During the American Civil War, the flag bearer was an instant target for the opposing army’s sharpshooters. Yet, in battle after battle, a felled flag bearer was instantly replaced by another willing soldier, Union and Confederate, who, in hoisting the fallen colors from the ground, knew that a bullet soon would arrive. And yet the soldiers did it. Time and again.
That practice was popularly dramatized in the closing scene of the film Glory, when Matthew Broderick, playing Colonel Robert Gould Shaw of the Massachusetts 54th “Colored” Regiment, places his hand on a shoulder of the flag bearer before the final battle and asks his assembled men, “Should this man fall, who will pick up the flag?” Broderick’s erstwhile childhood friend, brilliantly played by the actor Andre Braugher, steps forward, and, with pitch-perfect solemnity, says…”I will.”
It’s great stuff.
We don’t see that kind of nobility much today. Especially not in American politics. It’s every man for himself in public life, with self-survival replacing “the cause” as the raison d’être.
The New York Times has a piece today about the pledge made by House Republicans to trim the federal budget by $100 billion. The Times accurately warns of the political peril those Republicans might face if they cut popular programs.
A Civil War flag bearer might respond, “So what?”
And that’s right. So what? What’s the worst that can happen? You lose an election, but you will have done a service to your nation. Your dignity is intact.
We are beginning to witness glimmers of that attitude emerging. We see it in New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R) and in Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino (R), with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working. And we may very well see it in New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) who promises to tackle public service union largesse.
Brave officials — those willing to put everything on the line to do what’s necessary and right — may be rewarded with electoral advancement by an appreciative public. Or they may be taken down piecemeal by organized constituencies feeding at the public trough. But either way, they will stand tall and command respect.
It’s been a long time since we’ve seen that.
Bill O’Reilly is a Mount Kisco resident who writes the blog The BlackberryAlarmClock.com