By Lee H. Hamilton
Nelson Mandela would walk into a room, and it would light up immediately. He had an eye-catching smile and a compelling, captivating personality. He exemplified charisma. In meetings and discussions, he would insist on shaking hands with everyone before starting business.
He was one of the most remarkable figures I met in public life, and I admired him greatly, but he was one of many exceptional leaders that I encountered. A few others come to mind: Pierre Trudeau of Canada; Lee Kuan Yew, known as the founding father of Singapore; and Mikhail Gorbachev, the final leader of the Soviet Union.
Mandela, South Africa’s president from 1994-99, was a hugely inspirational figure, not only for his personality but for his life story. In meetings that I attended, he naturally drew everyone’s attention.
The respect and admiration he enjoyed was apparent on his visits to Washington, D.C. In 1990, when he had recently been released from prison, crowds filled the streets as his motorcade drove to the White House. In 1994, President Bill Clinton gave a state dinner in his honor, and an immense crowd of well-wishers assembled on the White House lawn. In 1998, when he received the congressional gold medal, Democrats and Republicans stood and applauded for well over a minute when he walked in.
Mandela and his predecessor as president, F.W. De Klerk, received the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize for their work in dismantling South Africa’s racist policy of apartheid. But for all his accomplishments, one thing that stood out to me was his lack of bitterness after spending 27 years in prison for political activity. To survive that without becoming embittered was truly remarkable.
Canada’s Pierre Trudeau was another charismatic leader. He served as prime minister 1968-79 and 1980-84, a testament to his skill as a legislator. He was polished, smart, sophisticated and sure of himself.
Trudeau, who became prime minister in his 40s, brought a sense of youth, energy and excitement to Canadian politics. He was often compared to the Kennedys. From an American perspective, he may have filled an emotional need for Camelot after the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy.
His son, Justin Trudeau, became Canada’s prime minister in 2015 at age 43. It’s not often you’ll find a family that’s made that kind of contribution to public life.
Lee Kuan Yew may not be so well known in America, but he should be. He became Singapore’s first prime minister and served for decades. He visited Washington several times; once, I was one of his hosts at the Capitol. A graduate of Cambridge University in England, Lee brought a lot of intellectual firepower to his role. Confident and sometimes blunt, he helped lead a remarkable transformation of his country.
A former British colony, occupied by Japan during World War II and later a part of Malaysia, Singapore didn’t gain independence until 1965. It relied on globalization and free markets to rise rapidly from a backwater to one of Asia’s strongest economies, with one of the world’s highest rates of GDP growth. Lee played a key role.
When Mikhail Gorbachev died last year, I commented that he had a profound impact on world affairs. His reforms — glasnost, or openness, and perestroika, or restructuring — transformed the Soviet Union and ultimately led to its collapse and the spread of democracy in Eastern Europe.
After he retired, Gorbachev visited Indiana for a lecture and conference, and we went to lunch. People in the café may not have recognized him; but believe me, they knew who he was when he left. He worked the room like an American politician, shaking hands with customers, servers and even kitchen staff.
Mandela, Trudeau, Lee and Gorbachev were immensely talented leaders who changed the course of their nations’ histories. They will be long remembered for who they were and what they accomplished.