How hungry we are for heroes. It’s not that there haven’t been any in recent times, but most of them have been hidden in the plain sight of everyday life. On the Big Stage, it’s been an appalling parade of bumblers and bunkum artists, fallen idols and bilious ideologues. And so it was that US Airways pilot Chesley B. Sullenberger became a national icon last week, when he brought a crippled jetliner safely down on the Hudson River. The pilot did what he was supposed to do, as did the rescue boats and the passengers. Still, the safe landing was “a miracle” in the New York City tabloids, and if he so chose, the self-effacing Sullenberger could now write an instant best-seller on successful decision-making during a crisis, and ride down Fifth Avenue in an open convertible while New Yorkers starved for good news showered him with adoration and confetti.
That same hunger, writ about 2 million times larger, filled the National Mall in Washington this week. In the upturned faces of Americans gazing up at Barack Obama, I could see an almost unnerving fervor—such hope, such relief, such reverent admiration. Vanquished foes once mocked Obama as “The One,” but for millions this is no joke: History seems to have thrust this gifted man forward to cleanse our racial sins, to redeem our ideals, and to restore faith in the power of government to elevate individual lives. I’m old enough now to remember nine presidencies, from JFK on, so I found myself feeling both moved and tenderly protective of the throngs who expect so much of this man. It would be a terrible thing to see them disappointed.