Chesley B. Sullenberger III said it best, soon after he was first hailed as our new national hero: "I was just doing my job, what I'm trained to do." I think it's the fact that Sullenberger — or "Sully," as we all refer to him these days as if we know him — was also very good at what he was "trained to do" that is at the core of why the country has latched onto him. Americans need to know that our beleaguered country still produces people who show such careful competence.
Immediately after Sully landed his disabled jet airliner into the Hudson River, saving the lives of 155 people, some of them Charlotteans, media reports kept describing the event as a "miracle." Soon, though, the "miracle" shtick gave way to the realization that it was a "regular" American, bright and utterly professional, who created the so-called miracle simply by doing his job well. Here was a guy who seemed like one of us, and who had kept his cool under pressure, used his knowledge and experience, and smoothly brought in a huge plane for a water landing.
In these highly uncertain days for the country, with a plunging economy, a new president, formerly respected financial leaders downgraded to selfish crooks, and thousands of our soldiers still at war, we need to be reminded that we're still, by and large, a country where people want to do the right thing -- and, just as importantly, that we're capable of doing things right.
As a good friend expressed it recently, "This country needs images of competence," to which I would only add, "and the stories of competent people who care about what they're doing." For years now, and especially in the past eight years of having a chuckling doofus as "leader," we've gotten used to images of America as a nation where people are either only out for No. 1, or too lazy and indifferent to get off the couch or turn off the TV. What great role models we've produced for our kids: Here are your templates, Junior -- a crooked investment banker or a useless slacker -- or, in movie terms, Gordon Gecko in Wall Street or Seth Rogan. Trouble is, if you put the country under the care of either one of those, you're screwed, as we now see after years of the Geckos of America running the show.
Then all of a sudden, someone like Sullenberger shows up to remind many of us, if only unconsciously, that we're not all just a bunch of cynical consumers of junk, running around looking for the next sucker to hustle. He has jogged our collective memory and made us aware again that simply dealing with everyday tasks in an honest, competent way is much more "the American way" than, say, slacking off at work or playing a Hellboy video game.
So how did we react to Mr. Sullenberger? Well, in the classic style of American culture, we all went a little crazy in our praise. Suddenly, it was 24/7 Sully. The pilot received phone calls from President Bush and then-President-elect Barack Obama. Congress passed a resolution honoring him. He got free tickets to the Super Bowl, where he was lauded as a hero, and he was a guest of honor at Obama's inauguration. He was feted in New York, where Mayor Bloomberg handed him the key to the city, right after Sully's hometown in California gave him a hero's welcome. Talk shows then took it a step farther by having him on in rapid rotation during which Sully recalls the crash -- and recalls it again -- and recalls it again -- and again -- and again -- and yet again. ("Tomorrow on Ellen: Sully recalls crash one more time!")
Now, it's out of control. Sully has been Wikipedia'd, Flickr'd, Twittered, LinkedIn'd and he has his own Facebook page where people are becoming his fans at the rate of about 100 per minute. Even his restaurant choices, of all things, have been discussed online. He's been presented with flags, model airplanes, and even snorkeling equipment. Now, you can buy "Sully Is My Co-Pilot" hats, T-shirts and coffee mugs, and purses and aprons that read "Sully Is My Flyboy."
Next up, I guess, will be a new movement that asks the question, "What would Sully do?" Before you know it, President Obama will ditch Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and install Sully as Economic Recovery Czar. In his spare time, The Sullster will stop tsunamis in mid-wave, feed the hungry of the world, save homes from foreclosure while redecorating their great rooms, and eventually, he'll be the first non-Catholic beatified by the Vatican.
Now the national SullyFest is finally showing signs of waning. Before it's gone, let's think about what we should take from it. I'm hoping that somewhere along the line, many of us can build on that image of American competence, use the realization that Chesley Sullenberger is a person like the rest of us who just happened to carry out his responsibilities exactly as he was supposed to, and reconnect with our national inner "good citizen." God knows we need them these days.
For even more Boomer With Attitude, check out regular commentary from John Grooms on our news blog The CLog.