Selfish Nobility

One key feature of maturing as a reader is you learn to recognize when heroes screw up. The odd thing is when you re-read a scene where the hero makes an obviously incorrect decision that the author wants you to respect.

The leader refusing to save himself is one that has been bothering me lately. Aaron Sorkin and Tom Clancy offered similar takes on this story: the White House is under threat of imminent attack and the President refuses to evacuate.

The tone of each scene conveys that the reader should respect these characters for standing firm. They lead from the front and accept the same risks as their followers.

But there’s a reason most generals lead from the rear. The leader is inherently more valuable than most if not all of their followers. We kind of need the commander-in-chief more than we need the deputy communications director and the head steward. Is a massive crisis a good time to have the Vice President suddenly thrust into authority?

What Bartlett and Ryan are doing is just selfish. They compromise their country’s because they can’t live with the idea of cowardice. But no one is entitled to a clean conscience. That seems like one of the sacrifices you have to accept when you get the nuclear launch codes.

Ryan even has the female head of his Secret Service detail physically coerced into evacuating. She’s pregnant, you see. He’s far too honorable to let her risk her life performing her sworn duty. (Another thing about maturing as a reader is you realize Tom Clancy was a tool.)

None of this is to say that these fictional presidents aren’t making perfectly natural and understandable choices. But I feel like the story would be better served to explore these actions a humanizing weakness in otherwise noble characters, rather than a rousing act of honor.

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