Vice President Joe Biden delivered a eulogy for Nelson Mandela at a memorial service Wednesday at the Washington National Cathedral, calling the South African president "the most impressive man or woman I've ever met in my life."
Biden said he first heard about Mandela while he was a college student and grew increasingly aware of the oppressive nature of the white-led apartheid government. But he said he didn't realize how "hideous" the system was until he arrived in South Africa as a US senator on a congressional delegation.
Traveling with former UN Ambassador Andrew Young, Biden said he was "the only Caucasian" on the flight. They were met at the airport by Afrikaaner soldiers, whom Biden described as "very robust men in short pants," and whom he said "looked at us like we were all criminals."
Then, he said, they insisted that the delegation split up to walk down a red carpet -- because Biden was white and the rest of the delegation was African American.
"They said you can not go through the same door," Biden said. "Neither of us were willing to walk through different doors. We moved together."
Biden said he returned to the US convinced it had a "moral obligation" to end apartheid. He said he later met Mandela and was impressed by his resilence and and ability to forgive.
"His loyalty, as it turned out, was to all the people of South Africa," Biden said. "Black, Indian, white."
He said that South Africa could have easily descended into violence and retribution, "had Nelson Mandela been an ordinary man, like me and you, had he embraced the urge for revenge and power, a path most other revolutionaries in modern history have followed, to the detriment of their people."