“Truth, Justice and The American Way” – Chris Reeve on Donald Trump. – The Health Care Blog


As we approach the 20th anniversary of the death of Christopher Reeve, I’m drawn back to the evening of September 25, 2002, and a private conversation in a back room off the ballroom of the Marriott Marquis Hotel. As we awaited the ceremonial beginnings of the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation Benefit Gala that evening, he said, “What I didn’t expect was that in this country, home of ‘Truth, Justice and the American way,’ hope would be determined by politics.”

That sentiment was, no doubt, fresh in his mind, having just appeared in his book, “Nothing Is Impossible: Reflections On A New Life” (Random House), a week earlier. And it was top of mind last month while (with millions of other Americans) I awaited a verdict in the New York trial of Donald Trump.

A month earlier, Smithsonian Magazine had run a feature on the first issue of the Superman comic book. The original copy of the 1938 “Action Comics No. 1” had just sold for $6 million at auction. A large part of that value tracked back to Chris Reeves himself – the enduring image and voice of Superman – a genuine American hero.

The famous slogan, “Truth, Justice, and the American Way”, however did not appear in that first publication. It surfaced later, in the early 1940’s comic books, written by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, “to cheer on American military efforts in World War II.” Its use waxed and waned over the next three decades until 1978. That’s when the Richard Donner film “Superman: The Movie” was released starring Christopher Reeve. As the Superman Homepage News acknowledges, it was thanks to Reeve’s performance that “the ‘Truth, Justice and The American Way’ motto was really cemented in popular culture for generations to come.”

In a controversial move, at the DC FanDome on October 21, 2021, DC Publisher Jim Lee announced that Superman’s motto “Truth, Justice and the American Way” would be “evolving.” “The American Way” would now be replaced by “a Better Tomorrow.” A press statement elaborated that the move was made “to better reflect the storylines that we are telling across DC and to honor Superman’s incredible legacy of over 80 years of building a better world.” Rolling Stone was given a slightly different spin by DC Comics which said, “Superman has long been a symbol of hope who inspires people from around the world, and it is that optimism and hope that powers him forward.”

Whether commercial, philosophical or political in motivation, now two years later, as Trump self declares his own “Superman-status” its worth contrasting two very different versions of “the American way.” As NewYork Magazine reported in 2012, “Among the many laughably unrealistic images in the Donald Trump NFT collection, one stood out: the illustration of the former president in the classic Superman pose, ripping open his dress shirt to reveal a superhero costume underneath. Trump used this image, which was animated to show lasers shooting out of his eyes, to tease a ‘major announcement’ on December 15, which turned out to be a collection of 45,000 digital trading cards. ‘America needs a superhero!’ Trump proclaimed.”

Mirroring VP candidate Lloyd Bentsen’s reply to VP Dan Quayle’s comparison of himself to JFK (“Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”), Christopher Reeve (were he with us today) could easily reply to our criminally convicted former president, “Mr. Trump, I was Superman. You are no Superman!”

And yet, Superman’s slogan is very much “in play.” Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway took a wrecking ball to its first word, “truth”, when she claimed the legitimacy of “alternate facts” on a Meet the Press interview in 2017. As for “justice,” the Washington Post, on June 2nd, ran this headline “Trump’s attacks on US justice system after his conviction could be used by autocrats, say experts.” And that leaves only “The American Way?”

James Madison, in Federalist No. 51, wrote, “Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been, and ever will be pursued until it is obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.”

Historian John J. Patrick has made a compelling argument that democracy is the American way and “a never ending quest to narrow the gap between lofty ideals and flawed realities…” But using Professor Patrick’s measures, Trump’s “American Way” is miles apart from Christopher Reeves ideal as we knew it.

Trump’s destructive actions, borrowing from Professor Patrick, include:

“Governing ineptly because the most able persons are not selected to rule.”

“Making unwise decisions in government by pandering to public opinion.”

“Eroding political and social authority and unity by encouraging criticism and dissent.”

“Encouraging abuse or disregard of unpopular persons or opinions.”

“Failing to achieve its ideals or to adhere to its basic principles.”

Twenty years ago, at the height of an election season, on October 10, 2004, Christopher Reeve died peacefully with loving family members at his side. He never felt sorry for himself or blamed anyone. As he said, “Some people are walking around with full use of their bodies and they’re more paralyzed than I am.”

As for being a hero himself, his insights were prescient and highly relevant to the current threat to our democracy. He said, “What makes Superman a hero is not that he has power, but that he has the wisdom and the maturity to use the power wisely.”

Mike Magee MD is a Medical Historian and regular contributor for THCB. He is the author of CODE BLUE: Inside America’s Medical Industrial Complex (Grove/2020).

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