A celebrity’s death shouldn’t matter much in the scheme of things. But Robin Williams touched millions of lives via his art. And the manner of his death—probably suicide—and the cause—months of battling severe depression—are epidemics in this country. Sometimes the loneliest place is surrounded by loved ones who don’t understand.
To Graça Machel and the Mandela family; to President Zuma and members of the government; to heads of state and government, past and present; distinguished guests – it is a singular honor to be with you today, to celebrate a life unlike any other. To the people of South Africa – people of every race and walk of life – the world thanks you for sharing Nelson Mandela with us. His struggle was your struggle. His triumph was your triumph. Your dignity and hope found expression in his life, and your freedom, your democracy is his cherished legacy.
It is hard to eulogize any man – to capture in words not just the facts and the dates that make a life, but the essential truth of a person – their private joys and sorrows; the quiet moments and unique qualities that illuminate someone’s soul. How much harder to do so for a giant of history, who moved a nation toward justice, and in the process moved billions around the world. Born during World War I, far from the corridors of power, a boy raised herding cattle and tutored by elders of his Thembu tribe – Madiba would emerge as the last great liberator of the 20th century. Like Gandhi, he would lead a resistance movement – a movement that at its start held little prospect of success. Like King, he would give potent voice to the claims of the oppressed, and the moral necessity of racial justice. He would endure a brutal imprisonment that began in the time of Kennedy and Khrushchev, and reached the final days of the Cold War. Emerging from prison, without force of arms, he would – like Lincoln – hold his country together when it threatened to break apart. Like America’s founding fathers, he would erect a constitutional order to preserve freedom for future generations – a commitment to democracy and rule of law ratified not only by his election, but by his willingness to step down from power.
Given the sweep of his life, and the adoration that he so rightly earned, it is tempting then to remember Nelson Mandela as an icon, smiling and serene, detached from the tawdry affairs of lesser men. But Madiba himself strongly resisted such a lifeless portrait. Instead, he insisted on sharing with us his doubts and fears; his miscalculations along with his victories. “I’m not a saint,” he said, “unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”
It was precisely because he could admit to imperfection – because he could be so full of good humor, even mischief, despite the heavy burdens he carried – that we loved him so. He was not a bust made of marble; he was a man of flesh and blood – a son and husband, a father and a friend. That is why we learned so much from him; that is why we can learn from him still. For nothing he achieved was inevitable. In the arc of his life, we see a man who earned his place in history through struggle and shrewdness; persistence and faith. He tells us what’s possible not just in the pages of dusty history books, but in our own lives as well.
Mandela showed us the power of action; of taking risks on behalf of our ideals. Perhaps Madiba was right that he inherited, “a proud rebelliousness, a stubborn sense of fairness” from his father. Certainly he shared with millions of black and colored South Africans the anger born of, “a thousand slights, a thousand indignities, a thousand unremembered moments…a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people.”
But like other early giants of the ANC – the Sisulus and Tambos – Madiba disciplined his anger; and channeled his desire to fight into organization, and platforms, and strategies for action, so men and women could stand-up for their dignity. Moreover, he accepted the consequences of his actions, knowing that standing up to powerful interests and injustice carries a price. “I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination,” he said at his 1964 trial. “I’ve cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Mandela taught us the power of action, but also ideas; the importance of reason and arguments; the need to study not only those you agree with, but those who you don’t. He understood that ideas cannot be contained by prison walls, or extinguished by a sniper’s bullet. He turned his trial into an indictment of apartheid because of his eloquence and passion, but also his training as an advocate. He used decades in prison to sharpen his arguments, but also to spread his thirst for knowledge to others in the movement. And he learned the language and customs of his oppressor so that one day he might better convey to them how their own freedom depended upon his.
Mandela demonstrated that action and ideas are not enough; no matter how right, they must be chiseled into laws and institutions. He was practical, testing his beliefs against the hard surface of circumstance and history. On core principles he was unyielding, which is why he could rebuff offers of conditional release, reminding the Apartheid regime that, “prisoners cannot enter into contracts.” But as he showed in painstaking negotiations to transfer power and draft new laws, he was not afraid to compromise for the sake of a larger goal. And because he was not only a leader of a movement, but a skillful politician, the Constitution that emerged was worthy of this multiracial democracy; true to his vision of laws that protect minority as well as majority rights, and the precious freedoms of every South African.
I was too young to remember John F. Kennedy’s presidency; I was born the year he took office. But I grew up hearing stories about him and his brothers from my mother and my grandparents — stories of hope, possibility and understanding.
I can still remember sitting on my grandfather’s shoulders in Hawaii, watching the Apollo astronauts return from a journey President Kennedy set in motion. Looking back, I think my own sense that America is a place of boundless possibility comes, in part, from moments like these; from the stories I heard about President Kennedy.
And I’m not alone. For millions of Americans and for millions of people around the world, John Kennedy’s life and presidency was a source of inspiration; calling us all to rise above whatever barriers of faith, race or station stand in our way; to live out our ideals and set no limits on our aspirations.
It’s a testament to President Kennedy that, although his presidency lasted only one thousand days, his legacy has endured, not only though his inspiring words, but through his inspiring life.
In a campaign where a vocal minority voiced its opposition to electing a Catholic president, he saw an America where people of all faiths could pursue their aspirations.
In an era when some critics doubted it could be done, he vowed to put a man on the moon — and to do it before the decade was out.
In the aftermath of the world’s first and only nuclear confrontation, at the height of the Cold War, he envisioned a world free from nuclear weapons — even when that seemed beyond our reach.
And at a time when Jim Crow divided this country, he knew that our nation would not be free until all its citizens were free — advancing a movement that would one day make it possible for me to occupy this office.
Together, these moments reflect JFK’s belief that there was no challenge that a determined America couldn’t meet; no frontier that the American people could not cross. It is a lesson that continues to inspire each of us to ask what we can do for our country, and one that will endure for generations to come.
November 8 will be the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s election