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The Greatest American Idol

     You may have seen Gene's column about this new TV show that will select "the Greatest American." It's basically "American Idol," with historically significant people rather than amateur singers. The public gets to decide, in the same way it got to pick between Bo and Carrie. Maybe this is what scholars mean when they talk about the "democratization of History." (I had thought it meant that the profusion of easily accessible primary documents, via such meticulously annotated collections as The Papers of George Washington, gave amateurs the same resources for scholarship as the academics.)

    Gene has already ably eviscerated the list of 100 nominees. For a blogger, this is a tricky topic, since any attempt to ridicule the public's taste can quickly degenerate into a George Will impersonation (Gene is in no danger of that). Someone please slap me if I use the words "appalled" or "consternated" or if I take umbrage. I normally don't take umbrage at anything, because I don't LIKE umbrage, and pretty much gave up umbrage after college. In any case, as Gene noted, the Top 100 list was heavily skewed toward people who are alive today, or have been alive in the very recent past, and many of them are just celebrities and loud-mouths and ding-dongs from the world of movies and television (Mel Gibson, Ellen DeGeneres, Dr. Phil, Tom Cruise, George W. Bush).

     But now there are only 25 left on the list, and we see that Dubya made the cut, as did Bill Clinton, Lance Armstrong, and Oprah. Bob Hope makes the Final 25 but not Alexander Hamilton. Bill Gates is a finalist, but not Teddy Roosevelt. Elvis in, Frederick Douglass out. [Oops; for a second I had a hankering for some umbrage.]

    The Final 25: Ali, N. Armstrong, L. Armstrong, Dubya, Bubba, Disney, Edison, Einstein, Ford, Franklin, Gates, Graham, Hope, Jefferson, Kennedy, King, Lincoln, Parks, Presley, Reagan, E. Roosevelt, F.D. Roosevelt, Washington, Winfrey, and Wright Bros.

     That's a horrifying number of Armstrongs just for starters, and makes you wonder how the public missed nominating George Armstrong Custer, Armstrong Williams and Jack Armstrong the All-American Boy. As for Einstein, I was under the distinct impression that he was pretty much a German.

    Among the more formidable names that shouldn't make it to the final round, Franklin gets demerits for being the 18th century equivalent of a blogger (too much self-promotion and intellectual vagrancy), and Jefferson is disqualified for being a raving states-rights lunatic and unrepentant slaveowner who lived high on the hog and then, in death, left a community of African Americans to face the auction block.

    It should be obvious that only four people could be considered the Greatest American: Washington, Lincoln, FDR, or King. You could make a persuasive case for any of the four: Washington for being the indispensable figure in the creation of the country, Lincoln for saving it, Roosevelt for seeing us through our greatest economic crisis and for helping save the world from fascism, and King for leading the most important social movement in our nation's history.

     America is both a physical entity and an idea. You'd ideally want someone whose biography reflects both the creation/preservation of America and its highest aspirations. No one spoke to core principles of America better than Lincoln and Dr. King, though Roosevelt could turn a phrase, too. Lincoln and Roosevelt faced the greatest crises. And Washington? First in war, first in peace, first in the National League East (yeah, baby).

   Ultimately it's not only absurd to pick one person, but it resurrects the Great Man version of history that I thought we had left behind. As someone who wrote an entire book on George Washington, I'm a strange one to bring this up, but remember, my book focused on the backwoods Washington, and it didn't sell, which gives it more intellectual credibility. "Social history" sometimes is taken to an extreme, and the Howard Zinns would have you believe that no one with power ever had a noble motive, but the Discovery Channel turns history into a contest. American history isn't a singing competition. Discovery should run a parallel show on the 100 Most Underappreciated Americans. And to be really authentic, everyone on the list should be anonymous: The people who did the labor, dug the canals, picked the cotton, etc., and who built a great nation even though they knew they were never going to be on anyone's list.

By Joel Achenbach  |  June 16, 2005; 9:26 AM ET
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"Dubya" rhymes with "Bubba." That's funny.

Posted by: Tom fan | June 16, 2005 11:19 AM | Report abuse

"First in war, first in peace, first in the National League East (yeah, baby)."

Love it! When does your book of poetry come out?

Posted by: Eric | June 16, 2005 11:28 AM | Report abuse


Joel Ferlinghetti....

Posted by: John | June 16, 2005 11:36 AM | Report abuse

See, now, shows like this make Americans THINK they understand their history, when, in reality, they don't... so much so that people walk by the Capitol Building and say, "Is that the Supreme Court??" (I swear, it actually happened.) As a former history major, it amazes me how stupid our country really is. And they want me to show pride in my country and send my brother off to war??? I think not!!

Posted by: KSM | June 16, 2005 11:45 AM | Report abuse

This show is garbage, what about the lowly American GI's who gave there short lives to protect our freedoms! We will never know the potential contributions to our country they could of made throughout their lives. What about Civil Rights leaders who were killed just for trying to make our country better? There is NO one Greatest American. To name one is an affront any American who has sacrificed for our country.

Posted by: Chris Saben | June 16, 2005 11:46 AM | Report abuse

". . .the Discovery Channel turns history into a context." - did you mean contest? By the way, this sort of silliness would apply to any effort to rate the "best" or "greatest" that uses the votes of the uninformed to make the selections. I haven't bothered to look, but did Discovery provide any criteria for those doing the nominating? From the results, it's obvious they didn't, or those nominating didn't bother to apply them. Sigh. Another round of umrage for all.

Posted by: Jeff | June 16, 2005 11:48 AM | Report abuse

Of the four you've narrowed it down to (and I am in no way endorsing your choices), only MLK has no memorial here in Washington, other than the namesake library in appalling condition. Shameful, really.

Posted by: blogvirgin | June 16, 2005 11:48 AM | Report abuse

Oops. Umbrage.

Posted by: Jeff | June 16, 2005 11:49 AM | Report abuse

"Comparison must be an ego device, for love makes none. Specialness always makes comparisons. It is established by a lack seen in another, and maintained by searching for, and keeping clear in sight, all lacks it can perceive. . . . Pursuit of specialness is always at the cost of peace."

from "A Course in Miracles," Foundation for Inner Peace

Posted by: Anonymous | June 16, 2005 12:02 PM | Report abuse

uh, Joel, we arent first in war nor first in peace these days.

Posted by: me | June 16, 2005 12:09 PM | Report abuse

Elvis Presley? He was a singer. Sure he brought pelvic thrusting into the mainstream, but I highly doubt he was the only one who could have done that. I could have done that. No big achievement there. I'm not criticizing his music or anything, but I am suspicious when it comes to his credibility as a candidate for this list.

Posted by: Sara | June 16, 2005 12:10 PM | Report abuse

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation did this last year (but to identify the Greatest Canadian, natch). I can't remember who they ended up picking, but I think it was the guy who first made a hockey puck out of something other than frozen horse manure.

And isn't Mel Gibson an Aussie? Maybe the show should be the Greatest Foreign American. You'd be able to keep Einstein and Mel, add Edward Teller, Jim Carrey, the Red October's Captain Ramius, Werner Von Braun, Ahnuld, and A.G. Bell.

Posted by: byoolin | June 16, 2005 12:13 PM | Report abuse

I'd been expecting another Runaway Bride entry today. But this is good too. I love the part about the umbrage.

Posted by: Achenfan | June 16, 2005 12:38 PM | Report abuse

I ain't got no college degrees and I ain't taken no umbrage from no man no matter what his petitgreed and anybody's greatest American who ain't his momma and his daddy ain't got his head screwed on tight from the gitgo just cause I says so. Why, when I was a boy my mamma used to slave night and day over a hot umbrage vat just so I could be like the other kids and not have to go beggin for my umbrage soes don't even get me started 'ceptin you's already did so don't keep me going instead and I means it 'bout yo mammy and yo pappy. Now I must take my leave to go pester Dana Priestess Live Online so I bid y'all fond due.

Posted by: Moi Moi | June 16, 2005 12:52 PM | Report abuse

...and the Governator is technically from Austria, is he not?

Posted by: walkingparty | June 16, 2005 12:54 PM | Report abuse

Although I agree that all such lists as this are compiled by two guys named Moe and Ron, I must nonetheless second your comment on Dr. King. He was without doubt the greatest American of my lifetime (I'm 57). He spoke truth to power. He held up a mirror and compelled white America to see themselves clearly. Those who had a conscience worked for change. Those who didn't tried to break the mirror. Dr. King did not do this for money, for fame, for power, for elected office. He did it because it was the right thing to do. Just as much as the men who marched into carnage and death at Normandy, MLK was a hero.

Posted by: kurosawaguy | June 16, 2005 12:56 PM | Report abuse

I don't quarrel (or even take umbrage) with any part of your column, but I think I'd add that Reagan's role (whether viewed as substantive or rhetorical, or a combination of both, as I view it) in helping the country believe that it could prevail over Soviet communism/authoritarianism is as important to our history as FDR's leadership through the depression and WWII.

Posted by: MIke | June 16, 2005 1:09 PM | Report abuse

But of course the Greatest American would have to be a man!

Posted by: Woman | June 16, 2005 1:23 PM | Report abuse

G. Washington deserves the nod for greatest American because he did something that was, as far as I know, unprecedented. Even though he could have ruled the new country, he voluntarily requished power, twice. When the British were defeated, his army would have made him king, but he refused. And then he stepped down from the presidency after only two terms, when he could have been elected for life, setting up a model that lasted under FDR.

Even a well-intentioned person would have a hard time doing this - it's one of the biggest challenges to new democracies. Without G. Washington's example, the U.S. would have been a different country.

Posted by: Greenlady | June 16, 2005 1:38 PM | Report abuse

"Greatest Americans"?

In addition to showing us how to build pretty, expensive, and unusable motorcycles for showoffs, the Discovery Channel has shown us the vacuity of the American public, and given me another channel to remove from my menu of choices.

Posted by: gkam | June 16, 2005 1:41 PM | Report abuse

And nobody ever seems to point out how incredibly un-democratic this kind of "voting" is. Does anybody think that certain political operatives won't just call over and over and stuff the ballot box with votes for Dubya??

Posted by: DC Skeptic | June 16, 2005 1:44 PM | Report abuse

I enjoy your musings. How Winfrey and the like made the list is just amazing, when one things of the great numbers that didn't make this list, that have had a far greater impact. It is the television culture and short attention spans of most Americans shining through.

Posted by: Ken Blackwood | June 16, 2005 1:45 PM | Report abuse

My Greatest Americans list would include Eugene Victor Debs.

(Put that in my FBI file, go ahead.)

And, on the women's side, I think Hariette Beacher Stowe would probably make the top 100.

Posted by: kbertocci | June 16, 2005 1:51 PM | Report abuse

Harriet Beecher Stowe--SORRY!!!

Posted by: Anonymous | June 16, 2005 1:52 PM | Report abuse

"We are all great if we can shine light on the truth and expose falsehood to shame."

Does anyone remember the late Rep. Barbara Jordan (D) of Texas? I nominate her.

And for low-brow and prurient but truthful: Howard Stern

Posted by: Terri | June 16, 2005 1:59 PM | Report abuse

Could there be a corollary to the concept of "tv culture" called the "blog culture"?

Not wanting to insult Joel, but I feel compelled to admit that since he started the Achenblog, I find myslef reading it more than his "Rough Draft" column. Why? I dunno. It matches my shorter attention span, I suppose.

Has anyone else found themselves doing this? At least, is anyone else willing to admit it?

Posted by: Eric | June 16, 2005 2:06 PM | Report abuse

Ouch, Howard Stern is the ANTI-MLK: EVERYTHING he does is either for money or power or fame. He really does not care at all whether something is right or wrong.

Posted by: kbertocci | June 16, 2005 2:08 PM | Report abuse

"I feel compelled"!
That's another one right there.

Posted by: Tom fan | June 16, 2005 2:10 PM | Report abuse

Ah, Barbara Jordan. A wonderful example of clear thinking, clear speaking, and clear moral judgement. She should have been the first woman on the Supreme Court. She (and Ronnie Dugger) made me proud to live in Texas.

Posted by: kurosawaguy | June 16, 2005 2:21 PM | Report abuse

How did Oprah made the finalists. Nothing against her.
You get a car! You get a car! You get a car!

Posted by: fdg31 | June 16, 2005 3:11 PM | Report abuse

I disagree with FDR being on the short list. He was responsible for incarcerating 180,000 Japanese Americans (which included American citizens by birth) in internment camps. They were incarcerated for being ethnically Japanese. Pretty unAmerican if you ask me.

But, then again, consider the source of the list and the fact that there isn't any real criteria except popularity amongst those who watch the Discovery Channel.

Posted by: Tomsmom96 | June 16, 2005 3:38 PM | Report abuse

Jefferson and Franklin were unfettered geniuses. MLK and FDR were philandering communists.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 16, 2005 3:39 PM | Report abuse

They believed in sharing.

Posted by: Achenbach | June 16, 2005 3:41 PM | Report abuse

Inarguably, they did. Makes for a top-notch kindergartner, but that's about it.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 16, 2005 3:42 PM | Report abuse

Sweet! I feel another Ayn Rand discussion coming on...bring it! And by the way, a little bird told me there's an "Atlas Shrugged" mini-series in pre-production. With JLo's company. How weird is that? Doesn't it go against JLo's belief that your "Love Don't Cost a Thing"?

Posted by: jw | June 16, 2005 3:52 PM | Report abuse

"Philandering communists", LOL. Yo, J. Edgar, that you? How's that cross dressing thing coming?

Posted by: kurosawaguy | June 16, 2005 4:17 PM | Report abuse

Wow! A gratuitous Howard Zinn reference!

I had some course or other with him at Boston U around 40 years ago, when most of the MSM (which wasn't called that, then, of course) was sure he was a commie with oak leaf clusters. What I remember is that he assigned a ridiculous amount of primary source reading, and that it was awfully hard to hear him in the back of the moderately-sized lecture hall in which he taught.

Of course, at the age I was then, and with the amount of alcohol I was regularly consuming, I was sure I knew everything already, and never did most of the reading. It *was* forty years ago.

Posted by: efg | June 16, 2005 4:24 PM | Report abuse

Forgot the most important things:

1) One of two things is true about this stupid poll. Either: the folks who run it think the American public isn't smart or informed enough to choose from a serious list of serious people, OR the folks who run it aren't smart or informed enough to choose from a serious list of serious people. Either makes me sad.

2) Washington, no contest. Without Washington there is no FDR, MLK nor Lincoln.

Posted by: efg | June 16, 2005 4:29 PM | Report abuse

washington, hands down. FDR, MLK, Jefferson and Franklin would have all chosen to rule rather then share. Washington knew you had to be a top notch kindergartner and an unfettered genius. And trumps Or in this case

Posted by: cno | June 16, 2005 4:41 PM | Report abuse

Wow... I pretty much blew this show off, but after reading the blog I took a look at the list I'm appalled... I'm taking UMBRAGE... Favre but no Lombardi? Michael Jordan but not DuBois? Oprah but not Ida Wells Barnett?... No Lewis & Clark... No Jonas Salk... No ... but George Lucas???

And, I second Debs... And add a Jane Addams to the list... There's nothing really all that bad about the "Great Man" approach, as long as it's applied in a proper context (more than just policial greats), and alongside other types of history.


Posted by: JP | June 16, 2005 5:35 PM | Report abuse

Nothing against Lance's cycling accomplishments or rallying from cancer, but this list would make more sense if the "L. Armstrong" on the list had been Louis. Without Louis, there's probably no Elvis.

It's a lowest-common-denominator list, showing how we've devolved into a nation of fratboys and shopgirls. I'm shocked a NASCAR driver didn't make the list.

Posted by: Vincent | June 16, 2005 5:57 PM | Report abuse

How about Robert E. Lee? After Appomatox he told his men to go home and give up the fight. He could have sent them all into the woods to fight a guerilla war that could have gone on for years. Instead, he negotiated with Grant et. al to let the men keep their horses and take home to hook up to their plows.

Posted by: TBG | June 16, 2005 6:28 PM | Report abuse

Although the premise is silly and I agree there's people who shouldn't be on the list I'll weigh in anyway.

Overall I would pick MLK for being a great moral leader and martyr for the country.

Washington (and the founding fathers who helped him) of course was also clearly great, giving us a republic and an amazingly wise constitution which was light years better than any previous political system (I'm not an expert on classical Greek democracy, so apologies to the Greeks. I'm mostly thinking of monarchies, which prevailed in most places for most of history.) However, slavery was left unaddressed.

I also want to add a good word about Einstein and Edison (The former must have been a naturalized citizen or he would not be on the list). Edisons' inventions should not be forgotten for they greatly added to the prosperity and international competitiveness of the country, and Einsteins theories have been crucial for a whole range of modern science, and he was an important moral leader as well.

Posted by: Navy Vet | June 16, 2005 6:32 PM | Report abuse

King was ok - the way she beat up on Bobby Riggs - really put him in his place. But really, could that be considered "the most important social movement in our nation's history."? Huh? oh...THAT King. Nevermind.

Posted by: Andy | June 17, 2005 7:56 AM | Report abuse

There is an inherent flaw in the way Discovery Channel conducted the poll. People only got three or four votes which means people like Washington, Lincoln, FDR probably got huge, huge numbers of votes from sane people, which left the insane people free to vote in Oprah, Elvis, GWB, and the like.

Posted by: Joel | June 17, 2005 8:14 AM | Report abuse

*sigh* why they didn't nominate Michael Bolton.

Posted by: fdg31 | June 17, 2005 11:49 AM | Report abuse

Lincoln was greater than Washington. Without Washington, the US eventually would've become independant, like Canada. Without Lincoln, we'd now have two countries. It's harder to keep a country undivided than to create one from scratch.

Posted by: Mary Todd | June 17, 2005 2:50 PM | Report abuse

I'm not even going to give Oprah, Lance Armstrong, and Bob Hope a response. Well, except for what I just wrote. But no more response. Except that one. Which is more than they deserve. As is this.

Anyway, I can't decide on Lincoln or FDR. How do you pick between men who lead a nation through times when that nation's very existence is called into question? If these two men don't finish 1-2 then there is no justice.

Posted by: mmy | June 17, 2005 4:22 PM | Report abuse

chosen was pretty lame! But on another note, there weren't too many Armstrongs! At least Neil belonged on the list, anyway!! Father's Day Note: A few years ago, my Dad (whose name actually is Jack Armstrong) got to meet Neil at a Purdue University Alumni function held at the National Air & Space museum. Dad had been asked for years if he was related to Neil and his standard reply was "Yes, and I'm related to Louie, too". Well, Dad (who is also a Purdue alum) finally got to meet Neil and he told him the standard reply story - Neil said "Just tell them all the Armstrongs are related!" Dad was so happy to finally meet his adulthood idol!

Posted by: I agree the list of Greatest Americans | June 17, 2005 7:18 PM | Report abuse

They should put this show, and all the other popularity contest shows on one new cable channel called "Rank." Then you just wouldn't watch the channel that was rank.

Posted by: neil | June 18, 2005 9:59 PM | Report abuse

I don't think Neil Armstrong is the greatest astronaut, let alone one of the greatest Americans. He's just the most famous.

Posted by: jw | June 20, 2005 10:14 AM | Report abuse

Ronald Reagan??????? Please, people, he was a horrible President. He would be dead last on my list. Some "popularity" contest. #1 on my list...FDR, then MLK.

Posted by: alimor | June 29, 2005 10:44 PM | Report abuse

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