Hero: any person admired for courage, nobility, or exploits, esp. in war ... any person admired for qualities or achievements and regarded as an ideal or model. -Webster's New World College Dictionary (4th ed. 1999)
A decade ago, I was teaching a law course called "Celebrated American Trials of the 20th Century" at a local university. On a snowy February evening in 2003 the topic for my class of 30 students was the infamous Lindbergh kidnapping case of 1935. Not surprisingly, the topic of heroes came up.
The undue influence that Charles Lindbergh, the blond icon who in 1927 made the first solo flight across the Atlantic, exercised on the investigation, ransom negotiations, and trial of the alleged kidnapper, Bruno Richard Hauptmann, is common knowledge. Time Magazine once called Lindbergh "the [20th] century's first hero" who "unwittingly pioneered the age of mass media celebrity." Journalist H.L. Mencken called the Hauptmann trial "the biggest story since the Resurrection."
To put the Lindbergh and the Hauptmann trial into contemporary perspective, I asked my students to answer the question, "What is a hero?"
Their responses fell into two camps. Roughly half the class subscribed to what I'll call the subjective view: a hero is anyone whom I personally look to as a role model. The other half took an objective approach: a hero must be someone who has acted courageously, perhaps in the face of great personal suffering, sacrifice, or risk. I then turned our talk to whom they would list as living persons meeting their criteria, asking them to first write and hand up names on paper.
Five of my 30 students listed no one no living person lived up to their definition of "hero." An equal number voted for their parents; four listed "Mom" and one named "Dad." Additionally, four others, who cast their ballots close to home, listed a university professor, a local family-court judge, a neighborhood minister, and "my husband," respectively.
The other heroes spanned the spectrum: former GE chairman and CEO Jack Welch and the late Michael Jackson; then-Secretary of State Colin Powell and the late author Kurt Vonnegut; actor Robin Williams and the recently-deceased astronaut Neil Armstrong. Next to "Mom," the only other person to garner more than a single vote was former-president Jimmy Carter, who had a pair of admirers in the class.
Next I asked about historical figures they considered heroic.
The votes for historical heroes were just as scattered: first ladies Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy, and Pat Nixon; musician John Lennon and industrialist Henry Ford; union organizer Cesar Chavez and feminist Jane Addams; Dr. Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine, and Dr. Jack Kavorkian, the euthanasia advocate; Mother Teresa and Jesus Christ. Four students named Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (While my mini-poll was anonymous, I should note that the class included four African-American students.) Only one student didn't name any historical hero.
Nobody named Jack Kennedy. I wasn't surprised 10 years ago, and I won't be surprised to learn today that few of the younger generation realize that November 2013 will mark the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination. Kennedy holds little luster for the Millennials.
You ask, "Who are this old man's heroes?" I'd have to include America's greatest trial lawyer, Clarence Darrow, best remembered for the Scopes Monkey Trial, which inspired the Broadway play and two movie versions of "Inherit the Wind." Despite all his faults and sexual escapades, Kennedy retains a warm spot in my heart; his speeches articulated for my generation the idealism that characterized what was best about the Sixties, when I was young.
Contemporaneously, my hat is off to the young men and women who served two and three tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq during the decade since I took my little classroom poll. I especially admire the ones who suffered wounds in those "Wars on Terror." That the real reason for invading Iraq in '03, the year of my student poll, may have been oil takes nothing away from their heroic performances there.
And how about Obama and Romney? Although I unabashedly favor the former over the latter in the looming election, my jury is still out as to whether either man has the makings of a hero.
One of my favorite movies, "Imaginary Heroes," has a great quote: "One of two things happens when you meet your heroes. Either they're [jerks], or they're just like you. Either way you always lose."
I think that's especially true today, when most of us know more about our would-be heroes than we'd ever really care to know and we don't even need to meet them. Through social media over-sharing, paparazzi photos, and journalism ranging from one-on-one interviews to tabloid fodder, I imagine more than a few childhood heroes have lost their luster.
Take Kristen Stewart, one half of the "Twilight" franchise's most fanatically beloved couple. I'm not saying she or Bella, the vacuous, vampire-obsessed character she plays in the movies is a good hero, but that's another thing altogether. The fact is that millions of tweens throughout the western world revere Stewart, not to mention her real-life relationship with her co-star, Robert Pattinson. Kids look up to her (just ask my mom, an elementary school teacher), and no matter how many times she insists she's not a role model, it doesn't change the fact that she is many kids' idea of a hero.
Not too long ago, though, a lucky paparazzo happened to be hiding in the bushes nearby while Kristen Stewart canoodled with Rupert Sanders, the (married with two kids) director of Stewart's last film. By the next morning the photos were in Us Weekly and all corners of the Internet, and a million tween hearts were broken, devastated at having witnessed the very public collapse of a meticulously constructed image.
It might seem like a silly example, but some facts remain: we live in an information age, we do not live in an age of discretion, and our heroes are more fallible than ever before.
Maybe that's a good thing. I don't know. I do know that celebrities were questionable heroes to begin with, and they now have a multitude of avenues to show off their true colors, often at their own misguided hands. There's the Greek triple jumper, Voula Papachristou, who wrote the racist tweets that got her kicked off the Greek Olympic team this year. Athlete Michael Beasley famously tweeted pictures of himself with a baggy of marijuana in the background. And who could forget the time Anthony Weiner accidentally tweeted a picture of his nether regions to the entire world?
Maybe these people aren't your heroes, but take a tour around the Internet and I bet you'll find some unsavory, or at least human, tidbit about any mildly famous person alive today. I myself was quite taken aback to discover that Clint Eastwood, a hero of sorts of mine, is publicly endorsing Mitt Romney for president. Frankly, I would have preferred to continue thinking of him in the image I'd projected: a leather-skinned guy who makes movies I love and looks an awful lot like my grandfather. In my fantasy, he's gruff but kindhearted; he donates his money to good causes and supports all the same things I do. The reality is, obviously, somewhat different.
The only difference between the heroes of yesteryear and the heroes of the new millennium is access to information. In a way, we all have the chance to "meet" our heroes, and the movie had it exactly right: they're not superhuman, and they're not perfect. We only hoped they were.