length of time, you will see, you go along for months or maybe even years and then something will happen and it will trigger all those bad dreams, and it will come back, it may not last 30 seconds…"

But Mandela has avoided that, Clinton said, because he has "disciplined himself and his mind and his heart and his spirit."

Again, this is a favorite Clinton story. He uses it to exhort individuals and various groups -- Kosovars, African Americans, Columbine students -- to get past their anger at injustice or violence. Three instances -- from 2000, 1999 and 1998 -- are pasted below.

Needless to say, when telling the story Clinton never mentioned rage-filled POWs before. And of course, Mandela wasn't a POW; he was a political prisoner (though his treatment was comparable to that of many abused POWs). Also, McCain has made a career of impugning Bill Clinton's performance as commander-in-chief, so Bill may have a bit anger of his own to get past here.

In short, the POW reference -- like Hillary's reference to Bobby Kennedy's assassination when her ostensible meaning was that his campaign was just getting started in June -- does seem overloaded. Was it a deliberate allusion? An association that bubbled up semiconsciously? An innocent embellishment of a much-told tale?

Judge for yourself whether Clinton's past tellings of the Mandela parable shed any light on his Aspen embellishment:

1. Clinton's remarks at a reception for Representative James E. Clyburn in Columbia, South Carolina, April 3, 2000 (drawing lessons for the Kosovar Albanians and Serbs):
I'll tell you, one of the most meaningful conversations I ever had in my life was with Nelson Mandela, who has been a wonderful friend to me and to Hillary and especially to our daughter. And I remember one time, you know, after I got to know him, I said, "You know, Mr. President, you're a very great man with a great spirit and all that, but you're also a shrewd politician," kind of like what I was saying about Jim. You know, he is a good guy, but the stuff he does makes sense, too. And I said, "That was pretty smart of you to have your jailers come to the Inauguration and all of that, but let me ask you something." I said, "Didn't you really hate them for what they did?" He said, "Oh, yeah, I hated them for a long time." He said, "I stayed alive on hate for 12 years. I broke rocks every day, and I stayed alive on hate." And he said, "They took a lot away from me. They took me away from my wife, and it subsequently destroyed my marriage. They took me away from seeing my children grow up. They abused me mentally and physically. And one day," he said, "I realized they could take it all except my mind and my heart." He said, "Those things I would have to give to them, and I simply decided not to give them away."

And so---so I said to him, I said, "Well, what about when you were getting out of prison?" I said, "The day you got out of prison in 1990, it was Sunday morning, and I got my daughter up early in the morning, and I took her down to the kitchen, and I turned on the television, and she was just a little girl then, and I sat her up on the kitchen counter. And I said, `Chelsea, I want you to watch this. This is one of the most important things you'll ever see in your life.' "

And I said, "I watched you walk down that dirt road to freedom." I said, "Now, when you were walking down there, and you realized how long you had been in their prison, didn't you hate them then? Didn't you feel some hatred?" He said, "Yes, I did a little bit." He said, "I felt that." And he said, "Frankly, I was kind of afraid, too, because I hadn't been free in so long."

But he said, "As I felt the anger rising up, I thought to myself, `They have already had you for 27 years. And if you keep hating them, they'll have you again.' And I said, `I want to be free. And so I let it go. I let it go."
2. Speaking to the students at Columbine High School, looking back at the student massacre there (Denver Post, May 21, 1999):
I close here with this story. My wife and I and our daughter have been blessed to know many magnificent people because the American people gave us a chance to serve in the White House. But I think the person who's had the biggest influence on me is the man who is about to retire as the president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela.

He is 80 years old, he served 27 years in prison. For 14 years, he never had a bed to sleep on. He spent most of his years breaking rocks every day.

And he told me once about his experience. And I asked him, "How did you let go of your hatred? How did you learn to influence other people? How did you embrace all the differences in, literally, the centuries of oppression and discord in your country and let a lot of it go away? How did you get over that in prison? Didn't you really hate them?'

And he said: "I did hate them for quite a long while. After all, look what they took from me - 27 years of my life. I was abused physically and emotionally. They separated me from my wife, and it eventually destroyed my marriage. They took me away from my children, and I could not even see them grow up. And I was full of hatred and anger.'

And he said, "One day, I was breaking rocks and I realized they had taken so much. And they could take everything from me except my mind and my heart. Those things I would have to give away. I decided not to give them away.'
3. August 28, 1998, on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech (NYT):
And the last thing I learned from them on which all these other things depend, without which we cannot build a world of peace or one America in an increasingly peaceful world bound together in this web of mutuality, is that you can't get there unless you're willing to forgive your enemies. I never will forget one of the most -- I don't think I have ever spoken about this in public before -- but one of the most meaningful personal moments I have had as President was a conversation I had with Nelson Mandela.

And I said to him -- I said: "You know, I have read your book, and I have heard you speak. And you spent time with my wife and daughter, and you have talked about inviting your jailers to your inauguration." And I said, "It's very moving." And I said: "You're a shrewd as well as a great man. But come on now, how did you really do that? You can't make me believe you didn't hate those people who did that to you for 27 years?"

He said, "I did hate them for quite a long time. After all, they abused me physically and emotionally. They separated me from my wife, and it eventually broke my family up. They kept me from seeing my children grow up." He said, "For quite a long time, I hated them."

And then he said: "I realized one day, breaking rocks, that they could take everything away from me, everything, but my mind and heart. Now, those things I would have to give away, and I simply decided I would not give them away."


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