Nelson Mandela and my historic misstep

Interns notoriously misstep so often that their ineptitude, no matter the field, is a cliché.

I lived up to that cliché when a false step during a journalism internship for Knight Ridder newspapers’ Washington bureau in the fall of 1991 became one of the strangest things to ever happen to me.

That internship proved to be an invaluable experience. It allowed me to cover real stories, receive professional editing and guidance, and, most importantly for a young journalist, have my byline on stories in big city papers like The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Miami Herald, The Detroit Free-Press and San Jose Mercury-News. It was heady and humbling all at the same time. I rode the METRO subway each day from the Eastern Market station on Capitol Hill to the National Press Club building full of hope, energy and disbelief that I could actually be doing what I set out to do. It was a dream come true.

One of the most newsworthy international events that unfolded in the fall of 1991 was South African anti-apartheid activist and political leader Nelson Mandela’s first visit to Washington. He had been released from prison in 1990 but was not yet the president of South Africa. The visit was more diplomatic than political, but the American media were eager to hear his story and learn what was changing in South Africa.

Nelson Mandela, left, shakes hands with U.S. President George H.W. Bush, right, behind two podiums with microphones.
Nelson Mandela met with President George H.W. Bush on his visit to the U.S. in 1991 shortly after his release from prison. He wasn’t smiling so broadly when I stepped on his foot. Photo courtesy of Politico.com

There were two media availabilities for Mandela during his visit – one at the State Department after his official visit and the other at an event at the National Press Club. A little before noon on that early December day, my editor, Reggie Stuart, called me over to his desk to assign me to cover Mandela’s speech at the Press Club upstairs. He told me the state department reporter would cover his remarks there, and I was to get some quotes from his speech at the Press Club to fill out the story. With almost no time to prepare, I frantically dashed back to my desk and started looking up anything in our archives, both print and digital, that might give me some context. This was pre-Internet, so research was more tedious and time consuming.

I lost track of time, and when I looked up, I had exactly two minutes to get to the Press Club. I grabbed a pen, my reporter’s notebook and my press badge and ran to the elevator. With seconds to spare, I reached the check-in table at the door of the meeting room, which was set theater style for about 300. I showed my credentials, signed in and stepped toward the door without really looking around me.

A rather large gentleman in a suit blocked the door. I attempted to get around him to the right, then the left before stepping back to allow him to move out of the doorway. When I did, my right foot landed on something solid. I heard a low moan.

I turned around, and to my horror, I saw Nelson Mandela. What I had stepped on was his foot. The big fella in the doorway? Part of his security detail. The security officer grabbed me by both shoulders and pushed me out of the way. I had stepped on Nelson Mandela’s foot. The man survived 27 years in a South African prison only to come to America for me to cripple him.

Overloaded, my brain shut down. Mandela limped a step or two before recovering as he made his way to the platform. The big guy in the suit glared at me, and I shrank with embarrassment, stumbling over to a seat on the back row. I sat, stunned, as the National Press Club president introduced Mandela who took the podium. It must have been a good speech. There was intermittent clapping. There was laughter. There was a standing ovation at the end. I honestly cannot recall anything that was said. I was in shock. I never opened my notebook.

When the event ended and the room began to clear, it hit me that I didn’t have anything to give Reggie for the story. I had blown it. This was going to be the end of my journalism career. At age 21, I was done.

Careful not to make physical contact with anyone else as I exited, I tried to come up with words to explain what happened. The short elevator ride was not long enough. In just a few minutes I found myself standing at Reggie’s desk waiting for him to get off the phone. When he put the handset back in the cradle, he looked up at me and asked the dreaded question I knew was coming: “What did you get?”

I hemmed and hawed and looked at my feet. Sweat beaded on my forehead. My mouth became parched, and words refused to form on my tongue. Reggie looked at me, puzzled, then let me off the hook.

“Ah, don’t worry about it. We already got the story from his visit to State, and it’s too long anyway. We really don’t have room for any more quotes.”

I nodded and ineloquently thanked Reggie for the opportunity. I went back to my desk, put down my notepad and plopped into my chair with an exhale of relief and shame.

It was one of the strangest things that ever happened to me, and it left an indelible imprint. It took me years to confess its occurrence, but I gradually overcame the post-traumatic hold the encounter had on me. I learned to laugh at it and not take myself too seriously. That story became one of the staples of my self-deprecating anecdotes from my journalism career.

I’m sure over the years the event has grown in my mind, and depending on the audience, I have been known to embellish. Truth is, there were no real consequences. My journalism career didn’t end before it started. Nelson Mandela suffered no long-term effects to his mobility.

The most important takeaways? I gained experience. I grew. I adapted. I learned to be on time and not take myself too seriously.

Oh, yeah, and one more thing: always, always, always watch your step.

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