A popular song recently conjured up "hero" questions for the Democratic presidential candidates. Vice President Al Gore's list: Abe Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. For former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley, it is Mikhail Gorbachev, Jimmy Carter and Woodrow Wilson. Fascinating.
Those short lists tell a lot about the men who offered them. And that sets me to thinking about my own heroes and the qualities of character, personality and achievement that I admire.
Sweetness of spirit is something I look for in a hero or even a friend, and I mourn the recent passing of a giant on the gridiron who embodied that quality. Walter Payton will be missed for what he gave of himself but especially for the way in which he gave it, both on and off the field. Sweetness personified.
I'll talk to my youngest son, Christian, about spiritual sweetness when the time comes for us to discuss the sort of heroes who do not run around in capes. Rachel, my eldest, and Justin, the middle child, are adults now, and I wonder which three heroes they might have chosen and whom I would recommend to them.
Do such choices depend upon our moods or troubles or opportunities? Or can we calculate a definition to certify an authentic hero? Hmmm. Hero: A legendary figure, often of divine descent possessed of great strength or ability; one whose achievements are noble, a person of courage, character or principles. By that definition, Jesus Christ heads my list. My family's, too.
Throughout history, and in particular during times of danger or strife, military figures have been called heroes, including a few women. Don John of Austria is one, Joan of Arc another. Gens. Patton and MacArthur, not to mention Robert E. Lee and U.S. Grant. Momentous events produce heroes. Consider the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. reminding us of our better angels and Martin Luther caught between indignation and intemperance or Charles Martel standing immovable against the invader. We long have needed such heroes, and though they can be a pain in the neck -- and even dead wrong -- we still do.
We also need our heroes of the soul, our Mother Teresas and Emily Dickinsons, our Malcolm Muggeridges and G.K. Chestertons. And remember the prophets.
In politics, where the mere image can seem more practical since it requires no commitment of the heart, one expects the kind of convenient litany we heard from the superficial Gore and the politically correct Bradley. Do you suppose they had a focus group pick those names for them, or a pollster? Runners-up probably included Mahatma Gandhi, Malcolm X and the Beatles, not to mention New Age gurus.
Yet the generation of my parents, and of the parents of Gore and Bradley, had plenty of heroes. Somehow ours, though we live in dramatic times, doesn't seem to have reserves to call upon. …