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A Dearth Of Heroes
October 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 6
There are, indeed, all sorts of paradoxicalities in our requirements for the heroic role. The hero, as we have said, must be strong, though never a “strong man.” He must be willing to lead, but a claim to infallibility, even to those who cry out for the father figure, is offensive. Ina time of great crisis, there is always the demand for immediate and decisive action and for total solution, but history shows that our greatest heroes have given the impression not so much of putting into effect a preconceived and infallible program of total solution, but of working something out, painfully and with not infrequent setbacks. The military careers of both Washington and Grant, for instance, had something of the air of self-education conducted in public. The notion that Lincoln was a repository of divine wisdom would have appalled the critics of his war policies or the abolitionists. It was a notion that took root in the popular mind only after he was safely tucked away -victorious and dead. Franklin Delano Roosevelt knew the art of combining long-range confidence (“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”) with a willingness to accept the method of trial and error. And he could politically afford error because of two things: he could convince the electorate of the steadfastness of his principles and the worth of his objectives and could, while trying to realize those objectives, give the electorate, by the potent device of the Fireside Chat, the impression that the process of trial and error was one in which they, somehow, were significantly participating.
Our hero must, as we have said, give the impression of power without any claim to infallibility and must wear power with humility. But the humility, too, must be of a special order: it must be associated with power, but the power must appear as an instrument of the common good. There is something of a contradiction implicit here. The power must, on the one hand, be really the hero’s —otherwise he would not be a hero; but, on the other, he must not admit to being more than an instrument. Logically, this would land us in the notion that the hero is a force making history, creating events, and at the same time a mere by-product of history; but the folk mind—or, in the end, any individual mind-- can entertain simultaneously both propositions, each one representing a profound and compelling need. That is enough, and logic be damned. The contradiction, indeed, is absorbed into experience and restated: the hero must be powerful enough to protect his people, but the power thus exercised is depersonalized and becomes a creation, as it were, of the need and the will of the people. This is the mystery of democracy.
The mystery is even more potent when the hero dies for his people —his death being the ritual by which the man is totally absorbed into the role. As a matter of fact, though our hero is often hailed in the flesh, we may paraphrase for him what was once said of the Indian: the only really good hero is a dead one. The hero dead is safe, more or less, from envy and detraction, and if while living he had the heroic virtues, the distance of death, removing small blemishes and complicating factors, works to stylize the virtues, to give them a hieratic simplicity. These somewhat negative values of death are transmuted into overwhelmingly positive ones when the death has the aura of sacrifice. Lincoln is, of course, the perfect example, but the cases of Garfield and McKinley are more instructive; for, as is generally agreed, neither had much claim to the heroic role beyond a talent for getting in the way of a bullet. As for John F. Kennedy, time has not yet fixed his place on the scale of our martyred Presidents; we do not know what slot he will occupy in the considerable space between Lincoln at the top and Garfield and McKinley competing for the bottom. In the end he may well be closer to those heroesby-accident than to the Olympian Father Abraham. At least in the case of Kennedy (and that of his brother), the martyrdom saved him from the need to face up, with money on the card, to the major crises in which he was involved, and the aura of heroism he carried depended more on expectations for the future than on the hard facts of the past.
But in reference to our general question, the assassin’s bullet is not specifically required for martyrdom. Undoubtedly, the fact that Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in office, ironically at the moment when victory loomed near, gave something of an impression of martyrdom; and it may help to consolidate his claims to heroic stature. He died in the line of duty, with his boots on, for his country. For his country—and that, it would seem, is the prime requirement, whether the hero is statesman, warrior, explorer, inventor, or whatnot. The hero must “serve” his people.