Our need for heroes, flaws and all

Michael Phelps smokes pot. A-Rod took steroids. What’s next? Will US Airways Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger get busted too?

Americans love to put their heroes on pedestals almost as much as they enjoy tearing them down. We trot out the outrage when they’re disgraced. We wring our hands over what it’ll do to the poor kids who look up to them. But if, as the ancient Greeks said, people are known by the heroes they crown, then Americans’ penchant for exalting and denouncing says a whole lot about us as a country.

The truth is that we are deeply conflicted about the idea of heroes. Men and women who are larger than life attract and repel us. On the one hand, our deeply ingrained egalitarianism makes us bridle at the notion that anyone is demonstrably better than everyone else. On the other, our patrimony -- life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, not to mention constant change -- is abstract and ephemeral; it’s difficult to grab hold of. Other nations and their citizens get to define themselves as unchanging through the generations; we seek continuity and meaning in symbols, from the founders to apple pie.

In the 19th century, Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of State, William H. Seward, liked to tell a story about a man after the American Revolution who insisted on planting a Liberty pole -- a kind of flagstaff erected as a symbol of protest against British tyranny -- in his village. When the man’s neighbors asked why he still needed one and whether he wasn’t already free enough, he’d respond, “What is liberty without a pole?”

We don’t exactly have Liberty poles anymore (although we run the Stars and Stripes up flagstaffs at every opportunity). Mostly, we choose human talismans of skill and achievement that symbolize who we want to be -- the indispensable nation -- and where we hope we’re heading as individuals: to the top of the heap.


Phelps gained fame by winning gold medals for the U.S. at the Beijing Olympics in a frenzy of near perfection. Alex Rodriguez, admired for his excellence as a player, was supposed to help clean up America’s pastime in the wake of the Barry Bonds steroids scandal.

When tens of thousands of football fans applauded Sullenberger at this year’s Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla., they were congratulating themselves as much they were the cool, heroic pilot and his crew.

“Hero-worship answers an urgent American need,” wrote historian Dixon Wecter in 1941. “The fan and the autograph hunter, now imitated elsewhere, are as native to the United States as the catbird and the Catawba grape. To fix our relation with greatness by means of a signature in an album, a lock of hair, a photograph or a baseball that has scored a home run; to haunt stage doors and entries to locker rooms; to pursue our favorites with candid cameras and sound recorders, invading their meditations and their honeymoons -- this passion has made us the premier nation of hero-worshipers.”

Athletes, activists, warriors, actors, jurists -- as long as they vindicate our belief that anything is possible in these here United States, they’re hero material.

Surprisingly, given how much calumny is heaped on their heads, no one grabs us more than national political leaders. Since 1948, when the Gallup Poll began asking Americans whom they most admire, there have been only a few times when the sitting president was not at the top of the list. In December’s poll, even President Bush placed second (OK, a distant second) to then-President-elect Barack Obama.

For any brand of hero, humble beginnings are good; overcoming hardship and tragedy even better. Not only does that bolster faith in the American dream, it helps us believe that, under the right circumstances, we could be just as good as our heroes. Still, there’s nothing like the fall of the great ones to rouse our other fundamental faith: that all men are created equal. This faith allows anyone to rise to greatness in our republic, but it also, as Alexis de Tocqueville saw as far back as the 19th century, “leads the weak to want to drag the strong down to their level.”

Which brings me back to Phelps and Rodriguez. Despite all the griping about the mistakes these two made, their flaws fit perfectly into our national ethos. For all our admiration for the high and mighty, we’re equally suspicious of their power and success. In Wecter’s words: “American knees are not supple. So long as the hero is still alive, the Bronx cheer will never fail to reach his ears.”

We tell ourselves, our heroes are weak and flawed and human, just like the rest of us.