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A crash course in fame: Sully vs. Suleman

CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

The heroics of pilot Capt. Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger share the spotlight with Nadya Suleman, mother of octuplets and six more. Talk about strange media bedfellows.

February 13, 2009|MARY McNAMARA | TELEVISION CRITIC

Amid all the applause, Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger III did take a little flak when he backed out of a promise to first appear on NBC's "Today" in favor of CBS' "60 Minutes." The official reason was a request by the pilots association to hold off until the investigation into the water landing of US Airways Flight 1549 progressed, but insiders believed that Sullenberger's publicists had decided that "60 Minutes" was a bigger, better platform. (A book deal is already in the works.)

I say who cares? Whatever the reason, the delay put him smack in the middle of the Nadya Suleman news cycle, resulting in one of the more delicious and startlingly significant televised contrasts in recent history -- Capt. Sully versus octo-mom.

Not only were we served up two of our very favorite cultural icons -- American Hero and Psycho Mother -- but the spate of competing interviews offered a breathtaking look at a generational and zeitgeist gap the likes of which we haven't seen since the Greatest Generation gave birth to the hippies.

As if in consolation for losing Sully, NBC landed the first interview with Suleman and, man, they worked it like taffy, stretching the thing out from "Today" segments on Monday and Tuesday before finally going full bore on "Dateline" Tuesday night.

And why not? They had Ann Curry in full stern-headmistress mode -- I'm thinking they decided at the last moment the wimple really was too much -- acting as surrogate for the millions of Americans who feel outraged by Suleman's decision to have 14 (well, 13, she didn't know about the 14th) children when she has no job, no husband, no money, nothing in fact but the desire to have a bunch of kids. Oh, and lips that look suspiciously like they have been tweaked to resemble Angelina Jolie's.

But Suleman, God bless her, refused to be cowed. Amazingly articulate for a woman who had given birth to multiples less than two weeks before, she answered every charge of selfishness and irresponsibility with a camera-ready smile and the lingua franca of self-esteem, including references to a need for connection, a dysfunctional family and a personal void that could have been directly lifted from any major women's magazine.

If she said the word "choice" once, she said it a hundred times, content in the knowledge that in 21st century America, one is discouraged from judging another's choices. It was as if "The Secret" had been made flesh; she wanted something, she single-mindedly pursued it, she remained positive about it and look -- she achieved her life's dream. Don't judge her.

Indeed, watching Suleman, it was difficult not to consider her circumstance as culturally and industrially inevitable. Given our society's still-relentless message that nothing is more important than parenthood combined with the pursue-your-bliss entitlement and the new fertility technology, it's actually pretty amazing something like this hasn't happened before.

Meanwhile, over at "60 Minutes," Katie Couric was using all her best blinking skills to extricate from Capt. Sullenberger any shred of emo-speak that she could. But Sully was having none of it.

Bright-eyed, lean and completely gray at 58, Sullenberger calmly walked her through the events of Jan. 15, acknowledging that as soon as he smelled "that burned bird smell" and felt the engines change rhythm, he knew he had to take control of the plane.

"How did you do that?" Couric asked softly, no doubt hoping, as any good interviewer would, that it would have something to do with prayer or the memory of a particularly adorable toddler he had seen boarding the plane.

"I put my hand on the side stick and said the protocol for transfer of control," Sullenberger said, explaining that he announced to co-pilot Jeff Skiles that this was now "my aircraft" and Skiles, also following protocol, responded "your aircraft."

And if the hair on the back of your neck didn't stand up while watching this, well, you need to queue up a few more John Wayne movies.

On and on it went, Couric trying to "humanize" the pilot through the now-standardized perp walk of television interviews. Though she mercifully stopped short of the infamous "Did you cry?" she pulled out pretty much everything else. Did you pray? she asked. What were you thinking? Were you afraid?

Over and over Sullenberger answered, friendly but firm, that all of his thoughts, actions and emotions were focused on one thing and one thing alone -- landing the plane. He didn't think of the passengers, he didn't have time to pray, he didn't feel personal fear, he didn't suddenly remember some significant thing his father once told him when he was 7 or that he needed to tell his wife he loved her because, you know, he never said it often enough. He was just trying to do whatever was necessary to: Not. Crash. The Plane.

Which isn't to say Sullenberger is one of those stone-faced guys. Two days later, he was so charming and funny on the "Late Show With David Letterman" that you had to wonder if the real reason he delayed his TV tour was so he and Skiles could work on their material. But even then there was something so simple and steady about him, a reminder of a time when duty trumped desire and self-esteem was something you earned.

In the TV movie version of these events, we would all somehow go back in time and through a plot contrivance have Sullenberger meet Suleman, preferably somewhere between, say, baby 2 and baby 14. With his gentle no-nonsense approach, he would help her keep her wings even, her descent steady and find a smooth, wide surface on which to land. Before things got out of hand.

--

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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