Paul Revere, Abraham Lincoln, Wyatt Earp, Jackie Robinson, John Wayne, Jesse Owens, Rudy, Rocky, Rambo, Ronald Reagan, Pat Tillman. Each of these men has, at one point or another, been the focal point of American adoration. Some call them heroes. Some would say cultural icons. Either way, they all captured the collective American imagination during their lives or in their deaths. Mounting their respective seats in the pantheon of heroes, their names were emblazoned on American culture for all to see and adore. I love this American tradition of hero worship and eagerly praise great men. But lately I’ve begun to question my tendency to elevate people. My confidence in this system was shaken to the core, and I had to reconsider what the point of it all is. Uneasiness ate at me as I attempted to move on from my so-called childish ways. I could not let go of my desire to call men heroes and praise them as such. Eventually, I realized that, though some may criticize it, the practice of adoring cultural icons and national heroes has defined American culture for years, inspiring generations of young men and women including myself.
This past Sunday, as I sat watching the final round of the Master’s Tournament and trying unsuccessfully to complete a lab report, I became engrossed in Tiger Woods’ push to reclaim his position atop the golf world. With a pair of birdies at the second and third hole to start the day, Tiger embarked on what I can only describe as a beautiful nine holes of play. His performance on the front nine, in which he dropped from five under for the tournament to ten under, was marked by wonderfully inspired play. He made all the putts that he seemed incapable of making the day before. He threw his trademark fist pump with its paradoxical mixture of joy, fury, and aggression that once caused younger golfers to quiver in fear of the mighty Tiger Woods. In short, for those nine holes, the Tiger Woods of yore, the ferocious competitor who inspired advertising campaigns with catch phrases like “Go ahead, be a Tiger,” was back. Watching him fight to make a run for his first Major championship since the U.S. Open in 2008, I could not help but long for the days when Tiger seemed destined to win any tournament he entered. As a fan, I love watching Tiger Woods play at the top his game. When he plays well, an aura of imminent power and control surrounds him and, in my eyes, makes him a one of kind player to watch. However, the longing I felt while watching his inspired performance on the front nine Sunday was far more than that of a fan boy longing for his favorite player to win. It was a nostalgic desire to see a man tame a golf course, bending it to his will. I wanted to see a masterful performance worthy of respect and praise. I longed to witness that consistent dominance over all competition and obstacles that defined Tiger Woods for much of the last 14 years.
Tiger Woods ruled over the golf world for the first decade of the 2000s in the same way that John Wayne embodied the American cowboy and Bob Dylan embodied the folk movement of the 1960s. As the symbols of their respective worlds, these men were constantly imitated, adored, and idolized. They became cultural icons and heroes to their followers. Americans are dedicated to the pursuit of excellence, and each of these men, and others like them, seemed to have attained that rare level of near-perfection that Americans strive to reach. Seeing a man succeed where we fail inspires us, giving us faith that our seemingly unobtainable goals can in fact be reached. I loved watching Tiger Woods dominate the Tour as he did because it gave me an idol to admire and look up to. I would try to emulate my golf game after his, attempting to mimic his dedication and competitiveness whenever I played. In his famous “Speech to the Third Army” delivered on June 5th, 1944, General George S. Patton uttered this wonderful characterization of the American mentality:
Americans love a winner. Americans will not tolerate a loser. Americans despise cowards. Americans play to win all of the time. I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That’s why Americans have never lost nor will ever lose a war; for the very idea of losing is hateful to an American.
Admittedly somewhat overwrought (which honestly is not that surprising considering it was delivered to an Army Group preparing for war), these lines still give an awesome and, in many ways, true portrayal of American society. Americans cling to winners because they represent all that we aspire to be. I recognize that many people may disagree with this generalization but I firmly believe that Americans, from the foundation of the country, have been dedicated to the art of winning. We look to improve, expand, and advance constantly. From the days of Manifest Destiny to President Kennedy’s charge to put a man on the moon, American rhetoric has focused on pushing past and breaking down perceived barriers. John Kennedy’s assertion that the United States of America could outdo the Soviets and blast through the space barrier to the moon exemplified this desire to constantly improve. In taking the lead in the space race or taming the wilds of the West, Americans expressed an urge to dominate all obstacles in the name of achieving an end goal. And, to do so, they idolized heroic figures that did achieve the excellence that Americans long for. Davy Crockett overcame the dangers presented by the West, becoming the “King of the Wild Frontier.” Jackie Robinson overcame the obstacle of racism in baseball and had tremendous success as a second baseman for the Dodgers. And even fictional characters like Rudy and Rocky personified this ideal, overcoming the obstacles dealt to them at birth and becoming beloved underdog figures. Fictional or real, the numerous American heroes never backed down from barriers, instead pushing through to ultimate victory.
These characters define American cultural identity. When I visited Normandy the summer after my graduation from High School, a local French guide snidely remarked upon Americans’ tendency to elevate people to hero status. He seemed to believe that it afforded too much credit to too few people. What he failed to understand was the empowering nature of this tendency towards hero worship. Seeing John Wayne ride fearlessly at an onslaught of enemies or Michael Jordan coolly hit the shot at the buzzer to beat the Cavaliers again and again fills us with awe. I do not see myself riding off into the mountains with a six shooter at my side when I watch Stagecoach, but the thought of such heroism pushes me to achieve greatness. And though I may never hit the golf ball like Tiger Woods, dunk like Michael Jordan, or deliver inspiring pregame speeches like any number of high school and college coaches, it never hurts to imagine.