Monday, February 25, 2013

Ordinary Heroes in SOTU Addresses.

Heroes have always played a central role in American culture, starting with the pioneer, or the cowboy of the Frontier, extending to national political heroic figures like the Founding Fathers, George Washington (like in this statue of Washington as Zeus in the National Museum of American History) or Abraham Lincoln.
If the Greek hero was a demigod with both extraordinary powers and human flaws (think of Hercules, Perseus, or Achilles), a bit like today's fictitious Superheroes, the American hero is typically an ordinary person who distinguishes himself or herself not by his powers but by his or her character.
One of the roles of national leaders is to honor national heroes, and this is not specifically American. Plato and Thomas Hobbes already noted that one of the functions of republics was to reward those who serve them and are conductive to good citizenship.
American presidents have thus always referred to heroes from the nation's past, including their predecessors. U.S. presidents have also liked to project themselves as "hero-presidents", from Andrew Jackson to Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and G. W Bush (as when he landed on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln aboard an S-3B Viking jet, emerged from the aircraft in full flight gear before announcing "Mission Accomplished)... to name the most obvious ones.

But not everyone can be a George Washington, an Abraham Lincoln a Martin Luther King, or even a George W Bush. This is something that Ronald Reagan understood well when he broke the tradition of just naming heroes of the past and started introducing ordinary citizens in his speeches to Congress.
This began in his State of the Union address in 1982, when he named, Lenny Skulnik, a Federal Government employee who dove into the icy Potomac River after the crash of a plane to save a woman. According to Reagan, this ordinary citizen embodied "the spirit of American heroism at its finest." One of the goals was to democratize heroes, and the president made it very clear:
We don't have to turn to our history books for heroes. They're all around us. 
It was such a defining moment that every other president has continued and extended this tradition ever since, and the term "Lenny Skutniks" has been used to refer to individuals invited to sit in the gallery, and often cited by the President, during the speech

Barack Obama's state of the Union two weeks ago was no exception. In fact, it may have been the only rhetorically and emotionally powerful bit of his speech, in what was otherwise a more substantive than poetic address. At this point, two questions may arise: What sort of heroes do these citizens represent? And, if we assume that the mention of individuals serves a rhetorical and political function what political role do they play?

Initially, when Reagan cited Skutnik, there did not seem to be much more political meaning other emphasizing individual moral responsibility. Skunik belongs to the "rescuer" type of heroes, if we consider Professor of Political Science Gerald Pomper's typology of heroes (in Ordinary Heroes and American Democracy).
This citation is meant to be uplifting by associating ordinary citizens (and thus the entire nation) to extraordinary deeds as well as giving a role model of good citizenship. As a result, even the most common person in menial occupations can become heroes.
This is what Reagan said in his 1984 SOTU:
 And then there are unsung heroes: single parents, couples, church and civic volunteers. Their hearts carry without complaint the pains of family and community problems. They soothe our sorrow, heal our wounds, calm our fears, and share our joy.
Eventually, Reagan's heroes evolved into other types, such as the 'champions over adversity', especially the "entrepreneurs who had pulled themselves up through their own enterprise or who carried out projects on behalf of the poor or downtrodden that governments might otherwise have to shoulder."
(See Vile, John; Presidents as Commenders in Chief- Recognitions of Citizen Heroes from Ronald Reagan through George W. Bush, Congress & the Presidency, Vol. 34, N°1, spring 2007), who are also the champions over adversity types.

This enabled Reagan to recognize successful minorities and immigrants, while illustrating the great opportunities of American capitalism, making government help seem unnecessary.

The practice of naming ordinary Americans in state of the Union addresses continued with G. H Bush and began to include war heroes that fit the category of "martyrs", giving a moral and emotional accent to the rational of the wars in Panama and Iraq.
In 1993 for instance, G. H Bush quoted the widow of a war heroes who died in Iraq, as saying that she would one day be able to tell her children "that their father went away to war because it was the right thing to do."
But it is Bill Clinton who used this rhetorical device the most. He cited more ordinary Americans in his speeches than any other president and went even further than his predecessors in making direct connection between them and his policies - particularly his welfare reforms ("the real heroes of the welfare revolution") or gun control bills.
In 1996, president Clinton mentioned a federal worker, Richard Dean, who had saved people after the Oklahoma City bombing, but had been subsequently forced out of his office when the Government shut down, as a way to blame the Republicans:
On behalf of Richard Dean and his family, and all the other people who are out there working every day doing a good job for the American people, I challenge all of you in this Chamber: Let's never, ever shut the Federal Government down again. (Bill Clinton, SOTU, 1996)
The mention of a number of minorities may have helped him with the Hispanic or Asian communities but it also put a human face to a number of reforms. What better face than Rosa Parks, the "perfect activist" in Clinton's own words to get support for his "Employment Non-Discrimination Act" and his "Hate Crimes Prevention Act,”?

Just like some of Clinton, G W Bush used ordinary Americans to illustrate his political agenda, starting with his tax-cuts or faith-based initiatives. But following 9/11, and the subsequent wars, G. W Bush mentioned more war heroes and martyrs than other presidents. Like all national war heroes those martyrs illustrated "the honor of serving and dying for (their) country", thus giving legitimacy to the war, but their sacrifice took more universal significance, as they died for freedom itself:
Ladies and gentlemen, with grateful hearts, we honor freedom's defenders, and our military families, represented here this evening by Sgt. Norwood's mom and dad, Janet and Bill Norwood. (G.W Bush, 2005).
Similarly, Barack Obama linked his 'heroes' to his policies regarding the economy, green energy, healthcare, or more recently, to voting reform and gun control. He also chose heroes who emphasize his narrative on the American Dream, especially in the context of the economic crisis. Somewhat unexpectedly for a Democrat, the true hero of the story can be the business itself:
a single mom from North Carolina who was laid off from her job as a mechanic. Then Siemens opened a gas turbine factory in Charlotte, and formed a partnership with Central Piedmont Community College. The company helped the college design courses in laser and robotics training. It paid Jackie's tuition, then hired her to help operate their plant."
In this case, the "single mom" is a "champion over adversity" but the company (Siemens) is also heroic as it is the actual rescuer. In a similar fashion, a private company is literally the true hero of this story:
Center Rock manufactured the drill bits and other equipment used to find and rescue 33 trapped Chilean miners in October 2010. (Obama, SOTU, 2011)
The only major differences between democratic and republican presidents - for as much as our 30-year sample is of any significance - stems from their political agenda and their view of government, with greater emphasis of Clinton and Obama on the positive role of government and on communities, whereas Bush I & II were more strictly interested in individual successes, with more mention of war heroes in the case of G. W Bush, linked to the war on terror.

By looking at the different types of heroes cited in State of the Union addresses in the last 30 years, we can make a few other observations:

  • Citing an ordinary American as a role model for his or her action, or his moral qualities has been on the increase, with a peak in the Clinton years, and has become a requirement.
  • These heroes are carefully chosen to illustrate a policy and are highly dependent on the political context. 
  • They serve different functions: 
    • they put a human face on policies that may be complicated to explain,
    • they reinforce the belief in the exceptionalism of the nation, 
    • they make citizens feel good about themselves by proxy and association, 
    • they legitimate the actions of the president, 
    • they make heroism more democratic, including minorities that were not part of the classical all-male, all-white pantheon of American heroes. 
On the other hand, flattering "the people", and using basic emotions instead of relational arguments seem more like populism. Another potential problem is that the very mention of too many heroic figures linked to policies may be counterproductive by making them look banal or insincere. If anyone can be a hero, then heroes lose their meaning. If the ordinary citizens-as-heroes are to be credible, they will have to be farther and fewer between, and their link to policies will have to be more subtle.

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