When I was 8 years old, my family lived on a farm in German Township, and we didn’t get into South Bend very often.
My main memories are of the downtown movie theaters – the State, the Granada and the Colfax. We watched some dumb films there, like “John Goldfarb, Please Come Home,” but some great ones too.
One that left a great impression on me was “PT 109,” which came out in the summer of 1963.
By today’s standards, “PT 109” could seem trite. It was a spruced-up telling of an almost-true story from World War II. The basic plot is this: An American patrol boat collides in the darkness with a Japanese destroyer, killing two and leaving 11 crew members stranded in enemy waters near the Solomon Islands.
The officer in command leads his crew on a swim to an island four miles away. While they rest and recover, he risks his life swimming to nearby islands until he finds someone who can contact rescuers.
The officer was John F. Kennedy, a Harvard graduate whose father was a multimillionaire. He didn’t need to be fighting in that war, but he volunteered. And as an officer in command, he could have ordered any of the other 10 survivors to make those swims. But because he had a sense of honor and duty, he took on the hardest job for himself.
Twenty years later, when the movie came out, Kennedy was in his third year as president of the United States. His heroics, and others reported from that war, set a standard for leadership for me and others in that next generation of Americans.
This standard — acting honorably in the face of adversity — was the seed of America’s future.
Little did we know that this was just a feel-good moment before everything was going to go haywire.
Kennedy was assassinated five months after the movie’s release. His successor was Lyndon B. Johnson, who had faked his way to a Silver Star during World War II. Then, during his five-plus years as president, LBJ listened to generals brag about body counts as we became mired in an unpopular war in Vietnam.
Juxtaposed against the image of Kennedy leading his crew to safety, we saw Johnson sitting comfortably in the Oval Office while young men by the millions were fighting an enemy we didn’t know in a country we couldn’t find easily on a map. Americans learned the term “credibility gap.”
Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon, was even worse. During his 1968 campaign, he knew that the unpopularity of the Vietnam War was his ticket to win. But peace talks were in the works as Election Day approached, which could have swung voters back to Nixon’s rival. So, Nixon sent an emissary to the South Vietnamese to let them know they would get a better deal if they kept the war going a little longer.
Nixon got his votes, but the war went on five more years. In that time, Nixon saw 21,194 Americans die in combat and hundreds of thousands more come home to ruined lives.
All that death and destruction happened because he thought he deserved to be president.
Unfortunately, this has become an accepted model for modern-day leadership. Serve yourself first. Make someone else take the risk.
We saw a glimmer of it in 2001 after the Sept. 11 attacks. With our nation under attack by mysterious forces, we couldn’t find our commander-in-chief. He had hopped on an airplane and was flying willy-nilly over the nation. Others might die, but terrorists couldn’t kill him because they couldn’t find him.
It became more blatant in the past two years. When the first inklings of the pandemic emerged in March 2020, our national leadership’s first response was to ignore the public’s well-being. Instead, we were told the virus would disappear in a week or two, while our leaders were dumping their stocks before the market crash.
Then, on Jan. 6, 2021, the fawning masses were exhorted to converge on the Capitol to fight for democracy. “We’re gonna walk down — and I’ll be there with you,” the defeated president said, shortly before he went back to the White House cafeteria and watched the insurrection on TV.
If I were among the 727 stooges who were arrested because of the riot, or even someone rooting for the rioters at home, I would feel abandoned by the guy who said, “I’ll be there with you.” Instead, many of them are having tickle fits over the “Let’s Go Brandon” flags they bought for Christmas while the insurrectionist-in-chief solicits their donations for a 2024 campaign.
This is not the America I recognize.
It’s not just politics. These attitudes of I-need-to-get-mine-first have become the norm. If you’re taking a 10 percent pay cut and working 60-hour weeks to keep the doors open, don’t be surprised if the owners are cashing bonus checks.
If you’re throwing your tired body in front of a charging linebacker to protect your quarterback for the glory of old Notre Dame, don’t be shocked that two team captains are sitting at home because they don’t want to get hurt before the NFL draft.
I can’t be like Kennedy. I won’t fight in wars and I don’t swim. I rarely see myself in a spot where lives are on the line.
But I can be vigilant for people who promise they’re “gonna walk down” with me, and I can show up when people are counting on me. I can put the needs of others before my own, even when it hurts.
It doesn’t seem like a lot to ask of myself. It’s not about honor and duty. It’s just being a normal, decent human being.