Britney versus Jefferson: No contest
By Michael M. Bates
We'll start out with a pop quiz. Don't fret. The results won't go on your permanent record. Probably. Here goes. On February 19 the United States celebrated:
The correct answer, as aficionados of Section 6103(a) of Title 5 of the U.S. Code know, is Washington's Birthday. By the way, that's Washington as in George. Isaiah Washington most likely won't get his national holiday until he successfully completes his homophobia rehab?
Why do so many of us think there's a Federal Presidents Day? Perhaps it's because there's a profound yearning in the depth of our souls to honor all American chief executives, even the obscure ones like Millard Fillmore and the ridiculous ones like Jimmy Carter.
More realistically, it's because it's easier to lump them all together. For the truth is we don't know much about most of them, often not even their names. Which partially explains a recent Gallup poll in which citizens were asked who they regard as the greatest United States president. Abraham Lincoln ranked first. Ronald Reagan was second. John Kennedy came in third. For someone with less than three years in office and, being extremely charitable here, quite modest accomplishments, this can be explained by baby boomers waxing nostalgic for the misspent days of their youth. And younger people brainwashed as students by baby boomers waxing nostalgic for the misspent days of their youth.
Ranking fourth in the survey's results was Bill Clinton. During his term, Clinton saw the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1995 bombing of Americans in Riyatdh, Saudi Arabia, the 1996 bombing of Americans in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole. He effectively did nothing in response to all this terrorism.
Yet Wanderin' Willie, the guy who gave phone sex a bad name, is now considered a better president than George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Franklin Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt. Among Democrats who were polled by Gallup, Clinton was more popular than any other chief executive, even John Kennedy.
Clearly, at least some of the poll's results were skewed by political affiliation. Yet what had even more of an impact is our collective unawareness of what happened before we graced this earth. Here ignorance and apathy are joined; we don't know and we don't care.
An example was supplied a few years ago by a former law professor who memorably asserted: "The last time I checked, the Constitution said, ‘Of the people, by the people and for the people.' That's what the Declaration of Independence says."
Perplexing, isn't it? Is that quotation in the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence or both? Neither, actually. It's from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. And you'd think the former law professor, Bill Clinton, would have known that rather rudimentary fact.
Then again, why should he be different? There are just so many other things, vital things, to keep track of. How many tattoos does Britney have now? Who'll get buried first, Anna Nicole or James Brown? Clean cut New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is going to be a what?
Sometimes I blame the media for devoting so much time to "celebrities." If they didn't cover their antics, possibly we'd get information that genuinely affects us.
Other times, I believe the media is just spoon feeding what many of us need, or at least think we need. The tabloids, People magazine, Entertainment Tonight and other gossip purveyors satisfy the appetites of millions.
Sherlock Holmes (look him up on Wikipedia if you don't know who he is) compared human brains to small attics. Each holds a finite amount of furniture. Maintaining irrelevant pieces prevents us from keeping the important items.
Of course, neither of those gents is of recent vintage so what they said can't be particularly meaningful to us. Let's get back to what's truly significant. Do you think TomKat is, like, really forever?
This Michael Bates column appeared in the February 22, 2007 Reporter Newspapers.