Is This a Great Country, or What?
Apparently, being a national hero isn't as tough as it seems

By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, May 29, 2005

Have you seen the list of 100 people nominated to be the greatest American of all time, as chosen in an online poll?

It's a hoot. It's going to be the basis of a month-long series on the Discovery Channel in June, featuring runoff elections where the public will finally choose a winner. I decided I owed it to history -- the history of American humor -- to phone a Discovery Channel spokesperson for comment.

Me: So, are you happy with the 100 nominees?

Elizabeth Hillman: Well, we were pleased at the number of people who voted. The results are not for us to judge. This is who America chose. This is the pulse of America.

Me: America seems to have a dangerously erratic pulse. For example, there seems to be a bit of a bias toward recent times, since more than half of the nominees are currently alive or were alive in the last five years. Does that trouble you? Or are you just relieved that Lincoln made the cut?

Elizabeth: Ha-ha. Well, I'm fascinated by the diversity of opinion!

Me: Not only are both George Bushes on the list, but Laura Bush and Barbara Bush, too! Whereas, say, James Madison is not. So, basically, Laura Bush and Barbara Bush are deemed to be greater Americans than the person who wrote the United States Constitution. What philosophical statement do you think the American public might be expressing by this decision? Do you think the statement might be, "We are as shallow as a loogie on the sidewalk?" Or, "We are self-involved, self-congratulatory, parochial-minded nitwits with a ludicrous ignorance of our own national history?" Which one?

Elizabeth: I just have to go back to the fact that this is the state of America at this moment in time. I'm not saying it's bad or good.

Me: I see Oprah is on the list, and Ellen DeGeneres, and Martha Stewart and Dr. Phil McGraw. They are apparently taking the place of people such as Whitman, Poe, Hopper, Gershwin and Melville, who many believe wrote the greatest American novel. So basically -- referencing the McGraw-Melville calculus -- Americans have picked The Ultimate Weight Solution over Moby Dick. Do you feel they are showing discerning literary judgment?

Elizabeth: We did notice that there were very few authors.

Me: Is America illiterate?

Elizabeth: I think we are showing who inspires us at this moment in time!

Me: I notice we seem to be inspired by those great Americans who espoused the Nazi ideology. On the list are Charles Lindbergh, who was a great fan of the Third Reich, and Henry Ford, who believed Jews were in a cabal with the devil, and Mel Gibson, whose beloved daddy is a famous Holocaust denier. My question is: The public actually missed George Lincoln Rockwell, the longtime head of the American Nazi party. Do you think that was an oversight?

Elizabeth: See, I think the list is working! We're having a dialogue, which is what this is all about. I hope the public is as interested as you are in discussing this list, so they all tune in and vote.

Me: You are very good.

Elizabeth: Thank you.

Me: I think YOU are a great American.

Elizabeth: Thank you.

Me: I also detect on the list a preference for absolute, raving lunatics . . .

Elizabeth: I didn't think it could get worse, after the last one.

Me: The list includes Michael Jackson, who is a Kabuki-faced deviant and notable skin-crawly weirdo of historic proportions, and Richard Nixon, a frothing-at-the-mouth political paranoiac, and Howard Hughes, who actually hoarded his own pee. Would you say Americans are making an interesting statement about the inevitable nexus of genius and madness, or are they just complete imbeciles?

Elizabeth: You know, people only had three votes.

Me: Really. That means that a lot of people must have chosen, like, Hugh Hefner over Thomas Jefferson or Albert Einstein!

Elizabeth: Well, yes.

Me: Do you suppose that when the final voting happens,

it might come down to a vote between, say, Dr. Phil and

Abraham Lincoln?

Elizabeth: It could, if they are paired in a runoff.

Me: Okay, we're done. Not too bad, right?

Elizabeth: It's made me want to go to the dentist, for relief.

Gene Weingarten's e-mail address is weingarten@washpost.com.

Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon at www.washingtonpost.com.

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