The Last American Hero

Author: Gary Hart

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.

9 Responses to “The Last American Hero”

  1. Bill Pruden Says:

    Senator Hart,
    Like you I am old enough to remember John Glenn’s heroic flights. Indeed, huddled around a black and white television set that was brought into school, my classmates and I watched the future as it happened, and if we did not understand it ourselves, our awestruck teacher made clear just how heroic and extraordinary event it was. Not too many years afterward, we saw that same heroic patriot move to another stage as Glenn pursued a career in elective public service. He was an inspiration. Unhappily, both the Senate and high public office generally have seen a disturbing drop in people like Glenn (or yourself) who have a true commitment to service and who wish to address the nation’s problems with wisdom, perspective, and courage. Indeed, we have lost sight of what real heroism is. To the modern generation, “heroes” populate the pages of comic books and are featured on the silver screen rather than on the front pages of the nation’s diminishing number of newspapers. We have had a culture shift in which being famous is an accomplishment all its won, never mind how it was achieved. Such an unhappy reality brings to mind a comment from the renowned newscaster Edward. R. Murrow, who once said, “Honor and fame are often regarded as interchangeable. Both involve an appraisal of the individual…but I suggest this difference. Fame is morally neutral.” John Glenn was famous, but more importantly, he was honorable and heroic–and we as a nation have lost something very real in his passing. Thank you, Senator for reminding us of that–but let’s hope that he will not be “the last American hero.”

  2. Paul Borg Says:

    Dear Senator Hart

    Senator Glenn embodied the fulfillment of the very human desire to transcend perceived limitation. He, and those that followed, allowed us to feel a part of those events as witness and team member. He was able to do what he did because We were in fact a team of people with a common dream and a powerful desire to have that dream fulfilled. There are forces working today that, whether consciously or not, desire to atomize us and render US incapable of even having a common dream let alone fulfilling it. All meaningful human accomplishments have the commons as a foundation. Senator Glenn came from us and is now returned to us. His success is our success and now a part of our DNA as a People.

    Are we capable of a common dream any more or have our enemies managed to scramble our brain and choke our heart to the point we are no longer living? We have great states people with dreams that should inspire us. Look to their dreams and not the minutiae of their personal struggles with every day life. Let us forgive the splinter in their eye as we do the beam in our own. The hero as archetype lives in us; let us manifest that archetype through a living America so very human and so much more.

  3. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    The right place at the right time, yes but, with the right stuff, too!

    That’s what sets him and others apart from most of the rest of us …

  4. Chris R. Says:

    Entertainment has a way of confirming heroes as well. Tom Wolfe’s novel, The Right Stuff” and the subsequent movie based on the same certainly show John Glenn to be a true hero. Who could forget how he stood up to then V.P. LBJ and supported his wife’s decision to not entertain LBJ and his press entourage during his historic trip into space:
    “She said she was tired. she had a headache, and she just wasn’t going to allow all those people in her house. … I told her whatever she wanted to do, I would back her up 100 percent.”
    The First Lady of Troublesome Gulch had a similar ordeal years later, which she handled with similar grace and poise.

  5. Brian C McCarthy Says:


    A thoughtful tribute and I extend my condolences on the loss of your former colleague. There are many worthy of being heroes in today’s America but few who will tolerate the strict scrutiny that comes with celebrity of any kind. As a country, we still want and need heroes. They have to endure a lot more nonsense than Senator Glenn ever did. Consider as an example airline captain Chesley Sullenberger, hero of the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ a few years back. It’s to his credit that he has handled his fame, mostly, with modesty and humility. He’s a rare example, though and of course he does not rise to the level of Senator Glenn. The country has a too short attention span for heroes to last in the public mind very long.

  6. Gary Hart Says:

    Apologies to all above for delays in posting. The host was in Ireland this week concluding three years as Secretary Kerry’s representative and US envoy to Northern Ireland. Thank you for your patience. GH


    Senator Hart,

    Respect to John Glenn and his family !

    Your comments here remind us that the very territory you mention has seen it’s heroes and villains ! Thank you for your service in Northern Ireland , from a citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland .

    I do believe there are some extraordinary heroes yet.

    See the plight of Raif Badawi , Liberal blogger in prison in Saudi Arabia,for creating a Liberal website, honoured just this week with the Liberal International prize for freedom.

    Remember Jo Cox , UK Labour member of parlament , murdered this year for standing up for human rights , killed by a neo Nazi

    There are others not political too. Wonderful .

  8. Paul Borg Says:

    Dear Senator Hart

    I was going over some quotes from Walt Whitman and came across the one below.

    “Other lands have their vitality in a few, a class, but we have it in the bulk of our people.” Walt Whitman

    Once again I can only express what I feel in metaphor.

    America is our Mother and We are Her Life. We must not commit suicide, if only for Her sake. We should be strong and healthy and full of joy. When Ohio suffers want then those of us in California or wherever should feel it as if their want was ours as well and seek to satisfy the need. Let us not squander our life to support the existence of parasitic forces that seek to sustain themselves at our expense and that of our Mother, America.

  9. Michael Says:

    I had the honor of meeting John Glenn at the 1984 DNC. He was incredibly gracious, spending an unhurried few minutes speaking with me, even though I told him I was a delegate for Sen. Hart. But the media has now gone beyond constant digging into one’s past to try to find even the smallest human frailty; they’ve taken to obsessing about uncorroborated falsehoods, which is infinitely more dangerous.

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