The oxidizing effects of heroism

Howard Stringer

October 03, 1991|By Howard Stringer

IT HAS BEEN said that history is the biography of heroes, but what hero can ultimately survive the age of information and mass media?

Mikhail Gorbachev is already yesterday's man, while Boris Yeltsin, the president of the Russian republic, went from boor to giant to autocrat in less time than it once took for an ocean liner to cross the Atlantic.

Past or present, no hero is safe, because after him comes the deluge -- of words.

So it's not surprising HowardStringerthat just as we are getting ready to celebrate the Christopher Columbus quincentennial, revisionists are cheerfully judging his accomplishments as if he were alive today.

Today Columbus is just another vicious slaver and a mediocre sailor.

As for his patrons, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, they were a couple of Catholic fundamentalists for whom global exploration represented a timeout from their favorite spectator sport, the Spanish Inquisition.

No character trait must go unpunished.

It might have been that King Henry VIII, born the year before Columbus ran aground, could have claimed credit for instigating the English Reformation, the independence of Parliament and British naval supremacy.

But if there had been a Tudor tabloid, the king never would have survived the publicity surrounding his over-enthusiastic search for the perfect queen.

His penchant for divorce by decapitation would have labeled him a royal serial killer.

One of his successors, Queen Elizabeth I, might have been treated more kindly by today's standards.

She was, after all, the most powerful woman on Earth.

Of course a queen, by definition, probably couldn't be a feminist, because equality was far from any monarch's mind, and it is doubtful that Elizabeth was truly the Virgin Queen.

What would almost certainly have brought her down was her decision to order the execution of her rival, Mary, Queen of Scots.

Elizabeth the Great would thus in Tudor headlines have become the Lizzie Borden of monarchs.

And what about the queen's favorite sailor, Sir Francis Drake, the Columbus of Devon?

A nautical genius to some, to headline writers he would have been a terrorist and a pyromaniac who, on the Spanish Main, skimmed a greater share of international currency than BCCI.

The silly season gets sillier. There aren't enough personalities even in history to survive all of today's inquisitors.

That would be fine, if investigations were accompanied with a touch of humility and a sense of humor.

Today anyone daring to enter public life must believe he or she could survive the experience. That demands an enormous ego, which itself invites destruction.

In the 1990s we seem to want our leaders to be asexual, atypical and without intellectual or personal histories.

If that's what it takes to get elected in 1992, then few Democrats are likely to admit to being qualified for the presidency.

If that's what it takes to be appointed to the Supreme Court, candidates for the job are more likely to find those qualifications a handicap.

At times we seem to be looking for a mythical Sir Galahad and rejecting Sir Lancelot, forgetting that Sir Galahad, pure or not, was probably a self-obsessed bore.

Future historians may have to write about the leaders and heroes who might have been -- as well as the dullards who were.

That is sad, possibly tragic.

But at least let's leave the heroes of yesterday where they belong, in historical context, hacking and hewing their way toward a suddenly ungrateful and ungenerous 20th century.

Howard Stringer is president of the CBS Broadcast Group.

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