Jewish World Review Nov. 19, 2002/ 14 Kislev, 5763

Wesley Pruden

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Hard lessons from
dead white men | Who's the greatest American of all?

Washington? Jefferson? Madison? Lee, Jackson or Martin Luther King? Karl Rove?

This is usually a question for the trained historians, and it makes an interesting parlor game for everyone. But if we set out to find out by turning it over to the masses to decide, the result might be an eloquent argument for restricting the ballot and a return to the poll tax. Could the people be trusted to choose between Elvis and Eminem?

You could ask the wise men at the BBC, who set out to determine the Greatest Briton of all and decided to let viewers and listeners decide. The winner will be announced next week.

The leader so far is Isambard Kingdom Brunel. That's his real name, and if you've never heard of him that's because you haven't been in Old Blighty watching the telly. Some of the early voting put some more easily recognized names in the top 10, including Boy George, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and, of course, Princess Diana, the greatest royal of that famous race of kings. (You could ask the butler.)

Duller, less inquiring minds want to know, too, however, and later voting shuffled the list of finalists. Going into the stretch, the top ten are Brunel, Winston Churchill, Oliver Cromwell, Charles Darwin, Diana, Queen Elizabeth I, John Lennon, Horatio Nelson, Isaac Newton, and last and apparently among the least in the hearts of his countrymen, William Shakespeare. William E. Gladstone, Benjamin Disraeli, John Wesley, George Eliot and John Milton never had a chance. Bookmakers have installed Sir Winston as the fave, at 2-1, with the Bard at 3-1 and Isaac Newton at 5-1.

The voting illustrates what every pollster and campaign consultant knows, that name recognition is half the game. Brunel, the leader in the voting, was an engineer whose bridges, viaducts and tunnels opened England's Great Western Railway, and he built the first steamships to cross the channel to Europe. These accomplishments were the subject of a BBC special on the eve of the early voting for the Greatest Briton; hence his early lead. Celebrity trumps all everywhere. If John Muhammad, the Beltway sniper, had been on the ballot almost anywhere in America on Nov. 5 he might have put up significant numbers. (John Malvo, his sharpshooting sidekick who has lately been in the news complaining that his jailhouse mattress is too thin for restful sleep, couldn't have exploited his fame only because he's too young, though by no means too dumb, to stand for office.)

"To be fair to the BBC," writes Roy Hattersley in the Guardian, "once somebody had the bright idea of stimulating weak-minded interest by pretending there was a competition, a sensible program was impossible. The genuine contest was over before it began. The title was won four centuries ago and has been retained ever since by the man who makes Britain in general, and England in particular, different from the rest of the world. Whatever our other failures and failings, we remain special and superior because we have William Shakespeare. His champion status cannot by changed by the sort of vote that the BBC organizes to determine the sports personality of the year. What he wrote defines who we are. England made him, but he in turn helped to make the England of our imagination. On the day after British troops were evacuated from Dunkirk the pupils in my primary school all chanted in unison: 'Come the four corners of the world in arms and we shall shock them.'"

Not the poetic fire of Elton John or Boy George, perhaps, but not bad for the lad whose grammar school education his contemporary Ben Jonson described as "small Latin and less Greek." The most famous of all high-school dropouts became the man who, in Jonson's description, "was not of an age, but for all time."

He cataloged the thoughts and plumbed the feelings of men everywhere, not merely Englishmen, and if he did not invent the language he made up a lot of it. (More than 1,700 words, by one reckoning: bandit, eyeball, elbow, lonely, madcap, moonbeam - these are among the words we wouldn't have but for the Bard.)

Nevertheless, Shakespeare is running a distant third in the British voting, which inspires a little speculation about who might make a similar list here. Washington and the founders, to be sure, and maybe there are enough educated Americans left to assure Lincoln and Lee a place on the list, though the Supreme Court would no doubt be asked to disqualify Lee, our greatest soldier in war and the greatest exemplar of strength and grace in defeat.

Jefferson is our Shakespeare, not for art's sake but, like Shakespeare, for defining who we are. More important, he enabled every generation to define who we are. The ignorant among us trying to make him as politically incorrect as Lee are merely the fruit flies buzzing aimlessly through history.

Our debt to Jefferson is all the greater in the present moment, when fear of terror in the homeland tempts men who know better to risk undermining the foundations of the America that he, more than any other founding father, invented. The threats to the homeland, as real as they are, were no less fearful in Jefferson's time. He didn't flinch.

Neither can we.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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