Posted on June 7, 2005

It’s Ali v Oprah in Search for Greatest American

Jamie Wilson, Guardian (London), June 7

In the running for the prize are eight US presidents, two legendary civil rights activists, several of the most famous innovators in history and, er, a talkshow host.

After Britain opted for Winston Churchill and the French plumped for Charles de Gaulle, the US has been asked to choose the greatest American ever.

The list, whittled down from 100 to 25 on Sunday night, includes the obvious suspects, from Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King and John Kennedy. But it also contains some names that — at least among a British audience — are likely to raise a few eyebrows, including Oprah Winfrey, the doyenne of daytime television, and Billy Graham, the evangelist.

Walt Disney, the creator of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, two of America’s most successful and iconic cultural exports, are also in the running.

President George Bush and Bill Clinton make the shortlist, along with the astronaut Neil Armstrong, the Microsoft billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates, and the inventors of the aeroplane, Orville and Wilbur Wright. Elvis Presley and Bob Hope are in the top 25, as is Muhammad Ali.

A spokeswoman for the Discovery Channel, which is broadcasting the four-part series, refused to reveal who was leading the field. “The conversation is just beginning,” she told the Guardian yesterday. But the smart money is on Lincoln, the first Republican president, who abolished slavery and guided the country through the civil war, or King, the assassinated civil rights leader who sparked the country’s conscience over race relations.

Those who appeared in the top 100 list but fell by the wayside at the first hurdle included Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy magazine, the pop star Madonna and the embattled Michael Jackson.

The wives of both George Bushes, Laura and Barbara, joined their spouses on the full rundown, which was voted for by more than half a million people, and was evidence, some cultural commentators said, of the continued dumbing down of America.

Even Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Austrian-born movie star and now governor of California, got a mention, along with Richard Nixon, the disgraced former president, and Martha Stewart, newly released from prison after being convicted of obstruction of justice.

In a change from the European format, under which a celebrity or academic championed a chosen contender, the US version uses a panel of celebrities to discuss the nominees’ assets. The public will whittle the remaining contenders down to five, before the live grand finale is broadcast at the end of the month.

The contenders

Muhammad Ali

Neil Armstrong

Lance Armstrong

George W Bush

Bill Clinton

Walt Disney

Thomas Edison

Albert Einstein

Henry Ford

Benjamin Franklin

Bill Gates

Billy Graham

Bob Hope

Thomas Jefferson

John F Kennedy

Martin Luther King

Abraham Lincoln

Rosa Parks

Elvis Presley

Ronald Reagan

Eleanor Roosevelt

Franklin D Roosevelt

George Washington

Oprah Winfrey

Orville and Wilbur Wright