In contrast with Thatcher snub, Obama inner circle jets off to Mandela memorial

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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President Barack Obama is bringing his family of aides and advisors down to South Africa for Nelson Mandela’s mass-media send-off.

“For us it’s the President and the First Lady, the Attorney General [Eric Holder], Susan Rice, Valerie Jarrett,” Ben Rhodes, the White House’ deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, told reporters during an impromptu press conference on Air Force One.

Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry are staying behind, but former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was on board Air Force One as well.

The memorial is expected to be attended by hundreds of world leaders, broadcast by hundreds of cameras, boosted by thousands of journalists and to be watched by millions of people.

Obama’s eagerness to bring his inner circle to the memorial for the dead South African leader stands in contrast to the snub he sent to the United Kingdom a couple of years ago.

In April 2011, Obama only sent a few former diplomats to mark the death of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had revived the U.K. economy with free-market policies and also solidified the U.S.-U.K. alliance.

Obama’s memorial speech for Mandela is expected to be “in the 10-15 minute range,” said Rhodes.

The speech about Mandela will partly focus on Obama, Rhodes said.

“I think, for the President, he’ll reflect on what Nelson Mandela meant to the people of South Africa, [and] to him personally as well,” Rhodes said.

Obama’s speech will echo his domestic political pitch, and Obama’s own public biography, Rhodes suggested.

“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,” Rhodes said.

Obama wrote a forward introduction for Mandela’s book, titled “Conversations with Myself,” Rhodes said.

However, Rhodes said that since 2008, Obama and Mandela have had little communication.

“I think that, generally, when [Obama and Mandela] did speak, since the President took office, they didn’t delve deeply into substantive — [they] more dealt with how each of them were doing, asking after Nelson Mandela’s health and family,” he said.

“We had not done any work on this particular speech before the passing of Nelson Mandela… [but Obama] has reflected on him many times,” Rhodes said.

Rhodes portrayed Mandela as a saint-like figure. .

“I’d also note that the President was grateful that the First Lady and his daughters were able to see Nelson Mandela, even very late in his life,” he said.

“This is obviously a very unique event really in world history, given the number of leaders coming to pay their respects, as well as the people of South Africa,” Rhodes said.

Obama is also bringing two former presidents — George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, plus their wives — while former president Jimmy Carter is also attending the funeral.

Obama’s departure from D.C. means he’s absent from the long-planned Christmas parties scheduled with member of Congress, absent from budget talks and from the effort to rebuild the Obamacare system.

He’s left the vice president to take his place at the parties.

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