Bill Clinton talks about his friendship with Nelson Mandela

No American president was closer to Nelson Mandela than Bill Clnton.

Their terms in office in the 1990s overlapped. When Mr. Clinton got caught up in a scandal, Mandela, visiting the White House, stood by him, saying, "Our morality does not allow us to desert our friends."

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The two presidents could disagree over policy, but it never affected their friendship, Clinton says.
CBS News
CBS News' Scott Pelley talked to President Clinton recently about their special bond.

SCOTT PELLEY: You met with Nelson Mandela more than any president and I wonder what was your relationship in those days?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, we became good friends. I met him ironically in 1992 at the Democratic National Convention. We had a lot of business to do. They were one of the countries that voluntarily gave up their nuclear arsenal. And in the process of that we became good personal friends. And we used to do business together on the phone where the time difference was so great I would take the call at night. And if it wasn't too late Mandela would make me go get Chelsea every time he called and he would talk to her and ask her if she was doing her homework.

And he was an enormous help to me during every difficult time I had as president. And he did it all, interestingly enough, while he never stopped being president of South Africa. So if his country had a position that disagreed with ours, we would have our argument, he would be very firm, but when we weren't working he was my friend.

PELLEY: I wonder why you clicked, the two of you? Why the friendship?

CLINTON: Oh, he gets most of the credit for that. You know, he was the most widely admired man in the world.  He didn't need this. He just was kind to me. As he is to so many people. ... I guess he thought I had potential to do a thing or two and he went out of his way just to be my friend. Talk to me about life. Raising kids. Dealing with disappointment.  Managing anger.  He's an astonishing human being.

PELLEY: Managing anger?

CLINTON: Yeah, I asked him once. And I said, "Now, Mandela, you're a great man but you're a wily politician. It was good politics to put your jailers in your inauguration and put the heads of the parties that imprisoned you in your government.  But tell me the truth, when you were walking to freedom the last time, didn't you hate 'em?" He said, "Yes.  Briefly I did. I hated them and I was afraid. I hadn't been free in so long.  And then I realized if I still hated them after I left, they would still have me. I wanted to be free. And so I let it go." He said, "That's what you have to do.  That's what we all have to do.  We have to let it go."  I mean, that's the kind of thing he would say to me just in ordinary conversation.

PELLEY: What was Mandela's achievement?

CLINTON: He built a genuine multiracial democracy in South Africa. When he could have had a one-party state and shut everybody else out. When he could have had the politics of resentment, he chose the politics of inclusion. It's the only thing that works.  It's the only thing that's working in American communities today.


  • Scott Pelley

    Anchor and Managing Editor, "CBS Evening News;" Correspondent, "60 Minutes"

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