The Silver Lining of Almost Meeting Nelson Mandela

How nearly meeting my hero turned into something even better.

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Nelson Mandela addresses a rally of more than 100,000 people at Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Feb. 13, 1990, two days after leaving prison.

I come by my love of politics honestly. My grandfather was active in the labor movement and my father in civil rights and local politics. My paternal grandparents gave me cards with pictures of Paul Robeson on the cover and wrote me to live a life of integrity. I was eight years old.

As the first black president of the United States packs his bags for a trip to Africa, it is the first black president of South Africa, lying in a frail state in Johannesburg, who stands out this week. His life of integrity as a political prisoner who refused to renounce his beliefs was a beacon for politically minded young people like me in the late 1980s. "Free Mandela!" posters adorned dorm room walls and students fought to divest university endowments from South African investments. Sporting a high-top fade and leather Africa medallion, I even told my college girlfriend I wouldn't buy her a diamond ring if we got married because of the boycott. She wasn't convinced.

Then Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and came to Detroit as part of an eight-city tour. As he was at the airport leaving, my father, who led the city's coordinating effort for his visit, asked the 71-year-old freedom fighter to shake hands with me and my brothers. Somewhere there is awkward television news footage of our family posing with one of the greatest champions of democracy while someone trying to take our picture fumbled with a camera that never worked. A priceless moment left undocumented because of technical difficulty.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

Four years later, the White House sent me to Windhoek, Namibia to make arrangements for a visit by Vice President Al Gore following the inauguration of Mandela as president of neighboring South Africa. I was disappointed not to be at the inauguration, but Namibia, recently free from apartheid itself, turned out to be a great experience.

Then, that October, I got the makeup call of all time when a friend in the vice president's office asked if I would staff him at the state dinner in honor of President Mandela. Injured playing basketball, Gore was on crutches at the time. My job was simple: carry his briefing book, answer his pager (!) and make sure his crutches weren't too far away when he needed to move.

Once the vice president sat down, I settled in behind the tables full of formally dressed men and women. The room hummed and Presidents Clinton and Mandela were preparing their toasts when noises came from the hallway.

The doors opened and in walked Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown – very late – looking for their seats. That night, spouses were seated at separate tables, but Bobby Brown was having none of it. He demanded to be seated next to his wife. The social secretary's staff tried to explain. Heads turned as voices rose. Finally, White House ushers asked people if they could scootch over to make room. A place setting was brought from the kitchen and chairs scratched the floor as a table of eight was turned into a table for nine so the two singers could sit together.

[Check out our gallery of political cartoons.]

At the end of the night Whitney Houston performed "Greatest Love of All" in a tent in the Rose Garden. After prolonged applause, Mandela graciously shook hands with the staff standing along the side of the tent as he made his way to the exit. As he greeted a woman near me, I got nervous at the prospect of another opportunity to meet my hero. I wiped a clammy hand on my suit and stuck it out just as President Clinton grabbed Mandela by the elbow and pulled him away to meet someone else. Foiled again!

I never got a picture with Nelson Mandela, but looking back, I got something better. Because I missed his inauguration I met three little boys in a rundown Namibian township. Despite playing with an abandoned tire between the pungent odors emanating from streams of raw sewage, the boys greeted me with broad smiles. The picture I took of them still sits near my desk, framed with a quote by Elie Wiesel I heard at the time, reminding me why I admire Mandela and why, despite the current dysfunction, I still think politics is important.

"Our lives do not belong only to ourselves," the quote reads, "but to those who desperately need us."

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