Heroes—A Respite from Today’s Politics

Lawrence W. Reed

Ronald Reagan was a consummate class act in his public career as an actor and then as a governor and president, so much so that he might not recognize what passes as “discourse” in this year’s election. But something he said in 1977 seems more apt now than it did 40 years ago: “Politics is supposed to be the second oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first.”

We, the American people, need more than a break from the nastiest, least-substantive presidential election in memory. We need a moral and spiritual lift. We need to feel good again, if even for a few moments, if we’re ever to regain confidence in either our political system or in humanity itself. Theoretical or ivory-tower moralizing probably won’t cut it. We need to be inspired by the words and deeds of real people whose lives are worth celebrating, whose examples are inherently inspirational.

Maybe we’ve allowed ourselves to be lured away from those bedrock values by the loud and flamboyant, the ephemeral and superficial.

In my new book, Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character and Conviction, I profile dozens of such men and women, from Marcus Tullius Cicero of ancient Rome to Anne Hutchinson of colonial New England to major league baseball star Roberto Clemente. Each one rose above circumstance to display admirable qualities, proving that one man or one woman can make the world a better place by speaking truth to power, adhering to sound principles against the winds of prevailing custom, or by simply being a good person who takes charge of his life and offers a sterling example to others.

Real Heroes

In the First Century B.C., Cicero defended the old Roman republic as its core values were being undermined by a growing welfare-warfare state. He spurned opportunities for great personal power and denounced demagogues like Julius Caesar and Mark Antony who sought to snuff out personal liberties and constitutional government. He paid for his principles with his life but bequeathed the world a treasure trove of insightful speeches and letters. Nearly two millennia after Cicero challenged the authoritarians of his day, U.S. President John Adams proclaimed that “All the ages of the world have not produced a greater statesman and philosopher” than him.

As America’s first feminist, Anne Hutchinson rocked the despotic, 17th Century theocracy of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. She organized public discussion groups that criticized both political and religious leaders for their errors and intolerance. That earned her a conviction in court, excommunication from her church and banishment from the Colony but it planted seeds of liberty that would help form a new nation a century later.

Roberto Clemente, major league baseball’s first black Latino superstar, played for the Pittsburgh Pirates for 18 seasons that included two World Series championships (in 1960 and 1971). Along the way, he fought racial discrimination. He devoted much of his spare time to teaching baseball to young, poor boys in his native Puerto Rico. To help relieve the suffering of Nicaraguans after the devastating 1972 earthquake, he donated planeloads of supplies and, sadly, went down with one of them in the Caribbean. He’s still loved today by millions who remember him as a great athlete and a fine man, all around.

A Forgotten Tradition of Heroism

Great movements, countries, moments and achievements are marked by heroic individuals. Their heroism appears in many forms and is not unique to any sex, race, region or occupation. If we lack heroes today in our political life, perhaps it’s because we no longer celebrate as we once did the values that make a hero—values like uncompromising honesty, boundless courage, unflinching responsibility, uncommon vision, steadfast self-discipline and compassion that springs from one’s own heart rather than from another person’s wallet.

America is a country with a history of heroes but at times it seems that we’ve forgotten more than we’re producing.

Maybe we’ve allowed ourselves to be lured away from those bedrock values by the loud and flamboyant, the ephemeral and superficial. We seem more interested in the here-and-now and “what’s in it for me” than either the right or the eternal.

No matter where you may be on the political spectrum—liberal, conservative, libertarian or something else—you probably say that you want men and women in government to be honest, humble, fair, wise, independent, responsible, incorruptible, mindful of the future and respectful of others. But those things are often in direct conflict with the sort of concentration of power and money that attracts the corruptible and the already-corrupted.

Genuinely good people are increasingly turned off by a massive political apparatus that rewards or excuses corruption. Unless you enjoy rolling in the mud with the hogs, you stay on the other side of the fence. So the rest of us end up not with a choice amongst heroes, but with a choice amongst bums.

America is a country with a history of heroes but at times it seems that we’ve forgotten more than we’re producing.

Who remembers Fanny Crosby, perhaps the most revered woman in the land barely a century ago? Despite life-long, total blindness, she wrote more hymns than any person ever. She was so sought after for her character that she met and conversed with an astounding 21 U.S. Presidents.

Or how about Andrew Mellon, the third wealthiest entrepreneur in America who later served as U.S. Treasury Secretary for more than a decade under three presidents? He would likely be dismissed by our current president as a greedy one-percenter who “didn’t build that.” Mellon’s greatest contribution to the country was neither the great wealth he created nor the immense wealth he gave away (including the funds and the paintings that originated the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.), but the vast wealth his tax and debt reductions allowed other Americans to produce.

Early in the period of tyranny and all-powerful emperors, the great Roman historian Livy lamented the decline of heroic values that once spawned and sustained the Roman republic. “Rome is at the dark dawning of an age,” he wrote, in which we can neither endure our vices nor face the remedies needed to cure them.” Recovering the greatness of Rome, Livy believed, required an understanding of history and its heroes. “At least,” he offered, “it can remind us of what we once were and show us the depths to which we are now sinking.”

And that’s as true today as it was 2,000 years ago.

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