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Ventura aside, a good man or woman not hard to find


Until recently, my children remained blissfully ignorant of current events. I once asked my 6-year-old daughter whether she knew who Monica Lewinsky was. “Oh, yes,” she delighted. “She’s the 15-year-old who won the gold medal in the Olympics.” (My apologies to Tara Lipinski.)

The question of moral leadership raised during the impeachment process has caused me to think hard about how the seeds of virtue are planted and nurtured in our children. “Where have all the heroes gone?” we moan. Even adults long for real-life examples to encourage us to be better: to behave more selflessly, excel at something, heal wounds, make beautiful things, work harder, be kinder.

We are sick of entertainment and sports heroes who often seem so greedy and self-involved. The saints, sometimes offered as a Catholic alternative, may seem too remote or steeped in historical context to be relevant. Youth seem to look up to our pope, who takes courageous and countercultural stands on issues like capital punishment, abortion and social justice for the poor, but I’m not sure many young people picture themselves waving from the popemobile one day.

In Minnesota, we have just elected a man who may seem a role model to some. But some of us have been peppered with E-mails and phone calls from our friends in other states to the effect of, “Do you people all have a terrible case of cabin fever?” (Just in case the reader, like my daughter, remains blissfully ignorant, Minnesotans chose Reform Party candidate Jesse Ventura, former Navy Seal and prime-time wrestler, Arnold Schwarzenegger buddy and all-around macho Everyman to be our governor).

Ventura mildly sparked my interest with his earthy ways, and hey, I’m all for reform of politics as we know it. Ventura clearly respects Joe and Jane Sixpack, the folks who are just trying to make ends meet and have a good time once in a while, you know, fishing, jet skiing, the Vikings game, you betcha. His off-the-cuff speeches are full of personal anecdotes and “ya know’s” in his Minnesota-voweled baritone. He touts personal responsibility and minimizing government’s involvement in people’s lives.

But listen closely and you’ll hear restrained violence in that folksy growl. “My governor can beat up your governor,” the T-shirts and bumper stickers proclaim. Ventura relishes his particular blend of egoism and iconoclasm. (His inaugural ball garb? A fringed buckskin jacket, Jimi Hendrix t-shirt and sunglasses.) Oh, he wore a suit to the actual inauguration. But he seems to take an almost adolescent pride in his might-makes-right, take-no-prisoners image.

Ventura favors eliminating student aid for higher education, claiming that if students are “smart enough to go to college, they’re smart enough to figure out how to pay for it.” He believes the private sector should shoulder the bulk of responsibility for helping people in poverty. Minnesota has run a budget surplus for the last couple of years, which Ventura wants to refund to individual taxpayers based on a sales tax formula.

On a public radio broadcast, he shot down one citizen’s suggestion to funnel the surplus collectively through local communities to fund projects that would benefit the public as a whole. “If you want the money to be spent on youth,” he said, “you can buy things for your children with the money you get back.”

Ventura epitomizes the self-made individualist, perhaps the most dangerous role model our culture offers. Such people crowd the garden of society with the weeds of simplistic self-interest, thereby cutting off the slow-growing, deeper roots of compassion and common interest.

I wondered who my children look up to, and I was surprised and pleased by their answers. My son loves “Star Wars” and “Batman,” but I wanted to know about real-life people, so I phrased the question carefully. “When you think about being grown-ups, what do you think you want to be like? Can you think of anybody you want to be like?”

Said one, I want to be kind and generous. Like who? She named her teacher and her godmother, women who have everyday contact with her. Yes-s-s-s-s-s! (I admit that after more reflection, my ingenuous Spice Girls fan added, “Cool! I want to be cool!”)

My son, always deliberate, thought long and hard. I prompted him, “Did you think about that question?” I want to be peaceful, he finally said. Good answer, kid. Like who? More thought. Like the guy who plays Big Bird. (He had just read about him in his Weekly Reader, a nationally distributed classroom newspaper for elementary students.) And his uncle Mitch, because he’s peaceful and friendly.

That night we watched the State of the Union address with our children. They held up during the 74-minute address, sighing with exasperation each time one side of the chamber interrupted Clinton with standing applause. But they perked up when Clinton introduced Rosa Parks, the small, elderly woman who is an icon of living history, whom they’d just discussed in school during Martin Luther King Week. They were on their feet applauding, too.

And so I am reminded that heroes don’t have to be bigger than life, surrounded by hype, nor need they have an official leadership role. In fact, homegrown heroes may be the most influential. And, I realize, a good man or woman is not so hard to find.

Kris Berggren lives in Minneapolis.

National Catholic Reporter, February 12, 1999