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Greatest American Idol: The Final Five

    Ronald Reagan is a greater American than Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Thomas Jefferson. That is the implication of the final 5 names on this Greatest American show running on Discovery. FDR and Jefferson got voted out Sunday, along with 18 others, leaving just five people still singing: Reagan, King, Washington, Lincoln and Franklin.

     With the exception of Reagan, it's a solid list, almost as good as the one I produced last week (I had a Fab Four of King, Washington, Lincoln and FDR, and if someone had forced me I would have let Franklin play keyboards). The slight of FDR is appalling (and consternating, and causes my gorge to rise, and gets my dander up -- all sorts of things that are physically uncomfortable). FDR got us out of the Depression, Reagan got us out of a very mild Jimmy Carter malaise. FDR overcame polio and paralysis, Reagan overcame a mediocre acting career. People say that Reagan won the Cold War, but dagnabbit, FDR won a hot one. (Was WW2 so long ago that people have forgotten? As Dick Durbin would say, that was the war that was a lot like Gitmo.)

     They announce the winner on Sunday after each contestant sings one final song of his choosing. Obviously George Washington will win. Why? Because being first is his shtick. He was just that kind of guy. After that little disaster at Fort Necessity in 1754, he didn't come in second to anyone. Look at the monument to him on the Mall and you'll see how he'll finish in this competition.

By Joel Achenbach  |  June 21, 2005; 2:09 PM ET
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Well, Washington *should* come in first, but Reagan has that pesky bunch of groupies who will stop at nothing until the entire nation is named after him. Pretty soon we'll be the United States of Reagan--and the Capital will be re-named Nixonton to boot.

I can't imagine they will let anyone stand in the way of his being named the "Greatest American".

Posted by: uh oh | June 21, 2005 2:29 PM | Report abuse

Plus, Lincoln always stops to take a picture of his stupid Memorial and lets George and A. Hamilton blow right by him. The cheap seats ALWAYS get robbed!

Posted by: jw | June 21, 2005 2:31 PM | Report abuse

I guess Reagan's on the list to balance a kind of left-leaning tendency there--Washington was a revolutionary and lots of people think MLK was a communist. Problem is, people on the right don't tend to do great things for the whole country, but more just for themselves and their families. If you want a "great American" from that side of the political spectrum, it would have to be someone like Henry Ford (oops, he was a Nazi--wait, maybe that's not a problem) or Andrew Carnegie (at least some of the money he made by exploiting the workers was used to build libraries). Ronald Reagan does NOT belong on any list like this. (In my humble opinion.)

Posted by: kbertocci | June 21, 2005 2:42 PM | Report abuse

The folks who are cannonizing Reagan seem to forget who propped up the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq on his way to "ending the Cold War."

Posted by: TBG | June 21, 2005 2:57 PM | Report abuse

I just took a look at the "Greatest American" Web site where all this voting is going on. Reagan looks kind of goofy, especially alongside the other four. So here's what I think is happening: People go to the Web site, they see the goofy picture, and they're drawn to it in some weird way, to the point that they just can't resist clicking on the "Click to Vote" button. Maybe they even say "Doh!" because they didn't mean to vote for Reagan, but then when they try to vote for someone better, they do it again!

Posted by: Achenfan | June 21, 2005 3:48 PM | Report abuse

I just clicked on the "Why Diets Don't Work for Women Over 40" ad at the top of this page. It didn't give me much info, but I was able to ascertain that there is a thing called "false fat." Who knew!

Posted by: Achenfan | June 21, 2005 4:04 PM | Report abuse

My oldest daughters (13 and 11 years) and I watched the Sunday evening "Final 5" on the Discovery Channel, and we were all highly amused from the moment they said "Ronald Reagan".

I will always treasure the looks my girls and I gave each other at that moment, arched eyebrows and bursting into laughter.

That was my best Father's Day present.


Posted by: bc | June 21, 2005 4:21 PM | Report abuse

Sounds like you've raised 'em well, bc.

Posted by: Achenfan | June 21, 2005 4:24 PM | Report abuse

I agree that FDR should make the list, but am also appalled that Jefferson got booted. The man was a genius. He wrote the Declaration of Independence and was a Founding Father.

And by the way, where are the women? What about the Suffragettes or Molly Pitcher or Eleanor Roosevelt?

Posted by: TA | June 21, 2005 4:27 PM | Report abuse

WW II got us out of the great depression, not FDR

Posted by: LB | June 21, 2005 4:42 PM | Report abuse

Roslyn Carter said of Reagan, "He made people comfortable with their prejudices." I personally can think of at least 241 reasons why he should not be spoken of in the same breath as Lincoln and the others. Google "1983 Beirut bombing" if you're too young to remember.

Posted by: kurosawaguy | June 21, 2005 4:46 PM | Report abuse

Thanks, Achenfan.

TA, my girls were vehement in that Jefferson's not making the cut was a travesty.

My 11 year old had to leave the room for a few moments to compose herself.

I calmed her and got her to come back in by reminding her that the show was hosted by Matt Lauer and had commentary from Dennis Miller, Ann Coulter, and Randy Jackson. Not exactly Ted Koppel, Sam Donaldson, Cokie Roberts, and Colin Powell (whatever you may think of their politics).

I think I'm going to stop commenting on this thread before someone accuses me of having ancestors who were slaveholders or members of the DAR.


Posted by: bc | June 21, 2005 4:54 PM | Report abuse

Roosevelt is responsible for the invasive new deal programs that still plague us (farm subsidies, for example). He tried to pack the Court to get such programs for the rest of the economy too. Economic historians agree his programs did little or nothing for the Depression. He is responsible for allowing the Holocaust go on with no comment or special effort to stop the killing for letting Eastern Europe be dominated by Stalin after the war. He is responsible for chopping Korea in half--a country with a 3000-year history --which was on the winning side of WWII. His internment of U.S. citizens was almost the lowest point in his Presidency, but there are more. Roosevelt was a hypocritical moral mess. Slimy is the word that comes to mind.

His egomania compelled him to lie to the American people to get a 4th term when he obviously could not handle it. It was unconscionable to pick a totally unprepared VP and then not allow Truman to be briefed about the important issues he would face. Roosevelt was President during very tough times, but the evidence that he was a success simply is not there.

Franklin was a giant in several fields. He was the most innovative American ever, with a list of contributions that just goes on and on. Name anyone who made lasting contributions to so many fields. He was a better writer and thinker than Jefferson and a far better man (though not much of a father).

Posted by: Dan | June 21, 2005 7:28 PM | Report abuse

You forgot to mention he knew all about Pearl Harbor in advance.

Posted by: Achenbach | June 21, 2005 7:33 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: Kim | June 21, 2005 7:51 PM | Report abuse

You have done a fairly solid analysis. Good job!

Posted by: Linda Loomis | June 21, 2005 9:54 PM | Report abuse

Reagan's primary recommendation in this sweepstakes is the modern American celebration of simplemindedness. All the other contenders and close also-rans, with the possible exception of GW, were much more complex personalities with demonstrated proclivities to ponder.

Posted by: Thinker | June 21, 2005 9:56 PM | Report abuse

Ronald Reagan seems to be in few top five American lists here. Joel gives him credit for overcoming a "mediocre" acting career and the recovery from Carter's "mild" malaise. Others are not as generous. I am curious. Who is considered the greater American on this blog, Reagan or W. Mark Felt?

Posted by: InvestiGator | June 21, 2005 11:07 PM | Report abuse

What an intriguing question, InvestiGator. It demands good criteria for judging who's a "better American" than any other. Quite the slippery slope, no?

In this context, I don't think we're looking at whose the most moral, admirable, or productive person: there are any number of doctors, janitors and housewives who fit that bill, and no one's going to nominate them. Perhaps a good test would be: who decisively turned the course of American history to the better?

By that test, I'd go with Felt. Reagan's first term was very strong, and the whole of his presidency quite good if you don't mind deficits. But would history have been dramatically different if Bob Dole or George HW Bush was president in Reagan's place?

Conversely, Felt seems to have been the man of the hour, someone who uniquely contributed to ending a corrupt and (now) un-American way of ruling the country. The exposure of Nixon's excesses clarified how we desire our government to behave, and made respect for the rule of law by government officials a normal part our politics.

The really intriguing thing was that Mark Felt himself didn't stand for the rule of law. But the country did, and we knew what to do once Felt unmasked the Watergate conspirators and coverup.

So I'll take Felt's contribution to the course of American history over Reagan's. I remain unsure if that really makes Felt a better American.

Posted by: David | June 22, 2005 12:03 PM | Report abuse

GREAT defense for Roosevelt being among the top 5. Agree with you 100% Sent it to my mother. She worshipped FDR and while a serious Catholic, I think she felt he deserved to be part of the Holy Trinity.

I LOL at at your "Pearl Harbor" comment.

Posted by: JoAnn | June 22, 2005 12:39 PM | Report abuse

Ronald Reagan was a nitwit who got elected when the Republicans convinced the socalled electorate that it was Carter's fault that the Saudis decided to cause lines at our gasoline pumps.

Reagan is responsible for having started and stoked the fires which produced the current climate of big business. In which it is considered a mark of genius to have people work 39 hour weeks so they will not be 'full-time', a badge of honor to break unions--which are solely responsible for EVERY benefit in the workplace, etc., etc.

Finally, the collapse of the Soviet Union can be more reasonably attributed to the desire of the Russians for blue jeans and Rolling Stones CDs than to anything Reagan did. And the mujahdeen in Afghanistan destroyed the Russian Army--what did Reagan have to do with that?

The Reagan years are a joke--Nancy and her fortune tellers advising Ronnie about world affairs. His 'selection' to any list of socalled Greatest Americans is the closing argument in the moronization of America.

Posted by: butlerguy | June 22, 2005 12:47 PM | Report abuse

I just love the word "nitwit"; I chuckle every time I hear it (or read it).

Posted by: Tom fan | June 22, 2005 1:02 PM | Report abuse

Reagan is a greater patriot than Washington because Washington tried to get a commission from the Brits (and failed). At least Reagan didn't try to join the Taliban!

Posted by: CodBlessAmerica | June 22, 2005 1:18 PM | Report abuse

Washington didn't try to make training films during the war either.

Posted by: Thinker | June 22, 2005 1:26 PM | Report abuse

"Reagan is a greater patriot than Washington because Washington tried to get a commission from the Brits (and failed). At least Reagan didn't try to join the Taliban!"
Posted by: CodBlessAmerica | June 22, 2005 01:18 PM

Please assure me that this guy is kidding! ONLY in THIS case, would I pose such a (potentially dumb) question due to the rabid nature of Reagan fans.
Otherwise, I'll have to add this to the "closing argument in the moronization of America." (Fabulouse line, BTW)

Posted by: Anonymous | June 22, 2005 2:56 PM | Report abuse

Reagan must be the most popular Alheimer's victim in history.

Anyone who has seen the disease up close will recognise the symptoms. The patient either smiles or feigns hearing difficulty when he does not comprehend things. His thinking processes are simple, so his solutions to complex problems are simplistic. This makes the person seem "charming" and "just one of us" to even the most ignorant.
Pretty scarry when an Alzheimer's victim and a dry alcholic are two of the most popular modern presidents.

Posted by: Sandra, blue in a very red state | June 22, 2005 6:07 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, the clueless peanut farmer and sociopathic intern-mentor had much better modern presidencies.

Posted by: InvestiGator | June 22, 2005 11:00 PM | Report abuse

"People say that Reagan won the Cold War, but dagnabbit, FDR won a hot one"....many will say WWII was won in spite of FDR, and even FDR's closest advisors said the depression would not have come to an end until 1954 without the war. Nope not a Repblican or Democrat Party/socialist/communist. Would recommend a little research before you lie tho.

Posted by: john tidwell | June 23, 2005 9:01 AM | Report abuse

How come all five on the finalist list are men? And most are political men as well... As a woman, I would much rather be voting on one of the following: (1)Margaret Sanger (who made life possible for over half the world's population by helping them control their fertility); (2) Jonas Salk (who defeated death and disability by polio); (3)Leonard Bernstein (who gave us music to help us forget bad politicians and the problems of the world); (4) Susan B. Anthony (who started the ball rolling for women to have a voice in government); (5)Martin Luther King (who showed America the power of peaceful resistance and protest).

They are my 5 greatest Americans. And they all did something great for the whole planet, not just us Americans.

Posted by: Elf | June 24, 2005 11:22 AM | Report abuse

I am appalled at the results of tonight's Greatest American vote. Ronald Reagan is not the Greatest American. He was merely a man who served 8 years as president. Communism was already on its way out in the Soviet Union by the time Reagan uttered his famous "Mr. Gorbechev, tear down this wall" speech, and internal Soviet policies and failures contributed as much to the demise of the USSR as any U.S. policies did.

The only people who would be happy about this are Grover Norquist and the folks at Americans for Tax Reform and their ill-conceived "Reagan Legacy Project." I wouldn't be suprised if all of the votes for Reagan can be attributed to Grover and his friends.

Posted by: cv | June 26, 2005 10:11 PM | Report abuse

Wow. HELP.

Posted by: FeithHealer | June 27, 2005 2:06 AM | Report abuse

While I don't agree that Reagan is the greatest American of all time, its nice to see him get recognition that he deserves. He was by far the greatest President of the 20th Century and has had more positive impact on this country and the world than any person in the past fifty years.

All of the top five were great men and great Americans. However I feel that Eisenhower should have made the top five instead of Franklin or MLK.

Posted by: JR | June 27, 2005 3:19 AM | Report abuse

Sure Reagan was a great president and all, but he does not deserve to be voted "Greatest American". As alluded to by Uh Oh before the vote, his win last night smells like another organized right wing campaign. Guess they can't leave anything left for an unmanipulated vote. You can fool all of the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time.

PS-Franklin should have been first not fifth.

Posted by: Lukas M | June 27, 2005 8:44 AM | Report abuse

We the people voted. Reagan won. There was no organized right wing campaign. Sore losers, sour grapes ... starting to get old.

Posted by: We the people | June 27, 2005 10:29 AM | Report abuse

Goofy picture on Web site, irresistable urge to click on it . . . Doh!

Posted by: Achenfan | June 27, 2005 11:51 AM | Report abuse

If Bush tried to inter America citizens into "relocation camps" and loot their belongings (like FDR did to Japanese/Americans) AFTER trying to put an extra nine Justices on the Supreme Ct. (named by him, of course) in order to RAM his unconstitutional (as declared by the SUPREME CT) programs through, you chowderhead liberals would put Bush in jail and throw away the key........But FDR is your Greatest American nominee?? He wasn't even a "great" husband and father...He cheated on his wife and children......some great man alright. How sad and hypocritical can you leftwing loads be? Maybe this will "jog" your memories:

""In 1936, FDR's supporters in Congress responded by introducing over a
hundred bills to curb the judiciary's power. After his landslide reelection
in 1936, the president proposed a controversial "court-packing scheme." His
reelection led the president to propose reorganizing the Supreme Court. In
an effort to make his opponents on the Supreme Court resign so he could
replace them with justices more sympathetic to his policies, Roosevelt
announced a plan to add one new member to the Supreme Court for every judge
who had reached the age of 70 without retiring (six justices were over 70).
To offer a carrot with the stick, Roosevelt also outlined a generous new
pension program for retiring federal judges.

Posted by: NotBuyingIt | June 27, 2005 3:17 PM | Report abuse

Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha
Looks like us conservatives get the last laugh, Reagan won. I had predicted that he wouldn't even come close considering the goofy field of candidates and the host and producers of the show. I had hoped he would win for the mere reason of ticking off all of you, and it happened.

Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha
It is not that we love Reagan so much as it is that we reject the progressives and liberals and like what Reagan stood for. This is a victory in the battle of ideas. The "fly-over" space has won again, first in 2000, then in mid term elections of 2002, then by a landslide in 2004 and now even on the pages of TV and pop culture we win again. Granted the people themeselves are not the greatest (ie Bush) but it it the ideas and values that are winning. Abortion and homo-marriage out, tax cuts and school prayer in.

Posted by: Josh Daniels (Utah) | June 27, 2005 4:09 PM | Report abuse

This last post has so many flaws, I don't know where to begin.

First off, if your extreme right wing ideas were "in", why are the leaders of your party so low in the polls? Why has Bush been below 50% approval for the majority of his second term? Why do 60% of Americans believe that the country is headed down the wrong path?

Rights are out and the church marrying the state is in? Give me a break!

I'm sure intelligent, informed people stayed away from voting for this so-called greatest American idiocy because the list was so pathetic from the get-go that there was no point dignifying it through participation.

Posted by: Marchant2 | June 27, 2005 8:39 PM | Report abuse

Maybe "we the people" should let the intelligent, informed people make all the decisions for us!

Problem is, that is not what America and Democracy and Liberty are all about. What will it take to get that through your thick, well-informed and well-educated skulls?

The experiment happened and it didn't work. Communism and Socialism failed. Give it up!

Reagan was "right" in that "Government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem."

Looking forward to a redesign of Mt. Rushmore!

Posted by: We the people | June 27, 2005 11:58 PM | Report abuse

Dan, have you ever read a history book not written in crayon??? FDR was the greatest modern president this country has known, period!

Reagan was a joke and it only shows how pathetic the republican party is to hold a B movie actor that should have been convicted of high treason for providing Iran with weapons of mass destruction as their hero.

I guess the same revisionist historians who are trying to recreate Nixon's legacy to be something other than a corrupt group of crooks will continue to brain wash the proletariat to believe Reagan was something other than a boob who wasted billions of tax dollars on his "star wars" nonsense!!!!!!

Makes sense, they are able to convict 50% of morons in this country that Dubya is anything but a corrupt clown!!!!!

Posted by: Jeff in charlotte, NC | June 28, 2005 1:50 AM | Report abuse

I shuddered when I saw that someone actually believes that Margaret Sanger should have been considered a candidate for "Greatest American". Call me crazy, but it seems to me that a radical eugenicist, racist, and socialist has no place on such a list.

Here are just a few of Sanger's pearls of wisdom:

"The most merciful thing that the large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it"

""[Jewish people and Italian families] are filling the insane asylums, (they) are filling the hospitals and filling our feeble-minded institutions, (they) are the ones the tax payers have to pay for the upkeep of, and they are increasing the budget of the State, the enormous expense of the State is increasing because of the multiplication of the unfit in this country and in the State."

"[aboriginal Australians] are the lowest known species of the human family, just a step higher than the chimpanzee in brain development."

"Those least fit to carry on the race are increasing most rapidly. ... Funds that should be
used to raise the standard of our civilization are diverted to maintenance of those who
should never have been born."

"Knowledge of birth control is essentially moral. Its general, though prudent, practice
must lead to a higher individuality and ultimately to a cleaner race..."

Posted by: Brandon | June 28, 2005 2:46 AM | Report abuse

There's been a lot of talk about the issues surrounding WHO won, but I'm a lot more concerned with HOW he won.
If Reagan won with 24%, it means 76% of voters were against him for first choice; so we can't be sure that this poll really reflects public opinion. For example, given their respective records on civil rights, Lincoln (the second place candidate) would quite likely have been preferred over Reagan by most supporters of Martin Luther King Jr. So basically if the majority of voters--not a simple plurality--had to come to a consensus about the "Greatest American," Reagan might very well not have won. We'll never know of course, but either way we need a better system that captures the true consensus as to who the Greatest American is.

Next year, AOL should use instant runoff voting (IRV), the same system used to decide nominations for the Oscars. Sen. John McCain and DNC Chairman Howard Dean all currently support IRV.
(For more info on IRV, check out:

Posted by: Lynn | June 29, 2005 3:09 PM | Report abuse

>Looking forward to a redesign of Mt. Rushmore!
Posted by: We the people | June 27, 2005 11:58 PM

There was actually a study done of the feasibility of adding Reagan's face to Mt. Rushmore. Unfortunately, the granite there was found to be not dense enough to do him justice.

Posted by: Michael LM | June 29, 2005 3:18 PM | Report abuse

I still would vote for Margaret Sanger in spite of her mistaken interest in eugenics early on, along with many others at that time and which she never acted upon.

She is certainly a more obvious pick than Washington.

Her contributions to women's health and population control were just soooo huge that she deserves a monument somewhere on the Washington mall. She made birth control possible in a world where women were prisoners of their own fertility and ready victims of illegal abortions. Just think how this has helped reduce poverty and make women healthier, happier, better educated, and more productive all over the world.

She also led the movement to provide real sex education. It certainly beats Reagan and his Iran-Contra deceits and voodoo economics, and who never left his comfy home to go to jail for something he believed in. FDR did not do us a service by running for too many terms. Most leaders have weaknesses.

By the way I would probably prefer to include Jefferson and James Madison, both of whom were very involved in the intellectual thought and writing of our early documents on independence. Both were also clearly in favor of a strict separation of church and state.

Posted by: Elf | July 2, 2005 10:01 AM | Report abuse

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