I guess over the next few weeks, we're going to whittle down the bizarre Discovery Channel list of 100 great Americans to just one.
I've decided everyone is going to vote for Muhammed Ali. Not for Bill Gates. Not Eleanor Roosevelt. Not Ronald Reagan. Not Ellen DeGeneres. Dr. Phil. Or even Oprah. By the way, could everyone who voted for a celebrity go out and lash themselves with a wet noodle?
But why Ali? Wasn't he just a jock? Well, yes. And, no.
Ali because he has become the symbol of the American everyman. The potential in all of us. Heroic one day. A goat the next. Then heroic once again. Capacities we all have in common. But he embodied them.
When he came on the scene everybody was drawn to him. He really was pretty. And he was the first athlete who knew how to market himself. Even now, for no obvious reason that I can think of, we all still like the guy.
Ali was the first crossover black person -- the first black guy white guys were willing to admit they wanted to be. In fact he was so tall, handsome, talented and charismatic as a young Olympic Gold Medalist that the whole country took notice and embraced him not as one of us, but as all of ours.
Invite him to dinner. Sure. Let him marry your daughter. Sure. He was black and didn't want to be white. And he shoved it in white peoples' faces. His hilarious banter with Howard Cosell and simple, memorable poems only fed our interest in him. Bet you can still recite "Float like a butterfly. . ."
He was a fighter like we'd never seen. Smart. Funny. And he was good.
Even when he changed his "slave" name from Cassius Clay. Even when he became a conscientious objector for his religious convictions. Even when his conversion to another religion seemed racist. We stuck by him.
Maybe, in retrospect, we embraced him because he bucked the system. Like a real American. We liked him so much that when he began to fight his battles with the government and the boxing powers, we took notice, for once, of what it meant to be black in this country and go up against The Man.
Everyone who fled to this country has been down that road in some way. Every immigrant. Every minority. Every woman. Every former commie pinko.
Taken to court for exercising his right as a conscientious objector, Ali's subsequent banishment from the ring denied all of us a chance to see him in his prime. It all seemed unjust and the undercurrent of racism ran like a river of poison through it all.
But he went into exile like a man. And he came back and won his title again. Lost it. Won it again. And as he resurrected his career from the ashes, he became a hero to the whole world.
How could you not admire the man for losing everything and getting it all back. So American.
I think when the voting ends he could be standing alone, like the night he stood, hands shaking, and lit the Olympic flame at the top of the stadium in Salt Lake City. Who wasn't moved by that sight?
While I think Ali will win, I have a soft spot for Erma Bombeck, who, unfortunately didn't make the list. She was the quintessential American woman. Independent, self sufficient, confidant. And funny as hell.
And while Ali is the guy I think the voters will pick, and Erma Bombeck is my personal choice, I'll take Thomas Jefferson from the 25 still on the list. The guy embodied patriotism. Wrote the document that defined it. And while he was at it, he founded a country. At 32. What have you done lately?