I wondered this morning, as President Obama delivered remarks at Nelson Mandela’s memorial, how much of his speech was an attempt to offer Congress an olive branch.
Obama spoke of unity, of reconciliation, of Mandela’s example and that it was a universal message for all world leaders.
“Mandela taught us the power of action, but also ideas; the importance of reason and arguments; the need to study not only those you agree with, but those who you don’t…And he learned the language and customs of his oppressor so that one day he might better convey to them how their own freedom depended upon his,” Obama said.
In an interview Sunday on CBS’ Face the Nation, Gayle King said that Mandela once told her that one should have breakfast alone, lunch with friends and family and dinner with enemies because it was only by putting in the time and getting to know an opponent as a person that one could hope to convert him into an ally – or at least diminish opposition.
That flies in the face of conventional business wisdom, which suggests that breakfast is the best place to meet with enemies or those you dislike so that you can minimize the time you have to spend in their company. You can always excuse yourself to go to work, to head to another meeting. You save dinner, the longest meal, to be with close friends and family. It is the meal that signals most the importance of the relationship.
Obama tried numerous times during his first term – much to the consternation of his supporters – to show some accommodation to the loyal opposition. For the most part, it appears to have all been for naught.
Today’s speech suggested that in honoring Mandela he may be holding on to a glimmer of hope that some rapprochement is possible.
“Mandela demonstrated that action and ideas are not enough; no matter how right, they must be chiseled into laws and institutions,” Obama said. “…But as he showed in painstaking negotiations to transfer power and draft new laws, he was not afraid to compromise for the sake of a larger goal.”
After the echo of the tributes fades and elected officials return to business as usual, whether they can emulate the essence of Mandela’s grace and skill and willingness to find accommodation with those they’d rather not will be the greater challenge.
“We can choose to live in a world defined not by our differences, but by our common hopes,” the president said. “We can choose a world defined not by conflict, but by peace and justice and opportunity.”
Obama, it would seem, is willing to choose the latter. It remains to be seen whether he will finally get some company along the way.
Jackie Jones, a journalist and journalism educator, is director of the career transformation firm Jones Coaching LLC and author of “Taking Care of the Business of You: 7 Days to Getting Your Career on Track.”