Mandela's legacy splits the confused right

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Sometimes the rehabilitation of a controversial leader's reputation can happen at the speed of light. Take Nelson Mandela, the former South African president, anti-apartheid leader and freedom fighter who died last week at 95.

Rigor mortis had barely set in before Rush Limbaugh was loudly insisting that Mr. Mandela "had more in common with [U.S. Supreme Court Justice] Clarence Thomas than he does with Barack Obama."

According to Rush, Mr. Mandela's presidency was successful because he wasn't concerned with "skin color and oppression," which Mr. Limbaugh contends is different from Mr. Obama and American liberals. Mr. Mandela's only concern was that South Africa live up to the promise of its constitution, according to the conservative commentator. In other words, if a U.S. Constitution "originalist" like Clarence Thomas wore a dashiki, he and Mr. Mandela would be twins.

It used to take a few decades for this kind of ideological revisionism to surface. Though former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and the right-wingers of his day were convinced Martin Luther King Jr. was a communist, he was retrieved from the dust bin of history by a younger generation of Republicans. These days, you can't invoke King's name in passing without a chorus of conservatives shouting, "He was a Republican, you know."

While they're at it, party elders would like to convince us that King practically delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech from the floor of the 1964 Republican convention just before Barry Goldwater was nominated for president. When it comes to redeeming King and making him safe for public consumption, the level of opportunism and cynicism on the part of those who once hated him is boundless.

That's why the only thing shocking about the sudden embrace of Mr. Mandela by the American hard right is the speed with which the former political prisoner has been fitted with the same white wig usually reserved for the Founding Fathers.

When Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot tried to make the truly loony argument on "Meet the Press" that President Ronald Reagan's opposition to congressional sanctions against South Africa was really a technical point about how best to go about reforming the oppressive white minority government, the Rev. Al Sharpton schooled him on a bunch of historically inconvenient facts.

"Let's be clear," Rev. Sharpton said. "Reagan supported veto on [divestment] bills; Reagan denounced Mandela, called him names. He evolved after a protest movement here turned the tone and public opinion. But let's not act like Reagan was a major supporter of Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement. It's just not true."

Reagan's former secretary of state, James Baker, had smoother sailing on CBS's "Face the Nation" when he asserted with no proof that the Gipper "worked hard" to end apartheid in South Africa. "I'm sure he did regret" the decision to veto divestment legislation against South Africa, Mr. Baker said, channeling the late president, though he was not able to give a specific example of Reagan ever having given a second thought to it.

Of all the Republicans of that era, only former House speaker Newt Gingrich has supported Mr. Mandela for more than five minutes. Mr. Gingrich has consistently compared the South African leader's struggle to that of the Founding Fathers. When he praised Mr. Mandela on his Facebook page last week, many of his constituents weren't happy about it and said so. They would need a little more time before they could agree that Nelson Mandela is just a friskier version of Clarence Thomas.

Mr. Obama's presidential delegation to the Mandela funeral includes former presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter. The top leaders from most democracies in the world will be there. There's also a sizable U.S. congressional delegation that includes U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who, like Mr. Gingrich, heard from hundreds of angry constituents on Facebook that they didn't appreciate him saying nice things about a "known commie."

Liberals and progressives should rejoice when someone like Mr. Cruz bucks his domestic political interests to go to South Africa to pay tribute to a man his constituents clearly despise. While mourning the death of a foreign leader who worked hard to expand the franchise for every South African, perhaps a stray thought against Republican attempts to limit the minority vote in this country might cross Mr. Cruz's deeply furrowed brow.

Meanwhile, there's more than enough room for sincere mourners and opportunists alike to gather under Nelson Mandela's ever-lengthening legacy.

Tony Norman:, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.

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