Over at AOL Television, they’re running a show called Greatest American on which they’re trying to pick…well I’m sure you get it.
I’ve avoided many such lists in the past, like the AFI‘s list of the greatest 100 films, because if I do care about the subject, I have my own opinions, and if I don’t care then I don’t care. However, the best of these lists are always more about stirring up controversy and discussion than presenting a definitive choice, and the concept of the Greatest American seemed like such an over-the-top attempt at controversy that I had to check it out.
They’ve narrowed the field down to 25 nominees. Unfortunately, the show’s official web site is all cool and Flash animated which means that I can’t just link to the top-25 page. I have to link to the main page. Right now it’s displaying the top 25, but it could be anything by the time you read this. I’ve retyped the list here:
- Muhammad Ali
- Neil Alden Armstrong
- Lance Armstrong
- George W. Bush
- Bill Clinton
- Walt Disney
- Thomas Alva Edison
- Albert Einstein
- Henry Ford
- Benjamin Franklin
- Bill Gates
- Billy Graham
- Bob Hope
- Thomas Jefferson
- John F. Kennedy
- Martin Luther King, Jr.
- Abraham Lincoln
- Rosa Parks
- Elvis Presley
- Ronald Reagan
- Eleanor Roosevelt
- Franklin D. Roosevelt
- George Washington
- Oprah Winfrey
- Orville & Wilbur Wright
Taken purely as a field from which to choose the Greatest American, it’s a pretty silly list. I mean, Oprah Winfrey? And Bob Hope? On a list that also includes Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King Jr., and Abraham Lincoln? It gets even sillier when you look at the larger list of the top 100, which includes the likes of Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, Dr. Phil, Ellen DeGeneres, and of course Madonna. Even more amazing to me, Dr. Jonas Salk was on the top 100, but he didn’t make the cut. I guess inventing a vaccine for polio doesn’t bump you ahead of the top talk-show host.
It may not be much of a list of the greatest Americans, but I still like the list a lot because it’s a pretty good list of ways to be great in America: Scientist, inventor, statesman, media mogul, international diplomat…and that’s just Ben Franklin!
This list also includes George Washington, a successful general in the American Revolution who refused the offer to become a king. Later, when he became President, he stepped down at the end of his second term. These two acts of turning away from power did as much as anything to create our American democracy.
There are six other Presidents of the United States on the list. Love ’em or hate ’em, they had one hell of a job.
There are also men of God: Billy Graham, who has ministered to millions, and Martin Luther King Jr., who lead the civil rights movement.
There are inventors and scientists who’ve brought us amazing things. One guy, Thomas Edison, invented the electric light bulb, electric generators, a method for recording sound, and motion picture projection. Albert Einstein is widely known for the theory of relativity, but his Nobel Prize was actually for his explanation of the photoelectric effect. Orville and Wilbur Wright invented the airplane.
I like it that entertainers like Bob Hope, Walt Disney, Elvis Presley, and Oprah Winfrey made the list. They may not save lives, run the country, or invent great things, but they made life just a little more fun for millions of people, and that’s not bad.
These people have also made lasting contributions to the arts. Disney made a lot of films that have influenced popular culture and the art of film-making, and Elvis certainly made his mark on rock and roll.
Then there’s Bob Hope. Stand-up comedy is a short-lived art form. It depends so much on the context in which it was created that a few decades’ passage can wear down even the greatest performances into little more than a historical note. Yet Bob Hope’s career extends so far back in time that when he started, there was nothing we would recognize as stand-up comedy. The performers were costumed and made up like clowns: It was all minstrels and lovable tramps. Bob Hope was the first successful guy to get up there as himself and tell jokes. He’s as important to stand-up as Monet is to impressionism.
Bill Gates and Henry Ford are towering captains of industry. Controversial and often hated, their products were eagerly purchased by consumers. Lance Armstrong and Muhammad Ali are champions of sport and athletics. Rosa Parks was a fighter for the cause of civil rights. Neil Armstrong was the first human being ever to visit another world.
So who would I vote for? It’s hard to say. But I suppose that if anyone has read this far, I owe them my opinion. A small, peevish part of me wants Bill Gates to win, just because that would piss off so many people. Then again, I’d also like Muhammad Ali to win because it would be so cool if he really did turn out to be The Greatest.
Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt both brought this country successfully through some terrible times. Either of them has got to be pretty great. They’re also pretty controversial. I love Thomas Jefferson’s concept of liberty, but if he were alive today, he’d be doing federal time on peonage charges.
I guess none of these people are perfect. I’ll just have to pick the one I like the most.
I have long been amazed by Ben Franklin. Among all the other things, in his own time he was known throughout the world as the inventor of the lightning rod. It’s an impressive invention, especially when you consider that towns at the time often used their churches as an armory, and the church steeples were the tallest things in the town. Explosions were pretty common.
Consider also the way that Franklin invented the lightning rod. It’s how we do science and technology today, but nobody was doing it this way back then. Franklin first showed that lightning and static electricity were the same thing (his experiment with the kite), then he experimented with the properties of static electricity, and finally he worked out how to use those properties to tame the lightning.
I guess if I had to choose one Greatest American from this list, it would be Benjamin Franklin.
Update: My comments on the final winner, and one more Great American who should have made the list.