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US flags lowered for Mandela, rare honor for a foreign leader

President Obama ordered the American flag to fly at half-staff to mourn the passing of Nelson Mandela, putting him in select company that includes Winston Churchill and Pope John Paul II.

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The US flag flies at half-staff over the White House in Washington on Friday, following the death of former South African president Nelson Mandela.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

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When President Obama ordered the American flag to fly at half-staff in honor of Nelson Mandela, it was an honor only rarely bestowed upon a foreign leader.

President George W. Bush ordered flags to fly at half-staff at the passing of Pope John Paul II in 2005, President Bill Clinton did so for Yitzhak Rabin (1995) and King Hussein of Jordan (1999), and President Ronald Reagan honored Anwar Sadat in 1981, but the historical precedent most often cited is President Lyndon Johnson’s bestowal of the honor in recognition of the passing of Winston Churchill in 1965.

President Johnson’s act was the topic of front-page articles in newspapers across the country – with many of those articles noting that what was widely touted as a first-ever honor for a foreigner was in a sense bestowed upon at least a half-American, since Churchill’s mother was American. Another point repeatedly made was that Congress had granted the wartime British leader honorary American citizenship.

Johnson played on this sentiment among Americans that Churchill was “one of our own” in his statement marking Churchill’s death, saying Americans viewed themselves as Churchill’s “cousins and fellow citizens.”

But he also assigned a larger, indeed universal provenance to the departed statesman, calling Churchill “history’s child” and eulogizing him as a gift to the world from a “generous providence.”

It was this depiction of the British giant – as a symbol of “hope …when there was darkness in the world” and as all mankind’s hero – that reverberates in Mr. Obama’s statement on Mr. Mandela’s passing and in his bestowal of the honor of lowered flags.

Acknowledging Mandela’s passing from the podium of the White House briefing room Thursday, Obama said, “Today’s he’s gone home, and we’ve lost one of the most influential, courageous, and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth. He no longer belongs to us,” the president added, “he belongs to the ages.”

By ordering flags lowered to half-staff in Mandela’s honor at federal buildings and military installations until Monday evening, Obama was exercising a power assigned to the president in federal legislation.

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The White House also announced Friday that the president and first lady Michelle Obama will travel to South Africa next week to attend the state funeral next Sunday in Qunu, Mandela’s natal village.

The lowering of flags to half-staff is meant to mark a nation in mourning, but Obama’s bestowal of the honor upon Mandela has not met with universal approval.

Judging from posts on various social media sites, opponents seem to fall into two camps: those who don’t think the Stars and Stripes should ever be lowered for any foreigner, no matter how great; and those who focus not on Mandela’s post-prison years as a national healer who embraced all races and classes in post-apartheid South Africa, but on the early revolutionary who resorted to violence and touted socialism.

Those would appear to be minority viewpoints, however, given the outpouring of praise for Mandela across most of the American political spectrum.

Still, the lowering of the American flag for a foreign dignitary seems destined to remain a rare occasion, largely because giants like Churchill and Mandela who embody the global aspirations of their era don’t come along that often. Even rarer, perhaps, are leaders who transcend the politics and circumstances of their time to represent higher universal values in ways that inspire people across the globe.

Leaders and dignitaries from around the world lavished such glowing praise on Mandela that it seemed clear why the former prisoner who became president, and the president who willingly gave up power, would be so widely honored.

But it was Secretary of State John Kerry who offered one of the best tributes that explained why Mandela was the rare leader who was an exemplar to humanity, and thus deserved to be honored not just by his own nation but by the world.

Secretary Kerry recalled how he spent Thanksgiving 2007 with Mandela, and how he learned upon visiting the tiny cell on Robben Island where Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years that it was the glare from an adjacent white rock quarry that shone incessantly into his tiny cell that had permanently damaged Mandela’s eyesight.

And yet, “after spending 27 years locked away, after having his own vision impaired by the conditions … this man could still see the best interests of his country and even embrace the very guards who kept him prisoner,” Kerry said.

“That is the story of a man whose ability to see,” he added, “resided not in his eyes but in his conscience.”

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