The Best and Worst America Has to Offer

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In just the last few weeks we have seen America at its best - and its worst. The positive stories focused on the passing of legends in the entertainment and communication business - Jimmy Stewart and Charles Kuralt.

Here were two men who made us feel good about ourselves and about America. We looked back on Stewart's movies and Kuralt's broadcasts and remembered all the joy they brought us. But more than anything else, we honored them for being men of character.

I wish I had known Jimmy Stewart. Actually, in my assignment in the Air Force Reserves, I served for years in the same unit where Brig. Gen. Jimmy Stewart held the top rank. But - unfortunately for me - we never took our tours of active duty at the same time or place.

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But I can tell you what high regard and respect the officers who knew and worked with Stewart in the Reserves had for him. They described a "different" Stewart - different, that is, from anyone he had portrayed in the movies. Yes, he was always very approachable and likable, but they said he took his military work seriously - that he was "very businesslike" and rather quiet. There was nothing of the matinee idol about him.

My path never crossed Stewart's during World War II, although I, too, was in what was the Army air forces and in places where I might have met him. At that time I talked to officers who had served with Stewart, and they spoke highly of his performance in Europe as a heavy bomber pilot and squadron commander with the Eighth Air Force.

Stewart had risen to the colonel rank, they said, fully on his ability - not because of his fame as an actor. Once again, they described a Stewart who was "someone else" - not the person we had seen in the movies.

I recall some particulars of a conversation I had with Charles Kuralt at a Kansas City hotel in 1976, when that city was playing host to the GOP national convention. We talked at some length about politics and the newspaper business. And whenever we chatted over the years, he was the same easy-to-talk-to fellow that people all over the United States got to know as he searched for stories along the less-traveled byways.

We were all saddened by the passing of these two fine gentlemen. The depiction of their lives - in our papers and on radio and TV - told us that America must be doing something right if it could produce men like them.

THEIR deaths came just as we learned that a sports celebrity, Mike Tyson, had bitten the ears of his opponent, Evander Holyfield. Tyson had once gone to prison for rape. He had served his time but never uttered a word of remorse. Not a very pretty story about Tyson. And not a very pretty story for the world to hear about an American who could still climb back in the ring and earn even more millions from a still-loyal public if, after a year, he is allowed to box again.

Then there is the "Big Tobacco" story, one that I think puts the United States in a particularly bad light in the eyes of the world. Sure, the industry would be paying billions in penalties that would enrich state coffers and be used to pay for smoking-related medical care. But the recent deal also would leave tobacco producers in business, enabling them to thrive through the export of their cigarettes to smokers and would-be smokers abroad.

Indeed, there's a great irony in the recent tobacco deal: It is clear that the attorneys general and others involved in the suit against the industry didn't want to snuff out tobacco production completely. They want to let the tobacco makers continue to do well - so they can pay off billions of dollars in penalties.

The stories about Stewart and Kuralt helped me - and I hope others - turn my thoughts away from the many negative stories of the day.

The stories commemorating the lives of Kuralt and Stewart helped take my mind off the negative news: Tyson and tobacco.

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