I am not a faithful reader of the best-worst lists that flow out of every self-described pollster armed with a pen, pencil or printout. I don't share the general reverence for the mystical number 10 as in The 10 Best- Worst dressed or coiffed, loved or respected among entertainers and athletes, world leaders and house pets.
Nevertheless, here I sit poring over three such lists that I have garnered from past weeks -- a "greatest," a "most" and a "best" -- trying to wrest some meaning out of the ranks of superlatives.
The "greatest" is a list of American heroes chosen by 4,000 high-school students in 145 cities. The teen-agers picked as their top three heroes Eddie Murphy, President Reagan and Bill Cosby. In that order. "Mom," by the way, was a write-in for seventh place.
The "most" list came from the November issue of Ladies Home Journal. The Journal survey of some 2,000 Americans ranked the most admired women this way: 1)Katharine Hepburn, 2)Barbara Walters, 3)Geraldine Ferraro, 4)Jane Fonda, and 5)Nancy Reagan. Tying for sixth place were Mary Lou Retton and Jeane Kirkpatrick.
Finally there is the "best" list. This was a group chosen by purse rather than by poll. The first five books on The New York Times best-seller nonfiction list are by and/or about the following people: Elvis Presley, Shirley MacLaine, Chuck Yeager, Lee Iacocca and Howard Cosell. Also-rans were Marilyn Monroe, Joan Kennedy and John DeLorean.
On the surface, the people who share billing among the most and best and greatest have less in common than vanilla and strawberry in the top 10 ice- cream flavors. Consider the trinity of superheroes in the teen-age world. The president of the United States, a Beverly Hills Cop and Heathcliffe Huxtable. All they have in common is an AFTRA card. Yet an entire cohort regards the three as roughly equal in the heroism quotient.
As for admiration, not only did the former U.N. ambassador come in neck and neck with a 17-year-old gymnast, but an actress, Katharine Hepburn, beat out a Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O'Connor, by a country mile.
If there is any thread to follow through the upper end of the list, the public seemed to admire women who were outspoken on the air, on the campaign stump and in films. It seemed to matter less what exactly they had spoken out about. It is possible, for example, that the same people admire a candidate for vice president and the wife of a president as if they were political peers.
The book list is even more curious. Readers are almost equally interested in a rock legend, a test pilot and a sports broadcaster. Even as we speak, a buyer is standing at a cash register somewhere in America trying to decide between the allure of one book that violates the privacy of Joan Kennedy and another that exhumes the body of Marilyn Monroe. Which car-company executive will get to the cash register: the one who saved his company or the one who beat his rap?
Our interminable ranking is really a perverse sort of leveling. Only "names" make the lists. The individual who rises to the top must be mass-marketed. The "best" is really the best- known. The "most" is really the most famous. The "greatest" goes to those with the greatest circulation.
The whole process is quite bizarre. We have been told time and again that modern America invented celebrities, people who are known for being known. But if we combine all the lists together, what we have is the most disparate collection of people who share the one shining characteristic of the most-best-greatest superlatives: fame. The president, his wife, the exercise guru, the car manufacturer, the broadcaster, the actress are all and equally stars.
In this leveling process, the basis for our admiration and the very definition of heroism are subtly perverted. We have come to admire people because they are known. We find people interesting because they are famous. It is not the act but the actor who has become the model of great American heroism.
Is it any wonder that the chief qualification for public office is name recognition? The miracle is that an ordinary creature like "Mom" ever made seventh place.