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Susan Boyle and Oh So Many ...

Susan Boyle fascinates me. If you’re one of the few who don’t know who she is go here and join the other 150 million who have watched this truly extraordinary performance. If you want all the details and the complexities of her life, they can be found in this extended interview and retrospective. Since 2009 Boyle has sung all over the world, released seven albums which have sold tens of millions of copies, been invited to meet the Queen of England and has an estimated total worth in excess of $30 million.

But it’s not the stunning and, frankly, well-deserved success that fascinates me. In my mind she sits in a rather unusual group of individuals that includes Harry Truman, Dag Hammarskjöld and Pope John XXIII.

All were rather ordinary folks until history showed what a little trickster she is. Truman was a little-known and little-respected politician. FDR needed a new candidate for Vice President. Henry Wallace, FDR’s VP from 1940 - ‘44, was too far to the left for most Democrats and his pro-Soviet stance unsettled many in both parties. Roosevelt, who had a strong commitment to Wallace’s vision, finally agreed and the party moved to Truman. HST was seen as uncontroversial, something of a hack but capable of pushing around the paperwork that was, and still is, a necessary part of governing.

Hammarskjöld was an economist and a career diplomat who was viewed as a competent technocrat. He was a member of the Swedish delegation to the United Nations when Trygve Lie resigned. Having never joined any political party (despite the fact that his father had been the Prime Minister of Sweden), he was viewed a safe choice, uncontroversial and, like Truman, someone who could handle the boring details while others did the heavy lifting.

Pope John XXIII, born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, came from distinctly humble beginnings and lived most of his life as an unexciting priest best known for never pissing anyone off. When Pius XII died, Cardinal Roncalli was 78 years old and was called to Rome to help elect the next pope. He bought a return train ticket. After 11 deadlocked ballots the Cardinals turned to him as a safe caretaker pope who would shuffle the papers and keep things in order until the various internal battles within the Vatican could be sorted out.

Most Americans know about Truman’s startling emergence as a strong, effective leader. While many historians and observers of the political world take umbrage with many of his decisions (dropping the first bomb was a cruel and terrible act; dropping the second an indefensible one under any circumstances), there is little doubt that this second-rate political hack and practitioner of the backroom deal became a remarkable president. He oversaw the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe, made shrewd economic decisions that kept the economy strong in the slump that occurred after the war and, was the first president to support serious legislation on civil rights.

Hammarskjöld is probably largely unknown to Americans. This is too bad. He was an astonishing person. Hidden beneath the “competent technocrat” label was a poet, a mystic, an extraordinary diplomat and true visionary whom John F. Kennedy called “the greatest statesman of our century.” During his short tenure at the UN (1952 - 1961) he was present as a calming voice, a richly insightful negotiator and a mediator of some of the most inflammatory international settings of that era.

He worked closely with the Arab states and Israel, traveled to China to negotiate the release of prisoners of the Korean War, set up the UN Emergency Force, intervened in the Suez Canal crisis and played a role in the Holy See being given a Permanent Observer position. He died in a suspicious plane crash during one of his many trips to Congo to negotiate a peace in that war-torn country. There are many, including me, who cannot help wondering if he was assassinated. He had become too dangerous: a modern Buddha, above the fray, driven only by a love of justice and fairness. I am pleased to note that there is a new effort to investigate his death.

Roncalli, quietly assembled the Second Vatican Counsel and delicately crafted the first major changes in The Church in centuries. He stepped outside the veiled confines of the church. He acknowledged the Church’s discrimination of Jews, he was the first pope to travel outside the Vatican in over a century. He reformed the liturgy and, ultimately, was canonized.

And there are many more … Lou Gehrig was a back-up 1st baseman for the Yankees and used mainly as a pinch hitter. Then, when starter Wally Pipp went into a prolonged slump, Gehrig got his chance. He took it.

Tom Brady, who just claimed his 4th Super Bowl victory, was an afterthought. Not picked till the 6th round in the NFL draft of 2000 (198 players were selected before the Patriots took him with a supplementary selection), he warmed the bench till the starter Drew Bledsoe was injured. He is now generally regarded as the greatest quarterback — ever.

Jay Hunter Morris was an understudy for the role of Siegfried in the Met’s production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Actually, he was more than just the understudy. When Ben Heppner came down with a cold and couldn’t go on, the regular understudy withdrew, citing illness. In desperation, the Met turned to Morris. If you want to know what happend, go here. If you don’t want to bother following that thread I’ll tell you: Morris is now regarded as one of the finest Wagner tenors and is the Met’s first choice as Siegfried.

There is a thread that binds them all, these and the thousands, millions of others with similar, if less well-publicized, stories.

It is found in one of the more profound things Stephen Jay Gould, the anthropologist and science writer, ever said. When asked by a reporter if he ever regretted not having had the chance to meet and talk with people like Darwin and Einstein he responded in classic Gouldian fashion. He said he actually missed far more not meeting the many of equal brilliance, of equal vision who spent their days picking cotton, being worn down by the brutal conditions of the coal mines or bound into submission in societies who treated them as chattel.

There is genius in many of us. It’s buried under pain and deprivation, hidden beneath oppression, pushed off stage by prejudice and discrimination. When I hear Susan Boyle sing it fills me as sounds from no other artist can. Tune in and when you hear her, stop and look. See Truman grinning while holding up a paper that says “Dewey wins.” Hear the soft transcendent voice of Hammarskjöld forming bonds between adversaries. Watch the fourth child (of fourteen) born to sharecroppers in a village in Lombardy assemble the Second Vatican Council and gently drag the Church into the 20th century. React to the sharp crack of a Louisville Slugger as the ball slices between two outfielders, watch the sublime arc of a football as it lands gently into the hands of a receiver and resonate to the rich voice of an astonishing tenor who comes from a tiny, backwater village in Texas as he takes on the role of a lifetime.

Join me in celebrating the best that is within us all.

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