The selling of a hero

The Lone Ranger knew what he was doing when he inspired the famous inquiry as he rode off into the sunset: "Who was that masked man?"

The American tradition of mystery and modesty surrounding our heroes, especially those in the military, has well served the notion that anonymous bravery and other self-sacrifice for the nation best suit those who put on the uniform.


That's why the incredibly crass exploitation in a fund-raising scheme involving the Navy Seal said to have shot and killed Osama bin Laden was such a shocker -- not only as a violation of good taste but also of respect for the military.

The shameless caper was advanced by a well-known conservative political activist, Brent Bozell, on behalf of his organization, "ForAmerica." Robert O'Neill, the member of the Navy Seal team that bagged bin Laden, agreed to join a "special weekend" of sport shooting at a range in Jackson Hole, Wyo. Donors were asked to cough up $50,000 apiece to an O'Neill charity for Special Operations veterans transitioning into civilian life.


A spokesman for Mr. O'Neill, who earlier had identified himself as the point man in the raid on the Pakistan hideaway, at first said he had agreed to appear as a favor for a friend. The invitation apparently went out without Mr. O'Neill's knowledge or approval.

A subsequent "clarification" quoted him as saying he would "continue to work hard to raise awareness about important causes related to military families" through his charity, Your Grateful Nation.

Mr. Bozell sought to take the bullet for Mr. O'Neill in a statement of his own, published in The Washington Post, which had obtained a copy of the invitation. He said, "We deeply regret" that the invitation had cast Mr. O'Neill "in a way that is inconsistent with the high standards he applies when he characterizes the service of Navy Seals to our country."

But a Bozell letter to ForAmerica donors unabashedly offered up Mr. O'Neill as "a rare opportunity to meet one of our nation's most legendary heroes," putting him in a class including John Paul Jones, Alvin York and others. He said there would be "ample opportunity to meet and get to know this remarkable elite warrior" and "hear his first-hand account of not only the bin Laden raid, but also many other daring exploits."

If this kind of public exposure didn't quite put another target on Mr. O'Neill's back, it certainly painted a bull's eye on Mr. Bozell's own organization as a place to send contributions. "This special gathering," he wrote, "will also be your opportunity to hear about and support what I believe to be one of the most promising developments for advancing freedom in our nation."

Mr. Bozell went on to compare his fund-raising operation with its heralded guest. "Like Robert O'Neill and Seal Team 6," he wrote, "ForAmerica is an elite force trained to defend America" with "its own army -- more than 7 million members strong ... not with lethal combat skills, but with a state-of-the art, online communications strategy that is revolutionizing politics today."

Warning that "liberals control most of the 'old' media ... Hollywood and the entertainment industry ... the publishing industry ... and academia," Mr. Bozell declared that "the Left cannot keep conservatives off the Internet."

According to the Post, Mr. Bozell founded ForAmerica in 2009, received nearly $4.9 million in contributions in 2012 and another $2.5 millionin 2013. For the mere $50,000 ticket of admission, the invitation letter also promised photos with the guest of honor. "What a keepsake these photos will be!" Mr.  Bozell proclaimed.


One can only surmise that Mr. O'Neill wasn't aware of the extent of the exploitation being carried out in his name. At the time of the raid, no identifications of participants were released. The successful locating and killing of bin Laden was presented to the American public as a heroic, anonymous team effort in keeping with long military tradition.

But political zealotry apparently knows no boundaries or decency these days amid the epidemic of private organizations raising millions in the name of patriotism and defense of America, particularly in this land of tenacious gun-lovers.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is