Nelson Mandela, like George Washington, is a statesman for the ages. Both men exhibited extraordinary courage and wisdom, and each united his country with leadership.
But the greatest thing either man did was to leave office at the end of his term.
Both Washington and Mandela could easily have won re-election again and again, holding on to power until the end of their lives. They chose not to, and that choice was their greatest legacy.
The rioting in Azerbaijan following Thursday's election is the latest reminder that there is nothing automatic about the birth of democracy.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Heydar Aliyev was elected president of Azerbaijan. Swept into power with enormous popularity in a revolutionary time, Aliyev was more concerned with safeguarding power for himself than with shepherding his nation from revolution to democracy. He became an authoritarian ruler.
Thursday's election had more to do with Heydar Aliyev's ailing health than it did with the orderly transition of the democratic process. His son, Ilham Aliyev, was declared the winner of the election in what is clearly a dynastic succession and not a democratic process.
"This election was a missed opportunity for a genuinely democratic election process," said Peter Eicher, head of the largest group of Western observers, from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Eicher said the OSCE found "troubling irregularities" with voting and counting, ballot-stuffing, falsified results and ballots circulating outside polling stations. He said the OSCE had also documented preelection intimidation, unequal conditions for campaigning and "prohibitive restraint on political rallies" held by the younger Aliyev's rivals.
Nelson Mandela, and George Washington before him, could have chosen the path that Heydar Aliyev chose. Had either done so, the histories of America and South Africa would be very different. If Gen. Washington had been possessed by the naked, "by any means necessary" ambition of a Tom Delay or a Karl Rove, then America today would look much more like Azerbaijan.
Fortunately for America and for the world, Washington had the wisdom and the courage to leave office at the end of his term, retiring to Mount Vernon and a well-deserved rest. Because he did so, America was able to grow into a democracy strong enough to withstand even the un-democratic onslaught of petty little would-be tyrants like Delay.