Are Moby-Dick, The Godfather, and Gen. Omar Bradley overpraised? Do Canada and Chicago and Ronald Reagan deserve more respect? Our third annual survey of the experts gives the answers.
BY RICHARD REINHARDT
Most Overrated Aviatrix: Amelia Earhart was recruited as deliberately as Eliza Doolittle was plucked from the streets of London by Professor Higgins in Shaw's Pygmalion. George Palmer Putnam, the air-minded executive of a venerable American publishing company who had scored a triumph in 1927 with the publication of We, Charles Lindbergh's first-person account of his solo flight across the Atlantic, was searching for a woman flier to repeat Lindy's feat and, of course, to write a book about it that Putnam could publish. Earhart's qualifications were perfect. Kansas-born, she was, like Lindbergh, a Midwesterner. She was twenty-nine, neither too young nor too old; she could fly, having learned from another woman, Neta Snook; she was amiable, bright, and daring; and she looked enough like Charles Lindbergh to have been his sister.
In June 1928 Earhart, bearing the title of commander in chief of a trimotor Fokker biplane named Friendship, flew in twenty hours and forty minutes from Newfoundland to Wales. Although she readily acknowledged that she was only a passenger in an aircraft operated by two male pilots, Earhart copped the glory of being the first woman to cross the Atlantic by air.
For the next nine years Putnam kept Earhart constantly in public view. With his backing she launched a national organization of female pilots, soloed coast to coast across the United States, set several speed records for women, and participated in the celebrated Santa Monica-to-Cleveland air race that Will Rogers nicknamed the Powder Puff Derby. Putnam's wife, after enduring eighteen months in the shadow of "Lady Lindy," sued him for divorce. He married Earhart in February 1931. The following year, precisely on the fifth anniversary of Lindbergh's flight, Earhart finally made her own true fifteen-hour, one-woman-and-no-men solo hop from Newfoundland to Northern Ireland, just in time to edge out several other women who were making plans to get there first.
Even these considerable achievements might be forgotten, however, had not Earhart vanished at the height of her career, during a highly orchestrated, closely watched attempt to fly around the world. The unexplained disappearance of Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, in their Lockheed Electra in the South Pacific on July 2, 1937, has haunted generations of biographers and historians, occasioned numerous expeditions to the area, and resulted in more books and articles than did George Putnam's finest efforts to ensure her fame. Earhart's brief career, scarcely a decade long, is remembered as the acme of female aviation in America.
Most Underrated Aviatrix: The name of Harriet Quimby, on the other hand, is not likely to produce a nod of recognition even from well-informed Americans, although she did merit a postage stamp a few years ago (along with three other female pioneers of American aviation, and issued in a maddeningly useless fifty-cent denomination).
Early in this century, when Quimby was enjoying her split second in the sun, no one would have guessed that she would ever be forgotten. She was the first woman in America, and one of the first in the world, to become the licensed pilot of a heavier-than-air-machine. In 1912 she was the first woman to make a solo flight across the English Channel, piloting a notoriously tricky monoplane designed by the French aviator Louis Bleriot. She flew by day, by night, in air meets, and in solo demonstrations while crowds gazed up in amazement. Her celebrity was so newfangled, so unprecedented, so bizarre that nobody knew what to call her. An aviatress? A female aeronaut? A lady bird?
Quimby was ten days shy of thirty-six and a successful writer in the male-dominated field of newspaper and magazine journalism when she began to fly at the breezy little landing strip of the Moisant Aviation School on Long Island. Fearless, ambitious, and as flamboyant as a pink flamingo, she soon was treating the readers of Leslie's magazine to tales of her adventures in the air and offering sisterly advice on the hazards of becoming an aviatress (or aviatrice or aviatrix). She dazzled spectators at an international air meet in New Orleans in 1911 before conquering the Channel the following year.
Yet the neglect of Quimby is understandable, if not forgivable. Her career as a flier was even shorter than Earhart's--a mere eleven months--and her end was only mildly mysterious. She and her passenger, a friend and aviation enthusiast named William Willard, were flipped from the cockpit of Quimby's Bleriot in a freakish accident during an air show over Dorchester Bay, south of Boston, on July 1, 1912. They fell one thousand feet into the shallow water. Quimby, according to The New York Times, was the fourth woman aviator to be killed in an accident, the 154th flier since 1906. Neither achievement has stayed in the record books. The only mystery is why the plane suddenly and violently tipped forward--and why neither the pilot nor her passenger had fastened a safety belt.
George Putnam created Amelia Earhart, but Harriet Quimby created herself. Putnam, in the long run, had greater success.
--Richard Reinhardt is a San Francisco novelist and writer of social history whose books include California From the Air.
BY DALE DEGROFF
Most Overrated Cocktail: The vodka martini. I enjoy an icy shot of vodka with a salty fish canape, or the kick of a well-made Bloody Mary. But I like a big taste and thus prefer the gin martini, sublime with all its intricate flavors: floral, citrus, and herbal notes supported by the bracing astringent alcohol base--truly the king of cocktails.
Most Underrated Cocktail: The Sazerac. This drink dates from the dawn of the cocktail, which was first documented in 1806 in a New York State periodical called Balance, and Columbian Repository, whose editor explained: "Cocktail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters." The key difference between this drink and the rum punches, bishops, and grogs that preceded it was the addition of bitters; bitters defined the early cocktail.
Bitters were introduced by Antoine Peychaud, who came from a family of plantation owners who were driven off what is now Haiti during eighteenth-century slave uprisings and ended up in New Orleans, where Peychaud operated an apothecary shop. In the mid-1790s he created an all-purpose flavoring and health tonic from herbs and Caribbean spices that is believed to be the first commercial bitters in the Americas, Peychaud's bitters. He gave his bitters to friends and guests after mixing several drops of them in a French cognac called Sazerac de Forge et Fil. He served this drink in an eggcup, called a coquetier in French, a word that may have been anglicized into cocktail; the drink became known as the Sazerac.
The Sazerac, which later evolved into a rye drink, is a subtle layering of complex flavors that should be served cold but not over ice. Unfortunately, a correctly prepared Sazerac may be found at only a few bars around the country. This holds true for many of our classic cocktails. The following recipe is my tribute to the tradition of the Sazerac:
1 1/2 ounces rye whiskey 1 ounce VS cognac 4 dashes Herbsaint liqueur (if unavailable, substitute Ricard or Pernod) 2 dashes Peychaud's bitters (you may need to search for this) 2 dashes Angostura bitters 1/4 teaspoon superfine sugar Lemon peel
Season a rocks glass by swirling, then tossing out, the Herbsaint. Fill the same glass with ice and set it aside to chill. In another rocks glass, add the two bitters and the sugar and muddle well. Add the spirits and ice cubes. Stir and strain into the first glass without ice. Twist the lemon peel over the drink, then drop it in.
This is a classic sipping drink to be enjoyed slowly. There are layers and layers of flavor, some released slowly as the drink warms to room temperature.
--Dale DeGroff ran the bar at New York's Rainbow Room for eleven years and appears often on television and radio as a mixology expert.
BY BETH BAILEY
Most Overrated Dating Trend: Dating itself. The term date was originally borrowed from prostitution. Dating, which became widespread in America during the 1920s, inserted courtship into a money economy. The man asked the woman "out"; he paid for the entertainment, in return he received ...? From the beginning, critics noticed an imbalance. Either a woman's company was by definition more valuable than a man's, or something else was required to balance the equation. As a teenager argued in 1943, "When a boy takes a girl out and spends $1.20 on her (like I did the other night), he expects a little petting in return (which I didn't get)." The rise of the dating system offered American youth new opportunities for fun and for interpersonal and sexual exploration, but it also exacerbated the inequities between men and women in courtship.
Most Underrated Dating Trend: Technical virginity. (While this confuses dating and sex, the confusion is, historically speaking, widespread.) Our prevailing nostalgia for simpler times has largely obscured the physical and intellectual contortions that presexual-revolution youth used to maintain female "virginity." "Literally every caress known to married couples" (in the words of a 1950s sociologist) took place between unmarried couples on the bench seats of those enormous American cars, but as long as there was no actual "intercourse," the woman remained, technically, a virgin. In this world the missionary position was the final frontier; oral sex didn't count. Sound familiar?
--Beth Bailey's book Sex in the Heartland was published last fall.
BY DIANE RAVITCH
Most Overrated Educational Initiative: James Conant's well-publicized campaign for comprehensive high schools. In 1959, aided by a large grant from the Carnegie Corporation, Conant, a former president of Harvard University, wrote The American High School Today. He recommended eliminating small schools and tracking students into different programs on the basis of their ability. Not only was the book widely hailed and a number one bestseller, but Conant got a cover story in Time. Today Americans are trying to figure out how to downsize the educational factories bequeathed to us since Conant, how to cut these huge institutions back to human scale so that the adults know who the kids are.
Most Underrated Educational Initiative: What was known in the 1920s and 1930s as the Winnetka program. The superintendent of the Winnetka Public Schools, Carleton Washburne, got his teachers to develop individualized learning programs so that every student got the instruction he or she needed to succeed. Washburne was a progressive educator, but his successful program disappeared because it was too academic for the progressives of that era.
--Diane Ravitch is a Brookings Institution senior fellow, a professor of educational history at New York University, and a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education.
Fictional Private Eye
BY LAWRENCE BLOCK
Most Overrated Fictional Private Eye: My nominee for that slot would be a fellow named Matthew Scudder, the creation of a writer who shall remain, uh, nameless. I'll tell you, if I were going to hire a private eye, Scudder's the last one I'd pick. He's either drunk or going to AA meetings, which leaves him with precious little time for work. His girlfriend's a hooker, and his best buddy is a career criminal and multiple murderer. And he does weird things: In one book he clears his client of a murder the man really did commit, then frames him for one he didn't have anything to do with. Who in his right mind would have anything to do with a guy like that?
Vastly overrated, in my opinion.
Most Underrated Fictional Private Eye: It seems to me that all fictional private eyes are either over- or underrated. If we can remember their names, they're overrated. If we can't, well, they're underrated, but how can we say who they are? As soon as we think of them, they cease to fulfill our requirement.
There are, as it happens, two private eyes I can think of very clearly, but I can't remember their names because I never knew them in the first place. One is the creation of Dashiell Hammett, but he's not really underrated, because everybody knows him, as the Continental Op. People write doctoral theses about him, for heaven's sake, and it's axiomatic that the subject of a doctoral dissertation is never underrated.
But there's another guy whose name I don't know, and neither does anybody else. He's the fellow Bill Pronzini has been writing about for something like a quarter of a century. The man has been the hero of a couple of dozen spare and well wrought novels, and he's grown and aged and gone through changes, even as you and I.
Critics refer to him as Nameless. But he's got a name. He just doesn't let us know what it is. "I gave my name," he'll tell us, coy as can be. If he gave us his name, we'd bandy it about all over the place, and before you knew it, he'd be overrated.
--Lawrence Block's many novels include fourteen featuring the unconventional but very effective Matt Scudder, most recently, Everybody Dies.
French Hero of the American Revolution
BY ALLEN BARRA
Most Overrated French Hero of the American Revolution: In a sense, to call the Marquis de Lafayette an overrated hero is unfair. He was a hero, and he did fight for the Continental Army at his own expense. His fellow Freemason George Washington, whom the Frenchman idolized, wrote to Congress that Lafayette "possesses a large share of bravery and military ardor." At Brandywine he took a British bullet in the thigh while helping check a British advance, he fought with distinction at Monmouth, and, of course, he lent no small share of moral support during the hardships at Valley Forge. Still, the Lafayette legend is more myth than substance. His record as a soldier was solid but superficial, and according to one of his later, less fawning biographers, Louis R. Gottschalk, he was motivated to fight for the American side less by idealism than by frustration back home and a longing for glory.
Most Underrated French Hero of the American Revolution: Pierre Augustin Caron, better known as Beaumarchais and best known as the creator of the plays The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro. He was identified by one of his English translators, John Wood, as "at various times or simultaneously, artisan, courtier, musician, financier, diplomat, merchant, ship-owner, army contractor, secret agent, publisher, litigant, and controversialist on a grand scale."
He managed to send enough arms, ammunition, and equipment to keep twenty-five thousand men in the field, material one biographer credits with being decisive in carrying out the campaign that resulted in the world-changing victory at Saratoga. The cost of the shipments has been estimated as five million livres (or about a million dollars), much of the money coming out of Beaumarchais's pocket, for which he was reimbursed not one Continental dollar. Not until 1835 did the U.S. government make tardy restitution to the playwright's heirs, and then only for eight hundred thousand francs, as livres had become. In later years it was discovered that even while in the red he continued to send those he called "my friends, the free men of America" war supplies on credit, all the time working to enlist sympathy and mobilize efforts for the colonies.
--Allen Barra is the author of Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends.
BY THOMAS BERGER
Most Overrated Indian Leader: Doubting that any genuine American Indian leader has been overrated--the excess has been in misrepresentation rather than in evaluation (e.g., Sitting Bull, who has often been credited, or blamed, for Custer's defeat, did not physically participate in the Greasy Grass fight, a.k.a, the Battle of the Little Bighorn)--I must choose from among the many phony depictions of great chiefs by Hollywood in a day when only Caucasian actors were cast in Indian roles. The choice is obvious: Cochise. Not the respectable Chiricahua Apache of history (c. 1815-74), but the cigarstore effigy on celluloid, a caricature of the Noble Savage.
Most Underrated Indian Leader: Of the Plains Indians, the Crows have too often been underrated and sometimes even disdained for being allies of the white man in his conflict with some of the tribes most hostile to his incursions (Jack Crabb, in Little Big Man, makes just such an unfair assessment, no doubt owing to his childhood with the Cheyennes). But it is only human to look kindly on those who share your enemies, and the outnumbered Crows had been at war with the aggressive and expansionist Sioux long before the arrival of G. A. Custer, an event that was therefore welcome to them. When he was killed, they mourned the death of a friend.
In their day the Crows were gallant and formidable warriors. The eloquent memoir of their chief Plenty-coups, as told to and recounted by Frank B. Linderman in 1930, is one of the best of the Indian autobiographies.
--Thomas Berger is the author of Little Big Man, The Return of Little Big Man, and, nineteen other novels.
BY ELLEN ABRAMS
Most Overrated Movie Musical: Show Boat. Although howls of alarm are likely to be raised by anyone who has ever sung the haunting tunes "Ol' Man River" and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" in the shower, it should finally be acknowledged that Show Boat by Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern is the most overrated movie musical--twice (three times if one counts an earlier, rarely seen version made in the twenties): both the clunky 1936 black-and-white version starring Irene Dunne (and featuring Paul Robeson) and the MGM Technicolor extravaganza released in 1951 with Kathryn Grayson and Ava Gardner (in a role that was promised to Lena Home). Show Boat may indeed have inaugurated the modern book musical, but it is loathsome in theme and spirit. In fact, it is impossible to watch today without wondering why no one defends, protects, or stands up for the beloved and beautiful Julie (the half-black woman) instead of allowing her to be driven off the boat by a Southern sheriff.
What rankles is not only the reprehensible morality of abandoning Julie to a questionable fate but the decidedly dopey plot turn the musical takes. The secondary theme of intermarriage between a white man and half-black woman is clearly more compelling than the silly morality tale of the caddish gambler who loses the charms of Lady Luck. At least in the 1930s version, there isn't a happy ending. Not so in the 1950s version, in which Howard Keel manages to reform himself during the course of the final song (and it's a reprise at that!).
Most Underrated Movie Musical: Bells Are Ringing. This charming film adaptation of the Comden-Green Broadway musical features the delightful Judy Holliday (who starred in it on Broadway) as an adorably intrusive operator working at Susanswerphone, a small telephone answering company "on New York's smart East Side," and the surprisingly sweet Dean Martin as one half of a show-writing partnership who has been abandoned to his own creative devices. Depressed and consorting with beautiful, if distracting, women, he procrastinates writing his first solo show, unable to summon the discipline to work because he has grave doubts that he can create a hit on his own.
Sympathetic and certain they'll never meet, Judy Holliday endeavors to aid him by posing as a grandmotherly type over the phone when he calls in for his messages. Giving him pep talks and advice, she actually maneuvers him to the typewriter. Would that all writers had such attentive and effective muses.
Bells Are Ringing is a meringue of a musical, yet still New York smart. It is very much of its early 1960s time period and pretends to nothing more. For all of that, for the terrific songs--"Just in Time," "The Party's Over"--and for one of the precious few filmed performances of the wonderful Judy Holliday, Bells Are Ringing deserves to be appreciated and applauded.
--Ellen Abrams is writing a novel loosely about the Dionne quintuplets.
BY NATHAN WARD
Most Overrated Musical Tradition: The singer-songwriter tradition. What's more American than a kid named Robert Zimmerman from Hibbing, Minnesota, reinventing himself--taking the name of a Welsh poet and copying the style of a Depression-era folksinger? After Bob Dylan took his guitar case on the road to New York, however, in addition to writing some nice songs, he inspired an earnest army of guitar poets who took a dubious message from his example: that songs had to be homemade in order to be deeply, authentically felt by their listeners. The singer-songwriter movement was born, with its credo that a song's value was morally tied up with its authorship by the singer (however clumsily constructed or performed). Generational distrust about the corporate music business elevated the raw, sincere singer.
A true singer-songwriter could sneer at the preponderance of "covers" of other people's tunes listed on a performer's LP. What had been a strength for Sinatra or Billie Holiday--the ability to interpret and convincingly feel the moods of a variety of people's compositions--was now suspect and slick. There were notable exceptions to the moral code: Throughout the singer-songwriter decades, Aretha Franklin stubbornly refashioned other people's songs into hits with her outsized voice (beginning with Ronnie Shannon's "I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)" and Otis Redding's "Respect" in 1967), and no one dared question her authenticity.
The singer-songwriter imperative is weakened but still with us, providing new voices and nonvoices each year, but it's had some holes poked in it by hip-hop music (with its "sampling" of old tunes in new compositions) and by the commercial examples of people like Madonna, who can neither write nor sing but, like the old-time record executives the singer-songwriters had meant to replace, knows a marketable hit when it is brought to her.
Most Underrated Musical Tradition: The drum battle. Most music critics would rather listen to a wood mulcher than a drum solo, but the drum or trap set itself may be our great undervalued musical instrument, evolving from the era of one-man bands and ultimately (in the hands of a melodic rhythm artist like the great Count Basie drummer Jo Jones) able to evoke a wider range of musical moods than some more celebrated native inventions like the ever-hopeful banjo. The trap set was a natural driving force in early jazz combos, of course, but it took center stage during the swing era, when each big band was anchored by its rhythm star: Gene Krupa, Big Sid Catlett, Cozy Cole, Jo Jones, Dave Tough, Chick Webb, Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson. The classic drum battle was really a break time for the singers or other band members, but it nonetheless became a crowd favorite: the battle of the bands winnowed down to simply drummer versus drummer.
The ferociously crisp playing of Buddy Rich (of Artie Shaw's and other bands) blew away Benny Goodman's former drummer Gene Krupa in such a contest, and in 1949, after hearing about the "revolutionary" play of Louie Bellson (who used two bass drums instead of the customary one), the ill-tempered Rich got so angry he played a full solo using only his feet.
The competitive drama of the drum battle peaked when the swing era did, after World War II, and died in a fuzzy whimper under the increasing amplification of early rock. But its greatest showdown came over two days in the spring of 1959, when the swing era's extraordinary soloist Buddy Rich, with his quintet, met his match in the bebop drummer of the day, Max Roach, and his quintet.
The meeting is an awesome dialogue (Rich in the left speaker; Roach in the right), a kind of percussive game of chicken. The summit is surrounded by its own lore: that Roach (the younger challenger) was given inferior mikes by Rich sympathizers; that the stress of the drum battle is what gave Buddy a heart attack that same year.
Once, in the late 1970s as I waited to step off a New York City bus, an elegant and vaguely familiar older black man pointed to me as he whispered something to a pretty red-haired woman beside him. It was Roach, but older than on the album covers I had at home and wearing contacts instead of his studious tortoiseshell glasses. "Buddy Rich," the stranger repeated louder, and I realized he was amused not by my face but by the Rich concert T-shirt I had on. "Buddy's my man. He's one of the greatest ever." He laughed, and it wasn't until I hit the pavement that I got the joke.
--Nathan Ward is co-editor of The Book of Boxing and is an editor at Library Journal.
National Turning Point
BY BERNARD A. WEISBERGER
Most Overrated National Turning Point: Taking a deep breath, I'm going to nominate the presumed "hinge" of U.S. economic history, the North's victory in 1865. The Beardian gospel of my youth was that by breaking the power of the planter class, it opened the way to the industrialization and unification of the United States (see the closing lines of John Brown's Body). That view satisfied lots of people: progressives who saw the victory of "the national idea" as part of the inevitable march of modernism; simplistic economic determinists who put the whole Civil War down to a contest between contending forms of capital; and, finally, pro-Southerners always happy to focus on any explanation of secession other than the determination to protect slavery. But the United States already was an industrial and exporting nation by 1860, in spite of dwindling Southern agrarian clout in Congress. Had the South won its independence and even a small piece of the territories, the United States of America would have rushed right ahead with its economic development, continuing to overshadow its backward and autocratic neighbor, until the people of the Confederate States of America smartened up, threw out their separatist leadership, replaced slavery with some other form of white control, and sought reunification. I'm not minimizing the great human issues and tragedies of the war, but it did not spell the difference between our being a nation of factories and one of farms.
Most Underrated National Turning Point: By the same token, I'd pick 1619, a year before the Mayflower, when some twenty Africans were brought to Jamestown by a Dutch trading vessel. What if the tobacco growers of Virginia had simply turned them away? What if they had decided that black labor wouldn't work for them as well as it did for the owners of sugar plantations in the West Indies? Or that they didn't want slaves competing with freemen in the fields? Or, more likely, that they just didn't want blacks in their new communities? Can you imagine United States history without black Americans, slave or free? Without that "other" against whom white Americans defined themselves and who forced whites constantly to wrestle with their contradictory feelings and principles? Without the multitude of black voices in the chorus of our culture? I certainly can't. That day in 1619 made us a biracial (later to become a multiracial) society, like it or not. And I am surprised how rarely I see it referred to with the gravity it deserves.
--Bernard A. Weisberger is the former "In the News" columnist for American Heritage and author of the forthcoming America Afire: Jefferson, Adams, and the Revolutionary Election of 1800.
BY ALAN SCHWARZ
Most Overrated Newspaper Headline: It seems a pity that journalism's most memorable headline is also its most incorrect. Like every other paper in the fall of 1948, the Chicago Tribune listened to the polls and assumed New York's governor, Thomas Dewey, would breeze past Harry Truman, the incumbent President. But because of a printers' strike the Tribune had to choose its headlines much earlier than usual. On election night, November 2, editors at the strongly Republican paper decided to trust the judgment of its longtime reporter Arthur Sears Henning and acknowledge the governor's impending victory with the DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN headline for its first edition. Needless to say, to the editors' horror, within hours returns increasingly suggested that the race was much closer than they had thought. The two-star edition was changed to read DEMOCRATS MAKE SWEEP OF STATE OFFICES, while trucks scrambled to retrieve the 150,000 early papers. One, of course, got into President Truman's hands the next day. The photo of him gleefully showing it off gave the gaffe its immortality.
As it was, though, this was no War of the Worlds, with a frenzied public duped by make-believe. Few of the erroneous editions reached subscribers, and most were immediately destroyed. And the Tribune wasn't alone. Life magazine had to spend five hundred thousand dollars to switch its President Dewey cover at the last moment, and several columnists gave "President-elect" Dewey advice. Thanks to that famous photo, however, the Tribune's headline forever symbolizes the presumptuousness of the press.
The paper grew to laugh at it and now profits from it: For years tourists have been able to buy DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN T-shirts from the Tribune souvenir store. Interestingly, though, the newspaper's offices didn't have a copy of the infamous edition until last December, when the director of planning and development, Owen Youngman, bought one for nine hundred dollars in an Internet auction.
Most Underrated Newspaper Headline: While DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN seemed right but became incredibly wrong, the Harvard Crimson's paradoxical 1968 banner HARVARD BEATS YALE, 29-29 seemed wrong but was wonderfully right. Rarely has the discretion every headline writer wields been used so deliciously. In what has become the most famous contest in the fabled Harvard-Yale football series, whose annual revival is still known simply as the game, the Crimson and the Elis, both undefeated with 8-0 records, squared off for the Ivy League title at Harvard Stadium on November 23. Behind the quarterback Brian Dowling, whose heroism became the inspiration for the Garry Trudeau Doonesbury cartoon character B.D., Yale had a commanding 29-13 lead with just two minutes remaining. But Harvard somehow came back, scoring one touchdown, a two-point conversion pass, and then another touchdown as time ran out, followed by yet another two-point conversion pass, leaving the final score at 29-29. A tie, but to the 40,280 people there, particularly the swarm of Crimson fans who stormed the field, stealing the win from Yale's clutches was equivalent to victory itself. The following evening, while preparing the headline for Monday's edition, the Crimson editor Bill Kutik hunched over a page of scribble, dissatisfied with HARVARD TIES YALE, 29-29. Then the photography editor, Tim Carlson, looked over his shoulder and remarked, "How `bout `Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29'?" Kutik reflexively balked but then realized how truly correct that headline was. After skeptical higher-ups were convinced, the headline ran and became an instant legend.
As bitter as Yale fans remain about the game, even they remember HARVARD BEATS YALE, 29-29 as coming less from ostentation than inspiration. "It was a great headline, but also it was true," said Jeff Orleans, Yale class of 1967 and now the executive director of the Council of Ivy Group Presidents. "Any Yalie who tells you that game was in fact a tie deserves to turn in his ring."
--Alan Schwarz is a columnist for Baseball America magazine and a frequent contributor to The New York Times.
BY PAUL MARIANI
Most Overrated Poet: It depends on the vantage point. Look at the relative standings of Longfellow and Whittier in the last century compared with their contemporaries Whitman and Dickinson. Whitman, a bohemian New Yorker who wrote too uncomfortably about the body electric, was suspect for his radical views, and Dickinson, Amherst's recluse poet, remained nearly invisible and misread for decades after her death. One might nominate one of the cultural icons who settle in the popular imagination, especially the bogus, from Rod McKuen to Jewel. Robert Frost is not bogus but is wrongly appreciated, an authentic poet who in the general view became the good gray New England Frost when what he really was was the frighteningly existential loner writing his American poems in England with a war raging just across the Channel. Allen Ginsberg is another icon, the quintessential Beat whose best poetry--Howl and Kaddish--was written in something less than a decade and who then went on to become the bearded showman, packaged and available, already retro by the time the Vietnam War exploded on the American consciousness, largely parodying himself for the next thirty years.
Poetic reputations in this country change as fast as any other fashions, rising and falling, with the genuine article eventually swimming up from under to make a comeback in another form. Carl Sandburg was all the rage fifty years ago and then suffered an eclipse from which he has yet to recover. Hugh Kenner thought Ezra Pound the central American modernist, yet Pound has been under a shadow since his broadcasts from Mussolini's Rome during World War II. In spite of the fact that T. S. Eliot's reputation has been hurt by charges of anti-Semitism, The Waste Land remains a cultural icon, still waiting to be toppled from its pedestal. It is a challenge just to look at twentieth-century American poetry without reference to that poem; it seems rather like erasing the sun without obliterating the surfaces lit by that source.
Most Underrated Poet: In truth one could name dozens, since even serious American readers shy away from poetry. In this we are much less like the Greeks than like the Romans: practical, interested in the markets, in sports, in getting the big jobs done, whether it be building interstate highways or launching rockets. I myself have written biographies of four poets all of whom seem underrated to me: William Carlos Williams, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, and Hart Crane.
Take Crane first: our Catullus, our ecstatic, tragic poet of our problematic destiny as a people. Then Lowell, the last great public poet this country has seen, who challenged both FDR and later Lyndon Johnson. Yet Lowell has suffered a puzzling eclipse since his death. Berryman, that damaged archangel, changed the very course of American poetry, enlarging it to include hitherto taboo subjects as well as charting the religious sublime, working in both directions with outrageous humor. Still, the most seriously underrated figure for me would have to be Williams, who, if the entire range of his work were to be weighed--the collected short poems along with his epic, Paterson--seems to me to have done for our American century what Whitman did for his.
--Paul Mariani is a poet and author whose most recent biography is The Broken Tower: A Life of Hart Crane.
BY KEVIN BAKER
Most Overrated Political Speech: Conservatives often like to refer nostalgically to "The Speech," a nationally televised address Ronald Reagan gave in support of Barry Goldwater on the eve of the 1964 presidential election. They rarely quote it, though, and for good reason. The Speech, later officially titled "A Time for Choosing," is a frequently hysterical, frequently hilarious rant. It's not just loaded with such. Reagan trademarks as wildly exaggerated statistics on government spending and spurious anecdotes about government bureaucrats ("sixty-six shiploads of grain headed for Austria disappeared without a trace") and mothers having seven children and getting divorced so they can get a little more welfare. Nor is it just completely callous toward anyone below the poverty level ("We were told four years ago that seventeen million people went to bed hungry each night. Well, that was probably true. They were all on a diet!"). More important, The Speech revealed complete ignorance about the most fundamental ways in which American government and society worked. This included farm price supports (he claimed the Johnson administration "asked for the right to imprison farmers who wouldn't keep books as prescribed by the federal government"), youth programs ("we're going to put our young people in ... camps"), Medicare ("France admitted that their Medicare program is now bankrupt. They've come to the end of the road."), the Federal Reserve Board ("our government [must] give up its program of deliberate planned inflation"), and foreign aid ("we bought a two-million-dollar yacht for Haile Selassie. We bought dress suits for Greek undertakers, extra wives for Kenya government officials. We bought a thousand TV sets for a place where they have no electricity. In the last six years, fifty-two nations have bought seven billion dollars' worth of our gold, and all fifty-two are receiving foreign aid from this country"). To top it all off, Reagan appropriated an FDR line, saying, "You and I have a rendezvous with destiny," and somehow failed to attribute it.
The popular wisdom is that The Speech was at least a seminal moment in the modern conservative movement, the archetype for what would be Reagan's standard stump speech and the star turn that first won him wide recognition. Reagan himself would write, with his usual exuberance: "The speech raised eight million dollars and soon changed my entire life." In fact, it drew little notice outside right-wing circles and would be entirely remodeled by the time its author was running for President. As Reagan thundered, out of the blue, near the crescendo of The Speech, "Somewhere a perversion has taken place." Uh-huh.
Most Underrated Political Speech: William Jennings Bryan is a case study in what happens when you live too long. Bryan's late-life shenanigans--peddling land in Florida, prosecuting evolution in Tennessee--have led many to write off his earlier political efforts as mere bluster and buffoonery. Yet the "Cross of Gold" speech, delivered in Chicago on July 8, 1896, during the Democratic party's platform debate, is still a great speech. It is certainly a fighting speech against the adherents of the gold standard. "We have petitioned, and our petitions have been scorned; we have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded; we have begged, and they have mocked when our calamity came. We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them." But unlike so much current oratory, it never seeks to smear or mock, but to persuade. Bryan only punctured his opponents' arguments, and he did so with a ready erudition that made reference to the careers of Jackson and Jefferson, Cicero and Napoleon.
The tragedy of the speech--and of Bryan's campaign--is that it too often narrowed the great goals of populism down to a dubious pitch for bimetallism. The other specific positions he champions in the speech, and which we now take for granted, including the government's exclusive right to print money and the right to impose an income tax ("When I find a man who is not willing to bear his share of the burdens of the government which protects him, I find a man who is unworthy to enjoy the blessings of a government like ours"). Yet Bryan is most eloquent--even poetic--in the greater cause he pleads, the fundamental equality of all Americans before the law, despite the ascendancy of what was then called "the money power": "Ah, my friends, we say not one word against those who live upon the Atlantic coast, but the hardy pioneers who have braved all the dangers of the wilderness, who have made the desert to blossom as the rose--the pioneers away out there, who rear their children near to Nature's heart, where they can mingle their voices with the voices of the birds--out there where they have erected schoolhouses for the education of their young, churches where they praise their Creator, and cemeteries where rest the ashes of their dead--these people, we say, are as deserving of the consideration of our party as any people in this country."
What's more, he wrote the whole thing himself.
--Kevin Baker writes "In the News" for American Heritage and is the author of the novel Dreamland.
Public Relations Campaign
BY STUART EWEN
Most Overrated Public Relations Campaign: Though its story is recounted again and again, the most overrated public relations campaign in American history was Edward Bernays's 1929 campaign for the American Tobacco Company, which was designed to persuade women to smoke cigarettes in public.
In 1929, so the story goes, George W. Hill, the owner of American Tobacco, asked Edward Bernays to run a campaign intended to expunge the "hussy" label from women who smoked in public. Bernays, doubly the nephew of Sigmund Freud (his mother was Freud's sister; his father was Freud's wife's brother), was known for his ability to appeal to people's subconscious desires and seemed ideal for the task.
To prepare for the campaign, he consulted Freud's friend the psychoanalyst A. A. Brill, who explained that "some women regard cigarettes as symbols of freedom.... More women now do the same work as men do.... Cigarettes, which are equated with men, become torches of freedom."
Bernays came away from this meeting with an idea. "I found a way to help break the taboo against women smoking in public," he wrote in his 1965 memoir, Biography of an Idea. "Why not a parade of women lighting torches of freedom--smoking cigarettes?" Utilizing a women's rights motif, and enlisting the support of "a leading feminist," Ruth Hale, Bernays had a contingent of cigarette-puffing women march in the 1929 Easter parade down Fifth Avenue in New York. "Our parade of ten young women lighting `torches of freedom' on Fifth Avenue on Easter Sunday as a protest against woman's inequality caused a national stir," Bernays proclaimed. "Frontpage stories in newspapers reported the freedom march in words and pictures."
While this story is fascinating, revealing the ways that public relations specialists routinely try to connect a client's marketing goals with people's social or personal aspirations, it is also exaggerated. The social impact of Bernays's campaign was small. By 1929 many proper middle-class women had already begun smoking in public. Also, the "torches of freedom" parade was not a major news story; actual coverage was far more modest than Bernays's tale suggests.
One reason for the story's persistence is that Bernays, a prodigious self-promoter until the day he died, at the age of 103, repeated it again and again, and in time it became PR folklore. As Bernays himself might have instructed, repeat it enough, and it becomes true.
Most Underrated Public Relations Campaign: The most underrated PR campaign in American history--indeed an unfamiliar one to most people--was the 1949 effort that killed the possibility of guaranteed health care for all Americans. There had been attempts to establish a national health care system during the 1930s, and following the war the public demand for guaranteed health care continued to grow. By January 1949 national health insurance bills were pending in Congress, and the prospect of universal, federally insured coverage seemed bright.
Panicked that doctors' customary privileges would be compromised by such a system, the American Medical Association hired Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter, a California-based husband-and-wife public relations team, to bury the prospect of legislation. Postwar politics provided an ideal context for their efforts, and they had the AMA launch an aggressive smear attack linking national health insurance with communism.
The campaign downplayed public health care needs and spotlighted the evils of governmental intervention. Over an eleven-month period, fortified by the largest public relations war chest that had ever been assembled, Whitaker and Baxter waged a pervasive public assault on what they christened "Compulsory Health Insurance," and by November 1949 they had their target dead in the water.
Today, more than fifty years later, millions of Americans still lack adequate health insurance, and the problem is getting worse. Looking back, we have Whitaker and Baxter and the American Medical Association to thank for this predicament.
--Stuart Ewen's books include All Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture and PR! A Social History of Spin.
BY LAURA HILLENBRAND
Most Overrated Racehorse: Phar Lap. Thanks to our peculiar tendency to attribute every virtue to those who meet untimely deaths, the surest route to unqualified acclaim is to live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse. In 1932 an Australian racehorse named Phar Lap did just that, setting an American speed record for winning an overblown reputation. It took him only two minutes, two and fourfifths seconds, and he didn't even do it in America.
Aptly named with the Singhalese term for lightning, the 1,450-pound red colossus was sent to the Agua Caliente race-course, in Tijuana, Mexico, to challenge American horses in the track's namesake race. He was splendid at Caliente, humiliating his rivals and setting a track record. Two weeks and a day later he was dead. Colic killed him, but a persistent Australian belief that Yanks had poisoned him led to many a brawl between Allied soldiers in World War II's Pacific theater.
Dropping dead was bad for Phar Lap, but it did wonders for his image. Americans hailed him as a superhorse. They shipped him cross-country, stuffed his good-looking corpse, and propped him up at New York's Belmont Park so throngs "could mourn him. Over time, accounts of his race became inconsistent and apparently fantastic, and his reputation grew. Though Phar Lap never ran in the United States, a 1999 Blood-Horse magazine poll of experts ranked him among the twentieth century's greatest American horses, above five of the eleven Triple Crown winners. A militant faction of horsemen calls him the best ever.
Was one race so compelling? Phar Lap set a track record, but Caliente was only two years old. His time stood for only one year, eclipsed by a long-forgotten successor. His competition was middling. Ever heard of his runner-up, Reveille Boy? Neither has anyone else. Phar Lap was never tested in American racing. Another Man o' War? A one-hit wonder? He didn't live long enough to tell us.
Most Underrated Racehorse: Seabiscuit. After living memories die away, an athlete's last monuments are numbers--wins, losses--that say nothing about the conditions under which his performances were staged. In consequence those who campaign timidly usually fare better in history than those who fulfill the athletic ideal by taking the path of most resistance.
Buried at twenty-fifth in the Blood-Horse poll, below Phar Lap, lies the ferociously game Seabiscuit. From 1935 to 1940 he waged a campaign of singular rigor under conditions that nearly always left him at a great disadvantage. In an era in which longdistance transport was so taxing for horses that few ventured far, he was shipped fifty thousand railroad miles to compete at twenty-three tracks in nearly every major handicap race. Seldom have great horses run more than forty times or raced beyond age five; Seabiscuit ran eighty-nine times at sixteen different distances through the bewhiskered age of seven. In spite of his diminutive size, he was one of history's best weight carriers, regularly conceding twenty to thirty-five pounds to his foes. The weight spreads gave his rivals such tremendous advantages--equal to fourteen lengths or more--that losses were inevitable, but it often took a track-record time and a photo finish to beat him. Without such enormous handicaps, his best win streak would likely have stretched to twenty-four races; the record is sixteen. Even with those handicaps, he set a stunning fifteen track records, equaled another, and amassed worldrecord earnings. He whipped virtually every elite horse of his era, including the mighty Triple Crown winner War Admiral. Seriously injured in 1939, the Biscuit became the only horse ever to come out of retirement and regain worldclass form, doing it in record time under high weight against horses half his age.
It is testament to the overemphasis on statistics that the conservatively raced War Admiral ranks thirteenth on the Blood-Horse list, twelve places above his conqueror. When Seabiscuit's career was fresh in men's minds, his lofty historical rank was beyond question. Most of those men are gone, and what survive are numbers that say little about how extraordinary he was.
--Laura Hillenbrand's book Seabiscuit, about the racehorse of that name, will be published next year.
BY JOHN H. WHITE, JR.
Most Overrated Railroad Station: I admire the majestic piles of stone and steel that stand today as monuments to the past of American railroading, but even so, I think most of these edifices are overrated. The greatness of a railroad station seems to depend on its size and architectural merit. The main waiting room is three times larger than the Baths of Caracalla. Its ceiling is as high as the dome of St. Peter's. The floors are covered with enough marble to pave Market Street in Philadelphia. If all the toilets in the ladies' room were flushed, the stream of water would equal that of the Charles River. The train shed ... and on it goes, size and grandeur. What about passenger convenience and comfort? To me these are the real measures of a great railway terminal. Does the user find it comfortable? Easy to get around and on a scale big enough to handle its basic job as a passenger shelter yet not so vast as to wear out the weary traveler? No one wants to tramp three football fields to buy a ticket and then retrace their steps back to the waiting room, only to negotiate a long stairway down to a thousand-foot-long platform, adequately lit only for a midnight mass. Yet long walks and wasted space are minor inconveniences compared with the dilemma of multiple stations, once a common situation in most large American cities.
Most Underrated Railroad Station: The Indianapolis Union Station of 1853. This is rarely mentioned in historical texts, yet it appears to have been the first to collect all the major rail lines entering a city and put them in one building. The building was hardly a marble palace, nor did it likely spend much in the way of gilt ornamentation. It was just a great barn, 425 feet long by 200 feet wide, a cheap commercial structure built for a purpose rather than a look. Here passengers could change trains for destinations throughout the area just by walking between platforms. Platform 1 might be limited to trains for Cincinnati, Platform 2 for Madison and Louisville, and so on. By 1870 it was serving eleven railroads and handling seventy-six trains a day.
A few other cities, such as Chattanooga and Cleveland, followed Indianapolis in just a few years. But other major cities punished rail travelers with the old inefficient multiplestation system.
-- John H. White, Jr., is a professor of history at Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio, and is former curator of transportation at the National Museum of American History.
BY MAX RUDIN
Most Overrated Song: "Send in the Clowns," words and music by Stephen Sondheim. The decline of the American theater song from real to pseudo sophistication can be measured in the distance from Stephen Sondheim's work on "Gee, Officer Krupke" or "Somewhere" in West Side Story (1957) to this mystifyingly popular 1973 ballad from A Little Night Music. The just-over-an-octave range and talky, note-y melody make it easy prey for nightclub singers, but they should steer clear. In its dramatic context the fact that the song is delivered by an aging actress jilted by an old lover is some mitigation for its self-mocking, histrionic attitude: "Isn't it rich? ... Making my entrance again / with my usual flair, / sure of my lines, / no one is there.... Don't you love farce?" On its own it becomes embarrassingly self-dramatizing. The image of the clowns is meant to lend pathos, but it is a pathos the song never earns, so it registers only as artsy-kitschy cliche, like painting on velvet. The clowns, the oh- so - sophisticated irony, and the solemn repetition of musical phrases cross the line into pretentiousness --death to any popular art form and the last thing one would have expected from the author of "Krupke." Taking itself too seriously, the song never breaks through to real feeling. That American Song: The Complete Musical Theater Companion calls it "one of the great theater songs" makes it a shoo-in for this honor.
Most Underrated Song: "Skylark," music by Hoagy Carmichael, lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Given the astounding wealth of wonderful American songs, picking a most underrated one is tough. Rodgers and Hart's "It Never Entered My Mind" and Kern's "All the Things You Are" may be underplayed, but these great theater composers, with their colleagues Berlin and Porter and the Gershwins, are now getting their due in the concert hall. Among lesser-known gems, there's Fran Landesman and Tommy Wolf's jazzy ballad "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most," written for the 1959 show The Nervous Set. It is a witty and moving update of "Spring Is Here": "Morning's kiss wakes trees and flowers, / and to them I'd like to drink a toast.... Spring arrived on time, / only what became of you, dear?" June Christy's sexy performance, throaty and California casual, is a perfect match for the song's fifties beatnik cool, though Ella Fitzgerald isn't bad either. But so obscure a choice feels like cheating.
There are more unsung (in both senses) classics among the lower class of composers who wrote for Tin Pan Alley and the movies. One very strong candidate is the sublime 1942 "There Will Never Be Another You," by Mack Gordon and the great Harry Warren, probably our most underrated songwriter. I'll give the nod, though, to Carmichael and Mercer's haunting 1941 masterpiece "Skylark," which has been unfairly overshadowed by work each did with other partners. The Savannahian Mercer, a poet of country songbirds and trains, brings his special strain of Southern romanticism to what begins as a love song: "Skylark, / have you anything to say to me? / Won't you tell me where my love can be? / Is there a meadow in the mist, / where someone's waiting to be kissed?" But the longing in the song is for more than a dream of love. Mercer's skylark, like Shelley's, and like Keats's nightingale, bears a message from a faraway world of evanescent beauty. Where Shelley's blithe spirit warbles unbodied joy, and Keats's light-winged dryad coos an ecstatic forgetfulness, Mercer's American songbird sings of the vanishing American rural life itself, and its beautiful song, like the ravishing, heartbreaking tune Carmichael gives it, carries the impossibly sweet ache of intense nostalgia: "Skylark, / have you seen a valley green with spring, / where my heart can go a-journeying, / over the shadows and the rain, / to a blossom-covered lane?" In perhaps the most astonishing release ever written for a pop song, Carmichael's lush chromatic harmonies and vernacular bluesiness match perfectly Mercer's vision of the musky, soft, wild, bluesy spirit of the American country night: "And in your lonely flight, / haven't you heard the music in the night? / Wonderful music, faint as a `will o' the wisp,' crazy as a loon, sad as a gypsy serenading the moon." Almost alone among their more urban and more hard-boiled colleagues, Carmichael and Mercer heard that music and made it their muse. In 1941, on the eve of Pearl Harbor and the enormous transformations to come, the song is like a farewell not only to a lost love but to a vanishing country and a vanishing time. "Skylark, I don't know if you can find these things, / but my heart is riding on your wings, / so if you see them anywhere, / won't you lead me there?"
--Max Rudin is the publisher of the Library of America.
BY STEVEN BRILL
Most Overrated Trial: O. J. Simpson.
Most Underrated Trial: War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague.
Why? Obvious! One was about a football player. The other, covered by Court TV in 1996, was the first trial since Nuremburg that attempted to establish a worldwide rule of law.
--Steven Brill was the founder of Court TV and is chairman and CEO of Brill's Content.
BY THOMAS MALLON
Most Overrated Writer: Perhaps the best way to take a writer's measure is to assess his influence on other writers, but if that's the yardstick, one feels compelled to make an exception of the late Raymond Carver (1938-88), who probably wrote the single most influential--and overrated--short story collection of our time, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981). This is the sacred text of "minimalism," a loose literary movement that turned whole shelves of stories and novels by a generation of workshop-trained writers into an attenuated series of hints, shrugs, and murmurs. At his best, writing about his banged-up, hard-drinking, sweet-souled dramatis personae, Carver could startle and move a reader. But less is not always more, and thanks to his spell, an appreciable chunk of the now-past century went underchronicled by some of our potentially best writers.
Most Underrated Writer: More isn't always more, either, and John O'Hara (1905-70), an altogether different realist, could have practiced more portion control when it came to filling up such hulking novels as From the Terrace (1958). But when he forced himself to work short--the novella was his perfect form; see the three in Sermons and Soda Water--he was unsurpassed as a documentaries of speech, social gradation, and fashions (in morals as well as clothes). Not always wise, but never less than knowing, this once well-regarded writer --now the deadest, whitest, malest of them all--is arguably the most underrated writer on (no, off) the syllabus. We tend to dismiss skills we can't duplicate, and American literature has yet to find O'Hara's equal when it comes to eye and ear and smarts.
--Thomas Mallon's novels include Henry and Clara, Dewey Defeats Truman, and most recently Two Moons.
BY LESLEY HAZLETON
Most Overrated Car: Definitely the Chevy Corvette, an icon for all the wrong reasons. All power and little finesse, it's an Iron Age survivor that appeals to the primitive heart of Homo automotus. I admit even my knees can be induced to a certain weakness as I climb behind the wheel of a European-style late-fifties or early-sixties Vette, but since then the Vette has become progressively uglier. If this is the best its male designers can come up with in the way of a phallic symbol, the only hope is a team of women engineers to work on the next incarnation.
Most Underrated Car: The General Motors EV1. The first modern electric car, it's a model of everything engineers could do but don't in a world addled by the fumes of burned gasoline. EV1 designers, led by the brilliant Paul MacCready, literally rethought the automobile from the ground up. It all worked so well that four years after the EV1's debut, and despite a safety flaw that has led to a major recall, it's still way ahead of anything else on the market--and light-years ahead, it seems, of consumers.
--Lesley Hazleton, an automotive columnist for the Detroit Free Press, is the author of Driving to Detroit: An Automotive Odyssey.
BY JAN MORRIS
Most Overrated City: Washington, D.C. I detest planned capitals as a matter of principle, from the overblown Brasilia to the prissy Canberra, but with its pompous boulevards, its complacent plethora of monuments and improving texts, its awful climate, and its conceited young men, I dislike Washington most of all.
Most Underrated City: On the other hand, Chicago is surely the most underrated city in the United States, especially among foreigners. It truly is one of the great cities of the world. Its setting by the lake is extraordinary--like a seaside city in the middle of the continent!--its architecture is spectacular, and its people, one and all, are delightful. It is also very stylish, and a walk down North Michigan when the weather is right--icy cold, that is, and brilliantly windy--is one of the most exciting promenades on earth.
--Jan Morris's most recent book is Lincoln: A Foreigner's Quest.
BY T. A. HEPPENHEIME
Most Overrated Enemy: the Soviet Union. During the mid-1950s we spent much effort working to counter a "bomber gap" that stemmed from nothing more than the fact that the Russians flew the same ten planes twice during an air show, fooling Americans into believing the U.S.S.R. was amassing a huge fleet. Then came the "missile gap, which also proved illusory. President Johnson later admitted that "we were building things we didn't need to build. We were harboring fears we didn't need to harbor."
Most Underrated Enemy: Canada. During both the War of Independence and the War of 1812, American forces tried to annex this land. They failed, as British arms pushed them back. Had they succeeded, our flag would fly today from the Yukon to the Rio Grande, By rebuffing the American attempts, Britain drew the map of this continent as it appears to this day.
--T. A. Heppenheimer is the author of Countdown: A History of Space Flight.
BY LIZ SMIT
Most Overrated Love Affair: In terms of international media coverage, shock value to so-called Western civilization, and lack of distinguished true passion, I'd have to nominate the romance between the American-born Wallis Warfield Simpson and King Edward VIII of England.
He became the Duke of Windsor, and she the Duchess as a result. It wasn't particularly what either of them had wanted. For Time magazine last year I listed theirs as one of the five great love affairs of the twentieth century along with those of Charles and Anne Lindbergh, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. The word great in this instance referred to public perception and press coverage.
The reality for the Windsors was less passion and romance than obsession and misadventure. He became obsessed with her, and she went along for the ride, which made her world-famous and supremely disliked. He had been a golden boy of the Western world, she more or less a grasping schemer whose social aspirations frequently exceeded her reach. Then fate placed what seemed to be the world in her hands.
He was a not-too-bright, spoiled little boy blue who never grew up. She became the all-maternal She. Many, including Winston Churchill, observed that theirs was more a union of mother and son than of wife and husband.
Abdication, marriage, demotion to dukehood, and semi-disgrace turned them into peripatetic world revelers. They became the clots of creme de la creme atop international Cafe Society's curdled last gasp. They never again did a good deed in a naughty world. But they showed up for plane and ocean-liner tickets, hotel suites, and lavish black-tie dinners as freeloading VIPs, albeit world-weary and demoted VIPs.
She scolded him. He sulked. He smoked himself to death and she lingered on into a pathetic senility. But in spite of all the intertwined hearts embroidered on pillows, the mutual adoration for their pug dogs, the leftover Royal Standards and trappings of Empire, and the early babytalk love letters, theirs was still a babymommy obsession. It wasn't a grown-up passion worth passing up a throne and undermining the British royal family for.
Most Underrated Love Affair: That of Harry S. and Bess Truman. Catapulted into the White House by FDR's death, Truman went on to become a great President. But his heroic work in the White House had nothing to do with Bess, who disliked being a First Lady and often fled to their roots in Missouri. During these times his love letters to her marked an unpretentious conventional man whose heart had remained on fire for the young girl he had married. Because Harry and Bess were your normal, not physically stunning, middle-aged, unfashionable perfect Americans, many have overlooked the depth of their love and devotion. I think they represented the best of middle-class America in their public lives as well as in their private lives, where neither of them gave up on their first Valentine to each other. Theirs was a true Enchanted Cottage romance where each had only romanticized and loving eyes for the other.
--Liz Smith has been a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist since the 1970s.
BY J. M. FENSTE
Most Overrated Medical Breakthrough: The most overrated medical breakthrough --overrated in its day, at least--was the announcement in 1925 that a daily cocktail of radioactive water would grant eternal youth. The Food and Drug Administration tried hard to stop distribution of the drink, sold in the stores as Radithor. However, since the ingredients, radium and water, were classified as natural elements and not as drugs, the product remained on the lips of customers--saved by a matter of semantics. At first the pricey Radithor did impart a certain youthful vigor to aging upper-class colts and kittens. After a few years, however, something began to happen. Radithor drinkers dissolved (not the fad, the people). From the inside out their bodies disappeared, leaving them without bones, faces, voices. People interested above all else in looking youthful spent their last days looking instead as though they'd been exhumed.
It was the Federal Trade Commission that finally ran radium water off the market. If Radithor were marketed today, its makers would be much more sensitive in the wording of their promises, although, if they could only think of something "herbal" about a lump of metal like radium, Radithor might still be gurgling now.
Most Underrated Medical Breakthrough: Dr. J. Marion Sims was practicing in Alabama in 1845 when he began to develop new ideas for the treatment of what were known as "female troubles" One common ailment, which resulted in incontinence because of gaps in tissue, was regarded as permanent and hopeless, but Sims thought of a way to cure it through minor surgery. Initially he received enthusiastic assistance from his fellow doctors, as he established a small hospital for enslaved African-American women who suffered from the malady. Although the specter of performing experimental operations on enslaved subjects has long tainted Dr. Sims's work, the patients were willing volunteers in the project, its motives being singularly compassionate. After other doctors had lost hope and refused further participation, the patients themselves became Dr. Sims's team and learned to assist him in surgery. Three of them are mentioned by name in his memoir. Along with the rest, they received the doctor's gratitude, but in 1849 they received what they wanted even more: a cure. As a founder of a new medical specialty, Dr. Sims went on to start the world's first women's hospital, in New York. One reason his contributions are underrated today is that as a Southerner he felt compelled to move his practice overseas after the outbreak of the Civil War. However, the operation for vesicovaginal fistula that was performed in 1849 is still recognized as the dawning of gynecology, a field pioneered by people named Sims, Lucy, Anarcha, and Betsey.
--J. M. Fenster is the author of the forthcoming Ether Day: A Strange Tale of the Discovery of Anesthesia and the Haunted Men Who Made It.
BY BRIAN BURREL
Most Overrated Military Quotation: It has to be one of the very few instances in which Douglas MacArthur referred to himself in anything but the third person. "I shall return," he muttered upon arriving in Australia. When the Office of War Information asked him to rephrase the pledge in the more inclusive first-person plural, the general refused. As Stephen E. Ambrose has noted, "The emphasis on `I' became more pronounced as the war went on."
Most Underrated Military Quotation: As various historians have pointed out, "Follow me" is a more effective exhortation than "Go take that hill" in small-unit actions. But military history's bread and butter is the big picture and the larger-than-life figures who move the pieces across the board while barking out pithy or gutsy orders that could have been, and often were, written by public relations men.
On this grand stage, certainly the most underrated quotation is Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's declaration that set the D-Day invasion in motion. Not the one you have probably heard--"The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you"--but the one you haven't. Like the pebble that touches off a landslide, it is humble and innocuous, the kind of order you can imagine following instinctively. "Okay, let's go," is what he said.
--Brian Burrell, a mathematics instructor at the University of Massachusetts, is the author of Damn the Torpedoes: Fighting Words, Rallying Cries, and the Hidden History of Warfare.
BY PHILLIP LOPAT
Most Overrated Movie Classic: There is such an embarrassment of riches that I don't know where to start. Of course Gone With the Wind is bloated and patchy, but few film critics take it seriously as an artwork anyway, and one is loath to deny that it's a compellingly watchable phenomenon, at least. It's a Wonderful Life is a likable little movie; you can't hold it responsible for the excessive mythologizing loaded onto it. The Night of the Hunter has certainly been overpraised, its pictorialism and heavy symbolism a gift to graduate students the world over. There are some smarmy, pandering-to-hip-audience films from the sixties and seventies, such as The Graduate, Easy Rider, The Last Picture Show, and Dr. Strangelove, that have wrongly come to be regarded in certain circles as classics, but I would hate to waste my vote for most overrated on such undeserving targets. No, my choice is a film both worshiped on a popular level and enshrined universally as art, The Godfather. Go ahead, shoot me, but when I watch this film, all I can see is the straining for self-importance, the unearned assumption of House of Atreus tragedy, and the belatedness of coming after all the better-observed, more authentic, and unassuming gangster movies, from Sternberg's Underworld and Hawks's Scarface through Boetticher's The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, and substituting a syrupy elegiac goop of nostalgia for immigrant family values and virile violence. For me, The Godfather never comes alive in the moment but is a series of anthology scenes meant to be quoted afterward; the one exception is Brando's brilliant performance.
Most Underrated Movie Classic: As for underrated pictures, the list is almost infinite. We could start with Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life or In a Lonely Place, Vincent Sherman's The Hard Way, and while we are in Ida Lupino territory, all her own directed features, especially Not Wanted and The Bigamist, and all of John Huston's late works, starting with Fat City, plus Scorsese's Kundun, Bogdanovich's They All Laughed, Ophuls's The Reckless Moment.... The problem is that none of these is exactly a "classic," and all have their place in the back-street enthusiasms of auteurists and university film studies. So I'm going to focus on someone who, to me, is a very underrated American director within the film-buff community: Joseph Mankiewicz. Though Godard once called Mankiewicz "the most intelligent man in all contemporary cinema," and he once won two Academy Awards in a row for directing, his stock on this side of the Atlantic has since fallen severely. He is considered too literary when what he is, in fact, is literate. All About Eve hardly ranks as an unsung classic, so I'll opt for his deliciously complex four-narrative masterwork A Letter to Three Wives. My favorite part is the courtship between Linda Darnell and Paul Douglas, with Thelma Ritter kibbitzing in the background. Awesome.
--Phillip Lopate's latest essay collection is a volume of film criticism, Totally, Tenderly, Tragically. He teaches at Hofstra University.
BY PETER PADFIEL
Most Overrated Naval Battle: Virginia Capes, 1781. Could any action have a higher rating than that which sealed the fate of British North America? But did it? Certainly area sea control was decisive. Lord Cornwallis had marched his troops to Yorktown, where the York River broadens into Chesapeake Bay, in order to open communications by sea with the British main base, New York,. Gen. George Washington, marching south with his French ally, Rochambeau, would need to cross the wide waters of the bay to reach Yorktown--plainly impossible if opposed by hostile naval forces. Meanwhile, a French squadron of eight ships of the line was sailing south from Newport, Rhode Island, with Washington's siege guns.
This was the situation at the end of August, when the French fleet from the West Indies under the Comte de Grasse arrived and anchored close inside Cape Henry at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay. De Grasse sent four of the line farther in to blockade the mouths of the York and James Rivers but still had twenty-four with him when a British fleet of nineteen of the line appeared on September 5. De Grasse rightly weighed and beat out to sea. The British commander, Rear Adm. Thomas Graves, rightly formed an orderly line of battle before commencing what proved an indecisive engagement. Too many historians have accepted the postbattle critique of Graves's second-in-command, Rear Adm. Sir Samuel Hood. "Yesterday the British fleet had a rich and most plentiful harvest of glory in view, but the means to gather it were omitted in more instances than one" was Hood's comment.
All precedents suggest that equal fleets could never gain decisive victory, let alone such a numerically inferior fleet as that of the unfortunate Graves. This in turn suggests that it was not the battle but the strategic massing of force beforehand that decided the destiny of North America. De Grasse achieved this masterstroke by unexpectedly attaching his entire fleet when he sailed north from the West Indies, eventually commanding an unassailably superior force of thirty-six of the line. Any failures lay with his former opponents in the Caribbean, Adm. Sir George Rodney and Samuel Hood himself, who had equal forces but neither reduced the French nor kept them under close surveillance. The fate of colonial North America was decided partly by their lack of attention but mainly by the remarkable conjunction of two strategists of genius, a French admiral and an American general who later served as the first President of the United States. Cornwallis surrendered to Washington on October 19.
Most Underrated Naval Battle: The U.S. submarine battle of the Pacific. The battle conducted by Adm. Karl Dbnitz's U-boat wolf packs against Allied shipping in the North Atlantic is recognized as a decisive chapter in the Second World War. Yet the battle conducted by the rather more flamboyantly named U.S. submarine packs in the Pacific and China Seas (Park's Pirates, Wilkins' Wildcats, and Blair's Blasters were some of the packs) tends to be overshadowed by the feats of U.S. carrier groups and Marines. While no supporter of counterfactual history, I believe it could be demonstrated from the monthly figures of Japanese shipping sunk by U.S. submarines--after the initial scandal of the "dud" torpedoes had been rectified--that if these magnificent "fleet" boats had been concentrated as single-mindedly against ships supplying Japan with oil, raw materials, and food as the U-boats were deployed against Allied transatlantic supply lines, they could have throttled that island empire in shorter time and with less sacrifice of blood and treasure than resulted from the "two-roads" island-hopping strategy actually adopted, and that means before any atomic bombs were ready for use.
Be that as it may, the results achieved by U.S. submarines in 1944 were sufficiently impressive: Despite being deployed in fleet actions and against warships--and sinking one battleship, no fewer than seven carriers, two heavy cruisers, and more than forty other fighting units--they destroyed well over two million tons of supply shipping, halving the tonnage available to Japan, terrifying Japanese sailors, and exerting an effective blockade that would have forced a rational government to the peace table.
Their spirit might be encapsulated in the report of Comdr. Samuel Dealey of the U.S. submarine Harder, who was nicknamed the Destroyer Killer, after his first "kill": "Range 900 yards. Commenced firing. Expended four torpedoes and one Jap destroyer."
--Peter Padfield's latest book about naval warfare is Maritime Supremacy and the Opening of the Western Mind.
BY JOHN STEELE GORDON
Most Overrated Novel: Moby-Dick. Call me Philistine. I think MobyDick is a great crashing bore of a novel. The problem is that it is actually three books in one. It is a sea story, an extended treatise on whaling, and a work of moral philosophy. As a sea story it is hard to beat--crazy captains, crazy whales, you name it--but the endless details on whaling often get in the way of the narrative flow. As for the moral philosophy, I will admit to being totally immune to its charms. Even worse for its standing as a novel, the moral philosophy aspect tends to make the characters more paradigmatic than human. And the one thing a great novel must have is real characters the reader can relate to. Ask Jane Austen, Stephen Crane, or Graham Greene. But have you ever met a Captain Ahab?
The people of the 1850s seem to have had the same reaction to Moby-Dick. The critics were ambivalent, to say the least, perhaps afraid of appearing out of their depth. But the people voted with their dollars in no uncertain terms, and the book was a commercial disaster. It was only in the 1920s that English professors began to inflict it on their students, virtually none of whom, it is safe to say, ever read it twice. I bet the Cliffs Notes for Moby-Dick have sold far better than the book ever has. There's a reason for that.
Most Underrated Novel: The Caine Mutiny was published in 1951, exactly one hundred years after Moby-Dick. Unlike that earlier sea story, it was a huge bestseller and won Herman Wouk the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Now, however, although it's still in print, most people know the story not through the book but through the Hollywood movie of 1954, which was forgettable at best, except for Humphrey Bogart's awesomely perfect portrayal of Captain Queeg.
But The Caine Mutiny is not really the story of Captain Queeg, it's the story of Willie Keith. At the beginning of the book he is an overprotected son of privilege, just out of Princeton. He quickly finds himself aboard a rust-bucket destroyer-minesweeper in the midst of the country's greatest naval war. By the end of the book, Willie Keith is a different person. The overprivileged boy has become, well, a man. That slow transformation over the course of a wonderfully exciting book is utterly convincing and could only be the work of a master novelist.
Like all great novels, The Caine Mutiny is a window into the world it depicts, the United States and the far-flung Pacific battlefields of the early 1940s. And like all great novels, it is populated by real people, people who, while unique, remind us powerfully of friends, neighbors, and enemies: the cynical, self-absorbed Keefer; the stouthearted, guileless Maryk; the failed, fearful Queeg. (By the way, could even Dickens have come up with a better name for this character?)
Thus The Caine Mutiny is not only a great page-turner, it is great literature. Like Willie Keith, the reader is a different person at the end of the book, vastly entertained to be sure, but also a little wiser about what it means to be human.
--John Steele Gordon writes "The Business of America" for American Heritage and is the author of The Great Game: The Emergence of Wall Street as a World Power, 1653-2000.
BY PAT WILLARD
Most Overrated Pie: Apple pie. The apple isn't even native to American soil. The first trees were planted by Pilgrims, and while a ton of apple pie sustained our forebears through the early days of building this country, most apple pies, even way back then, were fairly tasteless creations--mushy fillings encased in what an eighteenth-century preacher, forced by parishioners to eat more than his fair share, described as pastry so hard "its crust is not broken if a wagon wheel goes over it." Modern apple pies have often fared worse. For one thing, a really good apple pie demands a selection of really good apples--two or three varieties, at least--and Delicious apples just don't count. It is no use making an apple pie without a supply of flavorful, old-style cooking apples, such as Gravensteins, Jonathans, and, if you can find them, Stayman Winesaps. If you can gather up six or seven of these and succeed in mixing together a delicate crust made of lard and butter, well, then, you'll have a pretty good pie. It may even be great, but that's a rare thing indeed.
Most Underrated Pie: Sweet-potato pie. There are a lot of things that are just right about a sweet-potato pie. First of all, it is made with something that is truly American; second of all, it's hard to make a bad one. All you need is a couple of firm sweet potatoes. Boil them until just tender; mash them up with a little cream and some nutmeg and cinnamon; add a few eggs to hold everything together; then pour it into a crust. Any old crust will do (lard, butter, crumb, even store-bought; it just doesn't matter because all the crust on a sweet-potato pie has to do is hold the filling together while it bakes, then act as a shovel when it's done. Bake it for an hour and there you go: pure heaven, every time. Some people insist on serving it with ice cream--or maybe even a little bourbon-spiced whipped cream--but they just embroider a natural beauty. That something as lowly and simple as this native plant could be transformed into such a glorious feast is a perfect characterization of the American ideal.
--Pat Willard is the author of Pie Every Day: Recipes and Slices of Life. Her latest book is A Soothing Broth.
Yes, but not as well as these tubers.
BY RICHARD BROOKHISER
Most Overrated President: Normally, the most overrated President would be James Madison, who let the British turn the White House into a barbecue pit. But in the wake of the end-of-century lists, the award must go to Franklin Roosevelt, hailed as the "savior of capitalism," a flatulent phrase that is doubly wrong.
Saved it from whom? The Depression-era radicals--communists, socialists, Father Coughlin--were annoyances, whose candidates never got much more than 2 percent of the popular vote in a presidential election during the 1930s. Huey Long was a regional figure who would have flamed out if he had not been shot.
Saved it how? The mixture of improvisation and failure that was the New Deal kept the economy limping, until war production revived it. Roosevelt (and Hoover) took a recession and made it a catastrophe.
There remains the x factor of FDR's spirits. Churchill said that meeting him was like opening one's first bottle of champagne. But that only makes a bad domestic record mixed.
Most Underrated President: Normally, the most underrated President would be Warren Harding, who ended the paranoia and oppression of the Wilson years. But, once again in compensation for the failures of end-of-century lists, the most underrated must be Ronald Reagan. In his case the reason is not domestic policy but war. Reagan won a world war without a Somme or a Stalingrad. Truman laid the groundwork, and Bush was in at the death, but Reagan begat perestroika, which led to the swiftest collapse of a hostile superpower in history.
--Richard Brookhiser's most recent book is Alexander Hamilton, American.
BY PHIL PATTON
A Texaco station basks In its aura of architectural purity.
Most Overrated Roadside Architecture: Diners. They've been refurbished in recent years to look more streamlined than ever, more fifties than they were in the fifties. In fact, many were ptomaine palaces whose meals drove Americans to the dependability of standardized national fast-food chains. Today the reborn diners provide the visual equivalent of karaoke, mouthing the images of the past without the tune. Like those parodies of Edward Hopper's Nigbtbawks painting, they drip with yuppie irony. Their vast portions produce satiation at first sight; simply reading their immense menus can leave you feeling as full as if you'd already eaten a whole meal.
Most Underrated Roadside Architecture: Modern gas stations. Exxon and Mobil in red, white, and blue, Texaco in black, BP in green--they're pure modern architecture, kits of translucent light boxes and enameled panels, assembling simple geometrical units into stage sets. Beneath hovering canopies, they create a national package for the invisible products of service and gasoline.
Eliot Noyes's Mobil is the best, but they all were done by major design firms. Whether or not Raymond Loewy really doodled linked x's on the back of an envelope at his Palm Springs home, as legend has it, he did give us Exxon as well as Shell.
They pop up in distant, isolated places like post offices or embassies of the modern. Now that Exxon has merged with Mobil, what is revealing is how easily the red and white and blue color schemes--the hues of the flag!--and the sans serif Swiss-style letters of the two liveries fit together. They are simple and subtle. Look closely at the Exxon sign, with its double x like a tilted telephone pole or a cross of Lorraine, and you will note that the letters swell almost imperceptibly at their ends to fool the eye into seeing their lines as straight, counteracting parallax like the columns of the Parthenon.
These stations, and not faux moderne diners, are the true heirs to the romantic streamlined tradition. Future generations will venerate them as the real successors to the classic stations Henry Dreyfuss and Walter Dorwin Teague designed in the thirties and forties.
--Phil Patton is the author of Open Road: A Celebration of the American Highway and Dreamland: Travels Inside the Secret World of Roswell and Area 51. He writes for the "Public Eye" column of The New York Times.
Silent Film Star
BY JEANINE D. BASINGER
Most Overrated Silent Film Star: It would be wonderful to contemplate a time in which one could really choose an overrated silent film star, since so few are well enough known today to be that controversial. A few big names of the era are well known--Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Lillian Gish, et al.--but their work is the work of true genius, and they have been lucky enough to have their films remain accessible.
Pressed to choose someone for the sacrifice, I might suggest the exquisite Louise Brooks, not because she isn't wonderful--she is--and not because her movies aren't excellent--they are --but because she made very few films and never achieved the stardom of a Pickford, a Swanson, or even a Colleen Moore (the original wearer of the famed Brooks geometric haircut). Brooks has been the subject of several books and numerous articles and penned her own colorful autobiography. These things contributed to her elevation into an icon of the silent era. She's never anything less than magnificent, but she was not a major American movie star in her own day. Since her modern reputation is disproportionate to her original fame, she can be called overrated.
Most Underrated Silent Film Star: In the underrated category there is a long list of choices: John Gilbert, Pola Negri, Mabel Normand, the Talmadge sisters, Clara Bow, the afore-mentioned Colleen Moore, and countless others. My choice, however, is Marion Davies, the beautiful and delicious comedienne whose reputation has been forever diminished by Citizen Kane. Since Davies was the mistress of the alleged model for Kane, William Randolph Hearst, history now defines her as a movie star whose career was bought and paid for by her wealthy lover. That is partially true, but the real damage to Davies was done by the fictional character Susan Alexander, Kane's untalented true love. It is assumed that Davies was Susan Alexander, and her career is never taken on its own terms or discussed separately from the Kane-Hearst issue. As a result she is seriously undervalued.
Marion Davies on film is a lovely young woman of spirit and humor. She is always willing to let her beauty play second fiddle to her comedy talent, and she undertook roles that many a glamour girl would have run from. In Beverly of Graustark she impersonates a young man in a shockingly modern, nonchalant manner, carrying off an extended drinking scene with the aplomb of Buster Keaton. In The Fair Co-ed, she plays that most unexpected of silent-film heroines, a female basketball star, dribbling down the floor in gym shorts and sneakers and throwing up a mean jump shot. In Show People, her comic masterpiece, she takes pratfalls with ease, gets squirted with seltzer, throws a few pies, and impersonates Gloria Swanson to perfection, but with charm, not malice. Unlike Susan Alexander, everything about Marion Davies' is first-rate. She is adorable, down-to-earth, and honest, and never seems to take herself too seriously. She is totally believable onscreen because her strength lay in her very matter-of-fact attitude toward both wealth and stardom, which was no doubt something Hearst saw in her in the first place. Marion Davies is waiting to be rediscovered, but only if she can escape the curse that Citizen Kane laid over her career.
--Jeanine D. Basinger, a professor of film history at Wesleyan, is the author of Silent Stars.
BY GARY GIDDINS
Barbra Streisand going full-throttle In Funny Girl.
Most Overrated Singer: Barbra Streisand. Many singers make my teeth ache, from Rudy Vallee to Britney Spears, but none is taken so seriously as the incomparably ersatz Barbra Streisand. She is an icon of America's love of display and personality at the expense of sincerity and taste. Everything she sings is charged with self-loving vulgarity; worship me, she bellows, and forget the song. Streisand has a huge instrument and not an inkling of what to do with it. Her primary technique consists of heavy breathing, which turns tenaciously aspirate on vowels or h words. As a small boy, watching her in Funny Girl on Broadway, I recoiled at her shallowness. She never deigned to play the role; she was too intent on stopping the show. Alice Faye, who played a similar part in Rose of Washington Square, displayed more soul on her worst day. Classical Barbra exposed her hubris, yet her pop singing is every bit as garish. Vulgarity has its place, but only when animated by emotional generosity, which is why, despite her immense popularity, Streisand has never joined the ranks of the great hearts-on-their-sleeves emoters, from Jolson to Garland. They meant it. She doesn't.
Most Underrated Singer: Bing Crosby. It would have been inconceivable to call Bing Crosby underrated at any time between 1931 and 1965. He was the most popular, admired, and beloved singer the world had ever known. In those years my answer would have been Louis Armstrong or Ethel Waters, who with Crosby invented America's modern vernacular style. But Armstrong at long last routinely receives his due, and much of Waters's work is sadly dated, while the ocean has rolled over Der Bingle. The tide will change. He is still admired for his jazz records (one bandleader called him "the first hip white person born in the United States"), but no less gratifying is his unparalleled versatility. With his perfect time and articulation, Bing could be equally affecting on country, cowboy, Hawaiian, and standard songs. We tend to think of the swing era as pounding feet and flying skirts, but listen to Crosby's great Depression waltzes--"Mexicali Rose," "The One Rose"--and you hear the sober, tremulous flip side of those years. I once saw a skeptical opera expert reduced to tears by Bing's "Sweetheart of Sigma Chi," of all things. No one captured the heartbeat of this nation during the 1930s and 1940s as well as he did, and his best work continues to speak volumes.
--Gary Giddins is the author of Visions of Jazz: The First Century.
Sixties Counterculture Hero
BY DAVID OBST
Most Overrated Sixties Counterculture Hero:
There are two: Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. The original "shock jocks," these manic-depressive, self-styled revolutionaries led a generation in circles. Masters of the political prank, they were at their best while on camera. Whether tossing dollar bills from the visitors' gallery onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, trying to levitate the Pentagon with their mental energy, sending thousands of marijuana joints to people selected at random from the New York City phone book, or wearing American-flag diapers, Abbie and Jerry were always amusing. In spite of their wit and charisma, however, they really had no plan on how to lead a generation of kids into a new America. Instead they became professional dissidents, opposing all, with no particular idea of what they wanted except to see their faces in the paper. Their publicity-seeking excesses turned many grownups against their own children, and the resulting generation gap caused enormous hurt and misunderstanding. Although fondly remembered by many, Hoffman and Rubin were, to paraphrase a Southern adage, responsible only for a heap of stirring and no biscuits.
Most Underrated Sixties Counterculture Hero: Stewart Brand. His Whole Earth Catalog and CoEvolution Quarterly had an enormous impact on society. Brand was responsible for making alternative thinking in the fields of nutrition, medicine, and spirituality into accepted parts of our culture.
--David Obst is the author of the memoir Too Good to Be Forgotten: Changing America in the '60s and '70s.
World War II General
BY ALLAN R. MILLETT
Most Overrated World War II General: Unlike MacArthur, Patton, and Eisenhower, Omar N. Bradley (1893-1981) escaped searching media analysis during the war and has dodged biographers ever since. His A Soldier's Story (1951) and A General's Life (1983) protect his reputation and encourage sympathy for Bradley's struggles with his detractors. Even the movie Patton serves to keep the Bradley myth alive. How can one possibly dislike Karl Malden as Bradley in his struggles with the imperious, half-crazed George C. Scott?
Bradley's energy, intelligence, and determination made him a star pupil at the Infantry School and the Command and General Staff School after World War I and impressed Col. George C. Marshall, who consistently pushed him ahead. As the commander of the U.S. 1st Army and the U.S. 12th Army Group, 1944-45, Bradley reached his natural level of incompetence. A clear-eyed evaluation of his shortcomings begins with the near-defeat at Omaha Beach, where his acceptance of impossible schemes of fire support and operational concepts produced one of the worst bloodlettings for American troops in World War II, casualties so severe (probably twenty-five hundred dead in one long morning) that the Army is still reluctant to admit them. Bradley directed Patton's 3d Army to head for the Brittany ports and thus slowed the exploitation of Patton's Operation Cobra breakout. He then misunderstood the Wehrmacht's vulnerability in the Mortain counter-offensive, failing to close the Falaise-Argentan gap and thereby allowing thousands of crack German troops to escape a trap staunchly set by the 1st Polish Armored Division.
Along the Rhine frontier he directed a series of World War I-style offensives, attritional fighting of the worst sort that reduced much of the 1st Army to demoralized haplessness. His failure to provide reserves behind the V and VIII Corps invited the German counteroffensive through the Ardennes, which he and his staff failed to identify. Eisenhower then gave Montgomery and Patton the key roles in fighting the Battle of the Bulge, much to Bradley's outrage. While sulking, he failed to support Patron's plan to cut off the German two-panzer-army salient at the base, again allowing a hardfought American victory to be partial at best. Nevertheless, Bradley ended the war still high in Marshall's esteem, although Eisenhower had cooled to his generalship.
How did Bradley burnish his postwar reputation until he reached the status of beloved icon? First of all, he benefited by his longevity and perseverance in becoming the first chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in 1949, and a General of the Army in 1950. During the war he had cultivated his close personal relations with Marshall and Eisenhower, which predisposed them to give him the benefit of the doubt and to send him the Army's best staff talent. He returned his staff's loyalty and exemplary ability with equal loyalty and consideration--not necessarily a trait of his contemporaries--and his temperament encouraged a degree of admiration that overlooked his tendency to avoid risk and to blame others for his problems.
Most Underrated World War II General: Gruff, poised, energetic, deep in soldierly knowledge, balanced in crises, and uninterested in any fame except the respect of his peers and his soldiers, Lucian K. Truscott, Jr. (1895-1965), did not get much attention from the media because he was not in the Ike-Bradley U.S. 12th Army Group clique or the counterclique in the same army led by Patton. Instead he served in the "forgotten" 7th and 5th Armies under Generals Patton and Clark, who dominated their press gangs' attention, and Gens. Jacob L. Devers and Alexander M. Patch, who were not favored by Marshall or Eisenhower. Yet under Truscott's command the "Rock of the Marne" Division killed more Germans and suffered more casualties than its more flamboyant and controversial rival, the 1st Infantry. One of Truscott's contemporaries said that he combined all the best traits of Eisenhower, Bradley, and Patton without any of their flaws; others remembered him as the best division and corps commander in the European theater. Truscott's superior generalship illuminates his memoir, Command Missions (1954), a self-effacing but very impressive account of his service in World War II. The book is equal to Gen. William Slim's Defeat Into Victory, the story of another unsung general, but British and now fully appreciated. Truscott deserves the same sort of reputation.
--Allan R. Millett, a professor of history at Ohio State University, is co-author of A War to Be Won: Fighting World War II.…