WASHINGTON - A country awash in celebrities still hungers for genuine heroes, never more so than in dreary times like these.
So it is that sea captain Richard Phillips, who surrendered himself to Somalian pirates to safeguard his crew and boldly tried to escape their clutches, is being saluted as "Captain Courageous."
The first stop on his journey home to Vermont was Mombasa harbour in Kenya on Thursday. He arrived aboard the USS Bainbridge to the music of a Lynyrd Skynyrd song that includes the words "I'm coming home to you."
Due back in the United States on Friday, he may soon feel like a captive, of sorts, once more.
We have seen this before: An everyday American does something extraordinary and is vaulted into the celebrisphere. At least until the country moves on to the next action figure.
In the three months since pilot Chesley (Sully) Sullenberger safely landed his disabled US Airways jet in the Hudson River, saving all 155 people on board, he has been given the keys to New York City, been dubbed "Captain Cool," been chatted up on Letterman and "60 Minutes," honoured at the Super Bowl, deluged with thankful letters and feted at the presidential inauguration.
He's got a deal to write two books, not to mention speaking engagements handled by a major agency.
"I still don't think of myself as a celebrity," Sullenberger demurred amid all the hoopla. "It's been a difficult adjustment, initially, because of the 'hero' mantle that was pushed in my direction."
Sullenberger, like all pilots, was trained to do emergency landings and keep his cool.
Phillips, like all skippers, was expected to look after those under his charge before himself.
They are both now instant "accidental celebrities," joining a line that may have begun in the modern, TV-obsessive era with Lenny Skutnik.
On the afternoon of Jan. 13, 1982, Skutnik was just a federal worker stuck in D.C. traffic when an Air Florida plane plunged into the Potomac River during a snowstorm. Skutnik slipped off his coat and boots and dove into the icy waters to rescue a drowning woman, a transfixing moment played over and over on television.
That evening, a limousine from ABC pulled up unannounced outside Skutnik's town house to take him to an appearance on "Nightline."
President Ronald Reagan seated him in the president's box during his state of the union address two weeks later and held him out as "the spirit of heroism at its finest." Honours and accolades poured in. Thousands of letters arrived. Offers for free rent, a new car and speaking engagements piled up.
Skutnik, 28 at the time, found it all rather embarrassing, and turned down much of what was offered him. He still works for the government as a computer specialist and rarely speaks publicly about the episode that transformed his name into a new noun: A skutnik came to mean a human prop used by others to make a certain point.
"I wasn't a hero," Skutnik said in a 2007 interview. "We're surrounded by heroes. What made this different was that it was caught on film and went all over the world."
The explosion of media outlets has only increased the appetite for someone new to obsess over.
"There is a vacuum that needs to be filled," says image consultant Eric Dezenhall. "It's a mathematical issue, not just a cultural issue."
Beyond that, says Dezenhall, Americans tend to interpret big events through the actions of individuals, "which is one of the reasons why we create heroes."
A tough economy might intensify that need.
It was during the Great Depression in the 1930s, when Americans hungered for someone to look up to, that cartoon superheroes Batman and Superman were created, says Peter French, a professor of philosophy at Arizona State University.
"Maybe we don't have any grandiose heroes at the moment, but we have these heroic things that individuals do, and so they gain a certain amount of fame for a short period of time," French said.
University of Southern California professor Leo Braudy, author of a book on the history of fame called "The Frenzy of Renown," said Americans distinguish between celebrity and heroism, and seize on the latter "to reassure us about human nature" in a time of rampant cynicism.
The country has plenty of celebrities, said Braudy, but "not all celebrities are heroes by any means."
Those who take heroic action, Braudy says, "can become an instant celebrity. But there's something kind of tinny about celebrity as a concept."
Plenty of Americans have filled the instant hero's role in recent years.
In the horror of the Sept. 11 attacks, Americans found a hero in Todd Beamer, one of the passengers who is believed to have overwhelmed the terrorists aboard United Flight 93, perhaps averting another attack on Washington. Beamer is remembered for telling fellow passengers, "Let's roll," after the hijackers seized the aircraft, which crashed in Pennsylvania.
U.S. air force fighter pilot Scott O'Grady became a household name in 1995 when he was shot down over Bosnia and survived six days before being rescued by marines. He wrote two books about his experience, and the movie "Behind Enemy Lines" was loosely based on his life.
In some cases, American heroes have been knocked from their pedestals almost as quickly as they were installed there, and not just disgraced athletes.
Security guard Richard Jewell was initially hailed as a hero when he spotted a suspicious backpack and moved people out of harm's way before the 1996 Olympic bombing in Atlanta. But days later word leaked that he was a "focus" of the investigation, and Jewell found himself under siege. Jewell was cleared by the FBI three months later, and Attorney General Janet Reno later apologized for the leak that had kept him under suspicion.
"For that two days, my mother had a great deal of pride in me - that I had done something good," Jewell once said. "She'll never get that back." Jewell died in 2007.
In 1986, Reagan called former White House aide Oliver North a "national hero" for his efforts to win the release of U.S. hostages.
But by the next January, when North had emerged as central figure in the Iran-Contra scandal, Reagan made no mention of heroes in his state of the union address.
"Heroes don't last very long, and part of the problem is that when we start to look at them more carefully, we find reasons not to admire them," said French.
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