Obama lauds Mandela, lashes Trump

Herb Boyd | 7/26/2018, 10:24 a.m.
At the start of his speech in South Africa to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth, Barack Obama ...
President Barack Obama YouTube/Obama Foudation

At the start of his speech in South Africa to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth, Barack Obama confessed that he didn’t come on his own, but at the “demand” of Mandela’s widow, Graça Machel. He hoped the thousands gathered in Johannesburg July 17 would “indulge me, despite the slight chill [it is winter in South Africa], as I spend much of this lecture reflecting on where we’ve been and how we arrived at this present moment, in the hope that it will offer us a roadmap for where we need to go next.”

The former president was not out of the first paragraph when some portion of that roadmap was disclosed as he commented on the strange uncertain times we live in, “with each day’s news cycle bringing more head-spinning and disturbing headlines.” These words came not long after Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. In case his subtlety might have been missed, Obama found a number of occasions to excoriate his successor in the White House, who has daily sought to diminish his legacy.


President Obama Delivers the Nelson Mandela Lecture

Throughout the more than 90 minutes of his lecture, as he chose to call it, Obama was often interrupted with cheers, particularly when there were poignant remembrances of Madiba, as Mandela was affectionately called. But the crowd appeared to know when Obama was referring to Trump, although he never mentioned Trump’s name.

“I can’t find common ground if somebody says climate change is just not happening, when almost all of the world’s scientists tell us it is,” Obama said, recalling the accords he established on climate change in Paris. “I don’t know where to start talking to you about this. If you start saying it’s an elaborate hoax, where do we start?” There is little doubt to whom this statement is directed.

And we should not be confused about the following: “Unfortunately, too much of politics today seems to reject the very concept of objective truth. People just make stuff up. We see it in state-sponsored propaganda. We see it in internet-driven fabrications. We see it in the blurring of lines between news and entertainment. We see the utter loss of shame among political leaders, where they’re caught in a lie and they just double down and they lie some more.”

Toward the end of his lecture—and folks in the audience remained transfixed—Obama masterfully mixed Madiba’s unimpeachable integrity with Trump’s despicable impulses, noting that “we have to follow Madiba’s example of persistence and of hope.”

He continued, “It is tempting to give in to cynicism: to believe that recent shifts in global politics are too powerful to push back, that the pendulum has swung permanently. Just as people spoke about the triumph of democracy in the ’90s, now you are hearing people talk about the end of democracy and the triumph of tribalism and the strongman. We have to resist that cynicism. Because we’ve been through darker times; we’ve been in lower valleys and deeper valleys.”

The lecture was vintage Obama, reminding us again how much his eloquence is missed in this dreadful season of ignominy and retrenchment.