WASHINGTON — IT'S an accident of scheduling that has brought the two men to Washington at the same time. But US officials think that one of them, South African President Nelson Mandela, is someone that the other, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, should study and emulate.
Indeed, the White House hopes that Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is paying attention, too. Mr. Mandela, in the US view, has managed what is in effect a revolution by embodying a spirit of reconciliation. If Northern Ireland and Haiti are to truly find peace, they may have to similarly contain groups' desires for revenge.
The South African transition that negotiated ``the end of apartheid, we believe, is an example to societies elsewhere ... that are wrestling with problems of ethnicity and national reconciliation,'' said a senior US official at a White House briefing this week.
Mandela's stature is such that as he has swung through his first US tour as his nation's leader, he has been treated to both a political summit and a sort of cross-country celebration. His Tuesday night White House state dinner was by all accounts the hottest ticket yet for Clinton administration staffers.
Back home, Mandela still faces the seemingly impossible problem of balancing the desire of the black majority for improvement in their lives against economic and political realities. But in the US he played the role of a grave, yet twinkling statesman to perfection. The primary purpose of his swing is to encourage international investment in South Africa, and perhaps pry loose a bit more US government aid. Upon his White House arrival, Mandela said, tongue firmly in cheek, that ``I will not ask for donations. I'll ask for your checks so that I can write out the amount I want.''
Gerry Adams, meanwhile, has yet to manage the photo opportunity light quip. But his very appearance in Washington marked a revolution of sorts in the US attitudes toward the Northern Ireland ``troubles.''
Last Sunday, Vice President Al Gore Jr. phoned Adams at Ethel Kennedy's suburban Washington estate to tell him that the 20-year ban on US contacts with representatives of Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army's political wing, was being lifted.
Then the White House carefully modulated the level of official contact Adams would receive, trying to both reward Sinn Fein for its willingness to engage in peaceful negotiations while not appearing too close to someone only recently officially branded a terrorist, and still prohibited from visiting England itself.
The substance of Adams's US talks was also low-level, involving questions of how the United States can help push peace forums forward, and possible economic development aid. The amount of attention he has received for Sinn Fein positions, however, rattled Ulster Protestant unionists enough for them to dispatch a representative to debate Adams on that national US forum - CNN's Larry King show.
Adams has the words of reconciliation down.
``If it works in South Africa, why not in Ireland?'' he said at a National Press Club speech. ``And the question of the unionists, the unionists are my people. I may not agree with them, but they are my people. They have as much right to be on the island of Ireland as I have.''
But much of his public speech has been devoted to denunciations of British policy. His Ulster Unionist Party debater on the Larry King Show, Ken Maginnis, in the end retorted that ``I most certainly do not trust Gerry.''