Laughter, 'selfie' reflect festive mood at Nelson Mandela memorial

Laughter, 'selfie' reflect festive mood at Nelson Mandela memorial
Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt captures a moment with her cellphone camera during a memorial gathering Tuesday for South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela, with British Prime Minister David Cameron, left, and President Obama. Their laughter and "selfie" snapping drew criticism from political opponents, while others saw it as in keeping with Mandela's own playful, upbeat spirit. (Roberto Schmidt / AFP/Getty Images)

Three world leaders -- a white conservative, a black liberal and an unpretentious woman governing the happiest country on Earth -- mirthfully huddled together for a photo capturing a momentous event.

Nelson Mandela would have been pleased.

The cellphone camera snap heard 'round the world captured President Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt united in a playful moment Tuesday at the hours-long celebration of Mandela's long and inspirational life.

All three leaders have taken heat from their political opponents at home for laughing at a funeral gathering and taking the "selfie."


Obama, whose Republican opponents are still smarting from his successful re-election campaign last year, was accused by conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh of using the Mandela rituals to draw attention to himself and to take up the revered South African freedom fighter's mantle.

Cameron, of Britain's Conservative Party, was lampooned by opposition Parliament members Wednesday for engaging in "international mobile phone usage" at an event meant to mourn the late South African icon.

Danes were more accommodating of Thorning-Schmidt, seen in her prosperous Nordic homeland as fun-loving and down-to-earth. Denmark, after all, was rated No. 1 in this year's annual survey of happiness by a U.N.-affiliated agency. But her behavior is also "quirky, divisive and embarrassing" at times, Peter Stanners, a senior journalist with the Copenhagen Post, told a London Daily Telegraph columnist.

Thorning-Schmidt, who this year was captured on film asking "Sex and the City" star Sarah Jessica Parker for an autograph, defended her recording of the moment with Cameron and Obama as in keeping with the mood at the stadium tribute to Mandela.

"The atmosphere was of course melancholic, but ultimately it was a celebration of a man who lived to be 95 years old, and who managed to accomplish so much in his life," Thorning-Schmidt told the Danish daily Berlingske. "There was dancing on the stands and singing and dancing, so the mood was positive. And then we took a really fun selfie."

Cameron likewise acquitted himself before his critics. Mandela was a man who brought people together, he told the back-benchers during the weekly Prime Minister's Questions. To reject Thorning-Schmidt's request for the souvenir photo would have been a betrayal of Mandela's commitment to unity and reconciliation, Cameron suggested.

"When a member of the Kinnock family [Denmark's prime minister is the daughter-in-law of former British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock] asked me... I thought it only polite to say yes," Cameron told Parliament members.

Agence France-Presse photographer Roberto Schmidt, who captured the three leaders chatting and giggling midway through the four-hour tribute to Mandela at a stadium in Johannesburg, said on the news agency blog that he considered the light moment in keeping with the atmosphere at "a celebration for an obviously exceptional person."

Obama hasn't dignified the conservative chatter with a response, neither over the selfie criticism nor his handshake with Cuban leader Raul Castro when the two men encountered each other at the memorial.

A State Department spokesman said the greeting and brief chat with Castro was "unplanned," and even some conservatives have conceded that to snub an ideological foe at Mandela's memorial would have been rude and undiplomatic. But older Cuban exiles who cling tenaciously to the U.S. strategy of isolating Havana's leftist revolutionary government denounced Obama for his cordial gesture.

"Sometimes a handshake is just a handshake, but when the leader of the free world shakes the bloody hand of a ruthless dictator like Raul Castro, it becomes a propaganda coup for the tyrant," Cuban-born Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement.

The Cuban government issued a statement casting the handshake as a hopeful signal for the future of U.S.-Cuban relations, which have been frozen in acrimony since Raul and Fidel Castro and their fellow leftist guerrillas deposed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959 and later aligned with the Soviet Union.

The image of Obama and Raul Castro shaking hands could portend a "beginning of the end of U.S. aggressions," the statement from Havana said.


A foreign correspondent for 25 years, Carol J. Williams traveled to and reported from more than 80 countries in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.