National Press Club

Past NPC President Klein remembers Nelson Mandela's visit to the Club

December 6, 2013 | By Gil Klein | Gilbert.Klein@me.com

Nelson Mandela speaks with author (and then NPC president) Gil Klein in 1994.

Nelson Mandela speaks with author (and then NPC president) Gil Klein in 1994.

Photo/Image: Christy Bowe

On Oct. 7, 1994, I was Club president when Nelson Mandela spoke here during his first visit to the United States as president of the Republic of South Africa.

Two things stand out about that day:

First, the speaker advertised for that day was Wall Street tycoon Peter Lynch, and I had 300 people in a financial writers conference expecting to hear him.

Then I got a call from the South African embassy. Would you please have Nelson Mandela speak on Oct. 7 at lunch? With my suggestions for breakfast or dinner rejected, I knew I could not pass on Nelson Mandela. I said I would be pleased to have him as a luncheon speaker.

What to do?

This is the only day in the history of the National Press Club -- with all of the thousands of speeches we have had here – that we had two in one day.

The staff said, "You want to do what?" But they were troupers. We moved Peter Lynch to the Hotel Washington,now the W Hotel, and put Nelson Mandela in ballroom. It was a packed house with 425 people filling the main floor and hung over the railings in the balcony. Peter Lynch got 300 or more people at the Hotel Washington. So it was the biggest day for National Press Club lunches, and I don’t think it will ever happen again.

Second, everyone wanted a piece of Nelson Mandela. This was the biggest Club event of the year. Mandela was one of the biggest names of the 1990s. It was bedlam in the Main Lounge, now the Holeman, for the reception. Everyone wanted to get in. My poor assistant had to play linebacker to keep people out. Everyone had things they wanted to present to him, a moment of his time, a shake of his hand.

What I remember most about Nelson Mandela was his inner peace, his perfect calmness. There was turmoil all around him. It didn’t bother him.

And that was when I realized what a person needed to spend 27 years in prison and come out and not seek revenge. It was the inner peace of Nelson Mandela what made him a great man.

Two things that stood out in his speech.

First, he firmly believed that freedom of the press is absolutely essential to maintaining liberty. Even those who fought for freedom must be held to a high standard by a free press once they get positions of power.

Second, he believed that “an enduring national consensus has been forged, founded on a deep and shared conviction that the only way forward is to unite our people on the basis of reconciliation and reconstruction.”

On Nov. 26, 2012, the Club held a South African night to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s accomplishments. All those years later, South African Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool repeated the same themes.

When he was released from prison, Rasool said, Mandela “had the greatest cause to be angry, but he transcended it. He turned his back on victimhood because he knew it would take hold of his emotions. He said the one thing they could not take away from him was his heart and soul. If he gave in to vengeance, he would have given away his heart and soul.”

RELATED: Click here to read The National Press Club statement on the passing of Nelson Mandela.