By Jeff Mason and Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - America's first black president, Barack Obama, hailed Nelson Mandela on Thursday as a source of personal inspiration whose struggle against racism in South Africa jump-started his own involvement in politics.
Speaking in the White House press room shortly after the announcement of Mandela's death, a somber-looking Obama said the 95-year-old former South African president left a legacy of freedom and peace.
"I am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela's life. My very first political action, the first thing I ever did that involved an issue or a policy or politics, was a protest against apartheid," Obama said.
"Like so many around the globe, I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example that Nelson Mandela set, and so long as I live I will do what I can to learn from him," he said.
Obama, the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas, has long referred to Mandela as an inspiration.
A picture of the two men together hangs in the family residence at the White House, next to a photograph of Mandela with first lady Michelle Obama and the two Obama daughters, taken when they went to South Africa 2-1/2 years ago.
The president said he read Mandela's writings as a young man. The day Mandela was released from prison gave Obama "a sense of what human beings can do when they're guided by their hopes and not by their fears," he said.
The Obamas went to Cape Town and Johannesburg during an Africa tour in June but did not visit the ailing leader, who was in the hospital at the time. They toured the Robben Island prison where Mandela had been held and stood in his cell. The president and the first lady also met with Mandela's family.
Mandela died in his Johannesburg home on Thursday after a prolonged lung infection.
Obama is expected to go to South Africa for Mandela's funeral.
"He achieved more than could be expected of any man. Today, he has gone home," Obama said.
"We have lost one of the most influential, courageous, and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this earth. He no longer belongs to us - he belongs to the ages."
FLAGS AT HALF-STAFF
Obama directed that U.S. flags at government buildings and military posts be lowered to half-staff until sunset on Monday. He also spoke to South African President Jacob Zuma to express condolences and reaffirm strong ties between the two countries, the White House said.
During his Africa trip, Obama urged the continent to follow Mandela's example, and he said on Thursday the former leader's legacy would endure.
"To the people of South Africa, we draw strength from the example of renewal, and reconciliation, and resilience that you made real," Obama said. "A free South Africa at peace with itself - that's an example to the world, and that's Madiba's legacy to the nation he loved," he said, referring to Mandela by his clan name.
"We will not likely see the likes of Nelson Mandela again," he said. "So it falls to us as best we can to forward the example that he set: to make decisions guided not by hate, but by love; to never discount the difference that one person can make; to strive for a future that is worthy of his sacrifice."