When he was on the inside, well paid and widely admired, fronting for a corporate news machine, he didn't see the realities he would be forced to confront when he was pushed out and patronized as a fuddy duddy. He was a man of contradictions shaped by another time who went from the heartland into the hearts of millions.
Now his memory has been returned to the bosom of the establishment he served, with his later in life doubts and despair to be buried with him. For a weekend, he was bigger than American idol.
Another world icon, Nelson Mandela, is a still surviving. His achievements and courage were marked here in New York last Saturday on "Mandela Day" with a pricey all-star benefit concert at the Radio City Music Hall. It was presented in the name of his prison number, 46664, now a charity to fight AIDS. The event was packaged beautifully by a team of production and PR pros, who also took the edge off his political mission and history, as and a one time believer in armed struggle.
This most political of freedom fighters was depoliticized lost in the slickness of more personal celebity tributes of the "We LOVE YOU" variety. He had been rebranded as everyone's smiling grandfather with little information offered up about his long walk to freedom, a walk that turned into a march and has not ended.
He had become a celebrity that made other celebrities feel good and importantA flock of global entertainment notables and politicos, including France's first lady Carla Bruni, who toasted Nelson Mandela's 91st birthday. Let us hope that he doesn't end up remembered for one phrase like Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream."
It was a great event but it also inadvertently sanitized the problems South Africa and the continent still face. The brutal legacy of apartheid was not really explained nor was the work his foundations are doing. Will the crowds still stand up for what he stood up for once he is gone?
We don't need another hero's holiday--we don't need more hype. We need more reporting and, especially more caring. We need to engage with the issues being raised. I used to think popular musicians would help take us there but consciousness has now been turned into a commodity in the service of charity, and movements into logos and personalities. Let's discuss what we can do concretely to help suffering people and make our own government more responsive.
"For Mandela Day, people across the world were asked to spend 67 minutes of their time for worthy causes, "said one report. "The number 67 echoes the years Mandela spent in public service, from his early political involvement with the African National Congress in 1942 to today."