A Look Back: ‘Nightline’s’ Historic Nelson Mandela Interview

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A Look Back: ‘Nightline’s’ Historic Nelson Mandela Interview

In the epic that is the story of Nelson Mandela and South Africa, one small but important chapter happened to involve an ABC News program: Nightline and its storied anchorman Ted Koppel.

Go back, for example, to that February afternoon in 1990, when TV stations everywhere on the globe, really everywhere, held a single live totally uninteresting camera shot, on and off, for close to an hour. Because they were waiting to see a distant figure, Nelson Mandela, a man who had not been photographed in almost three decades, walking free from prison.

And waiting there to interview him: Ted Koppel. But so was everybody else waiting to interview Mandela, though only no one had an appointment.

“… and everyone had rented a house across the street from Winnie Mandela's home in Soweto and there we were with our binoculars, you know sitting there trying to figure out he is here, he isn't here yet, which one of us is going to be invited to come over there and do the interview,” recalled Koppel. “But I can remember my friend Dan Rather was over there, I think, in fact I know Dan well, Dan beat me. He was there first, I was there second.”

Second maybe but first to come to Mandela on that night's broadcast, with an opening question that went, not to politics, race or the future, but to sports – a Mike Tyson boxing match.

“My plan was I wanted to hit him with a question he really wasn't expecting,” said Koppel.

And Tyson was only step one in the strategy. Step 2, a more personal question:

Ted Koppel: “Did you ever think of turning pro, turning professional?”

Nelson Mandela: “No, I never did.”

Ted Koppel: “But you were a good boxer.”

Nelson Mandela: “Well, I do not know. That is for others to say. But I enjoyed the sport.”

Ted Koppel: “It's long enough ago, a little bit of immodesty wouldn't hurt.”

Nelson Mandela: “No, I enjoyed the sport, you see.”

Koppel said Mandela “was never an easy man to loosen up.” And did Mandela loosen in that interview? A little. Not really. Even when talking basics like the prison food. He maintained a certain rectitude in language, gesture and posture that set him at a distance.

Koppel recalled: “Nelson Mandela was not somebody who was going to be my buddy, and he was not going to let me be his buddy.”

And yet Mandela in subsequent years, rarely, perhaps never, said no when Ted invited him to be on Nightline. And that willingness, Ted is certain, stems from a single history-making week of television Nightline produced in South Africa.

“We said we will only do this series of programs, we will only come to South Africa if members of the white government agree to engage in dialogue on the air,” said Koppel. “So we actually had an occasion where the South African foreign minister at that point, Pik Botha, appeared live on television in the United States with then Bishop Desmond Tutu. And it was an extraordinary moment.

“It was rebroadcast the next day in South Africa, on the SABC, South African Broadcasting Company, and the impact was huge, absolutely enormous.”

And it all happened while Mandela was in his 22nd year of imprisonment. Though Koppel said, “Mandela was there. Mandela was in every exchange. We could not have done what we did in South Africa had it not been for Mandela.”

But those shows also made a connection. Because of the week of programming, Mandela knew what Nightline had done.

Koppel had a moment with Mandela, years later, during a town meeting held in the U.S.

“I interrupted him, I think, and I was going to say something else and then he, I thought, was going to jump in and say something, so I paused. And he said something like ‘cat got your tongue?’"

Koppel continued, “And the largely African-American crowd at the town meeting just went bananas. They just loved it! I mean here's the white anchor getting it right in the chops from the man itself. It was great moment for him, for them, less great for me.”

No, Koppel and Mandela weren't buddies. But for maybe a brief moment, they were both part of the story, something journalists are supposed to try not to be. But sometimes it cannot be helped.

“I don't whether we changed [history],” said Koppel. “We don't get the opportunity that often to really make a difference. I think our programs in South Africa made a difference and if it hastened the release of Nelson Mandela by a day or two, I'm proud of that.”