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Temporary Amnesia Strikes Some upon Death of Nelson Mandela

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Our major publications were ready for the death of Nelson Mandela. When it came yesterday, at age 95—probably later than many, including Mandela himself, expected—we got to see the editorial plans they’d had for years in the making move into action. Time has remembrances from Bono and Morgan Freeman, probably originally drafted in the Achtung BabyShawshank Redemption era. Time also revealed its cover, showing a photo of a smiling, elderly, potentially even at-peace Mandela:

The New Yorker also quickly showed the Internet its cover, which couldn’t be more different: a graphic of a young, intense, oppressed, and, hey now, political Mandela, with political revolution on his mind.  

Most of the photos we’ve seen of Mandela in the news coverage already are of the Time variety—the frail, elderly man, distanced from controversy over the past decade and a half and, until his death, the closest thing the planet had to an internationally recognized living saint.

There’s something cloying about the media’s reliance on these later images—call it “cute old man” syndrome. An explicitly political figure who nevertheless comes to be seen as a cute old man, with some cute quotes from his past drawn up again and again. He’s foreign, he smiles, he’s old—aww, adorable!

In Mandela’s case this image has erased from the popular mind the fact that until, oh, the 1990s, Mandela was an extraordinarily divisive figure—in American politics. And if you want to get technical, well, Mandela was on the State Department’s official terrorism watch list until 2008.

The U.S. foreign policy establishment tolerated apartheid for a long, long time, because it considered the Afrikaner government a strong ally against the spread of communism. Not until the mid-1980s did Congress finally muster the will to move on sanctions against the regime, overriding the veto of Ronald Reagan, who warned, pathetically, that the sanctions would only hurt the black people they were designed to help. Conservative hawks, of course, were more concerned about the release of the “terrorist” Mandela, backed by the African National Congress, leading to a communist revolution of scary black people against a white minority. (Sort of the same thing they feared in America in the ’60s. Again: the fist in the air.) Then-Congressman Dick Cheney was one of the leaders against passing sanctions in the House, considering the ANC a “terrorist organization.” He would later say that while he didn’t regret his votes—didn’t regret them!—he would acknowledge that Mandela had “mellowed out,” a hilarious turn of phrase.

When the South African government released Mandela from prison in 1990, after 27 years, no less than National Review‘s William F. Buckley wondered if President F.W. de Klerk had committed treason. “The release of Mandela, for all that we can know,” he wrote, “may one day be likened to the arrival of Lenin at the Finland Station in 1917.” Fast forward to 2003. After apartheid crumbled, Mandela served his term as president, a violent communist revolution never came to pass, and Mandela was more or less revered by all. Then Mandela opposed the Iraq war. In that instant, National Review unloaded all that it had presumably been keeping to itself over the preceding years in a short piece titled, “Of Course Mandela Supports Saddam:”

Nelson Mandela outperformed almost every modern head of state on the African continent by not attempting to annoint himself President for life. Nevertheless, his vicious anti-Americanism and support for Saddam Hussein should come as no surprise, given his long-standing dedication to Communism and praise for terrorists. The world finally saw that his wife Winnie, rather than being a saintly freedom-fighter, was a murderous thug. The events of 2003 are helping many Americans lose their illusions about the Old Europe; perhaps it is also time to discard the Old Media’s fantasy version of Nelson Mandela, proud winner of the Soviet Union’s Lenin Peace Prize.

My only hope is that the New Yorker cover is powerful enough to get at least one right-wing pundit to erupt, one last time, “Lenin!”, in a breathless display of idiocy.