We did not know then what we know now. We did not know that his statesmanship would be legendary, outstripped only by his forgiveness. We did not know he would be president, or that he could survive 27 years of imprisonment to walk free again. And in our nation, where athletes are superstars, we did not know that Americans would one day shower Nelson Mandela with ticker tape, like the Yankees fresh from winning the pennant.
When Rep. Dick Cheney voted against a 1986 resolution calling for the release of Nelson Mandela and recognition of the African National Congress, Americans did know this man had been waiting decades for his freedom. In a larger sense, so had all black South Africans. The tenets of American democracy -- one man, one vote -- were denied to the majority of citizens, along with the most basic economic and educational needs.
Yet Republican vice presidential candidate Cheney still defends his vote, saying on ABC's ``This Week'' that ``the ANC was then viewed as a terrorist organization. . . . I don't have any problems at all with the vote I cast 20 years ago.'' What, then, does this tell us about what information Cheney considers before he takes a decision? And what the long-term consequences are likely to be, and on whom?
By no means were Mandela or the ANC universally viewed as ``terrorists,'' evidenced by the fact that the vote on the resolution was 245-177 in favor, but still shy of the two-thirds needed to override President Ronald Reagan's veto.
Mandela and his longtime friend and colleague, ANC Secretary General Oliver Tambo, reflected deeply before advocating violence as even a limited tactic of the ANC. In a 1958 conversation with economist Winifred Armstrong, they reflected on their belief that ``if you sow violence, you reap violence.'' Armstrong, who has lived, traveled and written extensively about Africa, noted that ``Mandela and colleagues thought ahead, and considered the impacts on all of the players, not just the home team.''
As South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission has revealed, much to the consternation of all involved, the ANC's armed wing committed acts of violence, including bombings -- as did the government. In fact, while the United States maintained diplomatic ties with South Africa, former President P.W. Botha ordered the 1988 bombing of the South African Council of Churches in Johannesburg. Twenty-three people were injured. For decades, other government operatives did far worse, killing and maiming everyone from political activists to infants.
Mandela made choices no man should ever have to make about whether to lead a people into bloodshed for a just cause. In an interview with Time magazine shortly before he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, Mandela said Chief Albert Luthuli, former ANC president and Nobel winner, ``believed in nonviolence as a way of life. But we who were in touch with the grass-roots persuaded the chief that if we did not begin the armed struggle, then people would proceed without guidance.''
Dick Cheney has had to make life-and-death choices of his own. His handlers are burnishing his star in large part based on his role in the Gulf War, a conflict that took on an elephant-and-flea aspect as American tanks rolled over fleeing Iraqui soldiers. Now, in the most American of parlays, Cheney has come back, briefcase in hand, to help Iraqi oil interests rebuild. Both partisan allies and veteran journalists call him a civil man, an intelligent man. But while people deride knee-jerk liberalism, there is such a thing as knee-jerk conservatism, as well, as evidenced by the laundry list of Cheney votes on issues from armor-piercing bullets to voting to cut funding for Head Start.
America prides itself on its just wars. World War II produced what many now call ``the Greatest Generation,'' and the Revolutionary War gave us our birth. But every battle leaves scars, some deeper than others. Even America could not accomplish its revolution without a full-fledged war. Nelson Mandela, through a mix of the violence he loathed and hard-won prison diplomacy, accomplished that. Rather than calling him a terrorist, most Americans consider him a hero of democracy.
We should think clearly about how we define democracy, how inclusive it is and how far in the future our leaders must look to make the right choices for our nation, and the world.
Chideya is a New York journalist and editor of PopandPolitics.com