WHITE HOUSE — President Barack Obama called Nelson Mandela, who died Thursday at the age of 95, a man of fierce dignity and unbending will who transformed South Africa, and now "belongs to the ages."
The first African-American president of the United States, his own political and personal life intensely influenced by Mandela, spoke shortly after news of Mandela's death was delivered to the world.
"Nelson Mandela lived for that ideal and he made it real. He achieved more than could be expected of any man. Today he has gone home. We have lost one of 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," said President Obama.
Like Obama, Mandela became his nation's first black president. President Obama said he is "one of the countless millions" who drew inspiration from him.
Obama recalled that the first thing he did "involving an issue or policy or politics" was a protest against apartheid.
"I would study his words and his writings. 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. And 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," said President Obama.
Mandela's "journey from prisoner to a president," said Obama, "embodied the promise that human beings - and countries - can change for the better."
"His commitment to transfer power and reconcile with those who jailed him set an example that all humanity should aspire to, whether in the lives of nations or our own personal lives. And the fact that he did it all with grace and good humor, and an ability to acknowledge his own imperfections, only makes the man that much more remarkable," said Obama.
Obama and Mandela met just once, a spontaneous encounter during a conference in Washington in 2005, when Obama was still a junior U.S. senator.
When he visited South Africa earlier this year, Obama did not see Mandela, who was seriously ill at the time. He did tour Robben Island, where Mr. Mandela was imprisoned for 18 of the 27 years he spent behind bars.
In a speech at the University of Cape Town, Obama described the Mandela legacy as "young people, black, white, Indian, everything in between living and learning together in a South Africa that is free and at peace."
First lady Michelle Obama and the Obama daughters, Malia and Sasha, did get to meet with Mandela during a visit to South Africa in 2011.
Members of Congress and former U.S. presidents offered tributes to Mandela.
Former president Bill Clinton said, "History will remember Nelson Mandela as a champion for human dignity and freedom, for peace and reconciliation."
Former president George H. W. Bush said Mandela set a powerful example of redemption and grace, calling him a man of tremendous moral courage who changed the course of history.
Addressing the people of South Africa, President Obama said Mandela's legacy is "a free South Africa at peace with itself, that is an example to the world." Mandela, he said, was a man who took history in his hands, and bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice.
The White House has not yet provided any information about when President Obama will, as is expected, travel to South Africa for the state funeral.