Well, AOL‘s Greatest American contest is over. After months of voting, the previous list of 25 had been narrowed down to just 5:
- Benjamin Franklin
- Martin Luther King, Jr.
- Abraham Lincoln
- Ronald Reagan
- George Washington
And the winner is…Ronald Reagan.
Sigh. As I said earlier, these lists are silly. Actually, I take that back: Picking winners is silly. The lists themselves aren’t all that bad.
Granted, it seems a little funny that Ronald Reagan, Elvis Presley, Oprah Winfrey, and Tom Cruise all made the original list. Although you can argue that none of them deserves to be the Greatest American, there’s no denying that each of them is considered to be great at something by a large number of people. As a celebration of ways to be great in America, these lists are pretty interesting.
The problem comes when you start to pick winners. That’s when you have to decide which forms of greatness are more important. That’s also when you have to decide how to weigh the good against the bad.
For example, Abraham Lincoln was a powerful United States President, so it can seem pretty silly to rank him along with Elvis Presley, a drug-addicted entertainer. On the other hand, the Civil War killed more Americans than all our other wars combined, whereas Elvis killed only himself. On the scale of “How many people died?” Elvis is the greater American.
Ronald Reagan is one of those people who inspires both admiration and hatred. Enough bandwidth has been expended carrying that argument around the internet, so I’m not going to get into it here. People’s opinions differ on what’s important and why. All I’ll say is that I can’t understand how even the most one-sided of Ronald Reagan’s fans could say he’s a greater American than George Washington. Then again, I don’t know much about Washington’s dark side.
Like I said, picking winners is silly.
By the way, AOL‘s description of Ronald Reagan’s major accomplishments is pathetic:
The oldest U.S. president, Ronald Reagan founded “Reaganomics” and was known as “The Great Communicator.”
Shouldn’t they have said something about his leading a military build-up that helped topple Soviet communism and bring the Cold War to a peaceful end? Granted, not everyone feels he should get the credit for that, but don’t you think the web site should list one of the biggest reasons so many people think he’s the Greatest American?
Finally, the strangest and most memorable comparison between very different types of people I’ve ever read was in “Love Thy Neighbour” by Julie Burchill in the British Guardian. It compared Osama bin Laden with…wait for it…Kylie Minogue.
My favorite bit is this:
If you sat down with graph paper, a slide rule and a liberal selection of body parts, you literally could not create two beings belonging to the same species who are less alike than Osama bin Laden and Kylie Minogue.
It sounds insane, I know. But it stuck in my head for a long time, and it gave me a lot more respect for the accomplishments of people who merely provide light entertainment. Heck, when you keep in mind that guys like Osama bin Laden are at the bottom of the scale, all the rest of the people of the world seem pretty great.
Update: One more Great American who should have made the list.