(CNN) – Former President Bill Clinton said Friday he and revered statesman Nelson Mandela had a "genuine friendship."
The former South African president, who emerged from prison after 27 years to lead his country out of decades of apartheid, died Thursday after ongoing health issues.
In an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, Clinton said that Mandela was a source of counsel throughout his time in the Oval Office, recalling when the iconic figure received the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal in 1998 - a time when Clinton was fighting possible impeachment over charges related to an admitted extramarital affair.
"When Congress gave him the Gold Medal, when they were trying to run me out of office, he called me one day and he said, 'I'm the president of South Africa. I must accept this award,'" Clinton said in an interview that aired on "The Situation Room."
"But I am not a fool and I know what the timing is. So he said, 'Here's what we're going to do. I'm coming a day early and you're going to organize an event for me in the White House. And I will say exactly what I think. And he proceeded to do it,' " Clinton said. Mandela became the first African to receive the honor.
"He was that kind of guy. I mean, we had a genuine friendship. I mean, he thought it was wrong and he thought it was bad for America, bad for the world and he came here and said it."
Clinton continued: "And he managed to be an inclusive figure while never giving up his right to take a stand, including in some of the relatively few disagreements we had."
Friendship and loyalty
Their friendship began in 1992 at the Democratic National Convention in New York.
"I was about to be nominated for president. And former Mayor David Dinkins, who was a longtime supporter of Mandela's brought him up to our rooms, which is where he met with Hillary and Chelsea and me," Clinton recalled.
"We hit it off right away."
Mandela later came to Clinton's inauguration, and then-first lady Hillary Clinton and then-Vice President Al Gore also led a delegation at Mandela's inauguration in 1994.
Clinton said the two worked together throughout the South African leader's presidency, which ended in 1999. He later noted that he would visit South Africa every year around Mandela's birthday and has been to the country around "nine or 10 times" since leaving office.
Despite their closeness, Clinton and Mandela occasionally diverged on diplomatic issues, like Cuba. Mandela "had a fierce loyalty" to former Cuban leader Fidel Castro and anyone who supported him during his time in captivity.
Mandela "inspired me before I knew him," Clinton said, and taught him to live in the present.
And "after we became friends, every minute we spent together, even when we were having the occasional argument from our positions as president of the United States and president of South Africa, where he always held his ground and did what he thought was right, we never stopped being friends."
The former two-term president and Arkansas governor recalled asking Mandela how he put aside years of hatred that came with being imprisoned for nearly three decades.
Clinton remembers Mandela telling him: "'I realized they could take every single thing away from me except my mind and my heart. Those things I would have to give them. And I decided not to give them away.'"
And he looked at me and smiled and he said, neither should you. I'll never forget it as long as I live."
"You simply cannot be free without forgiveness," Clinton said Mandela taught him. "You don't have to forget, but you have to forget when you're doing something that has nothing to do with how you feel alone."
He said he could sometimes see pain in Mandela's eye - "regrets of what he missed and his occasional emotional intrusions of anger."
But "...almost instantaneously, it would disappear, because he had trained himself to live in the present, look to the future, and he knew he couldn't be a free man if he was burdened with anger. And so he let it go."