Journalists are not easily impressed. We pride ourselves on our skepticism. (Most advisable of us, may I add.)
But I confess to having been in awe of Nelson Mandela, and not just in theory. I met him, spent about an hour with him — or, to put it more accurately, I spent about an hour in his presence.
It was in October, 1994, Mandela was the new president of South Africa and on a visit to the United States, seeking financial investments for his country. While in New York, he stopped in to speak to the editorial board of the New York Times, as people ranging from heads of state to political candidates did on a regular basis.
At the time of Mandela’s visit to the old Times building on West 43rd Street, I was a member of the editorial board. When I heard he was coming, you would have thought it was 40 years earlier and he was Elvis. I had to be at that meeting.
This was not difficult in theory. Any board member could sit in on any editorial board meeting with an invited guest, though often – unless the guest was a political celebrity of Mandela’s stature — only those with expertise in the subject at hand would turn up. The board had then, as it does today, specialists in everything from science to foreign affairs.