THE BLOG
08/13/2007 10:55 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Where Are the Heroes?

I'm guilty. You bet I am. I buy those celebrity magazines at airports or on the train. I grab an arresting cover in line at the grocery store. I tell myself this is research.

How else would I know all about Lindsey's flirtation with lesbianism, or Kate Hudson's fling with Owen Wilson, let alone WHO Kate Hudson is in the first place. I can ogle the pictures of Janet Jackson gaining 40 pounds or Angelina wasting away from grief over her mother's tragic death. Dammit -- this is news! And we all have a right to be informed.

But as I thumb through pages and pages of obsessions with plastic surgery, hanky panky and high jinks, cheating and overeating, I do have to wonder -- where have all the heroes gone? Are these the people to whom my kids should aspire? Where are their role models today?

I see Lindsey slumped with a bottle in the passenger seat of a car. There's the blonde, once proudly virginal Brittany shaving her head and dissing her mom. Paris, yes Paris, the virtuous example of impeccable education and manners. Paris is burning. She offers the role model of a girl bred to be famous for absolutely nothing save poor judgment, gonzo partying and a professed ignorance about the consequences of drunk driving.

Ok. I'm asking an honest question. Who do my kids really have to look up to in the public eye? We tear down any politician that dares to take center stage. We excoriate John Edwards for his $400.00 haircut. We put Bush's face in a separated at birth column with a chimpanzee. We focus on Condi's hot black stiletto heeled boots and we stake out congressmen waiting for one false move with a lady of the evening.

We can all safely argue that hypocrites should be rousted out and called to task for their vices. But by creating a culture of dunces in public office, what chance do we have to instill in future generations the sense of honor or nobility in serving the public? Why the heck would anyone want to get out there and throw their name in the ring if they are going to have their lives subjected to the hugely critical microscope and moreover, harsh judgments of the press and people?

No matter what his dalliances and extra marital affairs, JFK was inarguably a hero of our time. His tragic and sudden death ensured a spot on the world stage for eternity. In my eyes, what he did in office made him a hero. He broke down barriers, opened up dialogues, believed in things and stood up for them. Of course he had flaws. He was a human being. But he lived in a time when those flaws weren't picked apart in headlines, overshadowing substantive accomplishments.

In the fifth grade we had to pick a living hero to write to and then ask them to come to our school concert. "As if that's going to happen," I remember thinking to myself as I pulled out my graphite number 2 pencil and began writing. I picked Arthur Godfrey, at my mother's suggestion, I believe.

Even today I had to Google Arthur Godfrey to place just who he was. I remember I didn't want to pick the president or the governor or the astronauts, like everyone else had in fifth grade.

Godfrey had been a big deal on radio and then TV, the kind of early equivalent of the host of Star Search or American Idol. He was "old-tyme" live TV, complete with a ukulele. But everyone on TV was larger than life back then. There were only three channels, four if you counted PBS.

I truly believed that by being a hero, Mr. Godfrey just might surprise me on the doors of Delmar Elementary to listen to the 5th grade orchestra squawk out "God Bless America."

Long after the concert was held, I received a short, typed letter with a signature, no doubt by his secretary, declining the event but wishing me well as a fine American.

Back then, in the '60s, with the world yet to burst forth into the summer of love, life on the surface was still pretty much black and white. The Soviets were the enemy. We had the bomb shelter in our basement to prove it -- along with stale ration crackers and bottled water on the concrete cellar floor,

Presidents were heroes, as well as people from many other walks of life. There was Billy Graham, who was often on the cover of Guideposts as it sat in the magazine rack in my grandmother's bathroom. I was aware of Gandhi and the work of Martin Luther King, although he would attain far more respect in the years to come. There were astronauts and musicians who were revered. Is anyone revered today? Is that a good thing?

The world was only just beginning to appear in gray areas. The huge psychedelic swirl of the '70s was rolling in to turn convention on its head. The reality and confusion of the Vietnam War appeared arrestingly in every living room and "that awful rock music" as my mother called it, was king. America's youth embarked on one big acid trip. The heroes of the past were square; the new heroes were anti-heroes and counter-culture.

OK, so maybe the definition of heroes past needed to be revised, shaken a bit. You could make a strong argument for a press corps that didn't collude with mistresses or turn the other way when J. Edgar wanted to try on a pair of black garters. I think it is important that the voters know if Gary Hart is keeping his nose clean -- or not -- on the Monkey Business yacht.

I think it is interesting, and even relevant, if the congressman's wife who excoriates Hillary Clinton for standing by Bill after Monica is now eating crow standing by her own man when his name is discovered on bordello list. Some of this surely speaks to character. And who among us is above reproach? Not me, brother, surely not me.

But I would like to see us bring back some real heroes. Even if we lower the pedestal, make the bar setting somewhere below "mythical" and "iconic." But frankly, I don't know how. In fact, I don't have any ideas where to begin. I wish I had the answers but it seems the ship has tipped way too far in the other direction. We have a thirst to know, a hunger for tragedy, for schadenfreude. We are a nation of rubber-neckers, stopping entire mile-long lanes of traffic to gaze at a roadside car accident. We love a good, long juicy sob story. We root for the underdog, but we don't want them to climb too far up out of the grave we've relegated them to.

Perhaps there truly are no more iconic heroes. Instead, I think we probably, somewhat subconsciously, patch together a quilt of random acts of heroism we can use to give our kids the right stuff to head into the world.

I suppose we have to filter the news and choose our hero moments in bite-sized pieces. "That was a heroic act to rescue the man from the subway tracks." I'll say. Or, "Its great that our country is trying to orchestrate peace between those two nations." President Jimmy Carter comes to my mind at the moment, staunchly preserving the dignity of the underprivileged, building homes for Habitat for Humanity. That's the stuff of heroes in my book. Even if they lust in their heart, for Pete's sake.

In the end, I suppose being a hero is a lonely business, kind of like Superman in the movie Superman Returns. The man of Steel roams the world with his X-ray vision and impeccable pecs, not really a being of this mortal earth. Unable to marry Lois, a mere earthling, even the tights and cape probably get old after while, itchy and confining.

Maybe it is too much to expect anyone to be a true hero. That's an awful lot to put on a person's shoulders, even Superman. But I'm still looking. I'm hero hunting. Hey look! Up in the air. It's a bird, it's a plane. Yup, it's Paris in her Lear Jet -- freed from jail and heading to her own form of community service on the beaches of Maui.