Rep. Amo Houghton's dream of honoring Nelson Mandela came true on Wednesday, as President Clinton and Congress came together to give the retiring South African president a Congressional Gold Medal.

Houghton, R-Corning, served as master of ceremonies as Clinton presented Mandela with the medal during a ceremony in the Capitol's Rotunda.

Previously bestowed upon the likes of George Washington and Mother Teresa, Congress' highest civilian honor is a fitting one for Mandela, said Houghton, who wrote the bill awarding the medal to the South African leader.

"President Mandela, you come here at a challenging time in our history," Houghton said. "We're a country wrestling with our loyalties, our beliefs, as yours did for so many years. We can honor you today for your example. You can honor us by sharing your special powers of reconciliation."

The ceremony marked President Clinton's first Capitol Hill appearance since a special counsel suggested his impeachment. Nevertheless, the event's focus remained squarely on Mandela, who emerged from 27 years in prison to lead his country into a new age of racial equality.

Mandela was clearly proud of the honor.

"I feel like the heavyweight boxing champion of the world," said Mandela, gaunt and reedy-voiced at the age of 80.

Addressing a crowd of congressmen, diplomats and civil rights leaders, Mandela stressed that the American role in bringing full justice to South Africa is far from over.

"Though we are long past the blaming of our past for our problems, it does need to be acknowledged that the imbalance and inequities bequeathed to us by the history of Africa and South Africa are beyond our capacity to meet on our own," he said. "They call for a partnership of Africa and the United States, developing and developed countries, bringing about a transfer of resources."

For Houghton, Wednesday's ceremony honoring Mandela capped a longtime interest in African affairs.

In the mid-1980s, before his election to Congress, Houghton traveled to South Africa to explore the possibility of doing missionary work there. In doing so, he learned firsthand about the brutalities of the apartheid system that kept the races separated and the entire nation on edge.

"It was Christmas day, and we got stopped by the police," Houghton said. "I've never been so petrified in my life. They tore the seats out of our car, they pushed us around. It didn't matter that we were American citizens."

Houghton said he never expected the apartheid system to crumble as quickly as it did.