When George W. Bush was asked during last year's presidential campaign to name his favorite philosopher, and he replied Jesus Christ, he was rewarded with titters of contempt from the sophisticated elites. Remembering their sophomore philosophy classes, they thought he should have been more "intellectual" in his response.
But now it turns out that the president has a lot of company. In a poll of 1,022 Americans who were asked to name their favorite hero, Jesus Christ headed the list. The other top nine, as reported by U.S. News & World Report, were an eclectic group indeed, descending dead and live through Martin Luther King Jr., Colin Powell, John F. Kennedy, Mother Teresa, Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln, John Wayne, Michael Jordan and Bill Clinton. (Bill Clinton made it even though 5 percent of those surveyed dropped him from their list for his "immoral behavior.")
It's silly to read too much into such surveys. Spontaneous answers to pollsters don't require much thought. The poll excluded family, friends and personal teachers, which excluded those likeliest to exert the greatest influence on the way most of us see the world.
But what is striking in the Top Ten is what is absent from it. The choices included only one movie star (and he's dead) and one athlete (and he's retired, at least for the moment). The editors of the magazine were surprised to find that four out of the five top heroes were historical figures rather than glamorous and empty-headed celebrities.
Is it possible that we're finally becoming jaded with pop stars as "role models"?
The oh-so-au courant New York magazine, which keeps track of the rich and famous from Hollywood to the Hamptons, observes that many celebrities are self-destructing. Ben Affleck, a star of "Pearl Harbor," has sought treatment for alcoholism. Mariah Carey, of pop stardom, suffered what sounds like a nervous breakdown from too much work or too few sales of her latest record - or both.
Robert Downey Jr., the man who gave second chance a bad name, couldn't enjoy the rewards of brilliant talent for trying to destroy himself with drugs. After he brought "Ali McBeal,' the sitcom and the character, back to life, he still had to get high off camera. Marlon Brando, who seems to have scored a comeback in the new movie "The Score," long ago ruined his prodigious talent; he's fat enough to be the biggest balloon in Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.
Academy Award-winning Julia Roberts gets more starring roles than actresses with twice her talent, but she complains to David Letterman about how hard her life has become: "You sell your soul to the devil." The lives of these stars sound like updated morality tales about the seven-figure wages of sin.
Superstars, of course, have often lived sordid lives. The big difference is that today it's harder to keep their dirty laundry out of the public laundromat. Some of the cattiest gossip is pure schadenfreude, that succinct German word that describes the pleasure we take in the misfortune of others, especially when it's watching the high and mighty sliding down the slippery slope of shameful conduct.
But something else may be happening in the culture wars.
For years the hedonists have been winning the war for dominance in our moral attitudes, routing the social conservatives on most battlefronts. But the troops of tradition have begun to rally, as hardscrabble reality counterattacks laissez-faire ethics. Nearly everyone sees now that the bad behavior writ large in the celebrity culture can wreak havoc and harm when it intrudes in the lives of ordinary people.
The slacker-grunge-druggie music culture of Generation X was said to have died with the suicide of its hero Curt Cobain. Aging grungers, like aging hippies, see a very different world when it is the world of their own children. Young parents who grew up without much exposure to the consolations and disciplines of religious faith, even those who sneered at it, increasingly look for religious schools for their children.
Family values, once a phrase favored only by the "red-hot right," is honored now by liberals and conservatives alike who are concerned about the effects of the ubiquitous images of cheap sex and casual violence in the popular culture. The newspapers are full of stories about dramatic increases in sexually transmitted diseases, the pains of illegitimacy, the aches of growing up in a divorced family, the numbers of teen-agers who are "hooked" on drugs or "hooking-up" for casual sex.
The self-destruction of celebrities comes packaged with a warning label for nearly everybody. Curt Cobain, who is still dead, is nobody's favorite philosopher.