They’re the Greatest! (Or Are they?)
By Patrick F. Cannon
A movie just out, Yesterday, directed by Danny Boyle, has an interesting plot. Some kind of catastrophe has caused everyone in the world to forget that the Beatles and their songs ever existed – except, that is, for one so far unsuccessful, but soon to be famous, songwriter. According to the review I read, the movie’s assumption is that the Beatles were the greatest songwriters who ever lived.
Thus, once again, the dubious claim that someone or something is “the greatest” is made. In my memory, only two individuals have made such a claim for themselves – Mohammed Ali and Donald Trump. Ali had the better claim, if you forget Joe Louis in his prime, or Rocky Marciano, who, after all, retired undefeated. And then of course there’s Jack Johnson. As to Trump, the list of his betters includes just about everyone in the world except his buddies Putin and Kim.
I’m a great admirer of McCartney and Lennon, but are they really greater than Irving Berlin, Richard Rogers, George Gershwin, Cole Porter – or Steven Foster, Franz Schubert and Gustav Mahler for that matter? Why does anyone think the Beatles have to be in competition with all the other songwriters who ever lived? Only Paul McCartney is still with us, but I’m sure he’d be reluctant to claim his talents are superior to George Gershwin’s.
To continue with music, there are people who will argue over the relative merits of Beethoven as opposed to Mozart; or Mozart as opposed to Bach; or Bach as opposed to Stravinsky; and on and on. Why not just be glad they all decided to be composers instead of politicians?
Baseball fans go crazy with this “greatest” stuff. For example, Ty Cobb had the highest lifetime batting average (.366), but had a slugging percentage of .5120 as opposed to Babe Ruth’s .6897. What would Ted William’s slugging percentage of .6338 have been if he had not missed five prime seasons serving his country? Would his lifetime batting average of .344 been as high as Cobb’s? But were any of these worthies actually the best all-around ball player of all time? Fruitless, isn’t it?
I once thought that Rembrandt was the greatest painter of all time. Then I discovered Velasquez, then began looking more closely at Titian. Don’t many consider Leonardo da Vinci the top guy, even though he had trouble finishing his paintings? And don’t forget Michelangelo, a great all-rounder, who could do you a fine sculpture and later paint your ceiling.
Of course, all these guys have been dead for 400 years or so. How about some more-contemporary artists like Turner, Van Gogh, Monet or the great Picasso? Or what’s wrong with the living? How about Jeff Koons (just kidding!)?
People are also fond of listing the greatest US Presidents. Lincoln and Washington vie for the top spot, with Lincoln winning on points. Others near the top include Franklin and Teddy Roosevelt, Jefferson, Jackson (yikes!), Lyndon Johnson, Harry Truman and Woodrow Wilson. Conservative think Reagan should make the list. The thing is that all of them came along just when they were needed.
Many historians also like to rank the worst presidents. Failures like John Tyler, Millard Fillmore and James Buchanan no longer have to vie for the dubious honor of being last on the list.
Copyright 2019, Patrick F. Cannon