All right — it’s hard to resist the temptation to mock The Discovery Channel’s "Greatest American" series, to say that it’s just another opportunity to see our clueless fellow rubes and yahoos at work. Not that I don’t believe that. Please enter as people’s Exhibit A the appearance of George H.W. Bush and First Lady Babs and George W. Bush and First Lady Laura — four Bushes in all — in the original top 100 nominees list; meaning that there were only 96 candidates for Greatest American not named B-u-s-h.
But pointing out the drooling superficiality of that first list is just too easy. People’s B: Tom Cruise. Yes, I loved the underwear dance in "Risky Business," too. But still.
See? That is too easy. And besides, it’s actually interesting to see who survives the media-mediated winnowing process to rise to the top.
The process is down to the Top 25: Muhammad Ali, Neil Armstrong, Lance Armstrong, G.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Walt Disney, Tom Edison, Albert Einstein (if I’m not mistaken, the only non-American-born figure in the group), Henry Ford, Ben Franklin, Bill Gates, Billy Graham, Bob Hope, Thomas Jefferson, JFK, Martin Luther King Jr., Abe Lincoln, Rosa Parks, Elvis, Ronald Reagan, Eleanor Roosevelt and, separately, her husband, Franklin, Geo. Washington, Oprah, and, collectively, Orville and Wilbur Wright.
What I’m struck by at first glance:
–How the first 125 years or more of our history vanishes. Only five of the 25 are truly pre-20th century figures (Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Lincoln and Edison), and they’d be on absolutely anyone’s greatest hits list. Heck, if they’re on money, they must be great.
–The two Armstrongs: I can’t understand how Neil makes it. Maybe he makes the grade because, as far as we know, he didn’t wet himself when his big moment came. But how, except for the luck of the draw, can he possibly be distinguished as great from any of the other first-generation astronauts? If you need someone to specifically represent the incredible accomplishment of getting to the moon — an OK idea — you need to recognize another immigrant: Wernher von Braun.
Then there’s Lance: Fine. He is a most excellent champion, a peerless model of the will to transcend and win. But his appearance on the list is due only to his recent run of victories in the one race that more than a tiny, tiny club of Americans know about. How many of the voters could name the first American to win the Tour (or know the story of his miraculous comeback from a brush with death)? How many could name another U.S. pro cyclist — just one, without looking (I declare that the readership of this blog is not representative of America At Large for the purposes of proving my point)?
–The two Roosevelts: It’s rather astounding that both members of a couple made the Top 25 list in their own right. You gotta have FDR — he meets the money test, for pity’s sake (until Reagan takes over the dime, anyway). And even if the current Bush is in the process of trying to abolish much of FDR’s legacy, he guided the nation through one of its most perilous periods. But Eleanor — I’m of two minds about her, and neither of them is filled with a lot of factual information. You kind of get the feeling she’s there because, well, we’re not quite clear about or comfortable with any other accomplished American women who don’t have talk shows. Susan B. Anthony, anyone?
(Here are my top 5 from that list of 25: Lincoln. King. Parks. The Wright Brothers (well, I just read a fine book about them, "To Conquer the Air"). And FDR. )