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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 election.

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 McCain himself.

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 to himself.

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 outstanding qualities.

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 survivor.

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 alive.

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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