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The Political Hero in America: His Fate and His Future

ISSUE:  Winter 1970

The choice of qualities of a nation’s heroes is a reliable index to that nation’s health. This is particularly true of political heroes rather than poets or actors or even the first men on the moon. For it is the statesmen who have made an impact on the nation’s political and emotional life, men who have been followed with passionate idolatry and attacked with consuming hatred—heroes of the quality of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt, and men of potential heroic stature like John and Robert Kennedy—who have a continuing vitality in the fantasies of large segments of the American people.

It is commonplace that one man’s hero is often another man’s tyrant, and it is becoming increasingly apparent that the very concept of the hero throughout this troubled and violent century has been so abused and downgraded that in some countries the very idea is suspect. American political heroes of both past and present are in trouble, assaulted openly and from ambush, from the right and from the left, and even from seemingly innocuous and dispassionate professors of history. Actual physical assassination of the political hero, or potential hero, has become so common we have coined a word for it—magnicide—where the killer, usually a neurotic failure, soars to a bloody eminence in history by killing the great. The fashion of assassination in America has changed from the pattern set by John Wilkes Booth—where a young man killed a hero known everywhere as Father Abraham. Lee Harvey Oswald was a younger brother who killed an older brother; Sirhan Sirhan was the next to the youngest brother in a family of sons, who chose to kill the next to the youngest brother in another family of sons. James Earl Ray, the white criminal who killed one of the most influential black heroes in American history, was the same youthful age as his victim.

We have reached a point where no young man with the potential for greatness can campaign without reckoning with the probability of his assassination by another young man. Robert Kennedy, shortly before his death, said, “I can’t plan. Living every day is like Russian roulette.” There are those who say that both John and Robert Kennedy by their careless—perhaps magnificent—contempt for security precautions courted assassination, but this does not lessen the nation’s shock and loss. Martin Luther King twice tried to commit suicide at the age of thirteen, and thus came to terms in early adolescence with the fact of dying. It held no terrors for him thereafter, and once he embraced nonviolent protest as a way of life, becoming, like Gandhi, “the courteous revolutionary,” he lived daily with the threat of death. The Nobel Peace prize proved to be no coat of armor, and one of the most sickening aspects of his assassination is that it came as no real surprise.

As always with the killing of a hero, there were those who took great satisfaction in the deed. Some teenagers in Texas classrooms applauded the news of John Kennedy’s killing, and a poll of seventh to eleventh graders in four Florida schools after Martin Luther King’s assassination showed only 41 per cent of the whites registering shock and regret, 59 per cent admitting to apathy or actual pleasure.

Political assassination is as old as recorded history. In the past it has been an approved method for disposal of tyrants. Sir Richard Francis Burton once described the political systems of the Near East as “despotism tempered by assassination.” In America, where political tyranny is rare but demagoguery is common, we do not assassinate our demagogues, though some would say that Huey Long filled the description even of tyrant. Others would hold that while certainly a demagogue he was also a genuine folk hero at least to the majority in his state.

But in America we do kill, or attempt to kill, our great political heroes. It can be argued that Garfield and McKinley were not heroes, simply presidents, as were Truman and Hoover, who both experienced assassination attempts. But we can hardly forget that an assassin succeeded with Lincoln, and that other first-magnitude presidents—Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt—all narrowly missed death in this fashion. 

I would not hold that we today are collectively guilty for the pathological private hatreds of Oswald, Sirhan, and Ray, but we do condone the use of violence generally and of guns specifically. In any case, the nation must learn how to prevent the sick from destroying the healthy, how to prevent the insane man who is weak in everything but hatred from assassinating the sane man who is strong in everything but simple bodily resistance to a bullet.

The political hero is more than ever essential to the emotional health of the nation. The decline of religion has resulted in what psychoanalyst Erik Erikson at Harvard describes as increasing “charisma hunger.” And the unprecedented ferment of unrest and protest on our campuses, while due to many causes, chiefly the Vietnam War, has probably been accelerated by the still persisting grief and rage at the loss of the three major heroes of the young, and the total failure of Johnson, Humphrey, or Nixon to match their special magic.


If the first major threat to the American political hero is the danger of assassination, a second is general disenchantment about all political leadership. And while this may seem paradoxical, it is frequently the most disenchanted who suffer most intensely from “charisma hunger.” The disenchantment results in part from the rise in the twentieth century the synthetic hero-one created artificially by propaganda and the manipulation of public relations mechanisms. In Europe and Asia these mechanisms have been used with such special success in enhancing the position and power of tyrants that the whole concept of the hero is very nearly in total jeopardy. The youth of Germany before World War II had a whole galaxy of heroes, going all the way back to the mythical Siegfried. Now the very prestige of the word hero is demolished, thanks to disenchantment with Hitler, the supreme demonic hero of all time, who rode to power on a wave of economic discontent, who capitalized on the special re­ sources of hatred that lay latent in his nation (though every nation has its share), and who maintained himself in power by terror, political murder, and finally war. His legacy of evil is so monstrous that many Germans cannot confront it in their imaginations and take refuge in vague denial.

Stalin was no real hero to the Russians till he seized power at Lenin’s death, whereupon he used the resources of the police state to eliminate his enemies—with an eventual total of victims, as Robert Conquest demonstrates in his recent book “The Great Terror,” almost as great as Hitler’s. Stalin simultaneously used the total mechanism of the Soviet bureaucracy to manufacture a spectacular heroic image, an image which was systematically destroyed—under Khrushchev—by virtually the same bureaucracy that had created it. Recent attempts to refurbish the Stalin image, in a kind of synthetic resurrection, have only added to the cynicism of the Russian citizen.

A planned deification process has of course been going on in China for many years. A typical pamphlet, released to almost every Chinese family, calls for five formal “prayers,” which are recitations of Mao’s wisdom, to be repeated with all the emotional commitment of a Moslem prostrate in the direction of Mecca.

Our disenchanted students look not only at the manufacture of these heroes abroad but also at our own special brand of American synthetic hero. California students have seen what was originally a pure public-relations creation—B­-string movie star Ronald “Reegan”—become Ronald Reagan, a law-and-order hero to a majority of the California electorate. Reagan is not lacking in political talent, and has emerged also as a political force menacing the intellectual institutions of his state. Under his administration there has been released an enraged, anti-intellectual police energy that resulted in a single day last spring in Berkeley in one death, one blinding, over a hundred injuries, and 480 arrests, arrests followed by threats, humiliation, and actual physical torture in Santa Rita prison.

There are other kinds of threats to our political heroes besides assassination of them and disenchantment with them, threats which apply particularly not to our contemporary heroes but to the great men of our past. One subtle but pervasive threat consists of widespread distortion and denigration of the true magnitude of a hero to fit contemporary fashions—fashions in bigotry as well as fashions in radicalism. Men and women guilty of this distortion are often biographers and historians.

The distortion of the Lincoln record is a particularly fascinating and disturbing phenomenon. For the past several generations, until about ten years ago when a reaction set in, most American history regarding the Civil War and Reconstruction was written by historians with a pronounced anti­ Negro bias, a bias most of them would have indignantly denied. These historians, some of them born in the North but most of them born in the South, were intent on minimizing the horrors of slavery and pinioning the abolitionists as the true villains who brought on the Civil War. They were also intent on capturing Lincoln for the South. This they did partly by distortion but mostly by omission of materials from the total Lincoln record. They quoted extracts from the Lincoln-Douglas debates, some of them sounding suspiciously racist; they omitted those passages which could be zealously quoted by the most militant of today’s blacks. They wrote history as though it were a legal brief.

What they failed to see in reading the Lincoln-Douglas debates was that Lincoln was not only debating with Douglas but also conducting a kind of inner dialogue with himself, coming to terms with his own ambivalence toward black men and emerging gradually but unequivocally as their champion. The legal brief not only omitted the total theoretical dialogue; more importantly it omitted the consecutive history of Lincoln’s actions. The total Lincoln record contains some vacillation in purpose, some apathy, some doubt about Negro talent, and even some hostility; but it also shows a steady evolution of actiontoward securing for the Negro people ever greater freedom and dignity.

One of the most saddening aspects of the capture of Lincoln by historians of this kind is that their distorted portrait has been widely accepted as valid by today’s militant young blacks. For the first time in American history we have a generation of blacks who are being educated in large numbers, who are going to college and reading history. Many, in an aberration of what is essentially a healthy search for cultural identity, have abandoned all white heroes simply because they are white, choosing instead Malcolm X, who does have truly heroic qualities, and (since but not before his assassination) Martin Luther King. But some young blacks have abandoned Lincoln not because he was white but because they believe in the new mythology that Lincoln was a racist all along. Typical of these is the gifted editor of Ebony Magazine, Lerone Bennett, whose sensational article, “Was Lincoln a White Supremacist,” in the February 1968 issue, accepted and echoed both the mythology and its selective documentation and turned them into an instrument of black historical revisionism.

Bennett judges Lincoln by his own arbitrary standards having to do with civil rights and race in 1968; he does not measure Lincoln against Stephen A. Douglas or Jefferson Davis. To be fair one should measure Lincoln as an anti­slavery theoretician against a pro-slavery theoretician of his own day, such as George Fitzhugh, the talented but brutal essayist for DeBow’s Review who made himself immortal by altering Thomas Jefferson’s famous lines: “Men are not born with saddles on their backs, and others, booted and spurred, to ride them.” Fitzhugh’s version was “Some men are born with saddles on their backs, and others, booted and spurred, to ride them, and the riding does then1 good.”

One can hope that the black abandonment of Lincoln is temporary, and that once the black student is relatively at peace with his own identity he will come back to Lincoln and draw upon his legacy of wisdom and compassion. Perhaps, by then, too, the whites will be embracing his legacy with more than lip service, and all white historians will have come round to reading the Lincoln record as it really happened.


Still another threat to the great heroes of the past, a threat which worries me very little but is of great concern to many historians, comes from the biographer or historian who feels compelled in his pursuit of the truth not to omit, or to dis­ tort, but to tell everything. Until fairly recent times the royal brides and bridegrooms of Europe were not permitted privacy on their marriage night; courtiers watched also the births of young princes, and everyone who could crowd in watched the death throes of the king. Mercifully those days are over. But the problem of whether or not to “describe the marriage night,”—and here I use the phrase symbolically—is still with the biographer. An uncomfortable feeling about being thought a voyeur is no doubt part of what keeps many an historian not only from “total disclosure” but also from even the most legitimate speculation about the private amours of his hero-subject.

Even so sophisticated an historian as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in writing about Franklin Roosevelt, barely hinted at the possibility that Roosevelt had at one time had a love affair, and had even contemplated divorce. Because the woman was a Catholic and because Roosevelt had serious political ambition; Schlesinger indicates, he put her out of his mind and apparently out of his life.

Recently, now that the woman in question is dead, much more of this story has emerged. We know her name, Lucy Mercer; we know, moreover, that she was with Roosevelt in Warm Springs, Georgia, when he died, and that Mrs. Roosevelt went to anguished lengths to keep the fact secret. This story does nothing to alter Roosevelt’s importance in the history of his own nation and that of the entire world. It need not alter anyone’s respect and affection for him as a man. The story is not scandalizing but saddening. For the biographer of either Franklin or Eleanor Roosevelt it must markedly change the past generalizations about the marriage. Old facts must be restudied in a new light, and it must be recognized that this great woman, who was better known, better loved, and also more bitterly hated by more people than al­ most any woman in history was also, however respected by her husband, in a most important sense unloved by him. The changes in our fundamental attitudes toward the magnificence of the Roosevelts will be negligible, but there must be an altering in understanding, and, in the end, greater compassion for both.


A still more subtle threat to our heroes, if not wholly a product of the university environment, is promulgated largely by that community. One can put it best in the form of a question: “Can our political heroes survive the impact of new clinical techniques that explore the hitherto hidden mysteries of the inner man?” If the old saw is true that no man is a hero to his valet, then it is evenmore true that no man is a hero to his psychoanalyst. But what happens to the heroic image for everyone when the analyst dissects the psyche of an American hero and publishes his findings? So far this psychic autopsy has happened to only one of our great presidents, Woodrow Wilson.

Most schoolchildren are taught that Wilson was an authentic hero who brought to the corrupt and intriguing diplomats of Europe a special idealism and great vision, the vision of a democratic world. They are told that Wilson’s failure to persuade Congress to acquiesce in the idea of the League of Nations was due to “a little group of wilful men” led by the obstinate and evil Henry Cabot Lodge. This simplistic view of Wilson has been corrected in the writings of Wilson scholars, notably Arthur Link, who sees Wilson as a genuine hero, but in the Sophoclean sense, in whom a fatal flaw—inability to compromise—led to the catastrophe of the League failure.

Not content with this, a husband-and-wife team of political scientists, Alexander and Juliette George, stimulated by the writings of Harold Lasswell and Nathan Leites in psychopathology and politics, and steeping themselves in the literature of psychoanalysis, decided to give Wilson a detached clinical look. The result was “Woodrow Wilson and Colonel House, a Psychological Study,” published in 1956. Where Arthur Link had devoted only three pages to describing Wilson’s parents, childhood, and youth, writing that “Wilson’s boyhood was notable, if for nothing else, because of his normal development,” the Georges looked at the same child­ hood and saw many evidences of pathology. They noted that young Wilson, tutored by an uncommonly opinionated Presbyterian preacher father, did not read till he was eleven, and did not go to school till thirteen. The father kept the son in complete financial dependence till he was twenty-nine and in emotional dependence until his death. All his life Wilson spoke of his fiercely dominating parent as “my incomparable father.” He never fought him, or dared to criticize him, and the Georges speculate that the resulting reservoir of unconscious hostility eventually spilled over in spectacular feuding with other men. There were not many feuds, but all were somewhat pathological, and none more so than the final one with Lodge, the effect of which was a national and perhaps world calamity.

The Georges do not pretend to have Wilson on the couch, knowing that it is impossible to psychoanalyze the dead, but they do document Freud’s theory that the neurotic traits which so often paralyze human behavior or deflect it disastrously are likely to be set in early childhood. Their thesis was reinforced in 1967 by another psychoanalytic study of Wilson, co authored, it was said, by William C. Bullitt and Sigmund Freud himself. This book, actually written in the 1930’s, caused a tornado of controversy. It was hostile to Wilson and crudely written, whereas Freud’s other writings were invariably lucid, elegant, and compassionate. It emphasized Wilson’s pathological dependence on his father and his essentially feminine passivity, and ended by depiciting Wilson as virtually psychotic, offering himself as a kind of Christ figure as a sacrifice to humanity. It called Wilson “not one of the world’s greatest men, but a great fiasco.”

Anna Freud, daughter of Sigmund Freud and herself a distinguished analyst, insisted that her father had written only the introduction, which isgraceful, elegant, and perceptive. Bullitt himself died shortly after publication and the exact nature of the collaboration remains a mystery. Proof that Freud wrote as much as Bullitt said he did remains to be recovered, if possible, from Bullitt’s papers. In the flood of reviews the psychoanalysts said the book was bad psycho­ analysis, and the historians said it was bad history. But the Freud name gave the book notoriety and impact. And al­ most every reviewer said that while the Freud-Bullitt study was bad the George study was good, a kind of compliment that had not been plentiful when the latter first appeared.

Whatever is finally resolved about the Freud-Bullitt creation, it would appear that Wilson as a great political hero is finished. Of course other factors are contributing to his demise. Wilson’s Presbyterian style is out of date. What president could survive today were it reported on television that he said, as Wilson said, “God ordained that I should be president of the United States. Neither you nor any other mortal or mortals could have prevented it”? The Wilson slogan justifying our entrance into World War I—that we would make the world safe for democracy—now sounds jejune if not juvenile. But the question remains: can any political hero subjected to whatever rigorous clinical scrutiny the facts allow continue to be a hero, motivating our youth, sustaining and nourishing its cherished idealism?

Whether we like it or not, the age of innocence for us with our great heroes is over. But we do not have to choose between the clinic and the shrine. We do not have to worship without reservation or to discard great achievement because it was accompanied by flaws more or less serious, or even severe pathology. We cannot go back to the years before Freud, nor should we want to. An intimate knowledge of Freudian concepts should make for compassion, not cynicism. Moreover, the same in-depth techniques used to explore the motivations of our great heroes can also be used to explain the deeply warped psyches of the tyrants in history. “Mein Kampf” was a blueprint in pathology, but how many Germans, or others, recognized it as such. And the sooner we understand the psychic origins of the great sicknesses of our time, like Negrophobia, and antisemitism, and the liking for violence, including and especially addiction to war as an instrument of policy, the sooner perhaps will the enormous cost of these sicknesses be lessened.

One cannot discuss the fate of heroes without including some brief inquiry into the future of the hero who in Charlottesville is spoken of simply as “Mr. Jefferson.” One has only to peruse that rich tapestry of intellectual and emotional history, “The Jefferson Image in the American Mind” by Professor Merrill Peterson, to learn that of all our great heroes save Washington, who is virtually immune to attack, Mr. Jefferson would seem to be the most securely and universally enshrined. Actually he, too, is under bombardment. One critic is Berkeley professor Winthrop Jordan, a meticulous historian who is intent on rewriting American history to make it total history—to tell that which in the past has been glossed over with sentimentality, conveniently buried, purposely overlooked. In his recent “White over Black” Jordan devotes several chapters to Jefferson’s record of ambivalence toward the black man, chapters which are painful reading to many for whom Jefferson is an omnipresent deity.

Jordan insists that Jefferson believed the black man to be, unlike the American Indian, inferior to the white, and that his writings on the subject, particularly his “Notes on the State of Virginia,” contributed to the popular traditions of innate black inferiority. He concludes with a severe indictment: that Jefferson’s depreciation of the Negro “constituted, for all its qualifications, the most intense, extensive, and extreme formulation of anti-Negro thought offered by an American in the thirty years after the Revolution.”

This I believe to be an overstatement. While it is true that Jefferson put forward the theory that the blacks were “inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind,” he offered it as “a suspicion only.” And he speculated that “equally cultivated for a few generations, the black man might well become the white man’s equal.”

One sees Jefferson’s real ambivalence toward the blacks not so much in his musings about the native endowment, which were complicated by his primitive genetics, but more in what was essentially a gut feeling about the separation of the races. Jefferson wrote with grace and eloquence in favor of emancipation, and introduced and urged legislation which furthered it. In his “Notes on the State of Virginia” he made the unheard-of radical proposal that blacks be educated at public expense, the young men till they were twenty-one, and the young women until eighteen. But he then went on to pro­ pose that these educated blacks be sent out of the country—with financial backing, seeds, tools, and the makings of civilization—either to Africa, or the West Indies, or to a state to be fashioned in the West. So it was not only emancipation and education that he favored, but emancipation, education, and expulsion—and he kept his allegiance to this trinity to his death.

Most Americans who visit the Jefferson Memorial and see the memorable words engraved there: “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate, than that these people are to be free,” do not know that this is only half of Jefferson’s sentence, and that he went on to conclude, “nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government.” Those latter words are enough, of course, to destroy Jefferson’s heroic image among black students and even some radical whites.

The careful Jefferson scholar cannot escape a still more troublesome problem in regard to the heroic image, how to handle what can best be described as “the great Jefferson taboo.” For 169 years there has been accumulating a body of folklore concerning the major mystery in Jefferson’s life. Briefly stated, the question is: Did Jefferson, who all his life indicated that he was in favor of the separation of the races and who wrote specifically against miscegenation, did he after the death of his wife have a family by a slave woman? If so, what does this do to the heroic image?

The slave woman in question was one Sally Hemings, who as a young girl came to Monticello as part of the inheritance of Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles. There is good reason to believe that Sally was John Wayles’ own daughter by a mulatto slave woman, and therefore—though this is almost never admitted—half sister to Mrs. Jefferson. After Martha Jefferson’s early and tragic death, Jefferson went to France as a minister. His young daughter Maria followed him two years later, accompanied by Sally Hemings as her maid. Here, according to Sally’s son, Madison, the liaison with Jefferson began.

The Sally Hemings story was well known long before Madison Hemings published his detailed recollections in an Ohio newspaper in 1873. Federalist journalists had spread the story even while Jefferson was president, hoping the scandal would prevent his winning a second term. It did not; he won overwhelmingly, capturing all save two states. The story was widely believed up to the Civil War by abolitionists, who wrote that even the great political egalitarian who wrote the Declaration of Independence could be trapped and corrupted by the temptations inherent in the slave system.

All Jefferson biographers, and almost all white historians, have for generations denounced the story as a libel lacking historical foundation. Many black historians, on the other hand, have accepted the evidence as authentic, as do the new disenchanted black students. Merrill Peterson was one of the first historians of our own period to take a serious look at some of the documentation and to publish it. He too repudiates the story. Professor Jordan, however, gives the evidence for and the evidence against in such fashion as to leave the matter a very open question.

Henry Adams wrote long ago that Jefferson permitted few persons to share his life. Adams said he “could be painted only touch by touch, with a fine pencil, and the perfection of the likeness depended upon the shifting and uncertain flicker of its semi-transparent shadows.” Dumas Malone, who has come closer than anyone else with his expert biographical brush, admitted after finishing the first of his volumes: “… in my youthful presumptuousness I flattered myself that some­ time I would fully comprehend and encompass him. I do not claim that I have yet done so, and I do not believe that I or any other single person can.”

It would be difficult for anyone to encompass as much of Jefferson as Professor Malone, but it may be possible for scholars to add to his illumination of Jefferson’s inner life, and in so doing to cast some light also on this great president’s extraordinary capacity for ambivalence. For Jefferson was ambivalent not only about slavery, but also about religion, freedom, and power—ambivalent even about love, which is hardly surprising since in this area his losses were so shattering.

In some respects Jefferson is the most presently relevant of all our heroes, for his ambivalences are our ambivalences. Merrill Peterson is right when he writes that Jefferson is “a sensitive reflector, through several generations, of America’s troubled search for the image of itself.” As for his future as a hero, I am confident, as with the future of Lincoln—whose genius and compassion also rise above his ambivalences—there is no grave danger. But for the specific nature of his future image—there we n1ay well see continuing controversy, endless searching, disenchantment and re-enchantment, and perhaps even a recapture of his essential masculinity. For it is one of the most ironic aspects of the Jefferson image today that the blacks, who repudiate him as hero, nevertheless believe that the historical Jefferson was a man of great physical vitality, which naturally includes sexual vitality. They believe his descendants dot the country from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to San Francisco. The whites, on the contrary, in insisting on his sexual purity, turn him into a monastic, ascetic, virtually passionless president. It remains to be seen whether careful research can resolve this paradox.

The good biographer, to use Desmond McCarthy’s definition, is “an artist under oath.” The honest biographer cannot deliberately refrain from revealing discoveries simply because he fears they might damage his hero’s image among the young—or the squeamish. Edmund Gosse, British critic and biographer, wrote a century ago, only half facetiously, “The first theoretical object of the biographer should be indiscretion and not discretion.” My own conviction is that every biographer should have engraved upon his typewriter, “Biography should not enshrine the dead but enlighten the living.”

It could be that Jefferson’s slave family, if the evidence should in the end point to its authenticity, will turn out under scrutiny to represent not a tragic flaw in Jefferson but evidence of psychic health. And the flaw could turn out to be what some of the compassionate abolitionists thought long ago, not a flaw in the hero but in the society. The evidence that would solve the historical problem one way or the other is not yet in, and may never be, though Professor Malone’s forthcoming volume promises to provide a truly comprehensive statement. But the student need not, and must not, be protected from tragic flaws or feet of clay. If he reads enough history he will learn that in a world governed so execrably for so many centuries, heroes of the magnitude of our greatest Americans—however diminished by accident, or weakness, or neurosis—shine very brightly in the galaxy of the world’s great men.





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