Friday, January 21, 2005
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The Greatest Americans?
The Discovery Channel and AOL launched a contest today asking "Who is the Greatest American?" According to the Associated Press story, the specific criteria is naming the Americans who they believe "most influenced the way they think, work and live."
I've already entered my five names, in ascending order of importance:
Honorable mentions for Jackie Robinson, Steve Jobs, Ronald Reagan, Marilyn Monroe, and Henry Ford.
Readers are encouraged to post their own top 5.
UPDATE: Some excellent suggestions have been put forward in the comments -- particularly George Marshall.posted by Dan on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM
More than "symboliz[ing] the range of private entrepreneurship that made the United States such a dynamic economy", Edison symbolizes that ugly strain within capitalism that eschews competition in the quest to preserve a steady stream of economic rents.
"Thomas Alva Edison was, and still is, known to be one of the greatest inventors of all time, and the record for having the highest number of patents definitely proves that.
When I say loser, I am referring to the war of the currents, the war of the Edison Electric company with the Westinghouse Company, the war between two of the most influential figures in electrical history, Thomas A. Edison and Nicola Tesla.
It is a fact, and a good one I might add, that Edison lost the battle between DC (direct current: Edison) and AC (alternating current: Tesla). A good one for us, because DC is much more dangerous and far less portable than AC. So in this article, I am going to give you an idea of how life would have been if Edison had his way. I will also reveal some astonishing facts about Edison.
To begin with, in this war of the two opponents, Tesla was more theoretically sound compared to Edison, who was more of a trial and error person. One might not believe that, as everyone knows the important contributions and inventions he made.
One can probably argue that if Tesla was more "according to the book" than Edison, how come very few people know about Tesla and his ingenuity? The answer also relates to Edison, as he was the one that tried to make sure that his (Tesla's) method and personality was defamed. Believe it or not, Edison was not at all a straight person.
He knew that AC was a better option as compared to DC (I will explain that later on). But he was a monopoly in supplying power to households before Tesla emerged with this idea. Therefore, his constant flow of money would be interrupted if Tesla were to emerge victorious in this battle.
Consequently, he had school kids catch stray animals from the streets and then held demonstrations where, in crude experiments, he would electrocute them. There were posters everywhere warning people of the dangers of AC. He also developed an analogy for electrocution and warned people of being "Westinghoused" (after Nicola Tesla's company).
Edison made every effort he could to erase Tesla's name from history, and he nearly succeeded, as not many people are familiar with Nicola Tesla."
Very creative that Tommy boy; very creative, indeed.posted by: oneangryslav on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
James Madison and Ulysses S Grant are there somewhere. Probably George Lucas too. Maybe FDR. Rockefeller. That's five. Don't think, just write. Its fun!posted by: Eric on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence. "We hold these truths to be self-eviident..." Rings through the ages; will continue to ring when George W. Bush is as forgotten as Chester A. Arthur.
Thomas Jefferson, driving force behind the Louisiana Purchase. Imagine the United States without the Mississippi river valley.
Thomas Jefferson, patron of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Sent brave men to explore, against the wishes of the conservatives of his day, starting a tradition that has taken Americans to the moon.
Thomas Jefferson, father of the Democratic Party. Grander. Older. And right.
Thomas Jefferson, scientist, researcher, polymath. In April 1962, at a White House dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners of the Western Hemisphere, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy observed: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
(Optional sixth, not greatness as it is usually understood, but importance in American history: Thomas Jefferson, slaveholder, father of a child to Sally Hemings. Race is never far from the surface in America, and so it was with Jefferson.)posted by: Doug on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
Chief Justice Marshall, Andrew Jackson, Abe Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, in more or less ascending order.posted by: Lewis Maskell on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
apple lover.posted by: Jim Dandy on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
Maybe, maybe, you could justify a Gates/Allen hybrid, to represent the team that figured out how to make vast quantities of money by selling software as a product in-and-of-itself (largely moving it away from the "free accessory" it had been before).
I'm not sure that qualifies as a "great" achievement, but it's certainly more significant than... Steve F'ing Jobs.posted by: foo on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
My only quibble: Washington's greatest accomplishment, I think, was not his decision to retire after 2 terms but his surrender of command of the Continental Army to the Congress.posted by: Simon on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
MLKjr.posted by: Mark Buehner on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
A lot of ones already mentioned would probably make my list, but the following at least deserve honorable mention, and in no order:
Susan B. Anthony
posted by: dave on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
I'd pick Alexander Hamilton over Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson had the lofty ideals that helped spur this country to democracy, but Hamilton was the master builder who created the USA as we know it.posted by: Mark S on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
The next interesting list would be one showing where the Bush Clan is working to undo the achievements of the top 10, starting with the reintroduction of heriditary monarchy.
Crankyposted by: Cranky Observer on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
Since you mentioned Edison, I've got to put in a good word for George Westinghouse. Drove innovation in areas ranging from gas lighting to the air brake to AC electricity...and by all accounts was a better human being than Edison.
Westinghouse vignette here:
George Washington: Father of our country, great general in Revolutionary War, first president. The man who got it all started and set the tone for the future.
Thomas Jefferson: For the immortal six lines from the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths..." These six lines are the very foundation of the United States and its form of government.
James Madison: Primary author of the Constitution of the United States and one of the authors of the Federalist Papers selling the constitution to the people.
John Adams: For his extraodinary intellectual contribution to the creation of the American republic.
Abraham Lincoln: For keeping it all together as a republic.posted by: Mike on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
I agree with Mike S: Hamilton over Jefferson. I'd also second Lincoln for any list -- although (and Drezner must know this) citing Lincoln as the greatest American automatically gets him kicked out of the Libertarian club.posted by: von on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
"starting with the reintroduction of heriditary monarchy."
If you've ever wondered why no-one takes the left seriously anymore... Hyper-hyperbole, or abject hysteria, you be the judge.posted by: Mark Buehner on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
Washington and Lincoln have to be at the top of the list, as the only two Americans without whom the United States as we know it would not exist.
Franklin Roosevelt has to be next, for his leadership through the two greatest crises of the last century. Next to him I would put George C. Marshall, the closest thing to Washington America has yet produced and the indispensable man in war and postwar.
That leaves one position open. It could be filled by any one of a couple dozen people -- Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson, the first Rockefeller, the Wrights, Einstein, Oppenheimer, Franklin, Theodore Roosevelt, Douglass, Martin Luther King, Dwight L. Moody, Jonathan Edwards, Winston Churchill (he having been granted American citizenship by Congress). You could even make a case for the elder Pitt, not technically an American at all but one without whom we might all be speaking French.
My own choice would be Henry Ford. America is a nation on wheels, has been for generations. Ford more than any other man made it that way. I think of him every time I get stuck on I-75 and whenever my old Taurus sounds about to breathe its last, so his influence on me personally seems inarguable.posted by: Zathras on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
Jefferson invented lots of things that didn't work well. Franklin invented institutions that were incredibly successful, as well as doing much better science.posted by: Andy Freeman on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
John Moses Browning invented almost all of the modern gun mechanisms. With two exceptions, the ones he didn't invent, he was the first to make work. (The exceptions are revolvers and bolt actions.)
Elisha Graves Otis made elevators safe.
Glenn Hammond Curtiss - practical airplanes AND companies to make them.
Alfred P. Sloan - modern corporationposted by: Andy Freeman on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
I'm frankly shocked you didn't choose Salma Hayek ...posted by: Mike on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
Jefferson bought half of the US. That beats opening a bank in my book.posted by: Mark Buehner on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
5. Alexander Hamilton - Federalism, industrialism, central banking - that's a lot.
4. James Polk - California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Utah - that's a lot, too.
3. Thomas Jefferson - The Declaration of Independence and the Louisiana Purchase.
4. George Washington - Without GW there would never have been a US.
5. Abe Lincoln - Without AL, there would no longer be a US.posted by: DBL on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
I concur with the previous mentions of FDR and Lincoln. I belive those two men had the greatest impact on the modern America as anyone.
Lincoln for creating a strong and unified Federal Government, ending slavery, and preventing succession. FDR for in effect saving capitalism with the New Deal when things could easily have tipped the other direction. And, of course, for leading the Allied Coalition in WWII.
After those two? I would put George Marshall, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin high on the list. And then look to some candidates from social movements (MLK Jr., Susan B Anthony etc.) and some candidates from the arts and sports worlds (Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson, Aaron Copeland, etc.)posted by: Kent on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
Elvis was not the godfather of american popular music. Where do you think he got his music?posted by: Brian on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
1. George Washington for his restraint. The American Revolution was one of the few that did not end badly.
2. Jane Addams for her sense of social responsibility and willingness to teach and learn.
3. Bob Moses--Civil Rights Worker. For, like Washington, eschewing power but not responsibility.
4. Bob Dylan--for helping to popularize and transform traditional music.
5. Mark Twain--For combining cynicism, idealism, and laughter.posted by: catfish on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
5)Thomas Edison. Dan said it better than I could.
4)Ulysses Grant. Terrible President, but a great general. The Civil War was by far the most important conflict in America's history, and if it hadn't been for Grant, the results would have been much worse.
3)Teddy Roosevelt. In my opinion, the evolution of the American government from what it was into what it is today owes more to TR than any other president, not so much in terms of policies as in terms of an activist attitude. I suspect I view this change more positively than most posters here, but in any case, I think Roosevelt's signifigance is overlooked.
2)Jackie Robinson. I'm a sports nut in general, and a baseball nut specifically, so I may overrate his impact on America. But the courage he needed to have, and what he had to endure on a day-by-day basis without replying in kind (at least at first) can't be overestimated.
1)Abraham Lincoln. Not the greatest civil libertatian of all time. But the positive accomplishments are so huge that it doesn't matter.posted by: Devin McCullen on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
"Elvis Presley ain't got no soouuul--Chuck Berry is rock-n-roll" - Mos Def
But Drezner's point is that Elivs brought it mainstream (white).posted by: Eric on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
I don't know if I'd say that "greatest American" is the same as "the American who most influence the way you work and live." If I had to make a list of "greatest" and "most influential" the two lists might be quite different.
For example, I'd be inclined to put Albert Einstein on the first, but certainly not the second, and Henry Ford on the second list, not the first.
Grant maybe not in the top 5, but on some
Reading Grant's memoirs, to my inner ear at least it sounds like he is the first person to write modern American English. (Could be his editor, one S. Clemens, tho...)posted by: Davis X. Machina on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
As a car nut, I'd be inclined to pull the lever for Henry Ford. Unfortunately, he was a vicious and outspoken Jew-hater and Nazi-symp who bankrolled explicitly antisemitic newspapers in the Detroit area for years. Even by the low standards of that day he was a real SOB. I'm surprised these facts are so frequently forgotten.posted by: Slippery Pete on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
For those who consider Sinatra or Presley the "greatest" Americans in popular culture, consider Louis Armstrong. He created the language of American (and thus world) popular music in the twentieth century, shaping the direction of both vocal and instrumental performance, and by virtue of his being the first "hot" soloist to achieve national and international fame in modern popular music, became, in effect, the first pop star. No Armstrong--no Presley, Sinatra...posted by: Bill on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
The facts about Ford are not forgotten, but the criteria for this list are what they are. If the test were "who led the most saintly American life" the list would probably hold the names of five people no one has ever heard of.
The results of this survey might provide an interesting glimpse at the role of celebrity and entertainment in the American imagination. Some of the names I've seen suggested -- Jackie Robinson, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Muhammed Ali -- are certainly famous names and a few even have some symbolic significance at least for some people. But in terms of what they accomplished in life, well, Robinson mostly played baseball, Presley sang songs, Monroe acted in movies and did some other things I can't discuss on a family-oriented comment board. Important? Influential? Compared to what?
It's actually a tricky set of questions. For example, ask someone in Utah who belongs on the Discovery/AOL list and you're likely to get one name -- Brigham Young's -- that won't get mentioned as much in other places. So too, to varying degrees with Aaron Copland among the musically inclined, Susan B. Anthony for feminists, Frederick Douglass for African Americans, and -- in a negative way -- William T. Sherman for many people here in Georgia.
So to what extent are people important to some of us important to all of us? And what relation does their importance have to what they did, as opposed to what they may have symbolized? I mean, it's not hard to see how the Continental Army falls apart and American independence gets postponed, maybe for generations, if George Washington had caught a bullet fighting on Long Island in 1776. Suppose Elvis Presley gets hit by a bus in 1955 -- doesn't someone else simply get promoted to take his place as a pop culture icon?
This is quite a tangent. I hesitate to provoke another one. But, if our criteria involve how influential a person was over the years, what do we do with Robert E. Lee?posted by: Zathras on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
> And what relation does their importance have to
Another side of that tetrahedron is people whose primary accomplishments were in engineering and/or industry. E.g. I was thinking of nominating Andrew Carnegie. But the accomplishments of such people (indeed, the value of engineering and industry) tend to be minimized by those who are more familiar with the "traditional" measures of value as existing primarily in the arts (broadly defined including most scholarly works) and in politics.
Crankyposted by: Cranky Obsever on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
18th Century Greatest American
Washington. Maybe the greatest. Yes he gave up Presidency after only two terms, but even more important was his refusal to even consider being manipulated into being the defacto "King" of America after he had won the Revolution. Further, his handling of his troops so that they didn't mutiny despite the fact that they wanted to over what they percieved was shabby treatment from congress. The Bill of Rights and the Constitution are amazing documents, but revolutionary France had similar documents after ousting the aristocracy. The French Revolution, however, also had Robespierre and Napoleon. The United States had George Washington.
19th Century Greatest American - Lincoln. Period. Nuff said.
20th Century - Franklin D. Roosevelt. Held America together through the Depression and WWII. (Ronald Reagan my ass.)
21st Century - Only History knows. But it won't be GWB.posted by: RootieKazootie on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
Abe Lincoln and George Washington are easy choices for 1 and 2. Ben Franklin over Thomas Edison for 3rd. Alex Hamilton beats Jefferson for 4th spot. And General George Marshall gets 5th (over FDR or Truman). And either Bob Dylan or Mark Twain over Elvis if you want a 6th, culture, spot.posted by: JohnClaytonII on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
I think it is interesting that Jefferson continues to re-occur on these lists. Especially if these are lists submitted by 'learned' people. Perhaps it is simply due to the eternal myth surronding the man. Rare is the negative utter about Jefferson that doesn't begin with the words "Sally Hammings". But ther ewas so much more wrong with the man. That is not saying that he was not a great American, but he ceratinaly doesn't even make the starting five of his time.
Hamilton should make the "All Time" list as well. His example should ring clear especially in our time...Washington won the war and Hamilton organized the peace.
To Hamilton several others should be considered. TR, obviously. BUt what about a couple of Texans? Does the nation today look like anything similar without Austin and Houston? (Maybe not top five but certainly neglected if the discussion is about impact). And what about a few more generals? Sherman, Patton, MacArthur? Take any of them out of the wars and does the outcome endure? They were very unique and irreplacable...could you substitute Bradley for Patton...not a chance.
And while Oppenheimer shaped our lives what about a transplant like Goddard?
Of course MLK and Ike.
posted by: Phocion on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
Emerson. Self Reliance & Civil Disobedience-two of the most influential essays ever written, even today. Definitly one of America's greatest writers at the very least.posted by: moonshower on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
5 Greatest Americans:
1) John Marshall
Honorable Mentions: Ray Kroc, FDR, E.B. Whiteposted by: Mr. Blandings on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
5. Walt Whitman & Mark Twain (tie)
- Yes, this list may seem obvious, but its got teeth.posted by: RCF on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
One name that I am surprised has not come up is that of Henry David Thoreau. People who found one enduring tradition are rare; people who found two are practically unheard of. But this is exactly what Thoreau did; CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE founded a tradition of protest and dissent in our country that has been crucial to the evolution of our rights and freedoms, and which inspired Mohandas Gandhi, and through him, Martin Luther King, Jr.; WALDEN is the Old Testament of the environment/ecology preservation movement.
"Thomas Jefferson: For the immortal six lines from the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths..." These six lines are the very foundation of the United States and its form of government."
A couple of people have specifically mentioned the line above. While Jefferson deserves credit for a number of immortal lines, the one you two cite is not his. I forget exactly how he drafted it initially, but I remember it being much longer. It was Franklin, and maybe Adams, who created the great line you are citing.posted by: Connie on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
Who is the guy whose name no one remembers that invented so many new food (grain) strains that he is credited with saving millions throughout the world from starvation?posted by: P. smith on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
Not even an honorable mention for MLK?
Rolls eyes.posted by: A.W. of Freespeech.com on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
Bwah! Now that I've made all the right whinger's heads explode, the best by far is Benjamin Franklin and not because he invented stuff.posted by: Robert McClelland on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
Since 1980... Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell...posted by: Troy Worman on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
Jefferson, Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Frederick Douglass, Louis Armstrong
honorable mention - Hamilton, Washington, Tecumseh, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mark Twain, Edison, MLK, Truman, Eisenhower, George Clintonposted by: Doug R on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
I'd hate for people to forget James Wilson, the first to articulate the concept of popular sovereignty, and the arguably the single person most responsible for the ratification of the Constitution. If Wilson hadn't convinced the Pennsylvania Convention to ratify, it might never have happened.posted by: Brian on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
Your choice of Paul is inspired. He doesn't get near enough credit for our economic turnaround since 1980. He cleared the path for both Reagan and Greenspan and made their success possible. I can't stand Jimmy Carter, a man I consider a bottom 5 President. But I must give Jimmy credit here. He appointed Paul. Reagan was smart enough to keep him and both Presidents allowed Paul to crush inflation. If Jimmy had combined tax cuts with Pauls medicine he may have had a 2nd term.
I am shock you picked Paul. He also proved the supply-side contention deficits do not cause high interest rates NOR do they cause inflation.
Do you know why Reagan didn't reappoint Paul in 1987? Greenspan was a terrific pick however Paul had already done a terrific job and obviously wasn't ready for retirement.
I'm not so sure Paul actually warrants a top 5 spot but I'm glad you put him there.
I little while ago I decided to som research on both Washington and Lincoln. I wondered if their high stature was reflective of their contribution or just because they were at the right spot at the right time. In other words, were they indespensible or could someone else have stepped in. Immediately after JFKs death he was sainted largely because he died so graphically and so young. He has since been dropped much lower in the rankings and will dropped further.
I found out that Washington and Lincoln were indeed great men and truly indespensible. I can't see ranking anyone else with them. But for the next 5 spots there are 50 names. Elvis ain't one of themposted by: rw on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
For P. Smith: The grain guy is Norman Borlaug.posted by: cc on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
Why limit it to 5? The limited number 5 cannot possibly have enough people on it -- America's a country with a rich history and no lack of people who have demonstrated amazing and timeless greatness.
Some years ago, the BBC did a "100 Greatest Britons" thing. If Great Britain deserves 100, surely America does, too. I came up with a list of 100 people from a variety of fields... it's a shame AOL/TDC are limiting this to five, and a shame they're doing it by online polling.posted by: J.Bryan on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
Hey people, where's your Common Sense? I could never narrow a list down to a mere 5, but with 50 responses as of this writing, citing many more than that number of people, one would think that old Tom Paine would deserve a mention. Although the times have changed, they do continue to try men's souls...posted by: Marc on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
The criteria for the "contest" were quite narrow -- it seems to me that at least four of the five have to be presidents. If you expand the list or exclude the presidents it gets more interesting. For my part, I'm quite surprised that nobody has mentioned Ralph Nader.
Nader arguably transformed our society in at least three ways.
First, he invented the modern consumer safety movement, which I submit has had an enormous impact on our national psyche. It both reflected and stimulated our national fetish for safety above other considerations.
Second, more than anybody else he is responsible for popularizing litigation as a political weapon. Yes, there were political cases before Nader -- Brown v. Board of Education and many that were less famous -- but did anybody make it the primary tactic for imposing and opposing change that it is today before Nader?
Third, he was the to a great degree the father of permanent activism outside the traditional civil rights movement. Sure, there were a few before him -- Margaret Sanger, the suffragettes, the temperance types -- but Nader professionalized it. Before Nader, activists were hobbyists with "day jobs." Since Nader, it is respectible (in many circles, anyway), just to be an "activist."
Nader drives me nuts, and I suppose that many people of blog-reading age think of him as washed up. But if I had to name somebody who was neither President nor a Justice of the Supreme Court who influenced contemporary American society more than Nader, I'd be hard pressed.posted by: Jack on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
1.) Benjamin Franklin - If Washington is the father of our country Franklin is the grandfather and genius behind our democracy and institutions
2.) Mark Twain - A man who made whit and criticism fashionable for all
3.) Howard Hughs/Henry Ford - The car and the automobile changed America and the world and came to symbolize our prosperity and freedom. These two men made them available to all.
4.) The American GI (WWII)- Some may call it cliché but they did change America for the better not only with what they did overseas, but more importantly with what they did when they got home.
5.) Clarence Darrow - Anybody who can kill someone with cross-examination has got to be one of the coolest lawyers ever. Plus he was attacking the overly religious before it was fashionable.posted by: James on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
3 should read "car and airplane"posted by: James on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
George Washington, Mark Twain, Louis Armstrong, Thomas Edison, Ronald Reagan.posted by: William L. Dewhurst on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
Most of these duplicate other people's suggestions, but I have to go with Lincoln, FDR, Albert Einstein, Thomas Paine, and Woody Guthrie.posted by: Rachel on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
Elvis? If Elvis hadn't been born, I bet someone else would have done what he did (and I don't at all denigrate what he did for pop culture, mainstreaming black music, etc). But FDR? If Lincoln was our greatest president, FDR has to be close in second or third. And can you imagine who else was on the stage, or in the wings, at that time who could have done what he did?posted by: Tom Fitz on 01.21.05 at 12:33 AM [permalink]
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