To be interesting, lists should provoke. Your “100 Most Influential Americans” selection succeeded (“They Made America,” December Atlantic). As the author of They Made America, the book and PBS series and radio documentary, I was flattered to have my title as your headline, but disappointed that your panel of historians did scant justice to so many of the men and women who really did make America: those who created the modern world with their innovations, from the steam engine to the search engine.
Without the innovators, America could not have been knit together as a nation, nor preserved as such. Think of the railroads and the telegraph lines that were crucial to the North’s victory in 1865; think of World War II and the Cold War, and America’s emergence as the world’s predominant economic power.
But the most fundamental point your panel missed is how much innovators have enabled America’s dedication to democracy and equal rights. A. P. Giannini opened banking to the common man. Madam C. J. Walker, the orphan daughter of slaves, built the largest black business of its day, liberating millions of African American women through the iconic status she achieved. Gary Kildall and Ken Olson expanded access to the computer beyond a select priesthood. The panel did mention Henry Ford, but failed to stress his singular achievement: giving practical reality to the rhetoric of democracy by fighting for the people’s car. Similarly, Cyrus McCormick’s truly original contribution—as important as his reaper—was his invention of easy credit for the masses of ordinary farmers who otherwise could not have afforded his machine.
Beyond this, it was amazing to see no mention of the new nation’s first notable innovator, Oliver Evans (the high-pressure steam engine), or Charles Goodyear (vulcanized rubber), Philo T. Farnsworth (television), Herbert Boyer (the father of biotechnology), Theodore Judah (the architect of the transcontinental railroad) … I could go on!
Rather than depreciating the achievements of our innovators in business and technology, historians should acknowledge how much we need them for making a better America—independent of foreign fossil fuel, ready to cope with the effects of global warming and with competition from low-cost economies. Just as they made yesterday’s America, the innovators are crucial to making tomorrow’s.
New York, N.Y.
Joshua Green spent pages detailing Hillary Clinton’s remarkable professionalism, political agility, work ethic, and ability to grow on the job (“Take Two,” November Atlantic), so what more does he want of her? He criticizes her lack of “big ideas” and “crusading causes,” but can he name a single big idea or cause that Governor George W. Bush was known for when he sought the presidency in 2000? Green wonders at Clinton’s lack of firebrand tactics, but did he pay attention to his own description of the Senate as a place where female senators have had to “walk down two floors to use a public restroom” and still have to submit their wardrobes to the daily approval of “bench ladies”? Besides, Clinton’s entire career has been about risk—from making partner in a southern law firm in the 1970s, to redefining the role of the first lady as aggressively as Dick Cheney has redefined the vice presidency, to becoming a senator who has put her most powerful foes in a remarkable state of debt and deference to her.
I have yet to see any analysis by a male journalist that shows any real understanding of the burden that Clinton, and all talented professional women, still labor under. It’s the “Ginger Rogers Rule”: Do everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels. And yet it’s still never enough. Our toughness will be “caution,” and our political skills will be called “compromise”; we’ll hear that although we’ve “reached the top,” it’s not a “viable” place to be. And God help you if you answer questions about complex issues, because then you’re a “laundry lady, pinning up every fact.”
As a constituent of Senator Clinton’s, I long ago made peace with the fact that I don’t always agree with her, and I now see her as excellent presidential material. Mainly that’s because she shares most of my values and works hard to earn my vote. But it’s also because, as a professional woman, I know exactly what she’s going through.