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Remembering Nelson Mandela; Interview With Former President Bill Clinton

Aired December 6, 2013 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Just over 24 hours since the world first learned of Nelson Mandela's death, and in South Africa, emotions have been pouring out around the clock.

This was the scene outside Mandela's Johannesburg home tonight, and it continues, even though it's now past 1:00 a.m. It's a similar scene in the township of Soweto, where Mandela lived until he was locked away for almost three decades.

CNN's Errol Barnett is in Soweto for us.

Errol, what is the mood right now?

ERROL BARNETT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you can just take a look behind me and listen. The mood here continues to be a jovial one, as it has been all day, as South African comes to the former home of Nelson Mandela, where he lived during apartheid, during his fight against the apartheid government.

And they're now singing songs of thanks and appreciation. This has been happening all day, this day one of South Africa's 10 days of mourning for the passing of the late president.

Now, Soweto, where I am now, will play a significant role in a few days. Just a short distance from where I am is the FNB Stadium. It will be the first formal event, 95,000 seats. This was the location of Nelson Mandela's last public appearance during the World Cup in 2010. On Tuesday, it will be a place where regular South Africans can show up and pay their final respects to the late president.

So at the moment, it's past 1:00 a.m., the crowds are now thinning out, as you can see behind me, police moving through, but earlier we saw hundreds of people singing and celebrating what Nelson Mandela was able to do -- back to you.

BLITZER: All right, Errol, thank you, Errol Barnett in Soweto.

Look at this. New York City, the Empire State Building now showing the colors of the flag of South Africa in memory of Nelson Mandela -- what a beautiful sight that is.

The former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, have accepted an invitation to accompany President Obama to South Africa for Nelson Mandela's memorial services. The spokesman for the first President Bush says he will not be able attend because of his distance and his age. Bill Clinton and his family will be going to South Africa.

I spoke with the former president, Bill Clinton, today about his immense administration for Nelson Mandela. And the feeling was mutual.


BLITZER: I want you to listen, Mr. President, to what he said about you the day after that tour of Robben Island back in 1998.


NELSON MANDELA, FORMER SOUTH AFRICAN PRESIDENT: The president is one of the most decent men I have come across, and he has got a thick skin and strong nerves.

He is not the type of person who squeals. And he knows that I hold him in the highest regards, because even before he was president, he was very generous in assisting us to ensure that we were victorious.


BLITZER: He said in that interview with me, you're not a man, a person who squeals.

When you hear that now from him, what goes through your mind?

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: That he helped me to be that kind of man, that he inspired me before I knew him, and that after we became friends, every minute we spent together, even when we were having the occasional argument from our positions, as president of the United States and president of South Africa, where he always held his ground and did what he thought was right, we never stopped being friends.

And he never stopped being friends with Hillary and with my daughter, which meant a lot to me. He always took a lot of interest in her, because she just idolized him. She thought he was unbelievable. From the time when she was almost 10 years old, when he walked out of the prison, and I got her up early to watch it, he held an amazing place in her imagination and her heart. He still does today.

BLITZER: As a student, whether at Georgetown University or Oxford or Yale Law School, were you involved in the struggle to get rid of apartheid? I ask the question because you're from Arkansas, you're a Southerner, and in those days, there was a difference of opinion as far as South Africa and apartheid was concerned.

CLINTON: Well, when he first -- keep in mind, most of those years you talked about were in the 1960s. And it was very early, and he hadn't then become the heroic figure that he later became, and the sanctions movement hadn't picked up a lot the steam. But I certainly knew who he was. And I remember thinking about him more when Robert Kennedy took his famous trip to South Africa and gave that amazing speech against apartheid. And, so, I always followed him and I always thought the sanctions were a good idea.

I thought that we needed to be on the side of saying, you know, this is not right, this cannot stand. We couldn't advance civil rights at home and go through all that we went through, including the martyrdom of Martin Luther King, who, clearly, like Gandhi -- like Mandela, was inspired by Gandhi, and not stick up for South Africa.

BLITZER: And you did indeed. And he was grateful to you for that.

Was there one piece of advice that he gave you that really sticks out in your mind?

CLINTON: Yes, when he told me -- he basically was saying, you know, if you're in public life and you have public responsibilities, you cannot be free and effective unless you have no personal feelings of anger.

He said, you know, you have to -- you have to never give up your mind and heart. It requires a mental and emotional discipline to live in the present and the future, and keep an open door, an open mind and an open heart to everyone.

I remember one day, oh, about a month after that whole impeachment business was over, Henry Hyde, who had run the whole show, unbelievably enough -- maybe it was a few months after, but it was shortly after -- asked for a meeting at the White House for something that he was really interested in.

And he brought a delegation in. And my staff said, I can't believe you're going to do this. I said, it's my job to do it. He's a member of Congress, and a senior member. And they came and left. And, as far as they knew, I did not even remember what had happened. I was able to do that because of what Nelson Mandela did for me, the way he helped me.

And I think that it's advice that everybody should take. You simply cannot be free without forgiveness. You don't have to forget, but you have to forget when you're doing something that has nothing to do with how you feel alone. Mandela never completely got over his regrets of what he missed and his occasional emotional intrusions of anger, but you could see it.

People who knew him well could see it. Something would come into his eyes, and then, almost instantaneously, it would disappear, because he had trained himself to live in the present, look to the future. And he knew he couldn't be a free man if he was burdened with anger. And so he let it go.

He said -- I asked him how he felt when he was taking that last walk that we all saw on television in February of 2000 -- of 1990. And I said, didn't you hate them all over again? He said briefly -- he said, I felt hatred anger and fear. I hadn't been free in a long time. But he said, when I got to the gate, I said, I want to be free. And I knew if I still hated them when I drove out the door, I would still be their prisoner. I wanted to be free. And so I let it go.

That -- it was amazing, the clarity, the strength and the genuine honesty with which he said it. And it's what enabled him to light up the world with that smile of his. They saw a truly free man, not just somebody who was legally free, not just someone who won an election, but a human being in full possession of his spirit and his joy in life in the moment.

And I was thinking about it. You know, arguably, the great symbols of freedom in the world in the 20th century are Gandhi and Dr. King and Nelson Mandela, certainly in the last 80 years or so. They were martyred. He became a hero because he survived and he thrived and he served. And he did it because he was free, and because people felt that.

And he was able to engender -- this is a tribute to the rest of South Africa. He was able to engender a level of trust in people because he trusted them, and it worked out for him in a way that was altogether fitting and just. He was an astonishing human being.

BLITZER: He certainly was. It worked out for him and it worked out for South Africa. And he inspired so many of us around the world. We're out of time.

Mr. President, thanks so much for joining us. I assume you're going to be going to South Africa in the coming days to pay your personal respects?

CLINTON: I am. Our whole family is going.

You know, I typically, since I left the White House, especially when Madiba and I were working on AIDS together, but even afterward, tried to always time my summer trips to Africa so I could be there around his birthday.

And I wouldn't miss this. I'm just going to be a face in the crowd. He was a genuine friend to me, and he was a really fine partner as president. So, my whole family will be there, and we're looking forward to having the chance to say goodbye one last time.

BLITZER: Mr. President, thank you so much for sharing your beautiful words with all of our viewers here in the United States and around the world. We appreciate it greatly.

CLINTON: Thank you.


BLITZER: We know, of course, Nelson Mandela inspired the world to make an impact.

To find out more about his charitable legacy and how you can get involved, go to, and you will be able to impact our world.

Up next, new video of the American teacher killed in Benghazi and new information about whether his death was al Qaeda's revenge.

And the White House changes its story about President Obama and his illegal immigrant uncle. How close were they? Stand by.


BLITZER: We're learning new details about the American teacher gunned down in Benghazi, Libya, and whether it may have been a revenge attack for the capture of an al Qaeda operative.

Our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr is studying the story for us.

What are you finding out, Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Ronnie Smith wanted to be in Benghazi, one of the most dangerous cities in the world for Americans. The question now, who killed him and why?


STARR (voice-over): Thirty-three-year-old Ronnie Smith was teaching chemistry at an international school in Benghazi, Libya.

RONNIE SMITH, TEACHER: No matter what happens, I'm good. That gives me peace. I'm OK with that.

STARR: Libyan authorities say, on this street, four assailants in a black Jeep opened fire, killing him instantly. In a video of Smith and his wife on their way to Libya, he speaks openly of his Christian faith.

SMITH: If there is any single person in the universe that you can take a chance on, it's God.

STARR: Smith knew Benghazi had grown increasingly dangerous for Americans since the attack on the U.S. Consulate 15 months ago. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others were killed.

In October, it got riskier, when U.S. special forces in Tripoli captured Anas al-Libi, an al Qaeda operative wanted in connection with the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in East Africa. Just after that attack, Smith tweeted, "Libyan Islamists are threatening kidnappings."

Days before his killing, al Qaeda's American spokesman, Adam Gadahn, told Libyans to attack American interests. It was a call for revenge for al-Libi's capture. A similar threat came just before the attack that killed Chris Stevens from al Qaeda's leaders, Ayman al- Zawahri.


STARR: But no one has claimed responsibility for Smith's killing.

A U.S. official tells CNN, so far, there doesn't appear to be any link between Gadahn's threats and the killing. So, at this point, they don't believe so far that al Qaeda directly ordered it. The Libyan government says it's still investigating the attacks -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We will see what happens. All right, Barbara, thanks very much, a tragic story, indeed.

Here in the United States, the White House appears to be changing its story about whether President Obama ever met an uncle of his who lived in the U.S. illegally for decades.

Brian Todd has been looking into this story. What is it all about?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is about a relative of the president who's gone through some legal problems with immigration and other things, and it's about an impression the White House has given that it's keeping this uncle at arm's length, even though White House aides now say they weren't doing that.


TODD (voice-over): He's a 69-year-old man who works at a liquor store near Boston and he's now caught up in the president's latest political migraine.

The man's name? Omar Okech Obama, also called Omar, the president's uncle. "The Boston Globe" previously cited the White House as saying the president and his uncle had never met, but the White House press secretary now says this:

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president said that he in fact had met Omar Obama when he moved to Cambridge for law school and that he stayed with him for a brief period of time until his -- the president's apart was ready.

TODD: In recent days, the uncle said Barack Obama stayed with him for three weeks in the 1980s. Why the differing accounts?

CARNEY: Back when this arose, folks looked back at the record, including the president's book, and there was no evidence that they had met.

TODD: Jay Carney says it was when he asked the president in person that the president acknowledged he had stayed with his uncle. It could be simple semantics, but the White House was first asked about the relationship a couple of years ago after the uncle had been arrested for drunk driving and it came to light that he was fighting deportation. That's given ammunition to Republican critics.

ANA NAVARRO, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: It just goes back to this thing of the White House not being completely forthright with facts with the public. It's what's contributed to his trustworthiness numbers going way down. TODD: And political observers say something else could be lingering.

MATT BERMAN, "NATIONAL JOURNAL": I think it definitely does raise an interesting question whether or not the White House is comfortable with this idea that he has relatives that had trouble with DUI or immigration problems or whatever else.


TODD: A White House official pushed back on that idea that the president is not comfortable with those members of his family, pointing out that he wrote about extensively about them in his book "Dreams From My Father" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, he did, indeed.

All right, thanks very much, Brian, for that report.

Coming up, deadly weather stretching from Texas to Tennessee and beyond, ice threatening to knock out power to millions of Americans.

And not only is the storm on the move. There's another one right behind it. We will have the forecast. Stay with us.


BLITZER: President Obama just spoke about Nelson Mandela at the National Christmas Tree lighting ceremony near the light White House.

This is what the president said.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And this year, we give a special measure of gratitude for Nelson Mandela, a man who championed that generosity of spirit.


OBAMA: In his life, he blessed us with tremendous grace and unbelievable courage, and we are all privileged to live in a world touched by his goodness.


BLITZER: He will be heading to South Africa next week for the memorial service.

Meanwhile, other news, a dangerous mixture of snow and ice stretching from Texas to Tennessee and beyond, this powerful winter- like storm is blamed for at least four deaths. Some 200,000 people are without power in the Dallas area alone. And the city has canceled Sunday's marathon for the first time ever.

But the danger is far from over. We're just seeing a glimpse of what millions of Americans will be facing over the weekend.


BLITZER: Thanks very much to all of our viewers.

I'm Wolf Blitzer here in THE SITUATION ROOM.