Elizabeth on Heroism
It’s My writing students would probably be only too
happy to confirm that I’m a stickler for language. I like it
precise. Because of this I’ve been quite perplexed about one word
that’s been bandied about throughout the entire Presidential
Hero has been used innumerable times this past year in
reference to Senator John McCain. The media have used it; Senator
Fred Thompson has used it; Rudy Giuliani has used it; Governor Sarah
Palin has used it; even President Bill Clinton and Senator Barack
Obama have used it. In fact, it seems to me that nearly everyone who
has referred to Senator McCain has used it at one time or another,
and I think the only person who hasn’t used it is Senator
I assume Senator McCain isn’t using it for one of two reasons.
Either he knows it’s déclassé to speak of himself in lofty terms
(only Muhammad Ali ever seemed to pull it off) or he knows something
about the definition of hero and is loath to apply the term
Wanting to discover which of these might be the truth of the matter,
I had what my dad would have called a “little look-see” in my
Webster’s New World Dictionary of the English Language (College
Edition), and therein I found five definitions:
1). In myth and legend, a man of great strength and courage, favored
by the gods and in part descended from them, often regarded as
half-god and worshipped after his death;
2). The central male character in a novel, play, or poem with whom
the reader or audience is supposed to identify;
3). Any person admired for his qualities and achievements and
regarded as an ideal or model;
4). The central figure in any important event or period, honored for
outstanding qualities; and
5). Any man admired for his courage, nobility, or exploits,
especially in war.
Studying these definitions, I can certainly see why Senator McCain
might not refer to himself as a hero if the first definition is the
one to be used. Even in these most unusual of times, I assume that
the Senator is aware that he is not part of a myth or a legend, and
he might also be rather reluctant to be considered half-god and to
be worshipped as such. That being the case, the Senator is likely
also aware that he is not the central character in a novel, play, or
poem, so if people identify with him, it’s for their own personal
reasons and not those crafted by a writer.
That takes us to the third, fourth, and fifth definitions of the
word hero, and perhaps we have a chance with these to understand why
Senator McCain has been named heroic by so many people.
A person admired for his qualities and achievements and regarded
as an ideal or model.
This could indeed be why Senator McCain is being called a hero, and
perhaps a look at his qualities and achievements can unlock the
secret of why the word is being used so often in conjunction with
his name. To use hero in this way necessitates the presence
of desire in other people to emulate him. This is because it is
human nature to seek to emulate ideals and models: They lead through
the power of their ideas and by virtue of their charisma, and
because of this, we follow them.
What then, historically, are the Senator’s achievements?
The Senator graduated from an all-white, all-boys Episcopal boarding
school, before going on to Annapolis where his father and his
grandfather had both studied. He graduated after what he himself
described as “a four-year course of insubordination”, with a record
of accomplishment that put him fifth from the bottom of his class.
There were 894 graduates above him.
Some people, it’s true, get off to a slow start in life, and while I
prefer in my Presidential candidates someone who has taken his
studies at least somewhat seriously, I can see that perhaps the
enthusiasm of youth might have led the future Senator to be somewhat
slack in his studies. It could be argued that his naval career
illustrates what his scholastic career does not:
An examination of the Senator’s naval career exposes the fact that
he crashed two jet fighters in advance of the one that was shot down
over Hanoi, and he crashed one single-engine ultralight afterwards.
That he crashed three planes is certainly not a crime, but it is
noteworthy as a remarkable situation because fighter pilots
generally are removed from flying upon crashing their first plane.
The fact that the Senator was not removed could be attributed to his
skill behind the controls of an aircraft, or it could be attributed
to the fact that his father was a high-ranking naval officer at the
time. I cannot say which is actually the case.
It might be argued that his achievement surviving as a prisoner of
war makes him heroic, and certainly we will come to that. But for
the moment, moving into his other achievements, there might be
something else suitable for emulation. He’s had a long career in the
House and the Senate, but four of his most recent positions bear a
little scrutiny, I think: his opposition to the new GI Bill, which
would have increased benefits to veterans; his vote against
supplying Iraqi troops with adequate body armor; his vote to repeal
the federal minimum wage; and his position that sought to deprive
government healthcare to 3.5 million children in need. If we look to
the past, we can see that he voted twice against campaign finance
reform; repeatedly voted to deregulate organizations currently in
difficulties in Wall Street; and even today he sites as his “biggest
legislative victory” a bill in 1989 that abolished catastrophic
health insurance for seniors.
Do these achievements make him heroic? Perhaps. But if they do not,
is it his personal qualities that do?
He himself has said that he possesses “an immature and
unprofessional reaction to slights,” and illustrations of his temper
and his inability to control it are not difficult to find,
especially in the comments of his colleagues in Congress. He admits
to being unfaithful to his first wife Carol, who was left
permanently disabled in an automobile accident, and he has used
terms like “pompous self-serving son of a bitch” and “asshole” to
refer to colleagues within his own party who have questioned his
behavior in the Senate. These are a few of his personal qualities
and, for me, they do not paint the picture of a man I would seek to
emulate. I prefer such men as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and
Nelson Mandela. But this is a matter of personal preference, and I
realize that others might not see the matter as I do.
The central figure in any important event or period, honored for
To apply this to Senator John McCain, I think we first might do well
to list a few figures associated with important events or periods in
our country’s history, connecting them to a personal quality that,
one might argue, highlighted their worth as individuals with
something to contribute to that period of time. For example, Thomas
Jefferson comes to mind at once: inventor, scholar, author of the
Declaration of Independence, founder of the University of Virginia,
President of the United States. Abraham Lincoln also suggests
himself: crafter of the Emancipation Proclamation, captain of the
ship of state throughout the Civil War. Franklin Delano Roosevelt
stands forward: the man whose wise policies led the United States
out of the Great Depression. Or if we wish to pursue someone
non-political: Florence Nightingale selflessly tending wounded
soldiers during the Crimean War, Rosa Parks refusing to sit at the
back of the bus, James Meredith enrolling as the first African
American student at the University of Mississippi. It seems to me
that these individuals lived at a time when they were needed and
stepped forward with courage to fill that need.
Senator McCain lived as a prisoner during the Vietnam War, and we
will get to that, as I have indicated. Beyond that, he is living
right now through the most important election of our lifetime, and
as such, we can look upon him and examine those qualities he
possesses as a candidate, which we might call heroic.
I don’t mean to offend anyone with what I have to say in this
section of my position paper. I realize that everyone has a
difficult decision to make in voting for our next President, but I
have been watching this campaign rather closely since January, and
if there have been sweeping moments of heroism in it, I do not
believe they have come from John McCain. Here, instead, are a few
highlights of what I’ve seen:
Contempt for women. In an act of contempt for all women of
intelligence in this country, who had devoted time, energy, and
resources to the campaign of Hillary Clinton, Senator McCain
selected as his running mate Governor Sarah Palin, who not only must
stand exposed as the most unqualified candidate ever to believe
herself capable of a single act of wise, national governance but
also must serve as the very antithesis of everything Hillary Clinton
fought for and believed in. Senator McCain offered Governor Palin to
the electorate, invoking Hillary Clinton’s name, as if with the
expectation that women who supported Senator Clinton would flock to
Governor Palin simply because she is also a woman. This, to me, was
deeply troubling, but what followed was more troubling still:
Contempt for Senator Obama. In an act of contempt for his
opponent Senator Obama, he allowed his running mate and the other
speakers at the Republic National Convention to deride Barack
Obama’s experience as a community organizer, and he carried this
contempt for Senator Obama into his first debate by refusing to look
at him when he himself was being spoken to, despite the deference
that Senator Obama paid to him. He continued to display this
contempt by referring to the Senator as “that one” in the second
debate. He has encouraged the public to think of his opponent as a
terrorist by alluding and allowing his running mate and others to
allude to a community committee upon which Senator Obama once served
with a tenured university professor who, in his youth, was a member
of a group called the Weather Underground, this membership occurring
when Senator Obama was himself only eight years old.
Hate mongering. In openly connecting Senator Obama to the
idea of terrorism through the mentioning of this same committee upon
which Senator Obama once served, Senator McCain and his running mate
have encouraged cries of “He’s a terrorist!” and “Kill him!” in
their public appearances. These cries I have heard myself on
national television, much to my horror.
Cynicism. In a cynical act of theatre, Senator McCain
“suspended his campaign” in order to fly to Washington during the
preliminary days of our current economic crisis, while all the time
not one of his campaign offices closed, 1300 television commercials
were shown, and his running mate continued her appearances and
continued to request a media presence to cover those appearances.
Since that time, he has made much of this suspension of his
campaign, and perhaps he has done so to deflect attention from what
Senator Obama himself did, which was to meet with a team of his own
economic advisers plus the economic advisers of President Clinton
not only to gain an understanding of the situation but also to work
on potential solutions.
I suppose these acts of Senator McCain’s may be deemed courageous. I
suppose you might argue that they come from a man of quality. But I
have not been able to see them that way. No matter how I’ve looked
at them, I simply have not been able to see them as something akin
the actions of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Thomas
Jefferson, or any national figure to whom we generally have applied
the word heroic.
Any man honored for his courage, abilities, or exploits,
especially in war.
Here we come to the crux of the matter, perhaps the real reason that
John McCain is so persistently referred to as a hero. But I submit
to you that surviving as a prisoner of war is just that: an act of
survival, not an act of heroism. And I believe that the reason John
McCain does not refer to himself as a hero in this matter is very
simple: He knows that he is not a hero. He knows that he is merely a
You may recoil at this. You may hurl the question, “How would you
have liked it as a prisoner of war?” And I would answer quite
frankly with the admission that I likely wouldn’t have survived the
experience at all, and I most definitely would have told my captors
every single thing I knew within the first five minutes of my
capture. Indeed, I would have made up things if I’d been tortured.
And I very likely would have done exactly what Senator John McCain
himself did: tell his captors at once who his father was—one of the
commanding generals of the war—in the desperate hope of staying
Frankly, there is no sin in the fact that John McCain did this. But
there is also no heroism involved, either. For there is an essential
difference between an act of survival and an act of heroism.
Survival is about self. Heroism is about others.
My point is this: In this election we must not be beguiled by
language, no matter what the language is. Words are terribly easy to
come by. Actions, in the end, are what we must observe. We take the
measure of a man by what he has done, and this nearly unendurable
election year has afforded us many opportunities to do just that.
Looking back on everything I’ve seen so far in this campaign, there
is something that stands out with startling clarity for me because
of everything it said about the Republican candidate. What stands
out for me is the manner in which Senator McCain encouraged derision
of his opponent’s youthful public service. Working among the housing
projects on the south side of Chicago, Barack Obama attempted among
other things to form coalitions among the churches, to bring a job
center into the area, and to get asbestos removed from the
buildings. And I wonder what it means when a candidate like John
McCain holds public service like this in such contempt that he would
allow his running mate and his supporters to mock it and, through
their mockery, to mock the very people whom the young Barack Obama
was attempting to help.
That sort of behavior makes no sense to me. Scorn of public service
makes no sense to me. But then, Senator McCain and I obviously don’t
see eye-to-eye on this particular matter for I’ve always seen the
Presidency of our country as the ultimate public service job.
- Elizabeth George
Whidbey Island, Washington
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