“The airwaves could use some character.” So says Anne Beiler, owner of Auntie Anne’s Pretzels, which is why she and several other donors are backing a new television series examining the character of great Americans.
Co-produced by Washington power player Matt Daniels and 45- year television veteran Bryan Hickox, Candid Conversations with Great Americans will profile commanding and influential people who may be familiar to most Americans but perhaps not very well-known. These people will come from a variety of fields: sports, business, politics, the military, and the arts. What they all share are deep personal values that drive their daily life and have proven indispensable to their success.
Daniels derived the concept for the series from his personal background. When he was two years old, his father abandoned his family. Daniels’s mother was shortly thereafter the victim of a violent crime, which left her with injuries that resulted in a permanent disability. Bereft of any positive male role models in his personal life, Daniels looked elsewhere, and discovered role models outside his family who communicated noble ideals and aspirations that led to his success. It is this discovery of public role models that Daniels wants to replicate for those who are lacking them in their personal lives.
In Beiler’s view, “a lot of people have role models in their lives, but not positive ones. We’re raising a generation of kids without parents who are becoming parents themselves. And many of them are not ready for the responsibility of being a parent. These kids need to see role models who have integrity and a strong sense of morality.”
On the basis of Daniels’s personal story alone, H. Norman Schwarzkopf Jr., the commander of Operation Desert Storm in the first Gulf War, agreed to do the pilot interview for Daniels’s production company, Public Eye Productions. In many ways, Schwarzkopf is a model for the type of interviewee Daniels hopes to have for the show—a high-ranking public figure who overcame personal hardship on his way to the top. On the one hand, Schwarzkopf grew up in a well-to-do middle-class family. His father was a West Point graduate who served in both world wars and rose to the rank of major general; between the wars, he served 15 years as the first superintendent of the New Jersey State Police.
His father’s positive example, however, was counter-balanced by his mother’s alcoholism, which made childhood painful for him and his siblings, despite the opportunities for international travel that his father’s military career afforded him. Through these diverse experiences, Schwarzkopf developed a strong sense of character that has guided him throughout his life. [see sidebar at end of article]
Steve Notestine, a real estate investor in the Midwest and another backer of this series, says that Americans used to see more examples of this kind of character analysis in the media. “John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage (1956), for instance, gave people detailed examples of role models they could emulate. Now there are plenty of programs that mention character today, but not nearly enough of them describe and depict what these character traits are. Furthermore, there’s a big difference between studying a list of good character traits and learning them from the example of a flesh-and-blood personality.
”Hopefully, Matt’s program will give us an opportunity to explore what made some of these great Americans who they are and what gave them the drive to do good.“
Donald ”Bubba“ Cathy, senior vice president of Chick-fil-A and fervent supporter of the series, concurs. ”The American people need to
hear more about the people behind the faces. By examining all aspects of their character, positive and negative, Daniels can affirm these people in the public eye.“
Unlike many other interview programs, Daniels wants to steer clear of the typical superficial interviews that are all too common on television in favor of real, candid conversations about what makes these people tick: where they get their strength to achieve, how their marriage and family withstand the pressure of their jobs and their celebrity status, why they’re doing what they do.
Being a Washington player himself, Daniels is particularly sensitive to avoiding any of the partisan rancor that accompanies so much discussion of important personalities, particularly those directly involved in politics. ”I want this program to go beyond partisan categories,“ says Daniels. Thus, he plans to profile Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, political and non-political personalities alike.
Daniels and Hickox’s production company, Public Eye Productions, is currently in negotiations with various cable and broadcast outlets over broadcasting the series. They have filmed the Schwarzkopf interview, and plan to film subsequent interviews, in a high-definition format, which will help ensure the longevity and marketability of the series. Since the focus of the series is sit-down interviews, prefaced by research of interview subjects, its budget is relatively low compared to other television programs. According to Daniels, each episode costs, on average, only about $50,000 to produce.
Cathy believes this series is a more than worthy investment. ”Programs on character are sorely needed. My hope is that Candid Conversations with Great Americans will encourage others to produce character-building programs like this one.“
Character Profile: General H. Norman Schwarzkopf
Why is character important?
Character becomes the compass by which you’re going to live your life. It certainly was in my case. I’ve seen people succeed and I’ve seen people fail. And it’s generally not competence that causes them to fail—it’s lack of character. Given a choice between competence and character, I’ll pick character every time.
What does ”Duty, Honor, Country“ mean to you?
”Duty, Honor, Country“ is the motto of West Point. It also became for me the code by which I chose to live my life. Do your duty—in honor—in service to your country. That’s been the code by which I’ve made every difficult decision in my life. It’s a code I’ve lived by every time I’ve gone to war. When all else failed, I could always fall back on that.
I can remember during the Gulf War when things weren’t coming together well . . . during the deployment phase . . . and I was beginning to get a little down. I went back and I got MacArthur’s speech to West Point. It’s the greatest address that was ever made at West Point. And in that speech he said ”the long grey line has never failed us.“ He goes on to say what this means about character. To my mind, he was talking directly to me. And I thought ”you know the code by which you live. If not you, then who? If you don’t take on this burden, then who will?“
I also realized that I was not representing myself. I was representing the long grey line. And my spirit changed completely. I realized that the long grey line would be judged by my actions. And I was ready to do whatever needed to be done to make sure that we were successful.
Later, right after Desert Storm, I was asked to address my West Point class at a reunion. I didn’t have a speech prepared. So I just stood up and told them: ”I did it for you. I did it for the long grey line.“
What did you say when you followed in MacArthur’s footsteps and addressed the cadets of West Point as a victorious commander?
I told them that the torch of character and leadership would be passed to them. And I said that what that meant was that, one day, the lives of the sons and daughters of America would be put into their hands—and that they dare not fail. The fathers and mothers of our country were depending on them not to fail.
I also said that in the final analysis it’s character that counts. You can have all of the degrees that you want. You can graduate at the top of your class. But what you need to take away with you is character. In the long run, everything revolves around that. And I told them that character was what they needed to learn as cadets at West Point because one day they too would be called upon to lead our nation in battle. And we need to have leaders of character when that moment comes.
Michael Leaser is the managing editor of Philanthropy.