In the 21st century is it possible for anyone to achieve the heroic status of John Glenn? There are many reasons to think not. Some years ago the so-called mainstream media, traditional newspapers and networks, abandoned any respect for privacy of public figures in an effort to compete with entertainment journalism, emerging social media, and advocacy networks for sensationalism. Very soon, political leaders, and then even astronauts, were treated more or less as movie stars had been for years.
There is an old saying: No man is a hero to his valet. Today we would say the same for a woman and her maid. This isn’t simple an observation about the human body without clothes. It is an observation about familiarity on the margin of intimacy. Nothing like seeing a famous person performing mundane human duties to destroy any hope of extraordinary character.
Very difficult to locate a hero using a microscope. Heroes are best viewed through long-range lenses. Heroism requires a degree of distance, and distance is necessary for mystery. How does she hold public office, raise children, and write poetry? How does he defy death in space and crawl out of the capsule grinning? The hero is someone who does extraordinary things while seeming to be like the rest of us.
Entertainment has played a role in destroying true heroism. Special effects make Tom Cruise seem like Jack Reacher. Arnold Schwartzenegger started out human, then became an android, and then was replaced by action comic figures. Difficult to have a truly human hero up against Spiderman or Batman.
I was in high school before I ever met a Member of Congress. I was impressed. That would not happen today with the ritual hazing and thrashing every politician routinely receives. And, sad to say, too many deservedly so.
When we went to Washington in December 1974 so that I could take up my duties representing the State of Colorado in the U.S. Senate, I asked my daughter and son, 10 and 8, who they would like to meet, and I meant from the President on down, they both said, without a thought, John Glenn. He was by then in all their history books. He was famous. He was legendary. He was an authentic hero.
We were sworn into office together. I admit to being in awe.
Someday, after some of us have long gone onto the next life, a small group of astronauts will try to get to Mars. Aside from single-handedly rescuing a plane load of children from highjackers, that is one of the few ways to become a hero these days. (Even then, some reporter will find a DUI years ago.) The devils of expose’ must be served.
Were Simon and Garfunkle lamenting the passage of heroes when they sang “Where have you gone, Joe Dimaggio?
Adding to the economic frustrations of global competition is the sense that there are no more heroes. Some commentators—including those who have contributed to the process–have observed that public figure have become gradually smaller. Some of the reasons have already been mentioned. But the process of dismantling privacy, distance, and mystery drives figures of stature away. After earning respect and demonstrating self-respect, who among us wants to submit to the adult equivalent of fraternity initiation simply to serve our country.
When we permit a demeaning system of humiliation to become a gateway for public service, we also deny ourselves any chance of heroism in the public arena. John Kennedy would find it difficult if not impossible to write Profiles in Courage today.
I liked John Glenn a lot. Even more, I admired him, not only for his physical courage and flying skills but also for his basic humanity and decency and his fundamental insistence that he wasn’t any different from the rest of us. In his mind, he was just a lucky guy who happened to be at the right place at the right time.
He had that backwards, though. We who knew him were lucky to share that place and that time with him.