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Bye, Tony Soprano. Welcome back, Atticus Finch.

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Barack Obama is the chief of many things: the executive branch, the armed forces, even the economy.

He is also the chief of America's character. In this role he must continue to carry the mantle of moral courage and inspire us to redeem our national integrity. This is the work of a moral hero, last exemplified in US culture by Atticus Finch.

Heroes are those extraordinary human beings who, in pursuit of a high-stakes quest, overcome obstacles to win the holy grail, be it freedom, victory, love. Or the hero might bring home a magic elixir that's been lost or stolen from his people.

President Obama cast himself as dynamic hero when he brought home to a badly hurting America its lost elixir: hope. For millions of us despairing over the war in Iraq, torture, sullied ideals, and now financial collapse, the newcomer had us at hope. He also had us with his equanimity, intellect, and ability to admit error. By appealing to our better angels, he touched our profound yearning for redemption.

His election did more than just change the face of US politics – it heralds a badly needed return to a classic model of heroism.

How needed? Quick: Name a recent movie, TV show, novel, or play whose hero gets the grail by exercising moral qualities. Not much springs to mind, does it? Instead, our cultural fare features the antihero going after the antigrail.


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