Tucson Hero Daniel Hernandez: This Is What a Progressive Looks Like
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
Americans listening for a still, small voice of reason amid the rhetorical firestorm that followed the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and 17 others earlier this month, found it in Daniel Hernandez Jr. The congressional intern received credit for saving Giffords' life when her Saturday morning meet-and-greet outside a suburban Safeway turned into a killing spree.
Hernandez' emergence is a revealing moment for America. The openly gay son of a mother from northern Mexico and a native-born father whose name he shares, Hernandez is a profile in courage for three groups that have felt the sting of scapegoating in recent political debate in Arizona and the nation: LGBT people, immigrants and public servants.
More than a humane corrective to dehumanizing stereotypes, Hernandez puts a face on the emerging leaders who define a new era of Democratic advocacy. His courage, his ethic of care, and his training and engagement in liberal causes are inextricably tied together. Daniel Hernandez Jr. is what a progressive looks like.
Turning 21 this month, Hernandez comes away from the horrific attack as a reluctant hero. Just five days into his internship when the shots rang out, he sensed his boss was the target of fire, moved through the melee to assist her, helped stop the hemorrhage from her head wound, prevented her from choking on her own blood, and held her as medics carried her by ambulance to the emergency room, all as he communicated with her through hand clenches and coolly conveyed vital information to others.
Hernandez continues to shun the label of hero while exuding the mix of altruism, bravery and calm that defines the term and redeems it from lazy misuse. In his brief but poignant speech at the nationally televised memorial service addressed by President Obama to an overflow crowd of 14,000 at the University of Arizona four days after the shootings, Hernandez stood behind a lectern bearing the presidential seal and before an audience including both Obamas, federal and state dignitaries, and retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Those who deserve the label of hero, he said, are "public servants, first responders, and the people who've…dedicated their life to taking care of others."
So thoroughly does Hernandez defy the demonizing images used to carry on the decades-long denigration of gays, immigrants and professionals who serve others through government that his emergence marks a cultural turning point.
His name has already become a rhetorical, if not a mental, stumbling block to the campaigns directed at these three groups in our society. It is a telling sign when even Rush Limbaugh glossed over Hernandez' exploits while railing against the memorial assembly and the president's message of unity and resilience.
Hernandez' message cannot be ignored, even by self-described moderates who reject extremists' arguments but pursue some of their legislative goals. Just last month, Senator John McCain was leading the fight against allowing gay people to serve honestly in the military. He also voted to block Senate passage of a bill to provide a path to citizenship for undocumented college students or soldiers carried to the U.S. as kids. This month, he joined in the standing ovation for Hernandez' remarks at the massive gathering in Tucson.
Before he graduated high school, Hernandez became a certified nursing assistant, yielding him the knowledge that likely saved Giffords' life. Still in college, Hernandez hasn't made up his mind about the vocational path his life will take. "I want to remain in public service, but I'm not sure in what capacity," he told a reporter.
With that statement, Hernandez personifies the compassion and competence of government workers at a time of relentless cutbacks and political volleys aimed at their wages, health coverage and pensions. He also follows a family pattern. "We always tried to impart on him to help his community and do the best he can," Hernandez' father told the editor of La Estrella de Tucson, a local Spanish-language weekly.