I watched the series "Greatest American" on Discovery Channel and found the opposite to be true. It seems impossible to measure a brilliant president against a groundbreaking scientist against an innovative entrepreneur. What is greatness, anyway? Each choice was great in some way. [Though, with all due respect to Brett Favre and Dr. Phil, I find it hard to put them in the same category as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.]
Like many notable American TV shows - and many notable Americans, such as Alexander Hamilton and Albert Einstein - the idea for "Greatest American" was born somewhere else. Similar programs in England and France chose Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle respectively. To be sure, "Greatest American" only scraped the surface of information about the most significant figures in our history. But there is value in thinking about individuals like Franklin, Lincoln and King - and even greater value in reading about them. The popularity of books by David McCullough, Ron Chernow, Walter Isaacson and many others is evidence that all Americans, not just scholars, are interested in history. The "beach book" we take with us doesn't have to be filled with fluff. It can be filled with the story of our country.
The important choice being made is not in choosing the greatest American, it is in choosing to learn about all of our great Americans. So, when we join our family and friends at picnics and baseball games, when we share hot dogs and apple pie or peanuts and Cracker Jacks, it's worth talking about our country's all stars and the seasons in which they lived. The records they set are not likely to be broken anytime soon.
James G. Basker
The writer is President of The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and the Ann Whitney Olin Professor of English at Barnard College.