President Obama on Thursday called the late Nelson Mandela “one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will ever share time with on this earth.”
Speaking at the White House about an hour after the legendary South African leader’s death was announced, a somber Obama said Mandela’s “fierce dignity and unbending will to sacrifice his own freedom for the freedom of others” will stand the test of time.
The president said Mandela set an example that “all humanity should aspire to.”
“Let us pause and give thanks for the fact that Nelson Mandela lived — a man who took history in his hands, and bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice.”
Obama is expected to attend Mandela's funeral, sources say.
Vice President Joe Biden, who was traveling in South Korea, released a statement saying that Mandela’s “courage and then his forgiveness inspired us all, and challenged us to do better.”
“Mandela’s wisdom and compassion were formidable enough to change the world,” Biden said.
Later Thursday night, the president ordered U.S. flags to be flown at half staff until sunset on Monday Dec. 9, “as a mark of respect for the memory of Nelson Mandela.”
Obama also spoke by phone with South African President Jacob Zuma to convey his condolences.
According to the White House, Obama “conveyed how profoundly Mandela’s extraordinary example of moral courage, kindness, and humility influenced his own life, as well as those of millions around the world.”
The president said he considers himself to be “one of the countless millions who drew inspiration” from Mandela, adding that he couldn’t imagine his own life without the example that Mandela set.
Obama, who studied Mandela’s writings and words over the course of his adult life, said his own “very first political action” was a protest against apartheid.
“The day he was released from prison gave me a sense of what human beings can do when they’re guided by their hopes and not by their fears,” he said.
Obama met with the leader during a visit in 2006, when he was still a senator. First lady Michelle Obama visited with the leader five years later, but the president was not on that trip.
Earlier this year, Obama and his family visited Robben Island, the jail where Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years.
The first family toured the jail cell where Mandela stayed on the island, and Obama told his daughters about how political nonviolence took root in the country.
Obama wrote in a guest book that he was "deeply humbled to stand where men of such courage faced down injustice and refused to yield."
The president had hoped to meet with Mandela during his visit to the country, but that visit was scrapped due to Mandela's ailing health.
“I don't need a photo op," Obama said at the time. "The last thing I want to do is be intrusive."
The president and the first lady did meet privately with Mandela's family, and spoke with the leader's wife by phone.
On Thursday, in his statement, Obama spoke to the people of South Africa, saying “we draw strength from the example of renewal and reconciliation and resilience that you made real.”
“A free South Africa at peace with itself,” Obama said. “That’s an example to the world.”
He called Mandela’s legacy to the nation he loved.
— This story was last updated at 10:15 p.m.