International Affairs

Published on December 17th, 2013

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Artur Davis – The Politician of the 20th Century



There is a legitimate and unsentimental case that Nelson Mandela should rank as the Politician of the 20th Century. If Franklin Roosevelt overcame a broken body and marshaled the world to conquer a monster, remember that 27 years in prison should have broken both a body and a spirit, and appreciate that Mandela had no global army to conquer his beast. To be sure, Ronald Reagan’s crystal ball about the fragility of global communism was a crucial hinge in the Cold War, but it is plausible to imagine the Soviet empire unraveling out of its own weaknesses: can anyone sketch a peaceful path away from apartheid that didn’t require Mandela?

There were other democratic founders who were tested in prison—Walesa, Havel—but no one else mastered conciliation so skillfully that they made their captors voluntarily negotiate the terms of their own political demise.

Other visionaries spoke to the soul, from Gandhi and John Paul II to Martin Luther King, and they all rivaled Mandela in his capacity to build a moral authority that outlasted repression. But none of them translated vision to power deftly enough to re-make a nation so thoroughly and so swiftly as did Mandela.

An additional measure of Mandela’s stature is that in the imitative culture of the last generation, there are still no pseudo Mandelas: in fact, to emulate him seems superhuman, well beyond the effect of copying a rhetorical cadence or mimicking a style. It turns out that moral authority is the one leadership trait that image makers can’t fake. And the moral nature of Mandela, from the forbearance to the forgiveness to the restraints he self-imposed in response to a people who would have made him a civil king, is about as foreign to our fractiousness, and our self-promoting mindset, as our technology would be to a caveman.

There is one other aspect to Mandela that gets overlooked. He understood that the measure of a society is not its elegant constitutions or robust markets or even the most egalitarian laws but the extent to which its values enshrine mutual respect. (Pay attention, liberals and conservatives!) The pursuit of that insight disappointed leftists who would have preferred to redistribute wealth in South Africa with a Cuban or Soviet style brutality, and it explains why Mandela put so much stock in rich symbolismhe spent time and capital persuading blacks of the value of an integrated rugby team flying the colors of the old Afrikaans ruling class.

That campaign for respect across lines of race and privilege and blame happened to be the one crusade that Mandela couldn’t master. The heartbreak of Mandela’s life may well have been watching the ways apartheid kept diminishing his country, years after its rules were buried: the insidious manner in which the children of apartheid were too predisposed to turn into thugs; or demagogues who lined their pockets; or men who abused their women or women who debased their own bodies. The most gifted politician of the 20th Century knew that politics by itself cannot rebuild what a culture breaks.

This article was originally published on Official Artur Davis

A version of this essay was posted in the Recovering Politician.com on December 7, 2013

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About the Author: Artur Davis is a former four-term Member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Alabama and a current fellow at Harvard’s prestigious Institute of Politics. Despite today’s hyper-partisan environment, Davis has made a career of advocating for the ever-narrowing political middle. He is a 1990 magna cum laude graduate of Harvard University and a 1993 cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School, is a licensed attorney in Washington, D.C. He previously served as a federal prosecutor with a near 100 percent trial-conviction record and as a partner at the law firm SNR Denton LLP.

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