Shackleton's ship, Endurance, got locked in the ice of the Weddell Sea and eventually broke apart and sank. Shackleton led his 28 men on an 18-month frozen odyssey, camping on disintegrating ice floes, living on blubber and cold penguin legs while killer whales eyed the expedition from below, speculating that men might taste as good as seals.
At last Shackleton led the party to solid ground on Elephant Island. He left 22 to hunker down there, and with a crew of five, set out in a 20-foot open boat across 850 miles of the worst seas in the world. He made it to the remote South Atlantic island of South Georgia, then climbed across a mountain and glacier to fetch help at a whaling station. All of the expedition's men were rescued.
Shackleton was not only a hero; he was a grown-up, a member of what has become an endangered species, especially in politics.
The presidency isn't Gilgamesh, of course, but once upon a time, Americans entertained a subconscious ideal of a president with a Shackleton dimension. We somehow expected a hero and grown-up, even if we almost never got one, and even if a hero Douglas MacArthur, say wouldn't always have been such a good idea.
But after seven years of Bill Clinton (who is, to give him credit, a genius of personal survival even by Shackleton standards), the inchoate Grown-up Factor has taken shape in the electoral mind. There is a hunger call it an unarticulated disgust to see a mature adult in the White House next time around.
You see it in the New Hampshire vote for John McCain, who stacks up as an admirable twofer (though he suffers from a tendency to tell stupid, adolescent jokes). At the same time, New Hampshire suggests that the Grown-up Factor has caught up with George W. Bush; I suspect it will go on punishing him, unless he can reverse the deepening perception that he is a little too "lite" for the job. Footage of him and his father in New Hampshire the other day looked like pictures from parents' weekend.
Al Gore, on the other hand, seems to have made progress in overcoming his grown-up deficit. He began his run against Bill Bradley, that Fred MacMurray dad out of the '50s, by giving off disquieting signals from some region of his personality the sense of a man incompletely evolved, the vibration of a struggling son. But maybe that was only a bout of Humphrey's Disease, the gabby and hyperthyroid fatuousness that afflicts vice presidents trying to break loose.
Does a grown-up make a better president or leader than a needy kid? Not necessarily. Ulysses Grant, an impressively grown-up Civil War general, became a bad president with a corrupt administration. Richard Nixon, a grown-up from the age of five or six, presided over a spectacular train wreck.
We live in an age when inspired brats make great heads of software companies. But Americans would prefer a grown-up in the White House. Even the gaudiest prosperity is mortal, and one of these days, the ice floe may start to break up under our tents.