Modern culture has venerated actors and entertainers for years. On the 40th anniversary of one of mankind’s greatest accomplishments, I ask: Why isn’t more press devoted to those who demonstrate courage and effort for a greater purpose instead of toward those who only seek 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.
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.”
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?