Saturday, June 11, 2005

"Greatest American"

As I write this, I find myself a little embarrassed to be an American. That's not something I feel often. But, you see, I just finished watching "The 100 Greatest Americans" on the Discovery Channel, a list chosen by the people, and I don't have much hope for us.

The premise is a tough one to start with -- to choose the greatest Americans in the 229-year history of our nation -- but surely we can do better than this. The list was loaded with entertainment personalities. Do some actors and musicians deserve to make the list? Probably. You could certainly make arguments for Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne and Katherine Hepburn, who were all on the list. Musically, you can argue in favor of guys like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, who were left off the list. But Tom Cruise and Madonna? What's worse, Madonna wasn't only in the top 100, she was in the top 50. Does anyone out there really believe Madonna is one of the 50 greatest Americans in history? Apparently so.

Then there's Michael Jackson, who is currently on trial for child molestation. If he's guilty, that would mean that voters think a pedophile is one of the 100 greatest Americans. What does that say about our country?

Plenty of other choices left me scratching my head. Brett Favre? If the list were the 100 greatest athletes, I'd say absolutely. George Lucas? You won't find a much bigger "Star Wars" fan than me, but he doesn't rank on this list. Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore? I guess, at least, we can be thankful that there was fair representation for blowhards.

Athletes took their share of the list, too. One of the most amazing ones for me was the ranking of Tiger Woods over Jesse Owens. Sure, Tiger broke the color barrier in golf, but Owens only went to Berlin and embarrassed Hitler by proving that, at least in athletics, the Aryan race wasn't superior. By comparison, I don't think Woods deserves as much recognition as other athletes on the list who faced adversity, like Owens, Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali. And what about Arthur Ashe, who wasn't even on the list? He did basically the same thing as Woods and then used his position to work for change - something Woods hasn't done.

Then there's the top 25, which is the group that voters will ultimately choose the "Greatest American" from. Let's start with George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. There are arguments in favor of putting both men in the Top 100, but does either really belong in the Top 25? Then we have Oprah, televangelist Billy Graham, Bill Gates, Elvis. Top 100? Probably. Top 25? I don't think so.

When I think of "Greatest Americans," I think of people who have made great sacrifices and great contributions to preserve or improve our way of life. I think of people who have made a lasting impact, one that we can see in our everyday lives. To be fair, there are excellent choices in the Top 25 -- Martin Luther King Jr., Einstein, Edison, Washington, Lincoln, Rosa Parks, FDR. But I'm incredibly disappointed in my fellow Americans over much of the list.

I've always wanted to believe the majority of Americans are not as shallow as we're often portrayed. After seeing this list, I'm beginning to think those portrayals may not be so unfair after all.

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