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Clinton: Mandela's example 'went way beyond political leadership'

Former President Bill Clinton spoke to NBC's Brian Williams about the loss of his friend, Nelson Mandela, and the legacy he leaves behind for the rest of the world.

Recalling Nelson Mandela as a “profoundly good man” and “great friend,” former President Bill Clinton said Friday that the South African leader “set an example for how to live that went way beyond political leadership to the core of what life should be about.”

In an interview with NBC’s Brian Williams, Clinton – who was in the White House when Mandela rose to the presidency in South Africa – said that he turned to the onetime political prisoner for advice when he faced particularly bitter relationships with Republicans in Congress.

“It was a good thing you did, inviting ... your jailers to your inauguration and all this reconciliation stuff,” Clinton recalled telling the former South African president, “But how did you get there?”

In response, Mandela described a life-changing revelation in the middle of his 27-year imprisonment.

According to Clinton, Mandela described being “young and strong,” and living on his “hatred” after being abused by his jailers .

Then, Mandela told him: “I realized they could take everything, even my life, except my mind and my heart. Those things I would have to give away, and I decided not to give them away ... Neither should you.”

The forgiveness of his jailers, Clinton said, not only solidified Mandela’s role as the father of his own country but “lit up the world” with a lasting message.

“He didn’t just do things that made people feel good,” Clinton said. “He was really good, but his enduring power is that he showed us that there is true freedom in forgiveness.”

“It wasn't just politics with him. He lived these things. He believed it and he lived it,” he added. “He was a profoundly good man but he was a great friend.”

Alexander Joe / AFP - Getty Images

Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela attend the third Mandela Annual Lecture, July, 19 2005 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Clinton and Mandela met regularly after their respective stints in public office, and Clinton’s philanthropic efforts have included work in the once conflict-torn nation Mandela is credited with healing.

Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. stand “in a category by themselves” as titans of the last 100 years, Clinton said.

Asked about the future of South Africa, where economic and physical security remain elusive for many, Clinton said he believes the country is ready for a another era of renewal.

“If the friends of South Africa and the leaders of South Africa will try to live by [Mandela’s] example every day, I think that they're poised to make a new beginning,” he said.

A spokesman for Clinton confirmed to NBC News Friday that the former president will travel to South Africa next week to pay his respects to Mandela and to participate in memorial events.