Of South Africa And Nixon

IF politics makes strange bedfellows, so too do the front pages of newspapers. The juxtaposition of pictures of two sets of queues - of voters in the South African elections, and of citizen-mourners paying last respects to President Nixon - has provided food for thought in the days since.

These two events, one a beginning and the other a closing out, both have to do in different ways with reconciliation, and they both remind us how politics tries to answer the question, Whose country is this, anyway?

In South Africa, a sense of the immensity of the work that lies ahead is already settling in: The elections are only the beginning, but they constitute one of those glorious moments in human history; we get only a few news events like this in a lifetime.

Particularly touching were the reports of that first day of balloting, when the elderly and disabled, along with pregnant women, were allowed to vote before the waves of humanity of the public at large began pouring forth.

As it is written in the book of the prophet Jeremiah, ``Behold, I will bring them from the north country, and gather them from the coasts of the earth, and with them the blind and the lame, the woman with child and her that travaileth with child together: a great company shall return thither.''

And indeed it did. A negotiated revolution is under way, growing out of the best instincts of both blacks and whites, including a willingness to let go of past grievances in order to work toward a better future.

Contrasted with the joyful tidings from South Africa, the reports of Nixon's funeral were a sort of countermelody in a minor key. The response to the demise of the 37th president of the United States was not without some hypocrisy and harping, but he was mourned by many who might not have expected to mourn him.

President Clinton's gracious eulogy was a sort of intergenerational peacemaking and a closing of the book on the polarization and strife of the 1960s.

Surely Clinton (a k a ``the Comeback Kid'') also recognized in Nixon his own resilience: 10 years after being narrowly (some would say fraudulently) beaten in his first presidential bid - by that hero of the teenage Bill Clinton, John Kennedy - Richard Nixon was himself in the White House.

Michael Barone, in his 1990 book ``Our Country: The Shaping of America From Roosevelt to Reagan,'' made the argument that ``the single most fundamental issue of American politics in this century is that of who really is an American.'' That included, of course, the question of full participation of blacks in the American political process, an issue that connects American politics with those of South Africa and explains why so many Americans have felt so deeply about South Africa. But to an extent that is unappreciated today, ``Who is really American?'' also included the ethnic and sectarian question: Could a Roman Catholic be elected president of the United States?

At a more personal level, former Reagan-Bush speechwriter (and former Democrat) Peggy Noonan has written touchingly in her book ``What I Saw at the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era'' what it meant to her and her community as she grew up Irish-American Catholic in the postwar suburbs to have this glamorous couple named Kennedy in the White House. ``They always said the right thing and had a wonderful humor - and with a little time and money and education we could be just like them.''

But by the time Nixon made it to the White House, the sectarian hurdle had been cleared, and politics was becoming defined more by ideology and less by ethnicity and culture.

Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for 27 years, is another political leader who knows a thing or two about resilience - fortunately for South Africa. There the question, Whose country is this, anyway? is of even more profound import. Through Mandela's remarkable leadership, along with that of his negotiating partner, Frederik de Klerk, their peoples began to see politics as something more than a zero-sum game, and to imagine South Africa as a place that is everybody's country.

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