There’s an unwritten rule in journalism that, when on duty, you don’t lunge at famous people to shake their hands. One is aloof and professional. One is working.
In 1992, Nelson Mandela — freed from his long imprisonment but not yet president of South Africa — was making the rounds at the Democratic National Convention in New York City. I was staying in a Helmsley Hotel there, covering the event, and I managed to be at a small morning meeting at which Mandela spoke. I’ve seen a lot of interesting public figures but never a man like this, with the possible exception of the Dalai Lama. They’re similar of course. Each projects a joy whose ingredient list comprises sorrow, outrage, and bitter leavings. There’s a magnetic improbability about each man’s serenity and goodwill.
I decided to ease out of the room a little early and be out in the hall as he left. As I stepped into the hotel corridor, I was startled to see “the help,” as it were, lining the walls and crowding the doorways. Chambermaids, bellmen, waiters, janitors. There was no other person in the world in 1992 who would have occasioned this display. Pretty much everybody working for minimum wage in that hotel had gotten him or herself in position to see Mandela. There were a lot of them, and I bet there were nearly a dozen ports of origin represented.
What did he mean to them? I think he was a human embodiment of the Beatitudes. Wouldn’t you shake the hand of that being?
Sometimes you break the rule. Wedged between a waiter and a maid, I did. He shook the hands of all of us.
Blessed are the merciful, the peacemakers, the persecuted.
(A slightly repurposed version of a piece from 2009)