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Greatest American

John Simkin

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Article in today's Guardian by Jamie Wilson:


As an actor he had a sidekick called Bonzo. And as politician, he never quite lived down his quip to start bombing Russia in five minutes. But in life Ronald Reagan was forgiven most of his faults, and in death America now regards him as the greatest of them all.

Edging out Abraham Lincoln, the man who abolished slavery and guided the country through civil war, Reagan, the B-movie star whose presidency is commonly regarded as having brought down the Soviet bloc, won the popular vote to be crowned the greatest American ever.

While assassinated civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr came third, just ahead of George Washington, the country's first president and the man considered father of the nation, some of the most notable names in US history - the Nobel prize-winning scientist Albert Einstein; the inventors of the aeroplane, Orville and Wilbur Wright; and the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong - did not make it into the top 10.

However, George Bush and his predecessor, Bill Clinton, secured sixth and seventh places respectively, while the talk show host Oprah Winfrey can claim the title of greatest American woman after taking ninth spot, just behind Elvis Presley. Reagan, who died last year after a battle with Alzheimer's disease, is often derided in Europe as a cowboy and intellectual lightweight.

Testing his microphone moments before a 1984 radio address, he joked: "My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes." But his two terms as president heralded an era of unprecedented economic growth and restored pride to a nation still reeling from the Vietnam war. His son, Ron Jr, hinted that his father's recent death may have helped swing the vote.

He told the Discovery Channel: "People remember the funeral ... I'm sure he would be very honoured to be in the company of these great gentlemen." The American public cast more than 2.4m votes by phone, text or email in the poll, organised by the Discovery Channel and AOL.

Voters' top 20

1 Ronald Reagan

2 Abraham Lincoln

3 Martin Luther King Jr

4 George Washington

5 Benjamin Franklin

6 George W Bush

7 Bill Clinton

8 Elvis Presley

9 Oprah Winfrey

10 Franklin D Roosevelt

11 Billy Graham

12 Thomas Jefferson

13 Walt Disney

14 Albert Einstein

15 Thomas Alva Edison

16 John F Kennedy

17 Bob Hope

18 Bill Gates

19 Eleanor Roosevelt

20 Lance Armstrong

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Bravo to most of the list!

I would probably rank Martin Luther King, Jr. a little bit lower down (below George Washington to be sure) and I would also rank some of the abolitionists and radical Republicans.

And I certainly thging Dwight David Eisenhower belongs in the list rather than some of the entertainment figures.

Then again where would Florida be without Walt Disney?

Edited by Tim Gratz
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I must confess I actually voted in this stupid poll. I was troubled by the options, however. Virtually every character had some flaw which ruled out my voting for them.

I couldn't allow myself to vote for a slave-owner, for example. I consider Reagan pretty much a joke. Men like King, Kennedy, and Clinton, while worthy of respect, were not true to their marriage vows. People like Oprah, Bill Gates and Bob Hope were too materialistic. Einstein wasn't truly an American. Ultimately I decided that the person I could stand behind was one who, while flawed, seemed to have a sense of humor about himself. I voted for Ben Franklin. Although he made decisions that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands, my second choice would probably go to Lincoln

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I think we can chalk the modern ones off as being part of a partisan battle. Clinton and Bush don't belong on the list and I personally can't see the merit of Reagan in being on the list. 1st place is an obviously skewed result.

Not voting on the list because the person has flaws?? Well, Jesus, Buddha, Moses, and Mohammad weren't citizens.

I would place George Washington in the first spot. Sure he had flaws, but he had the powers to make or break or neuter this nation. He chose the difficult route and made it.

Ben Franklin is the quintessential American because he was the Enlightenment figure in the wilderness. His faults and qualities have become distinctly American.

Martin Luther King, Jr. should be up high on this list. He stood on the side of right for the entirety of his country even when detesting certain segments of the society was a more natural reaction.

Abraham Lincoln may have been involved in a war. He may have had a slow start as the chief executive officer. But without Lincoln the United States may very well have Balkanized.

Greatest religious leader? . . . . .

Roger Williams

Greatest female American?

Susan B. Anthony

Labor Leader?

Cesar Chavez or Samuel Gompers

Greatest celebrity?

Babe Ruth

Others worthy of merit on this list IMHO are Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Edison.

FDR qualifies and perhaps even Eleanor too.

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My own choice would have been Martin Luther King. Some great Americans that would have been in my list include (in no particular order). They all have something in common. They were aware of social injustice and spent their lives trying to do something about it.

Jane Addams


Lincoln Steffens


Ida Wells


John P. Altgeld


Eugene V. Debs


Thaddeus Stevens


Margaret Sanger


Robert La Follette


Prudence Crandall


Ralph Waldo Emerson


Ida Tarbell


Samuel Milton Jones


Harriet Tubman


Walt Whitman


Abraham Muste


Mary White Ovington


Bayard Rustin


Philip Randolph


Eleanor Roosevelt


Clarence Darrow


Vito Marcantonio


Bill Mauldin


Emanuel Celler


Charles Sumner


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This sort of lists are a crazy thing. If I had to think of a 20 top Spaniards or Europeans list, I would probably give up. :ph34r: I wonder why Franklin and Washington are in the list and Thomas Jefferson is not.

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This sort of lists are a crazy thing. If I had to think of a 20 top Spaniards or Europeans list, I would probably give up.  :)  I wonder why Franklin and Washington are in the list and Thomas Jefferson is not.

Jefferson has lost a lot of his popularity due to the recent acknowledgement that he created a family with one of his slaves, who, even worse, was his dead wife's half-sister. This combination of exploitation/miscegenation/sexual obsession on his behalf has tarnished his legacy, in the eyes of most Americans.

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Guest Stephen Turner

No Zimmerman, Brian Wilson,Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker. Mark Twain?

But as a mere Brit I go for Capt James T Kirk.Warrior, Philosopher, & general can do sort of guy....

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My list might look something like this:

1). Abraham Lincoln

2). Thomas Jefferson (sorry, Pat, I don't agree. Otherwise, how would Bill Clinton wind up on the list?)

3). Martin Luther King, Jr.

4). The suffregettes (Margaret Sanger, et al)

5). Georgia O'Keefe

6) Jackson Pollock

7). Malcolm X

8). Mark Twain

9). Kurt Vonnegut

10). Albert Einstein (ok, naturalized American...)

In my opinion, celebrities and sports figures don't belong on such a list. I might make an exception for Charlie Chaplin. I can't think of a single sports figure who deserves such listing.

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Wither Tom Paine in any such list? Especially as he could qualify as English/American/French. Even America is rediscovering her own roots!!

There has been a suggestion this week that Trafalgar Square should change its name to Tom Paine Square.

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