With Armstrong goes a long-standing brand of heroism.
American mythology loves nothing more than the reluctant hero: the man -- it is usually a man -- whose natural talents have destined him for more than obliging obscurity. George Washington, we are told, was a leader who would have preferred to have been a farmer. Thomas Jefferson, a writer. Martin Luther King, Jr., a preacher. These men were roused from lives of perfunctory achievement, our legends have it, not because they chose their own exceptionalism, but because we, the people, chose it for them. We -- seeing greatness in them that they were too humble to observe themselves -- conferred on them uncommon paths. Historical circumstance became its own call of duty, and the logic of democracy proved itself through the answer.
Neil Armstrong was a hero of this stripe: constitutionally humble, circumstantially noble. Nearly every obituary written for him this weekend has made a point of emphasizing his sense of privacy, his sense of humility, his sense of the ironic ordinary. Armstrong's famous line, maybe or maybe not so humanly flubbed, neatly captures the narrative: One small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind. And yet every aspect of Armstrong's life -- a life remembered for one act of bravery but distinguished ultimately by the bravery of banality -- made clear: On that day in 1969, he acted on our behalf, out of a sense of mission that was communal rather than personal. The reluctant hero is also the self-sacrificing hero. The reluctant hero is the charitable hero.
And so Armstrong was an icon fit for America's particular predilections: one who made history, yet one who recognized the ultimate contingency of his own history-making. One who, Washington-like, preferred quiet retirement over continued fame. After he walked the heavens, James Fallows noted, Armstrong returned decidedly to Earth and to "a life lived deliberately away from the limelight and with scrupulous attention to avoiding any controversy or indignity that might reflect upon the space program of which he'd played such a crucial part." In particular, significantly, he declined to be an explicit leader. "Nothing is more typical of Armstrong, or more estimable," Anthony Lane put it, "than his decision not to go into politics; heaven knows what the blandishments, or the invitations, must have been. That is not to deprecate the service rendered by, say, John Glenn, but simply to remind ourselves that political ambition, like our other passions, is in the end a low sublunary affair; and that Armstrong, by dint of being the first man to tread not upon terra firma but upon the gray dust of terra incognita, rose above the fray and stayed there."
Thus Armstrong's ongoing place in the American imagination. We've needed figures like him, with their stories of retiring heroism, because the alternative -- fame sought and obtained -- has been less palatable to our moralized conceptions of achievement. We have constrained our notions of success with our competing notions of how, properly, success should be achieved.