Nelson Mandela clearly is one of the greatest world figures of all time

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“He’s the most beloved man in the world.” Charlayne Hunter-Gault, esteemed award winning journalist and NBC News Special Correspondent.

“It’s shocking how little American leaders of both parties did to oppose the rise and consolidation of the brutal apartheid regime in the ‘50s and ’60s, but it was Richard Nixon who developed closer ties. The anti-apartheid movement of the 1970s and ’80s was demonized as the far left at the time.” Joan Walsh, Salon.com editor-at-large, MSNBC Consultant.

Nelson Mandela didn’t have to wait until after his death for words of admiration and praise to pour from the lips of everyone with a pulse and a heartbeat. That legacy has long been embedded in the world’s conscience. People who loved Nelson Mandela don’t have any explaining to do at the altars of their judgment.

Nelson Mandela did, however, have to wait for the arbiters of apartheid and oppression – not just its enforcers but those who embraced and endorsed it with their silence and complicity – to say a few nice words about him while he lived. Their explanations at their own altars of admission will be tantamount to a theater of rhetorical repentance.

If George Washington is indeed the father of the United States, Nelson Mandela is clearly the father of a unified South Africa. He ranks as one of the greatest world leaders of the 20th Century, and the early part of the 21st.

Mandela, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate whose tribal name is Tata Madiba, died one week ago on Thursday, Dec. 5, after several months of failing health. He was 95. Earlier this year he was considered close to death from a lung infection, but someone forgot to tell it to Mandela, the first democratically elected president of South Africa and the first black African to be elected after decades of apartheid, the racially segregated system where black South Africans were null and void and had no political rights in their own country.

His death came exactly one week after Thanksgiving and 20 days before Christmas. There is a powerful message in that. The people of South Africa and the entire world are thankful for the nine and a half decades Mandela spent on this Earth, and we should all feel blessed at how he changed not only a nation but gently moved a world toward sanity. His final six months at death’s door gave his fellow South Africans time to prepare for his passing.

Mandela, a lawyer sentenced to life in prison for his human right to protest the racist and oppressive South African regime, spent 27 years in a South African cell. He left it as strong as he entered. Few can claim to such moral fiber.

World, national and even state leaders, including Maine’s two U.S. senators, were universal and unanimous in their quick praise of Mandela, who clearly faced the most daunting task of any leader before or since.

At a time when the world deservedly heaps praise on the life and times of this phenomenal world leader, let us not forget that the United States, once the moral epicenter of the globe despite its own sordid past with segregation, was on the wrong side of history when it came to apartheid and Mandela’s capture, conviction, sentencing and, ultimately, the efforts to end apartheid and to free Mandela.

America’s own president at the time, Ronald Wilson Reagan, did not grasp the moral imperative to divest in South Africa, despite universal calls from other leaders to do so. Through his own policy of “constructive engagement,” Reagan became the global equivalent of Birmingham’s Bull Connor, the infamous Alabama police commissioner who used police dogs and fire hoses to oppress southern blacks who fought for their own civil rights similar to those of South Africans. Reagan’s inaction during apartheid’s heyday left the United States marooned on its own island of isolationism and separatism instead of a part of the global community of freedom and sanctions.

And let us not forget, as Joan Walsh eloquently points out, what the 40th president of the United States did when it came to apartheid, a position brilliantly exposed in the recent film “The Butler.”

“Ronald Reagan made it a priority to fight domestic and international divestment efforts — efforts that, in the end, helped pressure the South African government to enter negotiations and free Nelson Mandela. Reagan vetoed an amazingly (if belatedly) bipartisan bill to impose tough sanctions on the apartheid regime. Of course then-congressman Dick Cheney had voted against the sanctions in 1986, and he defended his position while running for vice president in 2000, telling ABC: ”The ANC was then viewed as a terrorist organization … I don’t have any problems at all with the vote I cast 20 years ago.”

That comment by the former veep should convince every American how fortunate we were that the foreign rerporter who flung the shoe at President George W. Bush in Iraq missed his target. It should also make every African-American grateful that Cheney wasn’t vice president under President John F. Kennedy.

Shameless and surreal, such extremists rely on amnesia to overtake America. They depend on an attention deficit disordered populace to sing “We Shall Overcome” when they themselves can’t overcome their own racial demons. To be sure, Mandela and the African National Congress he founded were considered “terrrorists” as recently as 2008.

Our tears are not as authentic as we think.

Mandela, the great human being that he was, rose above all that was evil – the hate, the disdain, the cowardice and his oppressors. He led his country through a tumultuous transition from post-apartheid South Africa to a stable economic power, one where its own indigenous citizens have an equal chance to achieve their own dreams and aspirations.

Mandela’s accomplishment was not a “Mr. Gorbachev, tear-down-this-wall” kind of a moment. Mandela’s “wall” was a political and social replica of the intense heat inside a raging steel mill blast furnace, where the four-digit temperatures sheer the skin off anyone who dares to approach it.

Mandela permanently extinguished apartheid’s firery blast furnace. In the process, he bent the beams of a universal menace and set ablaze an eternal flame of hope and possibility.

The Advertiser Democrat Editorial Board