Who are our heroes in public life?

With both major political party conventions now concluded and the presidential race in full swing, I find myself asking, who are our genuine heroes in public life today?

Two weeks ago I wrote that I recently discovered the works of renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell. In the fascinating PBS series of televised interviews that Campbell did with Bill Moyers (“The Power of Myth,” first aired in 1988), Campbell described the role of the hero in the stories we read and tell:

Even in popular novels, the main character is a hero or heroine who has found or done something beyond the normal range of achievement and experience. A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.

I’ve been a political junkie since I was a teenager. I also happen to think that a lot of good people can be found in public service. But as I consider our prominent political leaders, including the presidential nominees, I lament the paucity of transcendent heroes that Campbell describes.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh. After all, the heroes of our stories have the supreme advantage of being viewed through a hazy, rose-colored, and sometimes fictitious lens. What flesh-and-blood human being can match up to a myth?

Beltway realities

Nevertheless, it’s easy to despair as we view the current scene in the nation’s capital. Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times, reviewing Bob Woodward’s new book (The Price of Politics), captures it this way (link here):

As a plethora of election-year polls and surveys indicate, Americans are fed up with a deeply dysfunctional Washington paralyzed by partisan gridlock and increasingly incapable of dealing with the daunting problems facing the nation: a White House plagued by infighting, disorganization and inconsistent leadership; a Republican Party bent on obstruction and increasingly beholden to its insurgent right wing; and a Congress riven by party rivalries, intraparty power struggles, petty turf wars and an inability to focus on long-term solutions instead of temporary Band-Aids.

Kennedy and Lincoln

In view of the present Washington morass, we naturally yearn for something different. And for many born in the 20th century, John F. Kennedy stands as the fallen hero of our times. But despite Kennedy’s many compelling qualities, the tragedy of his death is in what he might have been, not necessarily in his brief accomplishments before he was assassinated. In fact, JFK’s Camelot was the posthumous invention of Jacqueline Kennedy, who created his legacy from the lyrics of one of his favorite musicals: Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot. With the help of Kennedy hagiographers, it would become so.

Rather, I regard Abraham Lincoln as the kind of leader we need.  To me, he represents the iconic mythological American political hero, as characterized by Joseph Campbell. Lincoln’s life story, chapters of which remain shrouded in mystery despite dozens of well-researched biographies, embraces the ideal of the tragic hero — a man who overcame poverty, loss, and personal demons, only to give his life to something much bigger than himself.

Lincoln was a complicated man. He was idealistic and pragmatic. Some regarded him as a naive, but actually he was very shrewd. He also possessed a great sense of empathy, yet he could order men to their deaths. Though hailed as the “Great Emancipator” of the black slaves, some of his views on race would be considered very objectionable today. He believed in the ideals of democratic government, yet he justified war-time restrictions on civil liberties as a means of saving it.

During the Civil War, Lincoln was burdened by a difficult marriage and the death of a beloved young son, and he struggled with what now would be diagnosed as clinical depression. The weight of the world — or at least of the nation — rested upon his shoulders. Ultimately he emerged triumphant after a terrible war, only to be killed by a Southern partisan.

Worthy of study and emulation

I get why figures like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton mean so much to so many people. And I understand why Ronald Reagan is so beloved by conservatives.

However, in searching for the qualities of wisdom, compassion, resilience, and courage that we need today, I keep returning to Abraham Lincoln as a singular figure worthy of study and emulation.

I admit that Lincoln does a number on me. The more I read about him, the more I sense that — if time travel was possible — he could walk onto virtually any stage and be that rare, selfless, transcendent leader. When I look into the sad, kind, and knowing eyes of his photographs, I see a wisdom that crosses the ages. It is downright chilling to me.


For more about Abraham Lincoln

The most well-regarded one-volume Lincoln biography (among many quality treatments) is David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (1995).


Lincoln photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

5 responses

  1. This article reminds me of Kahlil Gibran’s words from “The Prophet”: “Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.” Which led me to think again of psychopathy vs empathy, and all the other dichotomies and false dichotomies we encounter in this life, the trichotomies and possibilities of holism. All of that becomes very confusing, but I find this this video useful in trying to sort it all out.

  2. David,

    I totally identify with every single thing you said. I’ve also read several books on Lincoln. He’s my hero!

    In one book I read, it said that the young Lincoln was sarcastic and critical. He would write punishing letters to the editor of the newspaper regarding people he didn’t like (and he was a good writer). At some point, Lincoln had a change of heart and decided to become a kinder person.

    After that, he became a popular raconteur, entertaining friends and acquaintances with his humorous stories. It’s nice to know that he laughed at least some of the time.

    Lincoln was flawed and made a lot of mistakes, before becoming president, as well as after becoming president. Nonetheless, what I admire about him is that he was always striving to become a better person and to do the right thing. In the end, he achieved what needed to be done for the country and he had become the great person he was destined to be and then he died. It’s a classic story of heroic triumph.

    We could really use that kind of leadership right now. We need somebody who will put it all on the line, somebody who will look past politics, past party dogma, past petty posturing, to what is honest and true. We need somebody who has compassion and empathy for the human condition. We need a leader who cares about people, freedom, and creating the kind of country that represents the best of humanity.

    If Lincoln, or a person of his ilk, were to appear on the national scene, would either party, the media, or the American people welcome or ridicule that person? Are we worthy of such a leader? I hope so. It feels like time is running out.

    • I think that Lincoln’s own struggles and personal demons contributed significantly to his sense of humanity. Alas, I don’t see such an individual being able to rise to the top of our current political system!

  3. Sad to say, I agree.

    If things get really bad, the country will be desperate for leadership. At that point, I hope the right person steps up and is recognized and supported. Desperate people tend to blame each other, surrender their rights for a bit of security, and follow anybody who convincingly promises something better.

    I agree with you – we really need Lincoln-like leadership.

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