Listen Live

Nelson Mandela | 1918 – 2013

JOHANNESBURG — President Obama, his predecessor, and the woman who might be his successor crossed the Atlantic together Monday in an example of extended bipartisan togetherness to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela at a memorial service Tuesday.

For more than 16 hours, Mr. Obama hosted former President George W. Bush and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton aboard Air Force One — part of a global pilgrimage that is expected to bring as many as 100 world leaders to South Africa.

The flight of political opposites was a midair testimonial to the profound impact that Mr. Mandela had on generations of American politicians as he fought against his government’s system of racial oppression and later brought unity and reconciliation to a divided people as their president.

And the journey was a continuation of the tradition among the tiny group of ex-presidents of building relationships at 30,000 feet.

Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter bonded in 1981 on a flight to the funeral of the slain Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat. And George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton became fast friends on a long flight to Asia after the killer tsunami of 2005.

Mr. Clinton did not travel aboard Air Force One on Monday; he and his daughter, Chelsea, were in Rio de Janeiro for a conference and are traveling to South Africa separately. Former President Jimmy Carter, a longtime friend of Mr. Mandela’s, is also making his way to Africa on his own for the memorial. The elder Mr. Bush is not making the trip to South Africa, aides said.

On board the presidential aircraft as it flew to South Africa, White House aides said Mr. Obama and the first lady, Michelle Obama, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Bush, along with Mr. Bush’s wife, Laura, congregated at times in the conference room during the early part of the trip.

“There have been very good conversations in that room,” said Jay Carney, the current White House press secretary.

He did not elaborate.

At other times, aides said, the Obamas retreated to the presidential cabin that he inherited from Mr. Bush. The Bushes stayed in the medical office just behind Mr. Obama’s cabin. Mrs. Clinton spent some time in the senior staff cabin, aides said.

Space is always at a premium on flights with so many V.I.P. guests.

During the 2005 flight to Asia for tsunami relief, Mr. Clinton let the elder Mr. Bush have the only bed on the government plane, while he stretched out on the floor, and the two discovered they liked each other.

“I thought I knew him,” Mr. Bush later wrote, “but until this trip, I did not really know him.”

On the flight to the 1995 funeral of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel, Mr. Clinton relegated Newt Gingrich, the speaker of the House, to a seat toward the back of the plane and spent little time talking with him. Mr. Gingrich’s subsequent public complaint that he was forced to deplane from the back earned him ridicule, including a New York Daily News front page cartoon depicting him as a wailing infant under the headline “Cry Baby.”

On Monday, the younger Mr. Bush twice strayed to the back of the modified Boeing 747, where about a dozen reporters sit, to chat — off the record — with them for about 90 minutes. Mrs. Clinton also visited with reporters on the plane just after it stopped for refueling in Dakar, Senegal.

White House aides said Mr. Obama continued to work on the flight for what were expected to be remarks of 10 to 15 minutes at the memorial. Officials said the president would probably remind those watching that Mr. Mandela’s success in life was not preordained.

“Sometimes when you look back, when the story has a happy ending, it all seems as if it was meant to be,” Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, told reporters on the plane. “I think one of the points the president will make is that it took decades of persistence and talent and a wide range of very unique skills to make Nelson Mandela the figure that he was and make him capable of bringing about that change.”

Read full story here…