Of Presidents and Props

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Dr. Malcolm Cross

One of the signs of our poisonous political times is our growing cynicism over those citizens who, by virtue of their sacrifices or those of their loved ones, are sometimes identified as heroes.  Consider, for example, the aftermath of Donald Trump’s first speech to Congress.

In the course of his speech Donald Trump paid tribute to the widow, sitting in the audience, of a Navy SEAL recently killed in action.  The honoring of heroes in presidential addresses before Congress is a tradition dating back at least to 1982, when President Reagan invited one Lenny Skutnick, a government office worker, to attend a State of the Union address, sit with Nancy Reagan, and be honored for an unusual and extreme act of self-sacrifice.  A few days earlier an airplane had crashed in the Potomac River, leaving six passengers adrift in its icy waters.  While professional first responders were busy rescuing the others, Skutnick, who by coincidence was passing the cite on his way to work, jumped into the river and swam over to one of the passengers whom the first responders were unable to get to and brought her to safety, thereby saving her life at grave risk to his own.  Since then every president has seen fit to devote at least some of his remarks before Congress to describing the deeds of otherwise obscure citizens whom he invites to sit with his family while being so honored.  So there was nothing unusual about President Trump’s remarks.

What was unusual was the backlash Trump elicited.  Some observers found him uncharacteristically thoughtful, eloquent—even presidential.  And Trump seems to have had no purpose other than to have honored the genuine sacrifice of the widow of the first casualty of the Trump Administration.

Yet many of Trump’s opponents, especially those in the entertainment industry, denounced him for using the widow as a “prop.”  Some Democrats in Congress refused to join in the standing ovation afforded by the Republicans and those in the congressional gallery.  One extremist, who had done volunteer work for previous Obama campaigns as well as Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign last year, went so far as to call the still-grieving widow an “idiot” for letting herself be “used” by Trump.

No doubt many would blame Trump himself for causing us to become more cynical about heroes and heroism.  Trump himself questioned the heroism of one of his fiercest critics, Senator and Medal of Honor winner John McCain.  And he attacked two heroes who came to the attention of the American people in last year’s presidential election—the Kahns, a Muslim couple, naturalized American citizens, whose son, an army officer, was killed in action in Iraq in 2004.

But the Kahns themselves were recruited by Hillary Clinton to attack Donald Trump for his immigration policies.  Indeed, one cannot help but admire Hillary Clinton for her shrewdness in using them to attack Trump.  And one cannot help but condemn Donald Trump for his failure to realize that in engaging with the Kahns he could not win.  After all, as Gold Star parents whose sacrifice was just as great as that of Mrs. Owen, they were untouchable.  Trump should have just thanked the Kahns for their sacrifice, said that on that account he would not debate them, and then move on.

The more Trump tries to discuss American heroes in his various remarks, no doubt the more criticism he and his subjects will elicit from his all-to-many enemies, who no doubt will continue to denounce him for using heroes as props, and denounce his heroes and their families for allowing themselves to be so used.  And this may work to Trump’s advantage.  He may be able to win real sympathy from a large segment of the public which may see him as someone whose opponents are trying to have it both ways—attacking Trump by using their designated heroes as surrogates, while denouncing him and those he designates, however justifiably, as heroes as well.

But America’s heroes themselves deserve better.  Nobody can prevent them from being used by politicians, whether to be genuinely honored or to advance political agendas.  But we, the people, whose lives are made better by the sacrifices of others, should not allow the poisons in today’s political atmosphere to obscure our own views of America’s heroes.  We should pay less attention to the politicians who promote heroes for whatever reason, and more to the heroes ourselves.

Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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