ABC News recently asked a random sample of Americans to identify the greatest political figure on the planet during the past thousand years. The winner: John F. Kennedy. He narrowly edged Abraham Lincoln. Trailing far back were FDR, Washington and Jefferson. Way, way back were Churchill, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Napoleon.
Kennedy is, one dare say, the wrong answer. The pollsters should have screamed "Wrong!" when they heard the name. They shouldn't ask the question if they aren't willing to grade the answer. With all due respect to Kennedy's many charms and virtues, his greatness is diminished by the fact that he was, in certain key respects, a slimeball.
You young people out there should take a lesson from this. Forget about being good or bad or strong or weak or honest or deceitful. What matters is that you're rich and stylish and have a megalomaniacal father and a fabulous wife and a sycophantic press corps. Also, try to have good hair. Churchill? No hair! Bald and fat! And that Gandhi fellow . . . who picked out his wardrobe? We live in an age of image and illusion. To make it big, you need to think how you'd look on a coin.
There are other maddening results in the ABC poll. Under "greatest human accomplishment" of the 20th century, space flight and the moon landing received 33 percent of the vote, compared to only 3 percent for the civil rights movement. This might fall in the category of depends-whom-you-ask.
In the field of medicine, Jonas Salk eradicates the competition, getting more than twice the votes of runner-up Louis Pasteur. In science, Albert Einstein is light-years ahead of Thomas Edison. In military affairs, Eisenhower, Colin Powell and Patton march all over Napoleon, George Washington and Robert E. Lee. The list for the greatest figures in music is particularly cacophonous: Mozart, Beethoven, Elvis Presley, Bach, the Beatles, Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra and Tchaikovsky.
Personally I'm pleased to see that Elvis rates higher than Bach, though it may be an unfair comparison, since we have so little documentary evidence of what Bach could do with his hips. As for ranking the Beatles up there, it seems defensible, but raises the eternal and possibly intractable dilemma of whether we're implicitly being too generous to Ringo.
The ABC poll was unusual in that it didn't present respondents with a list of possible answers. It was open-ended. The result is essentially a measure of familiarity with historical figures, rather than a critical assessment of their relative merit. There's a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately bias, skewing the results to the second half of the 20th century.
We can venture that Mother Teresa ranks above Martin Luther in the religion category because she got more media attention; Luther, who merely instigated the Reformation, lived in a time when communications were so primitive that when he wrote up his "Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences" (the 95 Theses) he couldn't quite figure out how to post them on the Internet, and just nailed them to a door.
The ABC poll should remind us that polls, in general, are a suspect class of information. Public opinion polls have a weak link, which is the public. Most people aren't literally stupid, but they can, when put on the spot by a pollster, say stupid things. The greatest error is pretending they have any opinion at all. People don't want to admit that they cannot really think of a single historical figure off the top of their head, and so naturally, under pressure, they seize upon the name of John F. Kennedy and blurt it out, relieved that they could offer up someone real and, not, for example, Mr. Spock.
This has been a year of grandiose lists. There's a frenzy to find The Best of everything. The greatest work of journalism in the 20th century, according to the New York University department of journalism, was John Hersey's "Hiroshima." Best movie, according to the American Film Institute: "Citizen Kane." The greatest novel in English of the 20th century, according to the Modern Library, was "Ulysses" by James Joyce.
These are all great works of art, and they are plausible selections. But picking a single champion in each category is a trifle ridiculous, and the label of "greatest" may prove distracting when you sit down to enjoy the work in question.
It's hard enough figuring out what's going on in "Ulysses" without having an expert yammering in your ear that it's the best book of the last 100 years. There are moments during the novel when the author seems to have gone quite thoroughly insane. You may begin to suspect that the academics love "Ulysses" because it has kept them in business for decades. It gives them a reason to exist. Only they can explain in detail the subtle parallels with "The Odyssey" and all that other Literature 101 business. This was meant to be discussed in class and in doctoral dissertations. You weren't supposed to just . . . you know . . . read it.
Why are we such compulsive list-makers? Maybe we crave order in an increasingly disorderly world. Perhaps we yearn for supreme leaders, an ancient genetic craving for the alpha male. But whatever the reason, declaring someone or something "the best" is a serious misinterpretation of how the world works. It turns history and art and human experience into an across-the-ages competition among individuals, a kind of overwrought golf tournament in which Mozart birdies the 18th hole while Beethoven makes bogey.
Joel Achenbach's "Rough Draft" appears at 1 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday as part of The Post's PM Extra edition at www.washingtonpost.com.