WASHINGTON, D.C. — Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela are forever linked in history as the first black presidents of each of their countries, inspiring millions in the United States and South Africa.
On Thursday, after Mandela died, a somber Obama paid tribute to the man who inspired the political career of a 19-year-old college student and future president of the United States.
“My very first political action, first thing I ever did that involved an issue or a policy or politics, was a protest against apartheid,” Obama told reporters at the White House. “I would study his words and his writings. And like so many around the globe, I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example that Nelson Mandela set. And so long as I live, I will do what I can to learn from him.”
Late Thursday, Obama signed a proclamation honoring Mandela and ordering that flags at U.S. buildings here and abroad be flown at half-staff until sunset Monday.
In Washington and across the United States, politicians of all stripes honored the 95-year-old Mandela, who led the emancipation of South Africa from white minority rule after 27 years in prison. He died Thursday after a months-long illness.
Former President George W. Bush, who hosted Mandela at the White House in 2005, called the man affectionately known in his country as “Madiba” as “one of the great forces for freedom and equality of our time.”
His father, former President George H.W. Bush, who in June 1990 became the first U.S. president to welcome Mandela to the White House, said as president he “watched in wonder as Nelson Mandela had the remarkable capacity to forgive his jailers . . . setting a powerful example of redemption and grace for us all.”
Former President Bill Clinton, who tweeted a photograph of himself meeting with Mandela, said the world “has lost one of its most important leaders.”
“We will remember him as a man of uncommon grace and compassion, for whom abandoning bitterness and embracing adversaries was not just a political strategy but a way of life,” he said. “All of us are living in a better world because of the life that Madiba lived.”
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, called him an “unrelenting voice for democracy” and said that “his ‘long walk to freedom’ showed an enduring faith in God and respect for human dignity. His perseverance in fighting the apartheid system will continue to inspire future generations.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. said Mandela “never allowed resentment to drive him away from the path of reconciliation.”
“Nelson Mandela once said that ‘courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.’” Pelosi said. “His life is the affirmation of this statement: a story of courage, a triumph over fear, a whole-hearted faith in the power, promise, and possibility of the human spirit.”
For months the South African nation — and much of the continent — have been preparing for Mandela’s death. Handwritten letters, flowers and balloons have piled up outside his hospital and home, in the streets and in front of government buildings.
Mandela will be buried, according to his wishes, in the village of Qunu, where he grew up. Obama and a slew of world leaders are expected to attend Mandela’s funeral.
This summer, Obama traveled to South Africa as part of a multi-country trip. He scrubbed a planned visit to Mandela as the former president lay in a hospital. Instead, Obama’s trip was transformed into a tribute to Mandela.
He spoke about Mandela, he prayed for him, he visited his family. And Obama and his own family, first lady Michelle Obama and daughters, Malia and Sasha, toured Robben Island, where Mandela was held in a small cell for 18 of his 27 years in prison as a political prisoner under the white leaders who ruled the nation.
Obama and Mandela have only met once — Obama keeps a photo in the White House of their brief visit — in 2005 when the newly elected U.S. senator met Mandela in Washington.
Three years later, Mandela called Obama to congratulate him on his election. The two have spoken several times in the years that followed, but never in person. Michelle Obama and her daughters visited Mandela in 2011 when they were in South Africa.
Although Obama and Mandela met only the one time and operated in vastly different political environments, they are forever bound as presidents, Nobel Prize winners and men who inspired millions.
“He achieved more than could be expected of any man,” Obama said. “And today, he’s gone home. We’ve lost one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth. He no longer belongs to us. He belongs to the ages.”