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Jun 28, 2005 7:46 pm


The Greatest American Hero



Look at what’s happened to me-eee
I can’t believe it myself
Flying away on a wing and a prayer
It should have been somebody else…


Alas, this post isn't really about the 1980s TV series, “The Greatest American Hero.” But now that I've got everybody of a certain age humming the theme song, the last line of those lyrics may at least be apropos. The Discovery Channel has just completed a TV series called “The Greatest American,” in which viewers chose among founding fathers, great inventors, and talk show hosts to select and rank the 25 “Greatest Americans” of all time. The final episode aired on Sunday; in the last week of voting, Harvard Square was blanketed with flyers (along with other history-friendly addresses, I presume) urging Americans to exercise their democratic right by phone, text message, or email. The top five contenders were (not in order): Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ronald Reagan. I’ll let you click through to the Discovery Channel site to discover the big winner, but here’s a hint: it was probably not the Harvard Square vote that put him over the top.

“Greatest American” was modeled on the BBC’s “Greatest Briton,” a surprise hit in 2002. Winston Churchill beat out a very deep bench to win that contest over Princess Diana (third place) and the 19th century engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel (carried into second place by a get-out-the-vote drive from students at Brunel University).

Copycat shows followed around the Commonwealth, with the kinds of ups and downs endemic to internet polls. In the race to name the “Greatest South African,” early voting was so lopsided in favor of Nelson Mandela that, nine weeks before the series ended, the South African Broadcasting Company went ahead and acclaimed Mandela as “indisputably the Greatest South African”—so viewers were really only voting to choose the Second Greatest South African. That coveted title went to golf star Gary Player; Mahatma Gandhi came in third. But the SABC pulled the plug on the series after an embarassingly strong showing by several pro-apartheid figures—Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, the chief architect of South African apartheid, came in 19th, and white supremacist Eugene Terre’Blanche came in 25th. The final episodes were never aired.

(I must admit I didn’t know about Mahatma Gandhi’s South African connection before now. There has not been a “Greatest Indian” TV series as far as I know; there was a magazine poll with that title, but Gandhi was ineligible, as the poll only covered the years after Indian independence. Mother Teresa ended up topping that list, and she was actually Albanian, so it seems churlish to refuse Gandhi the honor of being the Third Greatest South African.)

The fight to name the CBC’s “Greatest Canadian” was considerably more sedate (though there was understandable harrumphing at the Anglophone character of the final list). Saskatchewan premier Tommy Douglas won the number one spot, a nice endorsement of Canadian Medicare and social welfare at a time when they seem under regular attack. My man Alexander Graham Bell also made the Canadian top ten, squeaking by the Great One himself, which is not bad considering Bell wasn’t really Canadian. (Nor did not being American stop Bell from making the U.S. top 100.)

Anyway, the people have now spoken, and the 25 Greatest Americans are ranked at the Discovery Channel site, with the Greatest 100 also listed in alphabetical order. The enterprise has about as much historical rigor as American Idol, but hey, lists and contests are fun. Complaining about the choices is at once pointless and the entire point. Here, I’ll get you started: Dr. Phil???
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David Lion Salmanson - 7/1/2005

I have a hard time putting the morally craven guy who almost single-handedly did more to start the civil war than anybody except maybe John C. Calhoun on a "greatest list." Washington got jobbed.


Greg James Robinson - 6/29/2005

Before we talk about the "sedate" Canadian campaign, let us recall that people up here were in blind fear that Don Cherry, the former hockey coach and conservative commentator, would win the title.


Greg James Robinson - 6/29/2005

I myself have suffered through life thanks to a certain Dustin Hoffman movie and accompanying Simon & Garfunkel tune...


Greg James Robinson - 6/29/2005

Worse luck, the main character,s name was Hinckley, and they had to change or conceal this fact, since soon after the premiere, John Hinckley shot Ronald Reagan.


Julie A Hofmann - 6/29/2005

On the other hand, I still don't think I'd include Jackson, A.


Lisa Roy Vox - 6/29/2005

In Matt Lauer's defense (in his decision to host the show, though I never watched it)--I'm feeling sympathetic toward him because of his recent interview with Tom Cruise in which Cruise suggested that Lauer had no right to express an opinion on psychotropic drugs--I saw him on Jon Stewart's Daily Show while the show was airing, and even Lauer was questioning the choices that Americans were making.
Of course the voting was done online. When he was on the show, it looked as if Elvis and George W. Bush was going to be in the top 5, and he lamented that Abe Lincoln and MLK, JR weren't even close to the top at that point. Wonder if that counts as "fixing" the election?
Heh, Lauer did seem shocked when Stewart's audience booed at the mention of George W. Bush being one of the "greatest Americans," never mind being in the running for the top 5 at that point.
I have fond early childhood memories of the "Greatest American Hero." I just looked it up, and yes, it is out on DVD! Ahh, it is going into my online DVD rental queue. Strange, I was only 4 years old during its first season, but I still remember that theme song.


Caleb McDaniel - 6/29/2005

Alan, I agree the definitional question of what constitutes "greatness" does always raise its head in these discussions. I see your point.


Alan Allport - 6/29/2005

Polk isn't the cuddliest of Commanders in Chief, but I think it's undeniable that his presidency had a profound effect on the history, not to mention the geography, of the United States, and that merits inclusion on any list of 'Greatest Americans' (perhaps it's a definitional thing; I take the broad church view that 'greatness' in these kinds of lists shouldn't necessarily preclude morally questionable or even appalling actions, so long as they were historically important - in the same spirit as Time Magazine making both Hitler and Stalin Man of the Year).


Caleb McDaniel - 6/29/2005

I would definitely pick anyone on this top 25 over Polk. I mean it.


Alan Allport - 6/29/2005

I mean the real ones. Jackson, Michael, but no Jackson, Andrew? Madison? Polk? Adams? Blimey.


Jonathan Dresner - 6/29/2005

Thanks for reminding me of the Canadian list. My vote would have been for Stan Rogers (who came in #60) but they really were trying to limit the vote to Canadians, so I held off.

On the US top 100 I was struck by the dynasties: 2 Clintons, 3 each Roosevelts and Kennedys, and 4 Bushes. That's 1/8th of the list occupied by four 20c families.

And I'm struck by the paucity of literary and cultural talent (as opposed to movie/tv actors, who are far too common). But hey, it's all in fun.... except that we gotta teach these people.


Caleb McDaniel - 6/29/2005

There's got to be something insightful to say about the fact that our show about the Greatest Americans was modeled on shows in other countries. Not even our exceptionalism is exceptional!


Jonathan Dresner - 6/29/2005

For what it's worth, I loved that show (and I think I still have a 45rpm single of the theme song). Maybe that's why we get along so well, Ralph....


Ralph E. Luker - 6/28/2005

It was thoughtful of Rob not to remind me that the name of the stumblebum "Greatest American Hero" was "Ralph". The series aired as I was entering my own mind-life crisis, from which I never fully recovered. Really, though, it's bad enough to have lived one's whole life as a verb, but to learn from television, first, that Ralph was a ne'er-do-well bus driver in Brooklyn and, then, a hapless teacher quite unable to manage the magic powers conferred by his unearned habiliments -- well, it's just too revealing.

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