Yesterday the world mourned the death of Nelson Mandela. In a moving speech, President Obama described the former South African president as a man who through “fierce dignity and unbending will to sacrifice his own freedom for the freedom of others... transformed South Africa -- and moved all of us.” Obama also noted that his first political action was inspired by Mandela -- a protest against South Africa's brutal apartheid regime in the late 1970s, part of a wave of progressive activism that would sweep the country over the next decade and compel the United States to enact economic sanctions against South Africa's government.
American conservatives have a far more complicated history with Mandela, as many of the movement's most prominent figures spent the decade leading up to his release from prison opposing actions geared toward ending South Africa's brutal apartheid regime. In 1986 President Reagan vetoed a bill that would have imposed economic sanctions on South Africa unless it met five conditions, including Mandela's release. Congress overrode that veto. Washington Post columnist George Will derided calls for sanctions and divestment in a 1985 column: “Clearly some of the current campaigning against South Africa is a fad, a moral Hula Hoop, fun for a while.”
On the very day Mandela was freed in 1990, conservative icon William Buckley warned that “the release of Mandela, for all we know, may one day be likened to the arrival of Lenin at the Finland Station in 1917” (referring to Lenin's return to Russia from exile and the ensuing Bolshevik seizure of power) and mocked South African opponents of apartheid for their concern with “the question of one-man, one-vote,” which he claimed “has not yet hit the United States, whose Senate guarantees most unequal treatment.”
American conservatives of the era recognized the brutal repression of black South Africans by the whites, but ultimately determined that ending that system was less important that preserving South Africa as an ally in the Cold War. They pointed to Mandela's ties to South Africa's Communist Party and his history of violent activism and warned of dire results if he were freed and the apartheid government overthrown. (In his statement at the opening of the 1964 trial that ended in his imprisonment, Mandela explained that his African National Congress worked with communists toward the common goal of “the removal of white supremacy.” He compared this to the United States and Great Britain allying with the Soviet Union during World War II).
Ronald Reagan neatly summed up the conservative position on South Africa and apartheid in a March 1981 interview with Walter Cronkite:
In an interview with CBS News, Reagan said the United States should still be concerned about South Africa's policy of racial separatism, called apartheid. But he suggested that as long as a “sincere and honest” effort was being made to achieve racial harmony, the United States should not be critical.
Reagan then asked: “Can we abandon a country that has stood by us in every war we have ever fought, a country that is strategically essential to the free world in its production of minerals that we all must have?” [Associated Press, March 23, 1981, via Nexis]
Since Mandela's passing, conservatives in the media have grappled with their movement's actions in light of the fruits his leadership bore. Here's how they're responding, in ways ranging from repugnant to laudatory:
“Don't Mourn For Mandela”
Some conservative hardliners are convinced that they were right about Mandela all along. “Don't Mourn For Mandela” is the headline of Joseph Farah's December 6 column, in which the WND editor highlights Mandela's communist ties and use of violence, writing:
Apartheid was inarguably an evil and unjustifiable system. But so is the system Mandela's revolution brought about - one in which anti-white racism is so strong today that a prominent genocide watchdog group has labeled the current situation a “precursor” to the deliberate, systematic elimination of the race.
In other words, the world has been sold a bill of goods about Mandela. He wasn't the saintly character portrayed by Morgan Freeman. He wasn't someone fighting for racial equality. He was the leader of a violent, Communist revolution that has nearly succeeded in all of its grisly horror.
Farah concludes that someone needs to highlight these “inconvenient truths” because “the Mandela mythology is as dangerous as the terror he and his followers perpetrated on so many innocent victims - white and black.”
Similarly, PJ Media's David Swindle headlined his piece on Mandela, “Communist Icon Nelson Mandela Dead at 95.” In a post at his Gateway Pundit site, popular conservative blogger Jim Hoft marked Mandela's passing by posting a picture of Mandela with Fidel Castro and highlighting a tweet from a “Communist Party” Twitter account mourning his death.
Mandela Was Great, Obama Is Terrible
Some conservative media figures have been unable to resist the opportunity to use Mandela as a foil to attack the first black U.S. president.
“Let me make a point about Nelson Mandela,” radio host Bill Cunningham said on the December 5 edition of Hannity on Fox News. “When Nelson Mandela took over South Africa he reached across to divide the size of the Grand Canyon and they worked out deals. Why can't your guy Obama take the advice of Mandela and reach across the divide and talk to Republicans?”
Breitbart.com's Joel Pollak posted an article on December 6 headlined: “Top 5 Ways Barack Obama Is No Nelson Mandela.” Pollak's piece called the Obama-Mandela comparison “so crude as to be laughable,” arguing that Mandela was a “statesman” whereas Obama “has chosen to pursue failed and outdated ideologies.”
Mandela Was Great, But Let's Talk About Obamacare
Sean Hannity opened his December 5 program by noting the death of Mandela and his fight against apartheid, telling viewers: “Now, we'll continue to follow this story right here at the Fox News Channel, but also tonight: with each passing day we're learning more and more about just what a disaster Obamacare really is.”
Hannity didn't actually devote a segment of the show to Mandela or follow up on the story in any substantive way, and Mandela's name only came up incidentally during the show as part of unrelated discussions (Cunningham's interjection, for example). The host did, however, close the program with prayers for Mandela's family, saying that Mandela lived “an incredible life, a courageous life, and he made the world a much better place.”
During an appearance on The O'Reilly Factor on December 5, former Fox News contributor and failed Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum said Mandela “was fighting against some great injustice, and I would make the argument that we have a great injustice going on right now in this country with an ever-increasing size of government that is taking over and controlling people's lives, and Obamacare is front and center in that.”
Mandela Was Great, Unlike Today's Civil Rights Leaders
On his radio show, Rush Limbaugh highlighted Mandela's ability to “forgive everybody” and let go of resentment and concluded that he “would not qualify as a civil rights leader in this country with that philosophy. They can't let it go. It's become too big a business.”
“Mandela Surprised Us”
Several conservative writers and outlets have laid out the reasons behind conservative skepticism of Mandela (i.e. his ties to communists and other radicals) and expressed relief that those concerns proved to be unfounded following Mandela's release from prison.
In a piece at National Review's blog, The Corner, Quin Hillyer explained that “a lot of conservatives were skeptical of Nelson Mandela in the early 1980s” for a variety of reasons, but concluded that once out of prison Mandela proved “to be a great force for unity, non-violence, and progress”:
Mandela proved, via his “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” and other noble actions, to be a great force for unity, non-violence, and progress. He proved, indeed, to be a figure with lasting, worldwide, indelibly beneficial significance. Others, at far greater length, will rightly recount his accomplishments. Suffice it to say, by way of immediate reaction, that Nelson Mandela was a great and good man. May he rest in the Lord's true peace.
In a piece for the Daily Caller titled “Why Nelson Mandela surprised us,” writer Matt Lewis struck a similar note:
In retrospect, it's easy to think of Mandela as the grandfatherly statesman, just as it's easy to think of Cold War as a time of overwrought paranoia. But the Soviet Union posed an existential threat; it's not like nuclear weapons weren't aimed at us. Such a thing has a way of focusing your priorities. In that milieu, one can understand why the U.S. would have been very cautious about anyone who had even “dabbled” in Communism.
In hindsight, of course, some Americans now have egg on their faces. It's always safer to assume the worst and then beg forgiveness later. And it's safe to assume that in any given moment we, as a nation, are overreacting about something -- but you never know which of the precautions you're taking are superfluous until it's too late to do anything about it.
A Wall Street Journal editorial argued that Mandela transformed himself from a “failed Marxist revolutionary and leftist icon” into a historic and “wise revolutionary leader” when given the chance to govern.
“I Was Dead Wrong”
In a post on National Review Online's The Corner blog, conservative writer Deroy Murdock expressed regret for having completely misjudged Mandela, concluding that he “blew it very, very, very badly”:
Like many other anti-Communists and Cold Warriors, I feared that releasing Nelson Mandela from jail, especially amid the collapse of South Africa's apartheid government, would create a Cuba on the Cape of Good Hope at best and an African Cambodia at worst.
Nelson Mandela was just another Fidel Castro or a Pol Pot, itching to slip from behind bars, savage his country, and surf atop the bones of his victims.
Far, far, far from any of that, Nelson Mandela turned out to be one of the 20th Century's great moral leaders, right up there with Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He also was a statesman of considerable weight. If not as significant on the global stage as FDR, Winston Churchill, and Ronald Reagan, he approaches Margaret Thatcher as a national leader with major international reach.
So, I was dead wrong about Nelson Mandela, a great man and fine example to others, not least the current occupant of the White House.
After 95 momentous years on Earth, may Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela rest in peace.