Chapter 1

We Call Them Heroes

Recall these heroes.

In the ancient world, the demigod Achilles, angered by the loss of his mistress, quits the Greek fight against the Trojans. Relenting only when his dearest friend is slain, the warrior vengefully defeats the enemy leader, Hector, in single combat. As Achilles too prepares to die, he brings the Greeks to the eve of their epic victory and is eternally remembered as the hero of the Trojan War.

Three millennia after Troy falls, a new war begins in a new world.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, international terrorists hijack four U.S. airliners loaded with fuel for cross-continental trips. They crash two of the aircraft into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and a third into the Pentagon in Washington. When the hijackers meet resistance on the fourth plane, apparently headed for the Capitol or the White House, it crashes in rural Pennsylvania. All passengers and crew members die.

Explosions, fires at temperatures of 2000° F., and collapse of the targeted buildings follow. In New York, within two hours, both of the World Trade Center towers fall, each of their 110 stories sinking one after another onto the floors beneath. Five other buildings are wrecked by the end of the day. One side of the Pentagon, the world's largest office building, is destroyed.  Three thousand people die, most incinerated into unrecoverable ashes in monumental buildings transformed into twenty-first century crematoria. The toll is the greatest one-day loss of lives through violence on American soil since the bloody Civil War battle of Antietam. 

These horrific events engendered national recognition of a panoply of heroes.[1] Individuals displayed altruism and bravery in many ways. Doomed airline passengers and office workers sent phone and e-mail messages, conveying their love to their families. Tens of thousands evacuated office buildings without panic or selfishness. One man perished at the World Trade Center because he would not leave his paraplegic co-worker to die alone. Another group of office workers carried a disabled clerk and her wheelchair down sixty flights of stairs. Executives stayed behind to direct their employees to safety and perished in the engulfing fires.

Volunteers rushed to the disaster areas, dug into the rubble to seek victims even as tons of falling debris threatened their lives. Others offered their homes to displaced local residents, prepared meals for rescue workers, even played music to hearten the rescuers. Across the nation, and throughout the world, millions of people prayed, sent financial contributions totaling over a billion and a half dollars, and donated more blood than could be stored in hospitals.

Among the passengers on board the doomed aircraft, only those on United #93 learned, through cell phone conversations, of the fate that awaited them.  Three of these passengers exhibited particularly audacious courage: "If they're going to run this into the ground we're going to have to do something. We're going to rush the hijackers," they told their families.[2] In the ensuing struggle they succeeded in diverting the plane, assuring their own deaths but preventing a fourth deliberate crash.

At the crash sites, bravery combined with duty. Policemen and medical professionals attempted to do the work of government  -- to provide protection and health care for citizens. Teachers calmly led their pupils to safety amid the din, the terror and air thick with ash. As thousands of brokers and clerks fled down hundreds of stairs and survived, firefighters sped past them into the inferno, in attempts to control the conflagrations and lead survivors to safety. "They walked into buildings where they did not work, and restaurants where they could not afford to eat, to save people who might have looked down on them."[3] In New York, 343 firefighters perished, most of their bodies unrecovered and without formal burial.

Another government worker, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, served as both an effective administrator and a gentle priest during the crisis. Although his own life was endangered in the collapse of the city's emergency headquarters, Giuliani organized a comprehensive response. It included changing subway and highway routes to maintain transportation on the dense island of Manhattan, establishing means to identify and bury thousands of victims, seeking jobs and financial aid for those now without offices, employers, and customers, and winning financial and legislative support from the state and federal governments.

The Mayor would scarcely have seemed equal to the task. While he had succeeded in improving life in New York City, particularly in a dramatic decrease in crime, he had seemed flawed in many ways --overly ambitious, puritanical, and nasty to his opponents.  Yet, in the aftermath of the terrorist attack, even his fiercest critics would praise him ardently: ‘’Anyone, everyone has a powerful need for reassurance right now, and a desire for protection -- protection from despair and nihilism, from terrorized paralysis, from hate and dark fantasies of doomed revenge. Giuliani has provided that reassurance and protection, and the nation is grateful to him.’’[4]

Who Are the Heroes?

We learn about heroism through this ancient tale and from brutal modern reality. They can teach us in particular about democratic politics, the subject of this book. The contrast between the valor of Achilles and that evident on September 11 illuminates the difference between the fabled exploits of “great men” and the quieter courage of model democrats. Heroism in democracy is based on institutions, not personalities. Our modern exemplars underline the central argument of this book: democratic heroes are ordinary men and women who ably perform their institutional responsibilities in times of crisis.

Achilles exemplifies an altogether different kind of hero. He is the conventional archetype of the hero, an extraordinary individual. Indeed, he is the larger-than-life personage for whom the Greeks invented the very word “hero.” As his soldiers looked to Achilles to defeat their enemy, so we often look for champions to protect us and preserve our society.  Our storybooks depict heroes as dramatic figures, while traditional biographies focus on the unique personal characteristics of their subjects. In contemporary politics as well, we search for the charismatic leader who will easily solve the complex problems of modern life.

This conventional view, however, has serious -- and worrisome -- implications for democratic politics. There are very few demigods, few people like Achilles. Relying on such heroes makes human welfare depend on the exceptional intervention, often unreliable and always arbitrary, of these unique individuals. The successful resolution of crises then depends on the chance that extraordinary people will be found to meet them, or on luck, people's ability to achieve an ennobling transformation in critical times.

These implications are particularly serious in a democracy. The basic premise of self-government is that the people themselves have enough character and collective wisdom to choose appropriate leaders and resolve their common problems. But this faith hardly fits a populace that depends on heroes such as Achilles. Rather, reliance on such heroes easily leads to disdain for the staple of democracy, the ordinary citizen.

Bertolt Brecht draws this basic distinction. One of Brecht’s dramatic characters reflects the widespread desire for “noble” exemplars: "Unhappy the land that has no heroes." But another character responds with a more generalized trust in humanity: “Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.”[5]

Democracy cannot wait for demigods; it requires “ordinary heroes,” apparently  undistinguished people, working through the multiple institutions of government, who can do what is necessary in extraordinary moments. These people become heroes not by luck or miraculous metamorphoses. They become heroes by fulfilling their responsibilities as they always have, but in a situation in which their qualities are particularly needed. Heroism is potentially widespread but usually latent, until evoked by external events.

James Madison recognized the limits of heroism when he argued in The Federalist that government must be designed for use by ordinary people: ”It is vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.”[6]

Madison argued that a successful government cannot depend on great men - or great women. Instead, to Madison, a democratic republic requires appropriate institutional arrangements that will curb the evils of factions, promote the selection of wise officials, and transform the conflict of personal ambitions into the common good. Appropriate institutions are needed, in Alexander Hamilton's concurring words, because "the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint."[7]

Madison and Hamilton emphasize institutions, not individuals. But the traditional hero is unconfined by institutions. Indeed, he may be dangerous because he disdains such constraints, as the Greeks themselves recognized in the practice of ostracism, exiling persons who had become overly prominent. Achilles subverts the discipline of the Greek armies, prizing his personal gratification over the success of his comrades. When he returns to battle, he does so only to settle an individual blood grudge, not as a leader of his forces. Even as he glorifies this hero’s name, Homer warns of his rage, “murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses, hurling down to the House of death so many sturdy souls, great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion, feasts for the dogs and birds. . . .  [8]

The brave men and women who responded to the attacks of September 11 are different; they are people of human dimension. But their bravery, in many instances, is also notably distinct from the heroes of governmental institutions we consider in this book. Democracy does not depend on any modern Achilles, and it does not demand that men and women show exceptional bravery. Democracy does require fit representatives, administrators, and activists.

Individual actions after September 11, courageous as they were, could not meet the needs of America in this crisis.[9] Rescue, renewal, and ultimate retaliation required collective action through government. The volunteers were soon sent home, despite their earnest commitment, because they were complicating rescue efforts. The great generosity of charitable contributions was insufficient; government had to provide the enormous financial resources needed -- $55 billion in the first instance -- to finance military responses, clear and rebuild New York, maintain the national air transportation system, and safeguard airports. The public understood this necessity. After decades in which the citizenry regarded the government with cynicism and even scorn, opinion polls showed a vast increase in confidence in all national institutions, this sentiment continuing even a year after the attacks.[10]

The defiant passengers on United #93 certainly merit praise, and are properly seen as exemplars of personal courage.[11]  A secure political life, however, cannot depend either on such individuals or on the improbable chance that they will be available when danger comes. Businessmen or vacationing families cannot be expected to assure security in the skies. Safe air travel requires governmental action, whether through security screening, air marshals, identification and control of terrorists, or more effective law enforcement. In keeping with the thesis of this book, public safety and well-being require democratic heroes, people who regularly and competently do their jobs in government at moments of crisis.

Such democratic heroes did exist in the crisis of September 11. They are exemplified by the professional rescuers at the scene. Their bravery was not only an immediate response, but also their daily occupation. Soon after, engineers in an obscure city bureaucracy, the Department of Design and Construction, took on the massive task of recovery and cleared millions of tons of debris from the site rapidly, under budget, and without a single fatal injury.[12] Mayor Giuliani led these efforts, combining competence and compassion. These are the persons with whom democracy is comfortable, common people who do heroic deeds at moments of crisis, as they meet the ideal prescriptions of their institutional responsibilities.

Though vastly different in social class and background, ordinary heroes use virtually the same words to explain their performance. ”I was just doing my job,” they usually say, emphasizing their institutional responsibilities rather than their personal qualities. Mayor Giuliani, not known for his modesty, expressed this typical sentiment as he directed the response to the World Trade Center attack: "These are extremely strong people. And I just reflect them. . . . I just happen to be here. This is my job and I'll do it."[13]

Their “job” -- whether a self-designated mission or a paid position -- plunges these persons in critical times into situations where they act heroically, but not self-consciously, out of custom, habit, and the regular practice of their vocations. At the World Trade Center, firefighters died "doing what they were trained to do. They were going to a job, and that was it."[14] This fundamental sense of duty is also exemplified by accountants who uncover corruption and by teachers who inspire their halting students to read. Outside of America, children were saved from the Nazi holocaust by nurses and social workers that felt they “had no choice” but to honor the life-affirming tenets of their professions.

It is extremely important to note that heroism, as we use the term in this book, is exemplified only by individuals who are profoundly committed to humanitarian values.  It is wholly different from petty compliance, or simply “obeying orders,” apologies that may  be used to excuse passivity or even to condone evil. Such perversion of true duty is exemplified by subordinates who quiescently accept their superiors’ brutality or corruption and then seek exoneration for “just doing my job.” That wicked excuse was used most catastrophically by the Nazi bureaucrats who submissively carried out their murderous assignments in the Holocaust. To do a job rightly does not mean following its mechanical routines, but meeting its responsibilities. A truly devoted worker will do his or her duties only to the extent these duties don't conflict with basic ethical principles. There must be more than obedience to superiors; there must also be a commitment to fundamental morality and the higher values of the institution's work, such as honesty, legality, and the protection and well being of those in their care. 

Heroes and Institutions

This book is about eight ordinary heroes in American politics. They are illustrative, rather than unique, figures; readers will surely think of other appropriate persons. At a particular time of crisis, these men and women did what they always did, putting the values of their institutions into exemplary practice. In the world of politics, they are the equivalent of Pulitzer Prize winners in journalism, deserving honor for doing their ordinary work in extraordinary circumstances.

The stories of these eight individuals are inspiring in themselves. We will see them display courage, persistence and personal virtue (and yes, sometimes bad judgment), and may take heart from their experience. Just as "Plutarch, the father of biography used it for moral examples: to display the reward of duty performed, the traps of ambition, the fall of arrogance," we may learn similar lessons from modern lives.[15]

The episodes recounted in the following chapters, however, instruct us about more than the virtues of individuals. In reality, these men and women, while decent and honorable, are not storybook heroes. They are a different kind of hero, important because they did their work in the chambers of Congress and in the presidency, as judges and bureaucrats, through political parties, the press, and social movements.

These persons and institutions are joined: the institutions are mirrored in the persons, as the persons' actions in moments of crisis reflect the traits of those institutions. Yet institutions do not achieve their purposes mechanically or inevitably. Political success is uncertain; it depends on real persons who accept the duties and values of their positions. By doing their jobs, the democratic heroes described in this book made the institutions of democracy work.

Our heroes acted not only as good individuals, but also as models of the institutions of American politics. Through example, they teach us how those institutions function, how they structure American government, and how they embody the values of our society. In the later sections of each descriptive chapter, we use their personal stories -- informed with the aid of private interviews -- to explore the individuals' institutions, employing scholarly analyses. Together, these accounts may provide a general guide to American politics, a journey into the democratic process.

This combined examination of heroes and institutions begins with a review of popular conceptions of heroism. To appreciate the contributions of the men and women recounted in this book, the concept of democracy’s “ordinary hero” must be distinguished from many common and diverse usages. That is the task of the next chapter.

In the following chapters, we will present the eight political figures. Some are familiar names, others may be obscure, but all merit attention. Following the order of the Constitution, we will begin with the legislative branch, first Representative Peter Rodino and then Senator Arthur Watkins. Heroism in the executive branch is exemplified by President Harry Truman, and in the judicial branch by federal district judge William Wayne Justice.

American politics now extends beyond the formal institutions originally established by the Constitution. The bureaucracy has become a fourth branch, illustrated by Dr. Frances Kelsey of the Food and Drug Administration. Outside of the halls of government, political parties, the press, and social movements have also become vital parts of the nation's politics. We will examine these institutions through three portraits, arranged in chronological order. We will look at Thurlow Weed, a major figure of the nineteenth century Republican Party; Ida Tarbell, an investigative reporter in the early twentieth century; and Representative John Lewis, in his years as a young leader of the civil rights movement. In conclusion, we will discuss the distinctive qualities and contributions of democratic heroism.


Chapter 1: We Call Them Heroes



[1] A Lexis-Nexis search of major newspapers for the first ten days after the crashes found 438 articles on heroes at the World Trade Center alone.

[2] Passengers Thomas Burnett and Jeremy Glick, quoted by reporters Jodi Wilgoren and Edward Wong, New York Times  (September 13, 2001), p. A1, and "Facing the End," Time (September 24, 2001), p. 68.

[3] Sally Jenkins, "Company of Heroes," Washington Post  (September 20, 2001), p. C01.

[4] Joan Walsh, "Giuliani's Moment," salon.com/news/feature/2001/09/12/giuliani (September 12, 2001).

[5] Bertolt Brecht, Galileo, ed. Eric Bentley (New York: Grove Press, 1966), 13:22.

[6] James Madison, The Federalist, no.10 (New York: Modern Library, 1941), p. 57.

[7]The Federalist, no.15, p. 92.

[8] Homer, The Iliad, tr. Robert Fagles (New York: Penguin, 1990), p. 77.

[9] One emotive example is depicted by James B. Stewart, Heart of a Soldier (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002).

[10] Richard Morin, "United States of Mind," Washington Post, National Edition (October 29, 2001), p. 35; Brian J. Gaines, "Where's he Rally? Approval and Trust of the President, Cabinet, Congress and Government Since September 11," PS, 35 (September, 2002), p. 535. .

[11] See Jere Longman, Among the Heroes (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002).

[12] The inspiring story is told by William Langewiesche, American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2002).

[13] On Larry King Live (Cable News Network, September 18, 2001), Transcript #091800CN.V22. Giuliani presents his own account of the response to the attacks in Leadership (New York: Hyperion, 2002), ch. 16.

[14] Kevin Hannafin, brother of a dead firefighter, quoted by reporter Janny Scott, New York Times (November 14, 2001), p. B10.

[15] Barbara E. Tuchman, "Biography as a Prism of History," in Marc Pachter, ed., Telling Lives: The Biographer's Art  (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981), p. 133.