She was Jennifer No-Last-Name, from Something-or-Other Magazine, and she was calling to ask whether I could help her since I am "an opinion-maker in the media." Ah, sweet flattery! I set aside the 43 things I should have been doing and said, "Sure."
Jennifer, it seems, was working on a story for the January 2000 issue. It would be a "heroes poll." We oh-so-influentials were being asked to reveal who we thought the biggies of the 20th century were.
Jennifer asked me to name the best politician. "Lyndon B. Johnson," I said. "No one could twist arms, ears, hearts and minds the way he could. I know he wasn't covered with honor by the time he left office, but as a political artist, he was the guy."
Jennifer asked for the name of my favorite 20th-century TV show. "Jerry Springer," I said. "It makes me pine for the 19th century every time I see it."
Next: my favorite movie star. I gave two--John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn. "Wayne because he actually changed the behavior of men, who wanted deeply to be like him," I said. "Hepburn because she was beautiful, and forever mysterious."
Most important businessperson: I voted for Henry Ford, because he saw the potential of the car sooner and more clearly than others.
Most important song: "Rock Around the Clock," by Bill Haley and the Comets, I said. It horrified more parents than the Beatles and the rappers combined.
Most important moment in sports: Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game in 1962. Mark McGwire and Muhammad Ali stand tall, but Wilt's 100 (and Wilt himself) stood tallest.
Most important cultural change in American life: Women who work outside the home, I said. It barely happened before the 20th century. It will now happen forever.
Most ridiculous moment: Richard Nixon saying to reporters that they wouldn't have him to kick around anymore. Peevish, childish and (as Nixon surely knew) inaccurate.
Most important person: "Gosh," I said, "it's so hard to choose just one." But I voted for Martin Luther King Jr., because he changed the world for the better, permanently, without big money, without hating anyone and without starting a war.
Jennifer said there was just one more question. I braced for something about Gidget going to Malibu. But she stunned and pleased me with this one:
What's the most important piece of unfinished business?
"Saying thanks to those who fought World War II," I said.
She dutifully scribbled it down, thanked me for my time and hung up. But I've been thinking ever since that one quickie answer to one silly magazine poll doesn't cut it.
Dana King's letter cuts it very nicely.
Dana, who lives in Ashburn, wrote to me several months ago after seeing the movie "Saving Private Ryan." The film is about World War II and the sacrifices made by the soldiers who fought it. Dana was walloped by it.
"When I left that theater last night, most of what I felt was shame," he wrote. "Mostly, I thought about being lucky.
"I don't know that most of us can ever begin to appreciate what they [World War II-era veterans] have done for us," Dana said. "To say they saved the world is an understatement. They saved the world they inherited, then they built a better one.
"Today, Private Ryan is the old geezer holding up the line at the bank, griping about his pension, driving 45 in the left lane. We kid about him, we tolerate him, we patronize him.
"All we should do is thank him."
If Jennifer is reading this, may I offer an amendment to my ballot? I nominate the World War II vet as the most underappreciated person of the 20th century, and Dana King as a 20th-century guy who gets it in spades.
In my big gray bucket sits a lot of money you can't use to board the bus--Canadian dollars, French francs, silver coins from England, brass coins from Austria. It will all soon become American money, and it will help us "grow" our annual holiday-season fund-raising drive on behalf of Children's Hospital.
Each year, we accept money of all kinds from nations of all kinds. If you've been abroad, you probably came home with some foreign dough, couldn't figure out what to do with it and tossed it into a drawer, where it has been moldering ever since. This is a way to liberate the drawer and help sick kids get better, all in one motion.
We also accept American coins for our drive. Many thanks for your help.
Our goal by Jan. 21: $650,000.
In hand as of Dec. 11: $116,376.07.
TO CONTRIBUTE TO THE CAMPAIGN:
Make a check or money order payable to Children's Hospital and mail it to Bob Levey, The Washington Post, Washington, D.C. 20071.
BY VISA OR MASTERCARD:
Call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 on a touch-tone phone. Then punch in K-I-D-S, or 5437, and follow instructions.