America's Hero Obsession

A nation 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 Somali 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 harbor 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."

After he touches down in the U.S. 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," honored 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."

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." Honors 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."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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