The idea of the “American Treasure” has been a part of our vernacular for a long time. Traditionally, these treasures have been expressed through places like Yellowstone and the Smithsonian. There are those who would conclude that television shows like “M.A.S.H.” and “Leave It To Beaver” are on the list of American Treasures as well as a movie like Gone With The Wind. Alec Baldwin, in a recent “SNL” episode, even labeled himself an American Treasure. (Maybe some day. He’s actually closer than you’d think.)
The idea of the American Treasure is best described as someone who embodies some aspect of the American spirit in terms inventiveness, inspiration, or sheer magnitude or cultural force. For the sake of this post, we’re dealing only with individuals who, perhaps for a generation or maybe longer, defined something about us collectively. An American Treasure, taken in this way, comes to represent something closer to our collective heart as a culture while at the same time explaining things about ourselves through their existence that we could not have otherwise articulated.
On the way to dinner last week I threw out this question to my family: Who would be your top 10 American Treasures? It got fun real quick. My daughters started texting friends so we had to establish some ground rules shortly thereafter. We tried to keep influential political figures off the list. If the Founding Fathers were fair game, after all, the list would fill up very quickly. I lost Teddy Roosevelt in this ruling and the family lost JFK. The most painful result of this decision was omitting the genius of Abraham Lincoln. We also realized that we had to make some kind of distinction between “iconic” and “treasure.” Even though the line between these two ideas is admittedly blurry, we decided that a lasting image does not a treasure make. This put Marilyn Monroe’s place on the list in jeopardy. Also, after some debate, we concluded that even though the people on our list of American Treasures do not necessarily have to be born in America, they must be quintessentially American. And so, Julie Andrews, please accept my sincerest apologies. (That one is a heartbreaker.)
And so in no particular order … here is our list. Let the debate begin:
Walt Disney – No one left a larger footprint on the Twentieth Century and no single individual outside of our Founding Fathers and a handful of other leaders has had a greater impact on how we understand ourselves as Americans. Whether that’s good or bad is another debate. Apart from the movies, technology advances, theme parks, and television shows, Disney’s place in this pantheon results most from the frontier spirit that emerges from practically everything he did. He both re-invented and re-imagined the pioneer mentality for multiple generations of Americans. Walt then and now coaxes the deepest dreams out of all of us. You could call it fantasy but that wouldn’t make it any less real. If I were ranking this list I think both MLK and Walt would contend for the top choice.
Audrey Hepburn – This is the reason we made the “American born” rule. We forget that Hepburn walked away from Hollywood, for the most part, in her prime. In her post-Hollywood life she devoted herself to many social causes and left an impact in whatever she did. Even though she never weighed more than 103 pounds, her “weight” was off the charts. She dominates every scene she’s ever been in. Fragile, yet somehow the possessor of an indelible strength, I think Hepburn reminds us that beauty is always worth fighting for. But she also reminds us that her kind of beauty will always maintain its own address.
Elvis Presley – This was a tough call in the icon vs. treasure debate and I’m not sure we got it right. But, really, can you NOT have Elvis Presley on this list? He hasn’t needed a last name in more than 50 years, he is perhaps the single greatest contributor to American popular culture, and he defined “cool” for an entire generation and more. And, just like the others listed here, his impact continues to reverberate through time long after his passing. And then there’s the mythology and the music and that 1968 “comeback special.”
Ernest Hemingway – We threw around Steinbeck and Fitzgerald as our literary representative and both are American Treasures for sure. We went with Hemingway because the man is so much more than the product. Epics like Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls along with the short story collection, his African adventures, contributions to global affairs, and the Paris years make “Papa” an easy choice. A boxer, athlete, and writer, this guy remains a tour de force of American passion, sensitivity, and brute force.
Steven Spielberg – Movies has always been a big part of our culture and a significant contributor to how we see ourselves. But the maker or E.T. beat out other movie makers like George Lucas because he has entered so much more in the ledger of Americana. Forces like Walt Disney and Steven Spielberg remind us how magical it is to believe.
Martin Luther King, Jr. – The idea of being free is so uniquely American to me and no one embodied the tension in and the fight for freedom more than MLK. “I Have a Dream” and “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” are absolutely inspiring. People like King come along once … once. And then they belong to the ages. MLK endures as a reminder of the power of the human heart as an engine for change.
Superman – The family wasn’t all that fond of this one so I had to use one of my bullets as the actual writer of the post to keep Superman on this “first ballot” list. Superman represents everything Americans want to believe about themselves. That he comes out of the comic books and movies means that he never gets old, he never changes, and he never stops fighting for truth, justice, and the American way. Even today Superman—perhaps more the idea than the persona— is the single greatest influence on American masculine culture. And when (or if) we lose this we will be in big trouble. That you can’t have Superman without Krytonite will always be both a powerful and provocative truth.
John Wayne – A latecomer to the conversation. I’ve never been a huge fan of his movies, but we felt like we had to have a male actor. Gable, Grant, Jimmy Stewart, and even Tom Hanks were mentioned … but c’mon. This one is easy. John Wayne almost always played the guy you wanted to be. If size matters then John Wayne is the biggest of the big. He speaks plainly. He comes close to being an allegorical representation of American values. He is western. He even played football at USC for crying out loud. He is throw-back. And he is in every way an American Man. And it all started the minute he got on that stagecoach. Thank God for Superman and John Wayne.
Muhammad Ali – Probably the one I would fight the least for, not only does Ali teeter on the icon vs treasure line but he was also a draft dodger. We left him on our list because of his brashness. What’s more American than telling everyone what you’re going to do and then going into the ring and doing it. With your fists. And I’ve got to add that watching him suffer from Parkinson’s and that magical moment at the 96 Olympics goes a long, long way toward his place on our list. Ali’s “last third” of life attests to the fact that Ali continues to fight—continues to fight battles more epic even than Manila.
Billy Graham – There are the great photographs of Graham in counsel with American presidents going as far back as Eisenhower. There are the crusades that led to thousands if not millions of conversions. There’s Graham the statesman and Graham the human being and Graham the husband and father and humanitarian. But he finds his way onto this list due to one singular fact: No one has kept our nation in adherence to our “one nation, under God” pledge more than he has. Across the generations and the wars and the adversities, no one has played a more significant role in maintaining our moral compass more than he has.
By no means is this complete and I even have some reservations myself. Missing are any artists like maybe Georgia O’Keeffe or musicians like Springsteen and maybe Mellencamp. With nine men and one woman I’ve got to think we could have done a better job with balance, but we really didn’t run our vetting through any of these filters. Instead we just relied on the overall impact on our own ways of thinking, living, and believing.