Thursday, March 17, 2011

Yeah, but could Salk sell a used car?

Lakers message boards aren't just filled with people demanding Kobe Bryant's retirement and Phil Jackson's firing. There are rational conversations about the real world as well.

For instance, someone posted a bizarre six-year-old poll that is as embarrassing to read today as it was then. In 2005, in a poll organized by interns at the Discovery Channel and AOL, nearly 3 million Americans who skipped a lot of history classes voted on the Top 10 Greatest Americans of All-Time. The results?

10. Franklin Roosevelt
9. Oprah Winfrey
8. Elvis Presley
7. Bill Clinton
6. George W. Bush
5. Ben Franklin
4. George Washington
3. Martin Luther King
2. Abraham Lincoln
1. Ronald Reagan

Now that's a hell of a list. The vote came a year after Ronald Reagan's death, so perhaps there was some nostalgia for the Gipper. In other words, if this poll had been taken in 1978, there's a decent chance three million people would have said Elvis was the greatest American of all time.

Thomas Jefferson, John Adams? Who? Hemingway, Twain, Eisenhower, Susan B. Anthony? Important people all. But did they ever give cars away to a studio audience?

I thought of another omission: Jonas Salk. And this led me to read up a bit more on the famous scientist. And I started wondering about other made-up awards, such as Time's Person of the Year. A while back I wrote about Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year, an honor that has had some dubious winners over the decades. Perhaps most notable? Jerry Lucas winning it in 1961 over Roger Maris. But SI had nothing on Time.

In 1955, Jonas Salk introduced his polio vaccine to the world. It's one of the greatest scientific accomplishments ever. Polio was a modern-day plague, nearly as feared, according to a PBS documentary, as the atom bomb. Only, with polio, school children couldn't survive it by hiding underneath tiny wooden desks. Salk's vaccine saved millions. The guy had a pretty good year.

Time's Person of the Year in 1955? Harlow Curtice. Old Harlow was the head of GM. In 1955, GM became the first corporation to earn a billion bucks in a year. Here's Time's story on Curtice. The money line:

"Harlow Curtice is the Man of 1955 because, in a job that required it, he has assumed the responsibility of leadership for American business. In his words, 'General Motors must always lead.'"

Curtice certainly had a good year, a memorable 12 months. Showed outstanding leadership. Helped GM dominate.

Didn't come up with the polio vaccine.

And it's not like Time had a bias back then against scientists. Five years later, the magazine named "American scientists" as the Person (sic) of the Year. The magazine picked 15 scientists, but Salk couldn't even make that cut. They came from all fields, including Edward Teller, who invented the hydrogen bomb, which might not have prevented tens of thousands of polio cases, but did scare the Soviets. It makes me wonder what Salk did to Time magazine. Cancel his subscription in 1954? Insult Henry Luce?

Every so often the magazine makes choices seemingly designed to make people talk. In 2006, it picked "You," which represented individual content creators on the Internet. So if you've ever written an email or left a racist comment on a newspaper website, put that honor on your resume. Earth - the Endangered Earth, to be exact - won in 1988, though it's unclear who picked up the award on the planet's behalf. Baby boomers were honored as a group in 1966 and they haven't stopped talking about it since.

The Award goes to the person who "for better or for worse...has done the most to influence the events of the year," which is why people like Stalin and Hitler have won it (Stalin actually won it twice, which surely made Hitler jealous). In recent years the magazine has shied away from controversial figures - in 2001, Rudy Giuliani won it over Osama bin Laden, who, most would agree, influenced events that year a bit more than New York's mayor.

An odd award. Still, not as strange as a poll that had Elvis being named the 8th-greatest American and Ronnie earning the top spot.

One other little-known fact about that 2005 poll. Number 11 on the list of the Greatest Americans of All Time?

Harlow Curtice.

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