A different perspective…

I received this from a former CO of mine, who knew Cernan and the others “back in the day” when they were just regular test pilots and “working” for a living. It points out the stark (to me) difference in the way military people treat their jobs and the results of those jobs, and the way celebrities chase fame and fortune…

It’s a safe bet that 100 years from now most half-way educated people will know about Neil Armstrong. It’s also a safe bet that in a century the name Michael Jackson will be familiar only to five or six cultural anthropologists and, possibly, a medical historian. So what does it say about the United States in 2009 that the late moon-walker is a household name but the living one is not?

Plenty has been written about the Apollo program: the technological wonder; its place in history; the fact that we haven’t gone very far since. Not enough has been written about the Apollo astronauts and, in particular, about their place in the history of American character. That’s a pity: What they have, or had, is something Americans could use.

That something is “The Right Stuff,” which in the movie version means fearlessness, ambition, unblinking patriotism and a penchant for understated irony. Most of us would probably think of the Right Stuff as some combination of piloting skills and a barrelful of guts.

But the really essential ingredient is personal modesty, if not in private than certainly in public. “One day you’re just Gene Cernan, young naval aviator, whatever,” recalls the commander of Apollo 17 in the documentary, “In the Shadow of the Moon.” “And the next day you’re an
American hero. Literally. And you have done nothing.”

Mr. Cernan is the last man to have walked on the moon. Nobody can accuse him of lacking for courage. He is simply expressing the very human bewilderment of a sentient person caught in the blandishments of modern celebrity culture. Does America make men like Gene Cernan anymore?

Then again, Mr. Cernan is positively boastful compared to Mr. Armstrong. The flesh-and-blood “first man” is nowhere to be seen in the documentary. His media availability is nearly zero. He hasn’t pitched a product on TV for 30 years, and only then for Chrysler during its last bankruptcy. When he speaks of the moon, he never fails to mention the 400,000 people who
worked to get him there. He doesn’t unload about his politics, pet causes or personal “issues,” including family tragedies.

None of this is because Mr. Armstrong is a recluse living in his own Neverland. He seems to have a normal family life—including divorce and remarriage. He’s made money, though not the kind of money that comes from endorsing every golf ball, hemorrhoidal cream and sugar substitute thrown his way. You likely wouldn’t recognize him if he sat across from you at a diner, which is just as he wants it to be.

Modern parlance allows us the term “private person” to describe people like Mr. Armstrong. Closer to the mark, I suspect, is that he abides by a private code of conduct. He understands that fate has assigned him a historic, if somewhat fortuitous role, and he means to honor the terms of
the bargain.

That this should seem at all peculiar tells us something about the age. Codes of personal conduct were once what Americans—great ones, at least—were all about. In his superb book “American Heroes,” Yale historian Edmund S. Morgan writes about Benjamin Franklin and George Washington that “both men cared enormously about their reputations, about their honor. Their deliberate refusals to do things, employed to great advantage in serving their country, originated in a personal ambition to gain honor and reputation of a higher order than most people aspired to.”

This is not the way we live now. Modern culture has severed many of the remaining links between merit and celebrity. We make a fetish of uninteresting, detestable, loud or unaccomplished people: Paris Hilton, Princess Di, Keith Olbermann, Michael Jackson. Disgrace can be a ticket for even greater celebrity, particularly when mixed with confession. Stoicism, on the other hand, is regarded as a form of denial, meaning borderline lunacy.

I detest anti-Americanism, but I’ll concede this: It’s hard to watch American celebrity culture at work and not feel revolted. By contrast, much of what made the Apollo missions such a tribute to America was the character of the astronauts: their clipped exchanges between Houston and the spacemen; or Lovell, Anders and Borman reading from Genesis on Apollo 8; or the unflappable Flight Director Gene Kranz working the problems of Apollo 13 to triumph.

These sorts of people are still around, often in the military. Perhaps too often. Great democratic civilizations can’t survive on values that emerge from a single, undemocratic cultural stream. A century from now, who will be remembered as the early 21st century’s Neil Armstrong, the one who had all the Right Stuff? Barack Obama? Tiger Woods? LT Matt Murphy? Somebody we have never heard of???

You tell me…


A different perspective… — 11 Comments

  1. As I posted the other day, the whole space program, especially the moon landing itself, was an exciting time for the country and the world (except perhaps for the Soviets). We celebrated a first for mankind, and much of the free world celebrated with us.

    Today, 40 years later, we find ourselves apologizing to the world for what we have accomplished. For being successful.

    Somewhere we got off course. Maybe its time to fire a correction burn and fix our trajectory before we find ourselves hopelessly lost in space with no way back.

  2. I’ll always think of Chuck Yeager when folks talk about the “Right Stuff”.

    Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel come to mind as well.

    Of course all the brave people that were the first in space and the first on the moon also make the top of the list.

    I was glued to the TV for the entire Apollo 11 mission. I’ll never forget it.

    I forgot about Michael Jackson when he started trying to become a white woman over 30 years ago.


  3. Examples, good or bad, are powerful. We have too few good examples today. I don’t have an answer other than striving to be a positive example to my children and grandchildren.

  4. ADM- Wish I could take credit, but you’re right!

    Rev- Agreed!

    Gator- Dead on! I’m hoping the correction burn starts with the latest set of bills, and continues through the 2010 elections!

    Fuzzy- Agreed!

    Joe- Agreed! Yeager was always an egotist (and still is today). But yes, by and large, they DID have the right stuff!

  5. Leaders of men like this are bygones and only read in history books know.

    Even today, I was look at the people and their kids while shopping, and let me tell you folks. We are in deep trouble in the next 10 years or so, real deep trouble.

  6. CS- I “hope” you and I are wrong, and we DO see a few good ones that pop up time to time, but overall, I have to agree.

  7. I’d choose Lance Armstrong or Tiger Woods. Some of the few sports personalities who are actually role models.

  8. Wyatt- You may be right. At least those two ARE role models… And Tiger supports the military!