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Time Editor Elaborates on Obama to Mandela Comparisons on Hardball

Chris Matthews, on Tuesday's Hardball, invited on Time editor and Nelson Mandela biographer Richard Stengel to clarify his comparisons of Mandela to Barack Obama as the MSNBC host prodded him to expound on the "kerfuffle" that "will arouse some anxiety on the right." After Matthews recited a quote from the book, that Obama had achieved "a Mandela-like temperament without the long years of sacrifice" the Hardball host asked how that was possible - to which Stengel offered "I don't how to explain it. It's DNA, it's genetics. I don't really know," as seen in the following exchange:

CHRIS MATTHEWS: I want to ask you about a kerfuffle that you've already aroused here. Here's some language from your book that will arouse some anxiety on the right, some interest on the left and perhaps some, well we'll see in the middle. Here you are comparing Nelson Mandela to President Obama. You write, "While it took twenty-seven years in prison to mold the Nelson Mandela we know, the forty-eight-year-old American president seems to have achieved a Mandela-like temperament without the long years of sacrifice. While Mandela's world view was forged in the cauldron of racial politics, Obama is creating a post-racial political model. Whatever Mandela may or may not think of the new American president, Obama is in many ways his true successor on the world stage." The right wing hates that, because they hate it. Your thoughts? Explain.

RICHARD STENGEL: Well, Chris, the, the right wing has problems with Nelson Mandela. I mean Nelson Mandela was a terrorist in America, until he was released from prison. He was a revolutionary who fought against an ally in the United States even though that ally had an Apartheid government that discriminated against people that were not white. So and just let me clarify the comment because it has aroused a little bit of, of controversy. I'm not comparing Obama's achievement with Mandela's achievement. I'm comparing their two temperaments. And one of the things, as you know, that I write about in Mandela's Way is that the man who went into prison in 1964, Nelson Mandela, was 48-years-old and his temperament then - he was tempestuous, he was passionate, he was a revolutionary. Prison tempered him. Prison was his great teacher. Prison changed that temperament to that man that we know, who got out. Who is self-controlled. Who never loses his calm. And, and, and, and, and the thing about Obama is, he seems to have that temperament without having had to spend 27 years in prison.

MATTHEWS: So how do you explain it?

STENGEL: I don't how to explain it. It's DNA, it's genetics. I don't really know. But of course he went through his own travails. I mean his own search for identity. You know as a young man. He had to forge his own identity in a kind of racial caldron in America. Not as harsh as what it was in South Africa.

Later on in the interview Matthews asked Stengel how come it was Mandela was able to bridge the gap between blacks and whites in South Africa but Obama had yet to be "successful at winning the hearts and minds of working class whites" in America.

Earlier: "Time Mag Chief Stengel: Obama a Mandela for the 21st Century, Mandela's 'True Successor'"

The following exchange was aired on the April 6 Hardball:

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Welcome back to Hardball. A year after President Obama called for a world without nuclear weapons he put forward a framework for that goal today. The President has clearly been unafraid to tackle our biggest problems. And in both his temperament and the way he uses power, Time magazine editor Richard Stengel sees similarities between Obama and Nelson Mandela. And he should know, he collaborated, Richard did, with Nelson Mandela on his big autobiography. Now Richard Stengel has a new book called Mandela's Way: Fifteen Lessons on Life, Courage, well Life, Love, and Courage. Thank you Richard. I've been reading the book. It is fabulous. It reads with such texture. I feel better already as a human being and I'm dead serious. I love Mandela. I got to interview him myself when he was released and this book is great stuff.

RICHARD STENGEL, TIME: Chris, thank you. Thanks so much.

MATTHEWS: I want to ask you about a kerfuffle that you've already aroused here. Here's some language from your book that will arouse some anxiety on the right, some interest on the left and perhaps some, well we'll see in the middle. Here you are comparing Nelson Mandela to President Obama. You write, "While it took twenty-seven years in prison to mold the Nelson Mandela we know, the forty-eight-year-old American president seems to have achieved a Mandela-like temperament without the long years of sacrifice. While Mandela's world view was forged in the cauldron of racial politics, Obama is creating a post-racial political model. Whatever Mandela may or may not think of the new American president, Obama is in many ways his true successor on the world stage." The right wing hates that, because they hate it. Your thoughts? Explain.

STENGEL: Well, Chris, the, the right wing has problems with Nelson Mandela. I mean Nelson Mandela was a terrorist in America, until he was released from prison. He was a revolutionary who fought against an ally in the United States even though that ally had an Apartheid government that discriminated against people that were not white. So and just let me clarify the comment because it has aroused a little bit of, of controversy. I'm not comparing Obama's achievement with Mandela's achievement. I'm comparing their two temperaments. And one of the things, as you know, that I write about in Mandela's Way is that the man who went into prison in 1964, Nelson Mandela, was 48-years-old and his temperament then - he was tempestuous, he was passionate, he was a revolutionary. Prison tempered him. Prison was his great teacher. Prison changed that temperament to that man that we know, who got out. Who is self-controlled. Who never loses his calm. And, and, and, and, and the thing about Obama is, he seems to have that temperament without having had to spend 27 years in prison.

MATTHEWS: So how do you explain it?

STENGEL: I don't how to explain it. It's DNA, it's genetics. I don't really know. But of course he went through his own travails. I mean his own search for identity. You know as a young man. He had to forge his own identity in a kind of racial caldron in America. Not as harsh as what it was in South Africa.

MATTHEWS: Yeah.

STENGEL: But I think he, I think part of it was he realized he had to be somebody with a very calm temperament to achieve what he wanted. And he's a very ambitious man like Nelson Mandela was.

MATTHEWS: Well Barack Obama, our president, has been very good at forging an alliance, as you know, the alliance that won him the election between some college educated white people, if you will, liberals, progressives, center-left people who just, maybe just good hearted people who wanted to see him win and minorities. That was a hell of a coalition in the Democratic Party. It beat Hillary Clinton, ultimately, in the numbers and it won the general election. He has not been so successful at winning the hearts and minds of working class whites. And we see it in the terrible part of the early show, where we saw some racism afoot there, and some anger more generally. He has not been able to build that coalition. Mandela has at least tried with rugby, we saw with that great film Invictus.

STENGEL: Right.

MATTHEWS: We saw it in some of the stuff in your book about racial, not forgiveness entirely, but "Let's get along and move on attitude." Which I think has been pretty powerful in South Africa. Barack Obama hasn't been able to do that with the white working class, has he?

STENGEL: Well, no, but I mean look at the different situations. In South Africa you had a country that was literally on the brink of a racial civil war. Nelson Mandela as he, as he said to me many times. He felt the country very narrowly averted a civil war. And part of it was his own persona. That he, he stood for reconciliation between the whites and the blacks. He got out of prison after 27 years and said "Let's forget the past. I forgive you, we have to move on. What, what unites us is much for important than what divides us." Barack Obama didn't get working class whites in the election and he's not, he's not getting them now. And one of the things that I find curious about just the political miasma that we see ourselves in now, is so many of the characteristics that we prized in Barack Obama the candidate, people don't seem to necessarily like in Barack Obama the President. Mediation, listening, being thoughtful. We seem to want him to act more and act more precipitously. And those were not the values that we elected him for.

MATTHEWS: Yeah well actually that's one criticism I don't, I don't go along with but I hear it out there. Certainly people want him to be more passionate. You know I hear it from people close to him. Why doesn't he show more passion? But is there any way a leader who's African-American in a country that's largely white can be a passionario? Could he be, you know, a man of great passion and great rhetoric that rouses people, brings them to their feet, gets them to march? Is that doable in this country?

STENGEL: Well I mean it's-

MATTHEWS: This is a pretty tricky question, I admit.

STENGEL: It's a tricky question. I mean Nelson Mandela, for example, always said, "When you speak to people you speak to their heads and hearts at the same time." He actually was not, he's not nearly as good a speaker as Barack Obama and tends to be a little too intellectual and even more professorial than Obama is. But again, I mean, Chris, you could argue that President Obama is leading people not through calls to passion but through calls to rationality, through calls to what's in their own benefit. I mean, I think voters and Americans always vote and care about what's most in their own benefit rather than someone necessarily being out there and yelling charge and, and move ahead.

-Geoffrey Dickens is the senior news analyst at the Media Research Center.