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From Churchill to Mandela: A Torch of Generational Leadership

(Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)
(Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

In a city studded with statues commemorating foreigners who have inspired the United States, no world figure has attained more tribute than Winston Churchill. At least for the time being.

The bust dedicated at the Capitol on Wednesday becomes D.C.’s third prominent visage of Churchill, undeniably one of the greatest wartime leaders of the 20th century and the first of only seven people ever awarded honorary American citizenship.

Engineering that honor has been of intense interest to Speaker John A. Boehner, who is second to none of the myriad members in both parties who claim Churchill as their inspiration for leadership, political acumen and rhetorical skill. It’s a generation’s bow to a quickly fading era.

Another bronze of Churchill is on prominent display in the presidential living quarters at the White House. Yet another was in the Oval Office during the previous presidency, and rumors that President Barack Obama removed it caused him an outsized case of domestic political heartburn and British tabloid ridicule.

The most famous statue in the group, though, is likely to remain the 9-foot likeness that’s commanded a prominent place on Embassy Row since 1966: the prime minister in his characteristically defiant pose, his right hand raised in a “V for Victory” salute while his left clutches both a walking stick and a cigar.

There’s another, newer monument, located almost directly across Massachusetts Avenue, that’s offering a window into where Washington tributes to international role models will probably be focused in the 21st century.

A bronze-plated Nelson Mandela, also 9 feet tall, faces Churchill across the busy boulevard, striking his own iconic pose — his clenched right fist thrust aloft, just as it was when he was released in 1990 after 27 years of incarceration during the fight against apartheid in South Africa.

Passing between the statues, commuters can now envision a metaphorical arc of history connecting them overhead. To the south, one of the last in a long roster of white male Europeans who provided profound and dominant influence over the American experience for more than two centuries. To the north, one of the first exemplars of how the struggles by the diversified peoples of the developing world will be a leading influence on this nation’s fabric in the new millennium.

It’s no accident that the four top congressional leaders, each born during or just after World War II, described Churchill in heroic terms during the Statuary Hall ceremony. “The best friend the United States ever had,” Boehner declared. “Incomparable,” offered Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. He “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle,” added House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who keeps a photo in her office of one of the prime minister’s three speeches to joint meetings of Congress — more than anyone who wasn’t president.

“A savior of the world,” was the label affixed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who confessed to listening to a 125-hour compendium of Churchill speeches and reading all four volumes of his “History of the English-Speaking Peoples.”

Mandela didn’t churn out a history of the Xhosa people, and he was behind bars on Robben Island for too long to create such a rich trove of recorded oratory. And — after emerging to serve from 1994 to 1999 as South Africa’s first black president — he never claimed to be in the top ranks of droll wordsmiths.

But the revolution he led, and the values he still embodies at age 95, are almost guaranteed to inspire the coming generations of American leaders.

As the Greatest Generation passes from the national stage and the millennials start moving toward their inevitable dominance of public life, Mandela’s socialist beliefs look destined to fade as an area of concern for Democrats and Republicans alike. Instead, politicians along our ideological spectrum will unite to praise the aspects of his life, and the things he said, that embody or echo the greatest of the aspirational American virtues — much the way political leaders have ceaselessly raised up Churchill for the past half-century.

The just-short-of-bombastic Churchillian rallying cry of “We shall never surrender!” will eventually be supplanted in the canon of the legislative underdog by Mandela’s more straightforward “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

The default homage to Churchill in so many candidate announcement speeches — “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat” — will someday be replaced by the even humbler “The greatest glory of living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time you fall.”

And the prime minister’s so-often-paraphrased call to battle — “If the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour’” — will sooner or later become less inspirational than this more complex guidance from Madiba: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

Only 14 members of this Congress were born after President Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976, which elevated human rights to its new station among American foreign policy priorities. And none has been born since November 1984, when daily demonstrations against apartheid began in the courtyard of the South African embassy where the Mandela statue now stands.

Those demographics are changing fast, as are those of the country those lawmakers represent. A Capitol bust for Mandela, and honorary citizenship along with it, are maybe only a few years away.

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