Heroes are back in style. According to a recent poll, the  approval  ratings given to the objects of our admiration are up significantly from a few years back. The official story goes something like this: back in the bad old days of Vietnam and Watergate,  the  Ameri can people lost their youthful idealism and learned to distrust all figures of authority. Now, five years into the Reagan era, we have regained  enough of our confidence to be able to invest some of it into the heroes of the 80’s.

Perhaps it is so. It is possible that most of us were losing heart in the 1960’s. Not everyone remembers the decade of the apocalypse as a time of doubt and cynicism. It was, after all, a time when entertainers like Jim Morri son were deified for acts of obscenity. (You still can’t go into a state university men’s room without seeing Jim Morri son Lives! scratched into the fresh paint.) Bob Dylan, the Stones, and the Beatles were treated as prophets, and radical groups like SOS had all the aura of crusaders on their way to the Holy Land (and most of them behaved about as well as the participants in the Fourth Crusade). The Weathermen, the Panthers, the Red Guard … Janis, Jimi, and Mama Cass … Woodstock, the Chicago Convention. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/ But to be young was very Heaven!” At least, if you listen to National Public Radio, which commemorates every anniversary of Watergate, Vietnam, etc., like so many saints’ days.

The difference between the 60’s and 80’s does not lie in the intensity of our hero worship but in our unanimity. Then, one part of the population ad mired Richard Nixon (or George Wal lace), while the other worshiped John Lennon. Now, a significant percent  age is agreed upon Ronald Reagan, Jane Fonda, John Paul II, Mother Teresa, Clint Eastwood, and about 15 actors and athletes, not all of whose names will be familiar to anyone over 35. With the exception of the religious leaders and the President, the rest are in the entertainment business. Our heroes have always been cowboys. So, it is not entirely inappropriate that the stars of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and The Santa Fe Trail should come high on the list, but it does seem strange that the national symbols which serve to bind the nation togeth er should nearly all turn out to be people paid to entertain us.

Eastwood is a good case in point. The real Clint Eastwood certainly de serves our respect: a hardworking actor, a creative director, a successful businessman who has done his best to support old-fashioned American ide als, to the point of financing an at tempt to rescue MIA’s in Vietnam. But, if we can trust the opinion sur veys, it is not Clint Eastwood but Dirty Harry that has won the hearts and minds of the American people. To some extent, even the popularity of the President and the Pope depends on the frequent appearances of their video  taped images on the evening news.

When did it all start, this adoration of jocks and talking heads? In the 19th century, Americans had a healthy contempt for show people. Even at their best, they were suspicious char acters. (Members of the older genera tion have assured me that as recently as the 30’s a man of Richard Burton’s character would not have been let into the country.) Our heroes then were warriors like George Washington, Lighthorse Harry Lee and his youngest son, Robert; frontiersmen like Boone and Crockett; statesmen and orators like Adams and Jefferson, Calhoun and Webster, Lincoln and Davis. The prominence of players in American life is reminiscent of the days of Nero and Commodus. When did we sink to the level of lionizing the trained seals who can throw a ball or bark in tune?

Like so many bad things in Ameri can life, it seems to have started about the time of World War I or a little later. It’s true, we still had our real heroes in the 20’s—Black Jack Per shing, Lucky Lindy, and the aging William Jennings Bryan—but in creasingly the newspapers (and news reels and radio) were filled with the exploits of Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Even more than professional sports, Hollywood came to occupy the un wholesome attention of a people in creasingly unsure of who they were. Whatever is said in books in praise of the 20’s and 30’s must be balanced by the recognition that large numbers of Americans lost faith in their
own cul ture and traditions and bought the degraded products of mass culture: the flimsy eroticism of Tin Pan Alley songs and swing bands, the wisdom of wise cracking radio comics, and the epic sagas of the silver screen. It was the era of Scott Fitzgerald and his most mem orable hero, Jay Gatsby—the rootless stockjobber with a hankering for old American gentility.

In defense of that generation it must be said that they often paid the tribute vice owes to virtue. The stars felt compelled to go through the charade of marriage and divorce and remar riage, instead of just “sleeping around.” Sports heroes at least played at being real men in public, whatever their private lives might have been like. When the war came, athletes and actors alike—many of them, at any rate—enlisted. Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart both flew combat mis sions and found themselves actually living the sort of parts they had once only played at. Many of those who did not fight made propaganda films or entertained the troops—our troops, it must be said, and not the enemy’s. In this respect, Henry Fonda had a great advantage over daughter Jane.

The editors of the new U.S. News & World Report (it is now owned by the Atlantic/New Republic) cannot be blamed for their enthusiasm for the return of the American hero. It is a revival which has been made possible by the arbiters of mass culture at Para mount, CBS, Time, and the mass circulation oracles of high culture. But popular culture has a way of being genuinely popular. Although it might have shocked our grandparents, the fact is that we have turned to a film actor for our best President in 30 years and one of the strongest candidates to succeed him is a member of the Foot ball Hall of Fame. cc

“The new vaudeville” is the latest movement in the theater. The promoters of this new development are trying, in the words of American Thea tre, to “cross boundaries that separate dance, theatre, music, and visual art” by infusing “highly disciplined physi cal technique” with “an irrepressible spirit of comic anarchy.” Representa tive is a recent production of Shake speare’s The Comedy of Errors featur ing “a unicyclist, a belly dancer, a baton twirler, a trapeze artist and a slack-wire clown.” They seem to have got the Errors part down pat, but the Comedy was a little harder to manage. Still, they are doing their best to per petuate “the bard,” if only as the act that killed vaudeville. cc

A Black revolution has erupted in Oueens. Riders on an F Train were recently witnesses to a marvelous dis play of Black power. According to Christianity and Crisis:

The riders, mostly white, were visibly irritated by a black youth carrying a large radio playing at top volume. Side glances, muttering, and exasperated rustling of newspapers did not seem to get through to him. Of course, no one felt able to do the obvious and ask him to turn down the radio. That was asking for trouble. Enters at the next stop a well-dressed, middle-aged black man carrying a briefcase. He walks up to the young man and says what all the passengers have been dying to say: ‘Please turn down your radio.’ The young man refuses: ‘Hey man, this is a free country.’ ‘So it is,’ replies the older man, who then grabs the radio and throws it out an open window of the moving train. cc