The greatest living American is ...

Who is the greatest living American?

Simple question. Complicated answer.

How should “greatest” be defined? Would it be someone from politics and government? From business? From education? From science and engineering? From religion? From sports? From entertainment?

Over the last few days, I’ve put the question to a number of family members and friends, and invited them to add their reasoning if they wished. Most of my friends and family folks are somewhere in the center politically. No hard right conservatives or hard left liberals. 

I got a lot of responses, and the results are interesting, at least to me. Some of my contacts asked the same question of acquaintances of theirs, and I’ve included those responses as well.

As a poll, this exercise is extremely and unflinchingly unscientific, and it should not be considered to represent anything more than the opinions of a few people that I know. But it was an entertaining activity at least.

Out in front in the results were three left-of-center political and governmental personages: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg with six votes, and former President Jimmy Carter and civil rights icon and Georgia Congressman John Lewis with five each.

Next came business and technology titan Bill Gates and former President Barack Obama with three votes apiece. Leading investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett and former First Lady Michelle Obama were each favored by two respondents. 

Receiving single votes for greatest American were former President George H.W. Bush, film actor Kevin Costner, Mexican-American labor and civil rights leader Dolores Huerta, television personality Oprah Winfrey, Sen. John McCain and medical anthropologist and physician Paul Farmer.

Comments were interesting and thoughtful. 

For Warren Buffett, for example, one of his supporters noted his creation of an incredible amount of wealth for a lot of people as well as himself, his ethics for himself and his employees, his plan to give away most of his money to do the greatest good for the greatest number, and his humility and self-deprecating humor.

For Bill Gates, a comment emphasized his early work with Microsoft that revolutionized much of how we think, work and communicate. He has also put much of his money to work through many global and impactful charities, especially in the areas of health and education, the commenter noted. 

John Lewis “courageously bent our nation’s history over the past 50+ years” as a civil rights pioneer, a supporter said. Another voter for Lewis said that the Congressman has remained “a gentle figure and has not succumbed to bitterness or a desire for retribution” despite “horrific violence delivered by the government.” He has also been a strong role model for young people through his dedication, determination and perseverance, the voter said. 

Michelle Obama got a vote from one respondent for serving as a role model for young girls around the world, where there are more girls of color than white, and “they need inspiration, leadership, role models. And a chance.”

One of Jimmy Carter’s voters cited his focus “on doing good for humanity,” and the fact that he didn’t parley his presidential fame for dollars after his term ended.

And of course, as one respondent noted, there are “many heroes who do incredible service privately at the local level. The ‘greatest’ aren’t always the best known.”

One of the most telling results of the exercise is that there is no single American who is a consensus “greatest” today such as we have had in the past. And no single occupation or career category dominated among the respondents. 

Those facts are indicative of the pluralism that reigns in our society, and in my opinion that’s a good thing.

What would be your response? 

Who’s the greatest living American?

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