Yet in those rare times of existential crisis, civil or global, the tragic hero is our only salvation. Take away Shane, and the sodbusters are through; without Yul Brynner the Mexican villagers of The Magnificent Seven remain Caldera’s sheep to be sheared.
Could there be a tragic hero in the 21st century? Might a candidate reform the tax code, balance the budget, recalibrate entitlements, return the U.S. to a meritocratic and self-reliant society, and understand that he had to be hated for doing what might save us? “I shall end agricultural subsidies entirely and cut Food Stamps back to 2009 levels,” a heroic president might thunder as he welcomes a single term as the price for that defiance.
In theory, this tragic hero would require the oratorical gifts of Reagan, the wit and verve of JFK, the political savvy of Clinton, the steadiness of Truman, the decency of the George Bushes — and something far more. There would have to be some acceptance that our president was different from the rest of us, that he did not welcome, but expected nonetheless, disdain from us, the fickle turba.
A tragic president would not be ruined during his presidency, but only after it and by transcending it. He would not cash in like the Clintons but would walk away from it like Truman.
Petulance is not part of the tragic hero: He ignores both insults and praise, and expects to be hated more than loved, as Aristotle so brilliantly describes the megalopsuchos, the magnanimous soul, of the Nicomachean Ethics.
In these times we need a president who will accept, even welcome a single term, who expects to be broke after he leaves office, to be offered $5,000 a lecture at most, who embarrasses us by our own ingratitude.
Again, are there tragic heroes on the horizon?
Few, I fear. Mitch Daniels has the standoffishness, and a sense that what has to be done would be near politically intolerable for the most of the public. But does he have the spirit, over familial objections, to turn the buckboard around back to Hadleyville before High Noon?
Chris Christie is the antithesis of the current metrosexual president, as unconcerned with his appearance as Obama is prissy and compulsive in his manners and grooming. But while Christie’s bluster shows signs of tragic unconcern, is it matched by a spiritual unconcern for what the presidency might do to him if he were to try to save the country?
Perhaps things must become even worse to cause a tragic hero to emerge — for someone to speak the truth, offend the majority, and, when the successful effort is over, to lose.
At the end of The Magnificent Seven, Chris sighs of both his victory and the near-destruction entailed in achieving it, “The Old Man was right. Only the farmers won. We lost. We always lose.”
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His latest book is The Savior Generals, published this spring by Bloomsbury Books.