Obama to speak at Mandela memorial/Biden will address service in DC

McClatchy Washington BureauDecember 9, 2013 

President Barack Obama will deliver remarks at a memorial service Tuesday in South Africa for the late South African president, Nelson Mandela, the White House said.

Obama began working on the remarks after Mandela's death was announced on Thursday, and was expected to continue as Air Force One made its way to Johannesburg, said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications.

Obama is hoping to meet with Mandela's family, Rhodes said, but he isn't expected to meet formally with any world leaders while in South Africa.

"I wouldn't expect any bilateral meetings," Rhodes said.

Obama and first lady Michelle Obama were to spend Monday night aboard Air Force One. Also on the flight to Johannesburg were former president George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush and former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Rhodes said the group had a chance to talk and were sharing reminiscences of Mandela. 

"He's a leader who interacted with so many American leaders of both parties over the years," Rhodes said of Mandela. "Each of them had their own experience with Mandela."

Also on Air Force, Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, Susan Rice and attorney general Eric Holder.

Rhodes said the U.S. kept a smaller delegation, per the South African government's request which wanted the event "to be an opportunity for the people of South Africa to say goodbye to Nelson Mandela."

Vice President Joe Biden and Jill Biden traveled to the South African embassy Monday morning to sign a condolence book for Mandela.

Biden will honor Mandela by speaking Wednesday at a memorial service at the National Cathedral in Washington.

At the embassy, Biden sat at a small wooden desk and spent several minutes signing a condolence book as various officials from the embassy looked on. Behind the desk was a large picture of beaming Nelson Mandela.

"On behalf of the American people, our deepest condolences to the people of South Africa for the passing of Nelson Mandela," Biden wrote, according to the VP's office. "But more than that, our profound gratitude -- for his compassion, his humility, and his courage. Through his unflagging, unflinching commitment to human dignity and his willingness to forgive, he inspired us and challenged us all to do better. He once said that 'a good head and a good heart is a formidable combination.' Mandela’s head and heart lifted a nation to freedom. We will continue to keep his spirit alive and strive to live by his example."

After signing the book, the Bidens spent time in front of a large, bronze statue of Mandela with his fist raised. Under it were dozens of flowers, mostly covered in frost.

South African Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool told Biden that the statue was molded after the first picture of Mr. Mandela after he was released from prison.

"I remember seeing the pictures...27 years," Mr. Biden said while looking up at the towering statue.

He spoke for a few minutes about going to South Africa in 1977, where he was unable to meet with a jailed Mandela.

Looking up at the statue, Mr. Biden said Mandela was "The most remarkable man I met in my whole career."

The Vice President said Mr. Mandela came to meet him after he was released from prison.

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