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Books: Tribute and confession

Books | Together, two bestsellers show that the test of character is how we respond when things get tough

Issue: "Columbine: Teenage martyr," May 8, 1999

It's a question that can't remain academic forever: How will we respond when things get tough? News of the terrible school shooting in Littleton, Colo., brings back thoughts of Ben Strong, the senior who stopped the shooting in Paducah, Ky., last year, by embracing the boy with the gun. And the kids from the Christian school in Clinton, Miss., who saved lives in the moments after their Amtrack train derailed outside Chicago last month. Everyone wonders-and everyone sooner or later learns-How will I act, in those moments in my life, when my actions matter the most? That question is also the tie between two of today's bestsellers: Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation, and George Stephanopoulos's All Too Human. Mr. Brokaw's book is an almost hagiographic retelling of the stories of ordinary men and women who met the extraordinary challenges of World War II and its aftermath. Mr. Stephanopoulos, on the other hand, provides an honest and even moving account of how bad character can rub off-and how very often, our trials come not as one big event but as a string of daily decisions. And the decisions we make on the seemingly smaller questions reveal character just as accurately-if not more so. For all of his annoying partisanship when it comes to political matters, Mr. Brokaw is a good man with words. The generation that grew up during the Depression and then fought World War II was the nation's greatest ever, he contends. "They answered the call to help save the world from two of the most powerful and ruthless military machines ever assembled, instruments of conquest in the hands of fascist maniacs. They faced great odds and a late start, but they did not protest. At a time in their lives when their days and nights should have been filled with innocent adventure, love, and the lessons of the workaday world, they were fighting, often hand-to-hand, in the most primitive conditions possible, across the bloodied landscape of France, Belgium, Italy, Austria." Their heroism didn't end with the surrender of Germany and Japan. They returned home, rebuilt their lives, and kept struggling to make things better. "They helped rebuild the economies and political institutions of their former enemies, and they stood fast against the totalitarianism of their former allies, the Russians." Fine words, and well deserved. But finer still are the stories that fill Mr. Brokaw's book. One is the story of Thomas Broderick. "Thomas Broderick was a 19-year-old premed student at Xavier College in 1942, trying to decide which branch of the service fit his sense of adventure," Mr. Brokaw writes. "This son of a south Chicago working-class family was bright and ambitious, so he enlisted in the Merchant Marine." (If you didn't like the Merchant Marine, you could leave it, he explained to Mr. Brokaw.) But during a mission in North Africa, he met paratroopers, and wanted to be like them-though he'd never even been on an airplane. So he resigned from the relative safety and comfort of his Merchant Marine berth and joined up with the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division. After training, his unit was shipped out to the European theater to replace soldiers lost during the D-Day campaign. His first jump was straight into the Battle of Arnhem. "It was combat morning, noon, and night," he told Mr. Brokaw. On the fifth day, he made a nearly fatal mistake. "I remember being in a foxhole and ... I was lining up my aim on a German," Mr. Broderick recounts. "I got a little high in the foxhole and I got shot clean through the head-through the left temple." Although he was administered last rites, he survived. But the battle isn't the heroic part of Mr. Broderick's story. It's how he handled the permanent loss of his sight. When he returned home, he learned Braille and he learned the insurance business. He established his own firm and he started a family. "Later, when he and his wife were having children-seven in all-Broderick would tell each of them the same story as they reached the age when they could understand the real meaning of his blindness," Mr. Brokaw writes. "His daughter, Katy Broderick Duffy: 'He'd tell us how he was hurt in the war and that when he came home he went with his mother to Lourdes, the famous shrine in France, to pray for a miracle. He said that before they put the water on his eyes, he asked the Lord for a favor: "If I can't have my eyesight, could you find a girl for me to marry?" And that's how he met my mother. When you're little and you hear that story, you really think it was a miracle.'" Mr. Brokaw also used his access to retell the stories of more well-known veterans of the war and its aftermath. He profiles George Bush, Art Buchwald, and Ben Bradlee. He tells how Mr. Buchwald convinced a street drunk to sign his permission form; the forgery allowed the 17-year-old to join the Marines. He was sent to the South Pacific, where he loaded bombs onto Corsairs. Mr. Brokaw's book has been criticized for overstating its case. Yes, World War II veterans are admirable, reviewers agree, but isn't it a bit much to call it the greatest generation? Several reviewers almost seem to be saying that it was merely their good luck that these men and women were born into the time of the Great Depression and the bloodiest war in history. Given the right circumstances, they say, anyone can be a hero. Mr. Stephanopoulos's book shows that this just isn't so. All Too Human isn't merely an insider's guide to the now-tiresome heap of White House scandals. It's mostly an honest recounting of his slow transformation from idealist to sleazy spin-doctor. George Stephanopoulos, as he comes across in his book, is a likeable young man-a die-hard liberal and wrong about most policy issues, but liberal and wrong for the right reasons. "Because I believe in original sin, because I know that I'm capable of craving a cold beer in a village of starving kids, because I know that selfishness vies for space in our hearts with compassion, I believe we need government," he writes. "A government that forces us to care about the common good even when we don't feel like it, a government that helps channel our better instincts and check our bad ones. I don't think government is good, just necessary." He's the son of a Greek Orthodox priest, and for some time considered the priesthood himself. But he felt he lacked a call to the ministry, and he felt drawn to politics. After college, he found a job on Capitol Hill, working for a freshman congressman from Cleveland. He was horrified at the invasion of Grenada in 1983, coming just two days after American marines were killed by a terrorist in Beirut. He felt sure it was just a way for President Reagan to distract Americans from the administration's blunder. (Ironically, he defends President Clinton against similar charges.) So he convinced his boss, Rep. Ed Feighan (D-Ohio), to speak out against it. The congressman did, and it was a huge political blunder. "Whatever the truth [about the invasion], I learned that day to separate what I thought was right from what I thought would work, a skill that would serve me well-at a price," he writes. And that's when it began, he recounts, the slide from the moral high ground to the morass of scandal. Getting liberals elected, he says, is the only way to get liberal policies enacted. That's why he was so ready to sign on with Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton; here was an electable Democrat. And Mr. Stephanopoulos admits he was smitten with the candidate. (In this and in other aspects, All Too Human confirms something many have suspected, that the book Primary Colors, by journalist Joe Klein, is dead-on accurate in its portrayals of Bill Clinton and others involved in the 1992 campaign.) But he soon found himself quashing rumors and reports about womanizing. "I wanted to believe that it was all malicious fiction, to see Clinton as he saw himself-the target of unscrupulous enemies who would try to destroy him personally because they opposed his policies." And so he began to attack the character of Mr. Clinton's accusers-and there were lots of them. "What began as a strange, even sordid way to spend my time soon felt natural," he writes. "I began to think that doing the dirty work was not only necessary, but noble, a landmark on the road to the greater good. I began to fool myself, because fighting scandals can be fun; the action is addictive." But he began to realize how off-course he was when he heard himself say words he will always regret. Days before the crucial primary in 1992, a newspaper in New Hampshire had information from a former Clinton driver that the governor had tried to silence Gennifer Flowers by giving her a state job. Mr. Stephanopoulos and Bruce Lindsay went to the editorial board to try to convince the paper that the driver was unreliable. They did, but as they left the building, Mr. Stephanopoulos saw the driver's daughter, who was all of 8 years old. "Flushed with our tiny victory, and frayed from a month of crises, I approached the driver's daughter on our way out: 'Your father,' I said, looking at her as if she were to blame for all our troubles, 'is a really bad man.' I felt ashamed the second the words left my mouth, but it was too late. The girl just stared back at the brutal zealot I'd become, and I couldn't argue with her, or change the subject, or even spin myself." This kind of honesty is what makes the book stand out from most political memoirs. Mr. Stephanopoulos is harder on himself than on Bill Clinton, in fact. He can only just bring himself to admit the president's faults. And that makes his assessment of his former boss even more damning: "[I] was tempted at times to think of the Clinton story as a tragedy. That doesn't seem quite right either. For all his talent, Clinton lacks the grandeur of a tragic hero."

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