Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Greatest American - Deconstructed and Disemboweled

In 2004 and early 2005, a survey called "The Greatest American" was conducted. It was a compendium of who we considered our all-time greatest citizens. I had never heard of this until a few days ago, though I had heard of the "100 Greatest Britons" and
"The Greatest Canadian." I always thought, what an interesting idea, why didn't they do that for America? It's only the greatest country on earth!

Now I'm sort of wishing they hadn't. I don't know who they were polling for this, but my guess is either a) nobody smart, or b) nobody intelligent.

I decided to pore through this list and give a YES, NO or MAYBE as to whether each person listed deserves to be counted among the twenty-five greatest citizens this country has ever known. (MAYBE=DEBATABLE) Before I get to the top twenty-five, let me do a quick blow-thru on the 75 nominees who didn't crack the top quarter, and give them a glib YES/NO/MAYBE rating as to whether they deserve to be counted among the top centenary of citizenry.

I don't know what the criteria is, but for me it would either be someone who either invented something, revolutionized a certain field, incapsulated a time period or movement (ie. is/was an icon), great leader, or was a hero in one field or another.

Now remember, and I cannot stress this enough, this is not about the last century, or the last decade. This is about the history of the nation, all 228 (at the time) years of it. Keep that in mind. I certainly don't claim to be a scholar on all things American, but if some of these choices don't boggle the mind...

The best of the rest (remaining 75, in alphabetical order):

* Maya Angelou (NO)
* Susan B. Anthony (YES)
* Lucille Ball (MAYBE)
* Alexander Graham Bell (YES, even though he was Canadian)
* Barbara Bush (NO)
* George H. W. Bush (good lord NO)
* Laura Bush (Jesus Harold Christ, NO)
* Andrew Carnegie (YES)
* Johnny Carson (YES)
* Jimmy Carter (of course NOT)
* George Washington Carver (YES)
* Ray Charles (NO)
* César Chávez (MAYBE)
* Hillary Rodham Clinton (are you kidding me? NO)
* Bill Cosby (NO)
* Tom Cruise (NO)
* Ellen DeGeneres (NO, what?)
* Frederick Douglass (YES)
* Amelia Earhart (YES)
* Clint Eastwood (MAYBE)
* John Edwards (NO)
* Dwight D. Eisenhower (YES)
* Brett Favre (I like him, but NO)
* Mel Gibson (NO, he had an Australian accent for years)
* Rudy Giuliani (MAYBE)
* John Glenn (YES)
* Alexander Hamilton (YES)
* Tom Hanks (NO, but he's good)
* Hugh Hefner (NO, maybe if he had died young, now he's just sad)
* Katharine Hepburn (MAYBE)
* Howard Hughes (YES)
* Michael Jackson (NO!)
* Steve Jobs (MAYBE)
* Lyndon B. Johnson (NO)
* Michael Jordan (MAYBE, if only for his dominance)
* Helen Keller (MAYBE)
* Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (NO)
* Robert F. Kennedy (MAYBE)
* Rush Limbaugh (NO)
* Charles Lindbergh (YES)
* George Lucas (NO, not even the best director in America)
* Madonna (NO, and not just cuz of her new British accent)
* Malcolm X (MAYBE)
* Phil McGraw (NO, ummm... that's Dr. Phil)
* Marilyn Monroe (YES)
* Michael Moore (NO)
* Audie Murphy (YES)
* Richard M. Nixon (MAYBE, he did a lot of good stuff besides Watergate)
* Barack Obama (NO, way too soon, c'mon!)
* Jesse Owens (YES)
* George S. Patton (YES)
* Colin Powell (NO, though ten years ago I may have said maybe)
* Christopher Reeve (NOPE)
* Condoleezza Rice (ugh, NO!)
* Jackie Robinson (YES)
* Theodore Roosevelt (YES!)
* Babe Ruth (good lord YES)
* Carl Sagan (YES)
* Jonas Salk (oh hell YES)
* Arnold Schwarzenegger (um... NO... he's from Austria)
* Frank Sinatra (YES)
* Joseph Smith, Jr. (MAYBE, depending on how you feel about Mormon)
* Steven Spielberg (YES)
* James Stewart (YES)
* Martha Stewart (NO)
* Nikola Tesla (YES)
* Pat Tillman (NO, sorry)
* Harry Truman (YES)
* Donald Trump (NO)
* Harriet Tubman (YES)
* Mark Twain (YES)
* Sam Walton (MAYBE, only if for his business cunning)
* John Wayne (YES)
* Tiger Woods (NO)
* Chuck Yeager (YES)

Now after that, can you see how there may have been some questionable choices? Okay, now to the top 25. Remember, this list compiles what are the twenty-five greates people to have ever been a citizen of the United States. Does that concept hurt your brain a little? Cuz it does mine. We are talking about 230 years of presidents, science, sports, art, literature, music, film, war, business, entertainment, exploration, civil rights, you name it. Just keep that in mind on this list, ok?

The Top 25

25. Neil Armstrong. Okay, YES. He was the first human being to land on the moon, not only striking a blow for American pride, but also science. He is an icon of American ingenuity and excellence. Good choice. (ICON)

24. Henry Ford. Again, YES. He was a controversial figure. From "welfare capitalism" to Union-busting to mass-production to possible anti-semitism, there is no denying that the man is an icon of the auto industry, and therefore an icon of industrialization and modernization. (REVOLUTIONARY)

23. The Wright Brothers. YES. Wow, three-for-three so far, America! Orville and Wilbur Wright (counted as one person here) were not only the first to fly, but the first to fly repeatedly. They were the first to consistently get an aircraft to fly (not just glide) under its own power. National travel would not be the same without them. Or maybe it would have, just not as soon. (INVENTORS)

22. Rosa Parks. YES. Her refusal to give up her seat on a bus started a boycott that galvanized the country into taking one more step toward integration and equality. Can't really say much more than that. (ICON)

21. Muhammed Ali. YES. Perhaps the greatest athletic presence of all time, he was dominant in his sport, and outspoken outside of it. He was a larger-than-life presence and an icon of American sports. (ICON)

20. Lance Armstrong (Named America's "Greatest Athlete"). A-ha. Now the first chink in the armor. Say what you want about Lance Armstrong, but is he really one of the greatest Americans of all time? Are you going by his beating cancer? That's great but a lot of people have beaten cancer. Are you going by his dominance in the sport over several years? Where is Bill Russell or Michael Jordan or Jim Brown or Babe Ruth? Are you really telling me that over 100-plus years of athletics, Armstrong is the greatest? Sorry, I say NO.

19. Eleanor Roosevelt (Named "America's Greatest First Lady"). This one is a toughie for me. I admire her a lot, but who knows how famous she would have been had she not been the First Lady. And let's not forget, the First Lady is just someone who is married to the Prez. But she re-defined the role of First Lady, taking an active role in politics and not just being a trophy. Plus, she actually helped FDR get elected due to her connection with black communities across the country, garnering millions of votes. I'll say MAYBE (but leaning toward yes). (REVOLUTIONARY)

18. Bill Gates. YES. Criticize his business practices if you must, but you have to admire the guy's ingenuity and entreprenurial spirit. Plus, even though he was once worth over $100,000,000,000 (that's one hundred billion), he has given more than half of it away to charitable organizations. Not to mention that he helped usher in the new computer era, which has brought not only the country, but the world, a more effective means of communication. Wow, this list ain't as bad as I thought.

17. Bob Hope. NO. Okay, I'm sorry. Just because Bob Hope remained visible for six decades does not mean he was excellent for that long. (Forget that he was born in England.) Let's face it, he hasn't actually been funny since about 1968. He is to be praised for his longevity, but for advancing the comedy artform, give me Johnny Carson, Ernie Kovacs, Groucho Marx or Jack Benny any day. Sorry Bob.

16. John F. Kennedy. This one is a tough one for me, believe it or not. But I am going to say YES, and not because JFK was such a great president (he didn't really have the chance to become a great one) but because his death represents the death of American innocence. His life (and that of his family) plays out like an American tragic novel. All-American guy from large Irish-Catholic family, becomes president, is gunned down in his prime. By all accounts he was a great leader of men, though he had his missteps like the Bay of Pigs. He basically skated on charisma, from what I know, though he was not a weak man in any way. He makes my list as an icon, not necessarily as a president.

15. Thomas Alva Edison. YES. The Wizard of Menlo Park is one of the greatest and most prolific inventors in human history. Though he didn't invent many of the items he is credited for, he often improved those inventions. He had over 1500 patents. He is a symbol of intelligence and ingenuity. (SCIENTIST/INVENTOR)

14. Albert Einstein. (Named "Greatest American Scientist" and "Greatest Jewish American". Double-threat!). YES. Forget that he was born in Deutchland (that's Germany to you and me), this man's name is literally synonymous with "genius." (Or "idiot" if you are being sarcastic.) In fact, this guy should be way higher than 14th. He was voted the 10th most influential person in human history in one poll. Time Magazine named him "Person of the Century." He is considered one of the elite intellects of our or any other time. He should be like top 3. (SCIENTIST/INVENTOR)

13. Walt Disney. I would have to say MAYBE. I wouldn't put the guy who revolutionized quantum physics slightly below the guy who invented Goofy. Yes, he has become an icon in his own right, but in a way, hasn't his name become synonymous with everything that is wrong with America? Watered-down entertainment product? Evil corporate empire? Walt Disney is far more influential as a corporation than it was as a man. If you are going to go for entertainers, wouldn't you go for W.C. Fields or P.T. Barnum for more authentic American showmanship? He started an iconic corporate identity, but Walt himself? Iffy.

12. Thomas Jefferson. YES. Oh my YES. Not only is he an iconic president, overseeing the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expeditions, but he is one of the great philosophical thinkers of our time. Though he was a man of contradictions (an equalist who owned slaves), he is considered by many to be the greatest mind to ever occupy the White House. If it weren't for Jefferson and the rest of the founding fathers, who created an impenetrable set of rules for America to go by, who knows if this great experiment would have lasted. (LEADER)

11. Billy Graham. NO, certainly not top-fifteen. I admire him as a person, and he has had a long career of spreading gospel (however you might feel about that) but he hasn't had that one moment, that one iconic event to set him apart from other evangelists (though he appears to be refreshingly squeaky clean). I would say he is perhaps top-100, but #11 is pushing it.

10. Franklin D. Roosevelt. YES. For my money this man is the greatest president in the history of the United States. The sheer volume of things he accomplished (getting us out of the depression, through World War II, social programs, rural development) is staggering. The New Deal alone was revolutionary. Unemployment shrunk a little every year of his presidency, and the United States's Gross Domestic Product soared. And no, this was not cyclical; this was in direct response to many of FDR's programs. One of the great men of the 20th Century. (LEADER)

9. Oprah Winfrey (Named "Greatest Woman in American history"). Who is a greater American than the man who defeated the Nazis? A daytime TV talk show host of course! The fact that Oprah cracks the top 1000, let alone TOP 10 GREATEST AMERICANS OF ALL TIME (ARRRRGGGHHH MY BRAIN) is a testament to a woman who can market herself, even though she has little discernible talent. Seriously, what does this woman do? She has guests. Umm... she has a magazine with her own alien-like mug on the cover every issue. She tells people to read books (that she herself has not written, mind you). If this selection doesn't insult you a little, I have to seriously question your patriotism. Here's hoping Ricki Lake or Sally Jesse Raphael is on next century's list! NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

8. Elvis Presley (Named "America's Greatest Entertainer"). YES. I am not a fan of Elvis's music. I personally would take John Lee Hooker or Furry Lewis any day, but as an icon and a tragic figure, he is nearly unparalleled in modern entertainment. He is an example of the legend exceeding the product, especially in his later, Vegas years. In a way he stole black music, and made it popular though it wasn't authentic. But his status as a legend is indisputible. (ICON)

7. Bill Clinton. NO. I like Bill Clinton and think he was an above-average president. #7 American ever? I don't think so. I'll move on from here.

6. George W. Bush (Named "Greatest Living American"). NO. The fact that there are people out there who actually belive this not only makes me sad, it makes me angry. This list just lost all credibility for me. I'm not sure I even want to go on. Where is Herbert Hoover or James Buchanan or Warren G. F**king Harding? Future generations will look upon this listing and laugh. Maybe we will be known as.... "The Dumbf**k Generation" over this.

5. Benjamin Franklin (14.9% of votes for Greatest American). YES. He wasn't a president, but he was one of the true renaissance men of early America. He was an inventor and a scholar, a writer, a philosopher, a newspaper printer and editor; he was the first true "polymath" of the United States. A no-brainer (irony not intended). (SCIENTIST/INVENTOR/ICON)

4. George Washington (17.7% of votes for Greatest American). YES. One of the most humble, yet virtuous and capable men in the history of our country, George Washington was basically coronated (he won the electoral college unanimously to become president), but he parlayed his status as a war hero not to be a dictator, but a benevolent ruler, setting the bar for all those who came after him (whether they adhered to it or not). He is clearly one of the three greatest presidents we've ever had. He is the very essence of American liberty. (LEADER)

3. Martin Luther King, Jr. (19.7% of votes for Greatest American, Named "Greatest African American"). YES. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is THE African American of note in this country. No black American has had more impact or influence on the course of race relations and civil rights in this country. He promoted non-violence, but absolute racial equality. His assassination made him a martyr, but his legacy has lived on long after him. (ICON)

2. Abraham Lincoln (23.5% of votes for Greatest American). YES. Abraham Lincoln is one of the most virtuous men to ever lead this country. He helped not only end slavery, but to keep the nation together when it was crumbling. The Civil War was something he didn't want, but when it happened, he committed to it. Perhaps no president was more polarizing at his time, which is why he was so hated and then assassinated. I couldn't possibly do his presidency justice, other than to say that he is one of our three greatest presidents. (LEADER)

1. Ronald Reagan (24.0% of votes for Greatest American, Named "Greatest American"). YES. There is no way I consider Ronald Reagan to be the greatest American that ever lived, nor do I consider him to be our best president. Maybe not even top 10. But as an icon of American prosperity and the end of the Cold War, he stands alone. There were a lot of problems with his presidency that I believed were glossed over after his death, but he does remain an indelible icon of 1980s America, which is why I would include him, but not that high, and not as a president. (ICON)


Okay, so maybe I didn't savage the top 25 as much as I thought, but I thought many of the choices (Armstrong? Oprah?? W???) are terrible, terrible choices. And there were even more questionable and/or flat out godawful choices in the top 75. Feel free to list your agreements/dissent in the comments section.

(And please, make it educated and not some stupid partisan, ad hominem attack, thanks in advance.)


'Don' Cialini said...

Okay, I found this blog interesting and will make a few comments of my own. Of the first 75, I will list the ones I disagree with.

Alexander Graham Bell - I say no. Antonio Meucci invented the telephone and that leaves Bell out in the dark.
Rudy Giuliani - I say Yes. Not only did he clean up NYC, but in the wake of 9/11 he proved himself to be a take charge leader. One that could hold a city together and capture the countries attention at a time when things were at there worst. Add that that his record (as much as this pains me to say) as a Racket buster and his role in weakening the mob significantly (i.e. the Commission Case) this guy has to be a yes. I think he would be a great president too. Too bad he will never get that chance. A republican that supports gay rights and abortion? The GOP would lop its trunk off first. And the Dems would never accept him for his Republican views either. The American people end up being the big losers here.
Michael Jordan - Absolutely not
Helen Keller - No
Malcolm X - Yes

Now, for the top 25. I think we agree on most but there are a few…

22.) Rosa Parks - No. She didn't give up her seat on a bus. I got it. However the Civil Rights movement was in full swing, MLK was making news and this is the one think Ms. Parks is known for, and I just don't see it as something so over the top that she should be on here….much less in the top 25.
19.) Eleanor Roosevelt - Yes absolutely. And I would say for all your reasons with an emphasis on the fact she revolutionized the role of the First Lady.
16.) John F. Kennedy - No. This guy was not a great leader. Just because he never had enough time to become one doesn't mean he gets the benefit of the doubt. Lets take a look. Its amazing he had time to handle Presidential business in-between banging anything with 2 tits, a hole, and a heartbeat (other than his wife of course). His father was a known bootlegger who made his money working in conjunction with the Mafia. Good ole Joe working with Sam Giancana and the Chicago Outfit helped get JFK elected narrowly over Tricky Dick. Some of JFK's calls. The Bay of Pigs - brilliant. Hooking the CIA and the Mafia up for a plot to whack Castro. Beautiful. Then he turned on the Mafia that got him elected and they in turn blew half his head off. Sorry Jack fans, but I just don't see the big deal. His biggest claim to fame is being from a rich and popular family…America's equivalent to the Royal Family.
14.) Einstein - I agree with yes but wanted to make a point that he should be a lot higher than 14 as well.
7.) Clinton
6.) W. Bush
What the fuck are either of those two doing on the list?
2.) Abraham Lincoln - While I agree with the yes…I do not think he is one of the top 3 presidents of all time. I think he is highly over rated in what he has done. I would give him a slot in the top 10, but not the top 3.
1.) Reagan - I agree with the yes, but in a reverse to Lincoln I think he is a great president. Maybe not as good as Republicans would lead us to believe (not top 3) but he is in the top 10

Crap. This could have been a blog on my own spot and I wasted it here as a 'comment'. Damnit.

'Don' Cialini said...

Let me be a little more clear. The ones I disagreed with, meant the ones I disagreed with you on wether or you you thought they belonged on the list. I could eliminate a third of that list easily of names that just don't belong.

d. dunford said...

Rudy Giuliani is a tremendously overrated individual who was tremendously disliked in his own city because of the mess it was prior to 9/11. As an individual, he's profited more from 9/11 than anybody else involved.

Look, I admire his willingness to be the public face of New York in the days and weeks following the attacks, but I've yet to encounter anyone who can list 5 specific and separate things that he did to help NYC following September 11th. Everybody says "leader," but nobody says what that meant, specifically.

'Don' Cialini said...

To say Guiliani was hated in NYC before 9/11 is flat out ridiculous. Maybe if you were a criminal, a mobster, or a porn peddler then yes. If you were the average citizen he gave you your city back. Times Square was reclaimed. Crime was way down. The city was in the midst of a revival. All becauseof Guliani

SUE said...

Sadly, my employer was the architect behind this list. For weeks, while America was voting for their favorite America, they handed out stickers here at work that said "The Greatest American is _____." Never have I seen a giveaway so abused as these stickers. They're still all over the place with completely asinine write-ins scribbled on them...I think a co-worker has one with Bert from Sesame Street on it for christsakes. I'd say that the creation of this list was flawed from the start.

'Don' Cialini said...

Damnit Sue. It's all your fault! ;)

d. dunford said...

1. I didn't say "hated." I said "tremendously disliked." There is a difference.

2. What needs to be mentioned is that Giuliani did not "give people their city back." Erroneous. The businesses that were at the heart of "Rudy's" great cleanup in Times Square were not NYC-based businesses, but multinational corporations like Disney and Viacom. It wasn't "giving people their city back." It was building a new, tourist-friendly spot. Big difference.

3. Rudy was "tremendously disliked" because, in courting big business, he alienated a lot of small-business owners. He did not have the greatest amount of love in minority communities, either.

4. A lot of the decrease in crime that Giuliani received credit for happened due to initiatives in community policing set in motion during previous administrations. You can look it up. If Giuliani was as big a crime buster as everybody outside of NYC thinks he is, the trend would have continued beyond the first year and a half of his administration.