On Flying High And Lowered Expectations

News & Politics

Skip the appointment with Madge the Manicurist. Put the squeeze on Mr. Whipple. Say good-bye to the Budweiser Frogs. Who needs those guys when you've got the 43rd president of the United States as your TV pitchman? He's got high name-recognition, comes with his own wardrobe, and, best of all, he's willing.

Making like a star-spangled version of Paul Hogan, the president can now be seen shilling for the U.S. travel and tourism industry in a new TV commercial. Uncle George wants you to enlist in a home-front battle against terrorism by shipping out on vacation. And bring the kids and charge cards, soldier!

The 30-second spot, part of a $20 million media blitz, features excerpts from a rousing speech the president gave in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, intercut with shots of travel industry employees speaking the impassioned words along with him.

"Greatness is found," the president, a waiter and a rental car agent inform us, "when American character and American courage can overcome American challenges." Challenges like enduring the endless lines at Disney World's Space Mountain ride, I suppose.

So a patriotic presidential speech has now been repackaged as a commercial come-on. Imagine FDR's "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" being used to tout home security systems or Winston Churchill's "Blood, toil, tears and sweat" to sell Handi Wipes.

But it's not the unseemly blending of the political with the profitable that's the real problem, it's the message being sent: That the truest manifestation of patriotism is -- as the president and his new kitchen cabinet put it in the ad -- to "enjoy America's great destination spots."

In previous wars, sacrifice meant, well, sacrifice. Maybe even the willingness to die for one's country. Now we're being called on to show our willingness to fly for our country. To relax our way out of this recession even as we are told that we must remain on "high alert."

The president -- and the rental car agent and the waiter -- are right when they say greatness can be found in overcoming challenges. But we must challenge ourselves to overcome more than our reluctance to fly. Indeed, isn't it irresponsible to encourage people to take non-essential flights when the vast majority of suitcases are still not being inspected and the vast majority of airport security workers are still hazardously unskilled?

The truest expression of American character has always been found in our ability to give of ourselves -- not to amuse ourselves.

I was reminded of this last week when I saw a video of "Pay It Forward," the film featuring Haley Joel Osment as a kid who tries to change the world by encouraging people to respond to good deeds by "paying them forward," thereby creating a human chain letter of compassion and service to others.

Since the film was released in October 2000, thousands of people have taken up the "pay it forward" philosophy. "I was afraid," "Pay it Forward" author, Catherine Ryan Hyde, told me, "that after Sept. 11, people wouldn't want to embrace optimism. But it's been just the opposite. People are saying we need this now more than ever." In fact, Hyde has been on a whirlwind speaking tour, meeting thousands of students who are longing to respond to the challenge of 9-11 with something more substantive and lasting than a vacation or a shopping spree.

This same spirit is evident in the Call to Service Act, introduced in the Senate last month by Sens. John McCain and Evan Bayh. The measure would make it possible for 250,000 volunteers a year to become part of the AmeriCorps program -- half would assist with civil defense needs, half would provide social services.

More than anything, though, McCain and Bayh are aiming to inspire a generation to look beyond their narrow self-interests, much like John Kennedy did when he proposed the Peace Corps. JFK didn't say he was going to make it easier on us. He said it was going to be harder.

President Bush should keep that in mind the next time he takes a commercial gig. "Ask not what your travel agent can do for you, ask what you can do for your travel agent" isn't exactly a sentiment for the ages.

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