I have done some pretty awful things in the name of journalism. I have rushed up to interview mothers who have lost children, husbands who have lost wives, families shattered by a variety of emotional and physical calamities.
All reporters do these things. We wear a protective cloak of professional indifference while we write the names and ages and addresses in our notebooks. The deed is done quickly and quickly forgotten.
But I am going to have a hard time forgetting a long, cinder-block corridor in a small Wisconsin town that led to a bare, large room where eight girls sat on folding chairs facing a television set.
No accident had befallen these girls. No one had died or gone to jail or been shot. What had happened to them, instead, is just about the worst thing that can happen to a person in this country.
They had failed. They had wanted to be Miss America, and now they never would be.
I had spent three days in Oshkosh, Wisc., talking to the girls entered in the Miss Wisconsin Pageant, the final step before Atlantic City, where the winner would meet fame, fortune and Bert Parks.
I had come to do a magazine article on the American Dream, and I saw the contestants go through endless hours of walking up and down a stage wearing evening gowns and bathing suits, trying not to wobble on high heels while the same thoughts ran through their heads: "What if I trip? What if I faint? What if I throw up?''
Their workdays were 18 hours long. And wherever they went, they smiled.
But on the last night, the smiling stopped. The names of the finalists were read, and the eight losers ran offstage and were lead to a room.
I walked past the door to that room three or four times before I could make myself go in. They swiveled on their chairs to look at me.
I had gotten to know them by the names of the Wisconsin towns they represented, and that is the way I think of them still.
Miss Watertown, who had the brightest smile and the cheeriest outlook during the contest, spoke one of the two thoughts that were dominating each of their minds.
"I just feel bad for my town," she said, fiddling with the hem of her gown. "I feel I let them down. I feel I let all the people down."
Miss Sheboygan, the girl I secretly had been rooting for, spoke the second thought. "I don't know how I will face the people who came here to see me," she said.
I wish I could have told them then what I feel now. That they had branded themselves as failures in a nation whose national religion is success. They were true dreamers of the American Dream, and now they were paying for it. And it is ironic, considering our nation's history, that this should be true.
America was a country founded by failures who could not get along in the Old World and who came to a wilderness because there was simply no place else to go.
America was a country settled by failures pioneers who could not adjust to the crowded life of the Eastern Seaboard and who went West because there was no place else for them.
America was a country built by failures men and women who never attained the dream of owning their own business and being their own boss. Men and women whose lives were ruled by the alarm clock in the morning and the factory whistle in the evening.
Years and years of history books have taught us that America was shaped by the great deeds of great men and women. It was not. America was shaped by the great deeds of ordinary men and women.
America always has been better than its government, that its people have always been more decent than their presidents, and that the strength and greatness of this nation lies in them, the men and women who are not great and who never will be.