The reticence of heroes, and the nearest political equivalent

If any man aspires to any office, he is sure never to compass it…

— Utopia, St. Thomas More

I was reading something the other day about heroes, and it got me to thinking about politicians. Odd juxtaposition, I realize, but bear with me…

There was a piece in The Wall Street Journal earlier this week about the first soldier since Vietnam to live to receive the Medal of Honor, Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta. It was the first thing I read about him; the column ran the day before the president presented the medal. And the columnist touched upon a common phenomenon we see with REAL heroes, as opposed to those who boast and brag of their exploits:

Not that he’s ready to be called a hero. “I’m not at peace with that at all,” he said on “60 Minutes” Sunday night. “And coming and talking about it and people wanting to shake my hand because of it, it hurts me because it’s not what I want. And to be with so many people doing so much stuff and then to be singled out . . .”

Sgt. Giunta’s words, of course, remind us that he does not need this ceremony. The ceremony is for the rest of us. It reminds us of the sacrifices made so we can sleep easy at night—and of the kind of fighting man our society has produced…

I know of little of war heroism beyond what I’ve read in books, but it’s interesting how often a true heroes’ story features his reluctance, even pain, at being singled out for praise and honor. He did what he did, and he’d do it again. But he really, really doesn’t want civilians who weren’t there making a fuss over him. Part of this is that he didn’t do it for THEM; he did it for his buddies who were there. But part of is a special kind of grace and nobility that few of us know. He didn’t feel heroic when he was doing it, and the memory doesn’t evoke good feelings of any kind. He was just, if you’ll excuse my language, dealing with the shit as well as he could.

He didn’t want the medal; he wanted his friends back.

And this reminds me of another sort of person that our society singles out for special recognition: political officeholders. And I think about how the very best candidate for any position would be a fully qualified person who would have the attitude toward service of a hero — someone who would be conscientious in the job, and do it well, but who wouldn’t want it.

Trouble is, we seldom get an opportunity to choose people like that. Most candidates who have any kind of chance are people who really, REALLY want the job, to an off-putting degree. Thomas More’s notion of people who seek offices being barred from holding them — or at least that’s the way I read Utopia — is indeed the stuff of fantasy.

Once, it was fashionable for candidates for high office to at least let on that they didn’t want it. It was unseemly to pursue overtly the office of, say, president of the United States. I seem to recall from my history that we were well into the latter part of the 19th century before presidential candidates personally went about asking people to vote for them. I wish we could return to such times, but we never will. Voters have grown accustomed to being begged to vote for candidates, and too few of us will even consider a candidate who doesn’t beg and plead and curry and pander harder than the others.

But you know what? On a certain level, Vincent Sheheen was that self-effacing, unassuming, almost reluctant sort of candidate — an accomplished, qualified, able individual who projected an air of being WILLING to serve as governor… but it wouldn’t be the end of the world to him if he lost. If you wanted him in the job, fine, he’d do his best. But if not… well, one got the impression that he was happy to go back to being the senator and small town lawyer and family man that he is.

That impression — a very subjective, hard-to-put-your-finger-on kind of thing, to the point that I never really spelled it out out loud — sort of bugged me during the campaign. I kept wanting him to run HARDER. To get the proverbial fire in the belly.

But in the end, I’d prefer to be governed by the kind of guy who ran the kind of campaign that Vincent did. Which is why I didn’t write a bunch of posts saying, “Run HARDER, Vincent!”

Trouble is, how does a guy like that ever get elected? Of course, he DID come close, so that’s something… Maybe there’s hope…

Yeah, this may seem far afield from the Medal of Honor winner. But my mind wanders like this…

11 thoughts on “The reticence of heroes, and the nearest political equivalent

  1. bud

    He didn’t want the medal; he wanted his friends back.
    -Brad

    That one simple sentence speaks volumes. Of course Staff Sgt. Guinta would prefer his friends back. Yet many of us seem compelled to constantly hark on the heroism of war at the expense of forgetting the horrors of it. I applaud Guinta. He is indeed an American hero. Not just for his physical bravery and loyalty to his friends but for understanding what is important. We should honor Staff Sgt. Guinta by avoiding the decisions that put him in that position in the first place. A monument, holiday or museum to war cannot replace honest, in depth analysis of what we fight for. Sadly it seems all too often we fight simply so that we will have a new generation of soldiers to build monuments and museums for.

    And that is the real tragedy of wars like Iraq. Kudos to Staff Sgt. Giunta for his heroism and his honorable reluctance to accept his place in history. This is a man who serves his country in more ways than one.

  2. Doug Ross

    I expect you’ll be comparing Sheheen the next winner of Nobel Peace Prize, the Heisman trophy, the Oscar for Best Actress, and People’s Sexiest Man Alive.

    Having “fire in the belly” can be a very effective quality in political leaders. Perhaps Mr. Sheheen’s problem was that he knew that he could go back to his $350K job if things didn’t work out. He ran a content-free, low-key campaign with no theme except “I’m not her”

  3. Rose

    I encourage everyone to watch that 60 Minutes interview. He considers himself a mediocre soldier. When the interviewer says “A mediocre soldier who has received the Medal of Honor” Sgt. Giunta responds “Just imagine what the great soldiers are doing.”
    The best of America.

  4. Ralph Hightower

    I agree that Vincent Sheheen would be one that would do his best as governor.

    Dr. Oscar Lovelace is another such person. He saw leadership lacking in the governor’s office in SC Governot Mark Sanford’s first term and decided somebody needed to serve in the governor’s office. If Mark Sanford served anything, it was serving himself and not serving South Carolina.

  5. Brad

    Hangernades?

    Oh, wait — HAND grenades… as in the only two things where just getting close counts. I get it…

    Ralph stimulates an interesting thought, mentioning Oscar Lovelace.

    One reason Dr. Lovelace comes to mind, like Vincent Sheheen, as more the “reluctant hero” kind of political figure is that he, like Vincent, has a life that will be interrupted by service as governor. Dr. Lovelace is a physician; Vincent is a small-town lawyer. Each would have to set that aside in order to serve as governor.

    Meanwhile, neither Mark Sanford (Lovelace’s opponent), nor Nikki Haley had a career of any kind that would be interrupted by running for governor.

    And yet THEY are the ones who decry government and career politicians. Now THAT, boys and girls, is what we call irony.

  6. Kathy

    Excellent post and comment. It would, indeed, be an improvement if elected officials gave up something of value in order to serve instead of milking their positions for all the power and money they can squeeze out. I fear Ms. Haley is already working hard on the latter. Of course, for her that is just a continuation of what she was doing.as a representative. That weak governor thing is looking better and better.

  7. Barry

    @ Ralph – You make a good point.

    I could kick my own butt down the street for not voting for Oscar Lovelace over Mark Sanford. I screwed that one up.

  8. SusanG

    @Kathy
    My hope is that a stronger governor would inspire better people to run for the position.

    Maybe wishful thinking, but that’s my hope.

  9. Kathryn Fenner

    @ SusanG
    The old saw about liberal arts departments: the fighting is so vicious because so little is at stake?

    I fear that if it is more powerful, the worst sort will be attracted to it.

    Vincent Sheheen was an awesome candidate, and would have made an effective governor, and we know how and why that turned out.

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