In the midst of Nelson Mandela's American tour, a Boston television station fielded a telephone call from a perplexed viewer. "Tell me something," the caller asked. "When is this man Mandela going to walk on the Charles (River)?"
Came the swift reply: "That's not on his schedule until tomorrow."
Nelson Mandela never did walk on water. But in the course of 11 days and eight cities, 26 televised speeches, 21 meetings and fund-raisers and five news conferences, Mandela reached tens of millions of Americans, raised more than $6 million for his African National Congress and successfully shot down any thoughts the White House or Congress may have had about early removal of sanctions against the government of South Africa.
And in the process, to the honest surprise of his handlers, he also became an American hero, tapping the spirit of the civil rights movement as "a luminous example of African manhood and dignity," in the words of Coretta Scott King.
On his last stop in the United States, Mandela Saturday promised a roaring crowd of more than 60,000 in Oakland that he would return to this country in October. He left for Ireland Saturday evening.
"We go away even more determined to fight . . . for the total elimination of apartheid, not tomorrow but today," he told the crowd.
Despite his triumphs in the United States, Mandela still faces difficult, dangerous times in South Africa.
Violence in Natal Province, where 2,500 have died in internecine black warfare in the last four years, threatens the peace process. Young radicals harbor deep distrust of the government and Mandela's ANC faces the formidable task of re-establishing itself as a political organization inside the country after a 30-year banishment.
But his celebrated tour of the United States, which ended a day early, will enhance his image at home as a powerful international force. Mandela said in an interview Saturday that when he returns to South Africa on July 18--his 72nd birthday--he expects the chief obstacles to negotiations to be removed in short order.
Those hurdles include 2,500 political prisoners in South African jails and an estimated 50,000 exiles abroad. The ANC and the government tentatively have agreed on a plan to identify political prisoners and make provisions for immunity for exiles, but the details have not been released.
Once the ANC's preconditions have been met, Mandela says, the process of determining who will sit at the negotiating table will begin. And on that, the government and the ANC remain far apart. It will be months, perhaps years, before the 27 million voteless blacks in South Africa and the 5 million whites in the ruling class reach the point of discussing the actual dismantling of apartheid.
But the difficulty of the task ahead was all but forgotten during the last 1 1/2 weeks as this new icon, with his Oxford-accented English and his gentle courtesy and wit, endeared himself to Americans from coast to coast.
"In a tomb for 27 years, he has emerged as this super figure. But the man and the myth are equal in stature," gushed the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who managed to appear at Mandela's side or as a commentator on local TV stations throughout the visit.
Wherever Mandela went, he was fawned over by city officials, hawkers sold T-shirts plastered with his image and television stations interrupted regular programming to bring viewers Tarmac to Tarmac coverage.
Mandela fans in Detroit, where he spent only 18 hours, were urged in TV ads to order the video--Mandela in Detroit--for $19.95. A Los Angeles television station even conducted a phone-in poll, in which callers were asked to vote on whether Mandela is a hero. (The early results: 60% said he is; 40% said he isn't.)
Many Americans began to identify with the man from South Africa as they have with few world leaders. A New York tabloid called him and his wife, Winnie, the "Apple of Our Eye." Even at the State Department headquarters in Washington, Mandela's arrival to meet with Secretary of State James A. Baker III last week caused a stir.
"Every Foreign Service officer in the building was trying to get down there to see him," said an African analyst there.
But some suggested that Mandela was being treated with kid gloves.
"There is a tendency in the media to be overwhelmed, to treat the Mandela story like the latest earthquake, with minute by minute coverage, without context building," said Chester Crocker, a research professor at Georgetown University and former assistant secretary of state for African affairs. "As a result, things that ought to be asked aren't being asked, such as 'Can you deliver?' "
Ronald Walters, a professor of political science at Howard University in Washington, thinks Mandela has been able to energize black Americans in a way that no modern-day American civil rights leaders have because his battle, like that of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was simple and straightforward, "a struggle between good and evil."
Walters added that Mandela's "eloquence, strength, consistency and brilliance" evoked inevitable comparisons with King, even though Mandela embraces violence as a means of liberating black South Africans, while King was a prophet of nonviolence.
It wasn't until the 1980s, though, that Mandela became a well-known name in the United States. His biographer and longtime friend, Fatima Meer, remembers being turned down by publisher after publisher as she tried to sell Mandela's story during the 1970s, when the cause of Steve Biko's Black Consciousness movement was finding more supporters in the United States than the exiled ANC's guerrilla war.
But Mandela's refusal in the 1980s to renounce the ANC's armed struggle in exchange for freedom struck a chord around the world. And no sooner had he stepped out of prison on Feb. 11, freed from a life sentence by President Frederik W. de Klerk, than Mandela was a world leader.
Americans discovered quickly, by watching Mandela field questions in news conferences and TV interviews, that the gray-haired former prisoner was no simple figurehead. He surprised correspondents at the White House by giving a detailed outline of his differences with the Bush Administration--while standing next to the president.
Political columnist Jack Germond, on the "McLaughlin" show, said Mandela was "a very militant, aggressive, tough guy, and anybody who thinks he's just a kindly old man is mistaken."
Mandela's raw political savvy emerged in an interview with ABC's Ted Koppel during a "town meeting" program, where the liberation leader repeated his belief that Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi and Cuban President Fidel Castro were "comrades in arms" because they had supported the ANC when most other countries, including the United States, refused.
At one point in the interview, Koppel was left momentarily speechless by one of Mandela's answers. "I don't know if I have paralyzed you," Mandela said with a smile. After a few moments, Koppel responded, without much conviction: "It takes more than that to paralyze me."
On Capitol Hill, Mandela's kind words for Arafat, Kadafi and Castro cost him some support. But the ANC's lobbying efforts succeeded in obtaining commitments from President Bush and most legislators that U.S. sanctions against South Africa, among the stiffest of any country's efforts to isolate Pretoria, would remain in place at least until all political prisoners were free and the state of emergency was lifted from the entire country.
That commitment to keep sanctions at the current levels was a major victory for Mandela.
"We have no doubt . . . that the fact that we have the support of the entire world on the question of sanctions is going to have an effect on negotiations," Mandela told The Times in an interview Saturday. "The government is as worried as ourselves that the economy in the country should not be ruined. One of the reasons they have agreed to sit down with us and have discussions is because sanctions are biting."
In addition to gaining assurances on sanctions, Mandela's chief goal during his U.S. visit was to raise money for the ANC, whose leaders have cited "enormous" needs as the recently unbanned organization transforms itself from a clandestine network to an above-ground political party.
If Mandela has been surprised by his rousing receptions, he can be no less surprised at the amount of money that has come pouring into the tax-exempt Mandela Freedom Fund, thanks to fancy dinners and sold-out rallies. Final proceeds are still being tallied, but so far his events have grossed at least $6 million--three times organizers' original whispered goal.
At some Mandela appearances, such as his speech at the Riverside Church in New York and the rally in his honor at Atlanta's Georgia Tech stadium, the collection plate was passed.
"Ladies and gentlemen, freedom is not free," California Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) told a packed Coliseum Friday in an unabashed pitch for money that was common throughout Mandela's tour. "Now that Nelson Mandela has been released . . . we need typewriters, fax machines, offices, telephones. . . . Are you prepared to make a little sacrifice?
"Dig in your pockets," she said. "Dig deep."
Still uncounted is the cut that will go to the ANC from the sale of official Mandela tour T-shirts, buttons and other paraphernalia.
Most likely, the ANC also will be entitled eventually to some of the $10 million that Congress is making available through the National Endowment for Democracy for the building of "democratic institutions" in South Africa.
And in a meeting with a group of this country's leading business executives at the World Trade Center in New York, Mandela found "intriguing" a proposal floated by Rockefeller Foundation President Peter C. Goldmark Jr. which would set up a development bank for post-apartheid South Africa. While no dollar figures were attached to the proposal, many saw the bank as a way to channel millions of U.S. investment dollars into the reconstruction of Mandela's country.
Mandela's wife, Winnie, a controversial figure in South Africa, was treated, like her husband, as royalty everywhere she went in the United States. Black women's organizations turned out in large numbers to hear her address church meetings and she even appeared on Phil Donahue's talk show, where she was repeatedly cheered by the studio audience.
She also was called frequently to the podium after her husband's speeches to briefly address rallies--something anti-apartheid leaders have prevented her from doing in South Africa because of what one Johannesburg newspaper delicately calls her "undiplomatic remarks." She admitted to Donahue that she was, if anything, more radical than her husband.
Liberal newspapers back home, where Mrs. Mandela has been implicated but not charged in the beatings of several young activists at her home last year, quoted Jesse Jackson's wife as calling Mrs. Mandela "God's perfect person."
Throughout Mandela's hectic odyssey across America, questions and rumors circulated regarding his health, well-being and stamina. In addition to his age, Mandela suffers from high-blood pressure, was cured of tuberculosis two years ago while in prison, and the week before he left for the tour he underwent surgery for removal of a benign cyst on his bladder.
He occasionally looked tired and unfocused during his U.S. stay and sometimes moved quite slowly. But on other occasions he looked well-rested, smiled brightly, took brisk morning walks and even danced the toyi-toyi--an African dance of celebration.
Ultimately, though, his demanding schedule had to be trimmed. Several meetings were canceled along the way--sometimes on the advice of Mandela's doctor; other times at his own insistence--and Mandela did not have time to attend a fund-raising dinner in Oakland, forced to leave early to reach Ireland for the next leg of his travels.
Mandela brushed aside concerns over his health Saturday in Oakland.
"I feel like an old battery that has been recharged," Mandela said.
Times staff writers Karen Tumulty in New York and Lee May in Atlanta contributed to this report.
ANC FLEXIBLE: MANDELA Nelson Mandela says the ANC is willing to negotiate all issues with the white South African government except voting rights for blacks and an end to apartheid. A3