A Hero, a Villain, and a Leader

Three stunning current examples of human character reflect our evolutionary history

Yesterday’s New York Times had three remarkable specimens of humanity on the front page, and together they say much about the human species and our long evolution. They say a lot too about human nature, and perhaps even more about human culture.

SullenbergerThe hero is Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger III, a slim, gray-haired 57-year-old who put down a crippled fifty-ton airliner on (not in) the Hudson River, as if it were one of his gliders-which after losing both engines to bird strikes, it was–and saved all 155 passengers and crew members aboard. The best pilot in his Air Force Academy class, he flew F-4 Phantom fighter jets for seven years before becoming an airline pilot. He helped every passenger leave the aircraft safely. He walked the length of the sinking plane back and forth, twice, to make sure no one was left on board.

This was no miracle. Another pilot might have hesitated after both engines went out, and crashed into a crowded Manhattan building or street. Captain Sullenberger knew he had a glider on his hands, arced over Manhattan, cleared the George Washington Bridge by 900 feet, and put the plane down tail first on the rippled surface, minimizing the chance of immediate capsizing. Watch the video and you’ll see.

New York state’s public safety director is one of the few people to have talked to him, since his silence is mandated by the ongoing investigation: “He said to me, in the most unaffected, humble way…’That’s what we’re trained to do.’ No boasting, no emotion, no nothing.” Just 155 people not dead.

I took nine hours of flying lessons and decided I owed it to my then-young kids to stop. There were too many things to remember, I was too absent-minded, and my reflexes were nothing to write home about. I may try again some day. But in my mind Sullenberger was a hero the day he applied to the Air Force Academy. He was a double hero the day he started flying Phantoms in Vietnam. And on Thursday he became a kind of instant genius as well as a hero; now he’s a pilot for the ages.

As for the villain on the front page, I got a message from an old friend the other day who had lost everything because of him. Bernie Madoff was the greedy avatar of an exceedingly greedy culture, a sociopath who robbed widows and charities, while pretending to be something he absolutely was not. He too had a kind of genius, but he was no hero.

His villainy was abetted by a system of perverse incentives and regulatory failures that enabled his schemes, but even among corporate thieves he had to have had evil genes and a remarkably twisted brain.

Of the leader, a promising presidential candidate once said, “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.” The promising presidential candidate is about to become the Vice President, a distant second banana to the “articulate” and “clean” younger man he once condescended to.

Barack Obama has much more than Joe Biden gave him credit for. He has a kind of genius, certainly an outstanding mind, a very easy, perhaps too easy command of the English language, an unflappable personality, and a charisma that has inspired billions. It was said of Franklin Roosevelt by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. that he had a second-rate mind but a first-rate temperament. Obama may be the first President in modern times to have both.

Many of us were disturbed at first by the tone of his early campaign rallies; when enthusiasm for a leader flirts with hysteria there is always reason to fear. But he changed his tone, attempting to lower expectations, even in his acceptance speech on election night. And every appointment he has made since suggests a thoroughly moderate pragmatism that has already enraged some who were in those early shouting crowds. If this means he will lead from the center, he is destined for greatness.

On his whistle-stop train tour following Lincoln’s path from Illinois to Washington, he was still the glib campaigner, and his inaugural address will have to be completely different if he is really to be Lincoln’s heir. As he openly quoted his daughter saying, after reading Lincoln’s words carved in that leader’s memorial, the inaugural address of the first African-American president “better be good.” The man does not lack a sense of humor about himself. But he surely understands what is at stake, and in any case, as he often said during the campaign, when a president speaks it is never “just words.”

Where in our evolution do such men come from? The three of them put me in mind of the range of hearts and minds I knew among the Bushmen, hunter-gatherers of Botswana. One man, whose knick-name was “Leopard Hands,” had thought quickly and acted skillfully when a leopard attacked him, killing it with his knife. Although he bore deep scars on his chest, he had saved himself and others.

Another was a brilliant and prolific hunter who was articulate enough around the fire at night to lead the band, but was also hot-tempered, once pulling out poisoned arrows in a dispute over meat. People respected him but were wary.

A mother of five and grandmother of many came into her own after her children had grown up, and spoke forcefully around the fire at night, swaying others to her viewpoint on what the band should do.

And of course there were those who took advantage of this society based on trust, always looking for ways to take their own first and avoid contributing their share. Up to a point, such people could gain at others’ expense.

But the man I most admired was middle-aged, a pretty good but not great hunter, not known as a hero, not glib exactly but well and wisely spoken, with a sense of humor and a twinkle in his eye. The smile that played across his wrinkled, handsome face was infectious, but far more important was his calm, quiet judgment. People inclined toward him and followed his advice, to their own benefit and that of their children’s children.

So I am not surprised to the range of character, skill, and destiny shown by Sullenberger, Madoff, and Obama. And if we are cursed by some of the human types evolution has left us with, we are surely blessed by others.

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