"Gentlemen, I'm Going to Fly"
The story of the Wright Brothers from Dayton, Ohio is filled with ideas of consequence for the culture of Capitol Hill and American politics today.
If every story of history were written as richly as David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers, every person the world over would be a student of history. The story of man learning to fly leaps from the beautifully, perfectly crafted pages into the reader’s consciousness, awakening an even deeper awe for one of mankind’s greatest inventions. The flying machine is more than an invention though. It’s an art; it is science conquered. It is an age-old dream and wonder of the world harnessed for the betterment of humanity. After reading the book, you’ll never see an airplane in quite the same way again.
It’s fitting that a story so captivating be told by one of the greatest writers. Not only is he a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, McCullough is also a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Story after story, he gives the world a taste of what it means to write the truth, and to do so beautifully. I’ve had the privilege of hearing him speak twice at the Library of Congress, and even got to meet him once at a book signing for The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. I shared with him that my grandmother is from France, that she lived in Paris, and came to America with my grandpa after World War II. Perhaps I only imagined it out of a desire to tell a story to one of the world’s greats, but it seemed the look of interest on his face revealed a man curious to understand the human experience, always ready to learn great stories and share them—and the people whose lives he brings to life again—with the world.
We have much to learn as a nation from those who have gone before us. It is also fitting that a writer like McCullough share his work at the Library of Congress—I first learned he was writing the book at the second of his visits—because the story of the Wright Brothers from Dayton, Ohio is filled with ideas of consequence for the culture of Capitol Hill and American politics today. And so for today’s journal, we will examine their story, drawing conclusions for our work in politics that will help us bring creativity and truth and beauty into our work.
A COMMUNITY BUILT ON EQUALITY, AUTHENTICITY, AND ENCOURAGEMENT
Healing – in our political culture, will come through a deeper knowledge of freedom. Flying, at its beginning, was a visionary pursuit (p. 71) rooted in the idea that it could and should be possible. But for a vision of such magnitude to take root for us personally today, we have to journey back to the core of who we are as people and be sure we can find the inner courage to sustain the vision. Political dysfunction is rooted in the absence of healing in our own lives at a very personal level. Before the brothers were bicycle mechanics and flying machine inventors, they published the West Side News:
Now and then the brothers would include items from other publications that they judged worthy of the readers’ attention, such as one titled “Encourage Your Boy,” reprinted from Architect and Building News.
Do not wait for the boy to grow up before you begin to treat him as an equal. A proper amount of confidence, and words of encouragement and advice...give him to understand that you trust him in many ways, helps to make a man of him long before he is a man in either stature or years….
If a boy finds he can make a few articles with his hands, it tends to make him rely on himself. And the planning that is necessary for the execution of the work is a discipline and an education of great value to him. (p. 19).
Political dysfunction comes at least in part from the opposite of the ideas here: not being treated as an equal, not being accepted into a community built on authenticity instead of fear, and not having a safe place filled with encouragement and advice to grow and develop as a human being. Somehow, in our political culture we have forgotten these ideas of equality and confidence and encouragement that the Wright Brothers understood and published long before they learned to fly. To the extent that we even build community, it’s rooted in performance, fear of condemnation, and a rejection of “the other” outside our tribe – and all very cut-throat. It’s no coincidence that the Wright Brothers—and their sister Katherine, and father, to the extent they were involved—built so great an invention when you consider how strong their foundation of equality, confidence, and encouragement must have been.
BUILDING A RESPECTABLE CONGRESS
We aren’t building anything on Capitol Hill, because we are far too pleased with the busyness of performing, fearing, and rejecting the people we are called to serve or serve alongside. My friends on the right will argue that we shouldn’t be building, though, that we should shut down large portions of the government so innovations like the airplane can continue. Apart from the fact that an actual plan would have to be put in place to do so, and win the consent of the governed, the larger idea that needs to take root here is that we desperately need to build a functional Congress. Regardless of what we believe about the size of government, we need to create a representative body bent on entering into debate for the betterment of the country. The Congress could actually be a place known for its statesmanship, its depth of thought, and leadership in full pursuit of Truth and Beauty. If we truly believe in the ideas behind our founding and the Constitution, we will take this responsibility much more seriously.
Should these ideas take root, the caste system (which we have discussed previously in our journal) could finally be obliterated, and the future leaders of the country could grow in a place where their leadership abilities are cultivated, instead of tucked away and confined into another cluttered cubicle.
VISION BORN OUT OF DISSATISFACTION
In seeing the magnitude of the changes Congress could employ, and realizing that what’s been done before isn’t working, it would be natural to fall into a place of discouragement. But that is exactly the moment when the vision will be born for each of us personally to make the most significant changes. If Wilbur and Orville had quit after only one trip to Kitty Hawk, they may have never cracked the code to command the sky.
What they talked about on the train heading back to Ohio was neither recorded at the time nor discussed in any detail afterward. Yet it is clear from a few of their later comments that they were as down in spirit about their work as they had ever been, and especially Wilbur.
It was not just that their machine had performed so poorly, or that so much still remained to be solved, but that so many of the long-established, supposedly reliable calculations and tables prepared by the likes of Lilienthal, Langley, and Chanute—data the brothers had taken as gospel—had proven to be wrong and could no longer be trusted. Clearly those esteemed authorities had been guessing, “groping in the dark.” The accepted tables were, in a word, “worthless.”
According to what Orville was to write years later, Wilbur was at such a low point he declared that “not in a thousand years would man ever fly.” (p. 63).
FOCUS TO SOLVE BIG PROBLEMS
In the dysfunction of Congress, where what’s been done before is perpetuated, we have also lost our ability to solve big problems. It is expected of Members of Congress that they know something about everything, and are always ready to speak and give answers to every issue of the day. If they don’t, somehow it is assumed that they aren’t “leading”. But if you read beyond the Facebook memes, and actually study issues like reforming the Department of Education, or the pros and cons of the Administration’s Clean Power Plan (as I have, on both counts), you realize the solution or valuable reforms will take time, in-depth research, and a lot of focus. But knowing something about everything can easily lead to knowing nothing about everything, and by “knowing nothing” I mean just enough to keep the Facebook meme gods happy, but not enough to find a solution of consequence, and much less to implement it. Focus, however, born out of vision and frustration with the status quo, is exactly what gave us the airplane.
The work was unlike anything the brothers had ever undertaken and the most demanding of their time and powers of concentration. They were often at it past midnight. As said later in the Aeronautical Journal of the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain, “Never in the history of the world had men studied the problem with such scientific skill nor with such undaunted courage.” (p. 70).
DEEPER DEBATE IN PURSUIT OF TRUTH
To be honest, it’s not as if clear focus and a respectable Congress will be without intense debate. On the contrary, it will free us to debate more fully, at greater depth, and as judgment playing fields are leveled, with a lot more respect for “the other” as we pursue truth.
After several months of study and discussion they had come to understand that the thrust generated by a standing propeller was no indication of the thrust when in motion, and that the only realistic way to test the efficiency of a propeller would be to try it out on the flying machine.
During these months their “discussions” became as intense as they had ever been. Heated words flew, filling hours of their days and nights, often at the tops of their voices. “If you don’t stop arguing, I’ll leave home,” a nearly hysterical Katherine cried at one point.
According to Charlie Taylor, they were never really mad at each other. One morning after one of their “hottest” exchanges, he had only just opened the shop at seven o’clock as usual when Orville came in saying he “guessed he’d been wrong and they ought to do it Will’s way.” Shortly after, Wilbur arrived to announce he had been thinking it over and “perhaps Orv was right.” The point was, said Charlie, “when they were through…they knew where they were and could go ahead with the job.” (p. 89).
Having actually debated and considered each other’s points of view, going ahead with the job would yield impressive results.
It had taken four years. They had endured violent storms, accidents, one disappointment after another, public indifference or ridicule, and clouds of demon mosquitoes. To get to and from their remote sand dune testing ground they had made five round-trips from Dayton (counting Orville’s return home to see about stronger propeller shafts), a total of seven thousand miles by train, all to fly a little more than half a mile. No matter. They had done it. (p. 106).
ABILITY TO WORK WITHOUT NEEDING RECOGNITION
There is so much tucked into this paragraph that describes a creative pursuit, and if we are to give up motivating out of fear, open ourselves to greater community, turn away from the caste system, and focus time and resources on specific problems and their solutions, then we have to be ready for the disappointment, the public indifference, and the ridicule that will come with it. If we go behind the scenes to solve the great problems facing the country—and the list of problems is long—we might have to give up the need to have someone notice, as counterintuitive as that might sound at first look.
When reporters finally did notice the Wright Brothers, in part what they noticed was how unnoticed their work still was:
Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk seemed “the end of the world,” wrote the correspondent for Collier’s Weekly, Arthur Ruhl, who then stressed that this end of the world had in fact become “the center of the world because it was the touchable embodiment of an Idea, which, presently, is to make the world something different than it has ever been before.”
It was not newspaper reporters, he said, but the world’s curiosity that had ridden, climbed, waded, and tramped all those miles and now lay hiding there, hungry and peering across the intervening sands. “There was something weird, almost uncanny about the whole thing,” wrote another correspondent. “Here on this lonely beach was being performed the greatest act of the ages, but there were no spectators and no applause save the booming of the surf and the startled cries of the sea birds.” (pp. 157-158).
GREATNESS IS FOR EVERYONE
It was the greatest act of the ages indeed. What is it that we are called to accomplish in our day? For too long, we’ve assumed that great ideas are reserved for the few, or that returning America to “greatness” is an actual destination we can reach. We’ve forgotten that greatness is how we choose to spend all of our days. Greatness is determined by what we do with the time and positions we’ve been given. Everyone—and especially anyone working in American politics—should read The Wright Brothers by David McCullough. Beyond the insights examined here for political culture, there is much more to their story that through careful thought can restore our minds and our work. Doing so can change us from the inside.
When the Flyer was built, Wilbur traveled to France to begin discussions of selling it.
Alert, patient, closely attentive, Wilbur “never rattled,” as his father would say, never lost his confidence. He could be firm without being dictatorial, disagree without causing offense. Nor was there ever a doubt that when he spoke he knew what he was talking about. (p. 142).
It was this internal confidence, no doubt growing inside him long before the first actual flight, that enabled him to say, in a field in France, “Gentlemen, I’m going to fly” – and do it.
The crowd was ecstatic, cheering, shouting, hardly able to believe what they had seen. As said in the Paris Herald, it was “not the extent but the nature of the flight which was so startling.” There were shouts of “C’est l’homme qui a conquis l’air!” “This man has conquered the air,” and “Il n’est pas bluffeur!” “He is not a bluffer.” One of the French pilots present, Paul Zens, who had been waiting since morning, told a reporter, “I would have waited ten times as long to have seen what I have seen today.” (pp. 170-171).
If we look inside and allow our perspective to be renewed, our work on Capitol Hill can become a creative pursuit.
Eventually, the whole world would know that the Wright Brothers from Ohio were the first to fly. They created, as Frenchman Louis Barthou noted, “through straightforwardness, intelligence, and tenacity…one of the most beautiful inventions of the human genius.” (p. 207).
We can view our work as a creative pursuit of Truth and Beauty; doing so in American politics and beyond will change everything. The Wright Brothers is one of those books you’ll want to read every day, if only to get lost in a story of such importance. The truth is, though, there’s a story of great importance at the center of every human in our race. We can, without question, live it with confidence, because LIBERATUS—we are set free.