Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

For Want of a Hero

Each generation laments its lack of political heroes. But crises inevitably produce greatness. It that possible now?

July 26, 1998|Sean Wilentz | Sean Wilentz is a professor of American history at Princeton University

PRINCETON, N.J. — A trip to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's home at Hyde Park, N.Y., stirs both pride and puzzlement. The pride comes in feeling some contact with an American who endured debilitating hardship and then stirred himself--and the nation--to perform extraordinary feats. The puzzlement comes in two forms. Though Roosevelt was, by any definition, to the manor born, his residence (like the museum nearby built in his honor) seems remarkably unpretentious, a real house in which real people actually lived. In one corner of the heavily draped living room is the table at which Roosevelt noodled around with his stamp collection; the guest quarters and Roosevelt's bedroom are tasteful in the Victorian manner but hardly sumptuous: In all, this is the residence of a confidently homey country squire. Compared with any number of robber barons' mansions and presidential library sites--from the Vanderbilt estate down the road in Hyde Park to the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley--Roosevelt's place is downright simple, and these days that comes as a surprise.

The second puzzlement has to do, paradoxically, with Roosevelt's genuinely heroic image amid the lack of imperial grandeur. All around, in the clutter of old Navy prints and family bric-a-brac, there are silent reminders of the adversities he overcame, none more poignant than a pair of empty wheelchairs. There are reminders of his great accomplishments amid the Great Depression and World War II: drafts of major speeches, letters from poor but encouraged ordinary citizens, an exhibit reconstructing the White House's secret war room.

There are reminders of other larger-than-life characters, ranging from Eleanor Roosevelt (who gets a room of her own at the museum) to Winston Churchill to Josef Stalin, for good and for evil, an impressive group. There is only one jarring intrusion of contemporary life: a photograph commemorating President Bill Clinton's summit with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin at Hyde Park in 1995. Coiffed, tailored and puffed up as both men are, they look like pygmies beside the departed greats.

Where are the public heroes of yesteryear? The question has haunted succeeding generations of Americans. Among those who came of age around the year 1800, there was palpable anxiety about their inability to live up to the example of their fathers, who had won the Revolution and ratified the U.S. Constitution. At the end of the 19th century, the sons and daughters of the Civil War generation faced similar fears of an impending decline into complacency and enervation. Today, Americans under 50 look back at their parents and the rest of the heroic cohort that battled the Depression, defeated fascism, secured civil rights--"the civic generation," as the political theorist Robert D. Putnam calls it--and we start to worry about ourselves.

Yes, we have produced film stars and rock stars and sports stars galore, and paid them handsomely in money and adulation. Our generation can honestly boast of advancing cultural revolutions that have widened opportunities for women and minorities. But, so far, our poll-driven, television-obsessed public leaders--Clinton, Al Gore, Dan Quayle, Newt Gingrich--have appeared less than heroic and more than a bit craven. It's as if the creepy self-promoters of our high-school days--the cunning but oh-so-earnest class presidents, the charming, unserious rich kids, the stolid, careerist resume-builders--have seized state power. Has the dazzle of mere celebrity finally overtaken more rugged and inspiring public virtues? Have our public leaders become spiritually timid and lackluster? Has the capacity for bold leadership--what Quayle's mentor, George Bush, cynically called "the vision thing"--been purged from public life and monopolized by brilliant capitalist nerds like Bill Gates?

The worries may prove, in time, to be completely misplaced. The generation that followed the Revolution, after all, produced an abundance of public heroes suited to every political persuasion: William Lloyd Garrison and Sojourner Truth, Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun. As the smug excesses of the Gilded Age mounted in the 1880s and 1890s, such figures as Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Eugene V. Debs, W.E.B. Du Bois and Harriot Stanton Blatch were preparing to clamber onto the national stage. It is possible that their like will turn up again in the years to come, among baby boomers or Gen-Xers.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|