In the '20s, after Lindbergh landed in Paris, Calvin Coolidge dispatched a cruiser to bring him home. Many Americans were angry; they thought it should have been a battleship -- a grateful nation could do no less for the greatest of its heroes.
In the '80s, with battleships extinct and the age of heroes long past, Jimmy Carter flew a bunch of kids to Washington to honor them at the White House.
There is hardly a citizen in this supposedly cynical land who does not think that is the least the president could do for the Olympians. Had he thrown in the Washington Monument, along with a free lunch yesterday, no criticism would have been heard.
The scene at the White House yesterday provided a genuine moment of national celebration. It went beyond politics, though politics surely was present. It went beyond sports, though the gold medals dangling from the necks of our athletes testified to splendid victories.
After a long run of lousy luck, Americans finally had something to cheer. Their inexperienced, underdog kids not only had come home winners. They had beaten the biggest, toughest team of all -- and, by God, the Soviets no less.
That victory will not wipe out the feelings of humiliation and impotence about the hostages in Iran, or the frustrations and fears involving the Soviet moves toward the Persian Gulf, or the mock expressions of concern from our allies about how sad to see the mighty Americans fall so low in the world.
Nor is the exaltation that swept the country perhaps in the best true spirit of the Olympics, where winning stands second to fostering peace, and goodwill among nations. Nor even among the values we're supposed to cherish from school days onward -- you know, that talk about it doesn't matter whether you win the game, only how you play it.
You can put all those lofty sentiments aside. Winning was wonderful, and winning at this moment in that way, most glorious of all.
If there's any doubt about this, you should have been on the lawn outside the White House on a damp day in late winter. Even the hard-bitten commercial TV crews had stuck small American flags in their cameras and sound eqiupment.
When the Olympians strolled casually from their buses parked on the pavement circling the South Lawn, cheers went up and a sea of small American flags fluttered as if one. It was the kind of ceremony that on past occasions would have brought a sneer from some press lips -- another media event, staged for the cameras, designed to capture the politically critical evening network newscasts. No dissenters yesterday, though.
Jimmy Carter certainly was a political beneficiary of that victory. Millions of Americans heard him congratulating the American hockey team coach, Herb Brooks, over a special phone hook-up from the White House to Lake Placid. When they beat the Finns to take the gold, Carter told Brooks how presidential work on matters of state -- Iran and the economy -- had taken second place to the game.
Yesterday, this president, who previously shunned ceremony, had the Marine Band out there to greet the Olympians. His arrival was to the strains of "Hail to the Chief," that symbol of the old imperial presidency he had cast aside for most of his White House days.
If Carter made the most of the occasion, why shouldn't he? What president would have done less?
However much politics was present, the president seemed genuinely exultant over his chance to congratulate these young winners.
He greeted Eric Heiden, the great skater, with a hug. He had a kiss for Linda Fratianne, who came in second in figure skating. But the most touching moment came when Beth Heiden, Eric's tiny, winsome kid sister, bounced up the steps to where Carter was standing, flanked by his wife and Joan Mondale. Beth had failed to achieve the impossible expectations of success built up by the media, and had cried in the process; now the president held open his arms to her in a manner that every parent would recognize. They embraced in a scene that surely will affect the country.
Carter called them "modern-day American heroes," and said it was one of "the proudest moments" he's experienced as president.
Toward the end of his remarks, the president went into something of a soliloquy. He knew from personal experience, he had said while introducing Eric Heiden, how long a 10,000 meter race is. Then he spoke about the agony and loneliness of an athlete training for one supreme achievement. He could have been describing himself.
Politically, at this point the president was supposed to be finished. He was the underdog, if not the certain loser. All the polls and all the pundits said so. Yet there he was, on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, basking in the reflected glory of these unassuming kids in jeans and warmup suits and cowboy hats festooned with feathers and flags, standing far ahead of all his rivals in the presidential race.
A few days ago it appeared as if this election-eve day could possibly be graced by the release of the hostages. That hasn't happened. The hockey team hasn't taken the hostages' places in American affections but at least they've given the country something to cheer.
When last seen they were moving slowly inside the White House while the band was playing "America the Beautiful" and the flags were waving on the lawn. Call it jingoism, resurgent nationalism, new-found patriotism or what you will, these kids have succeeded where their elders have failed. They've given the country a moment of welcome pride.