America does it by the numbers

August 18, 1999|By Richard Reeves

NEW YORK -- More than 160 years ago, that most celebrated observer of Americans, Alexis de Tocqueville, noticed something on Fourth Street in Philadelphia that he did not bother to put into his great work, "Democracy in America." But he did mention in a letter home to his mother in 1831:

"Philadelphia is, I believe, the only city in the world where it has occurred to people to distinguish the streets by numbers and not by names. . . Europeans never fail to join an idea to each external object, be it a saint, a famous man, an event. But these people here know only arithmetic."

Waking up this morning on 57th Street here in New York, I turned on the television and watched Dennis Cunningham of WCBS-TV, a notoriously low marker, give a big "9" to the new Steve Martin-Eddie Murphy movie.

Focusing on the morning paper, I saw that the New York Times was explaining that the numbers in this weekend's Iowa straw poll were meaningless except for the fact that they were the first numbers of the 2000 presidential season. I moved on to sports and the scores, business and the markets.

You get the idea, as did Tocqueville. We are indeed the people of the numbers.

Of course, the Frenchman did put something in his book long ago and most famously about the idea of the "tyranny of the majority" -- just another set of simple numbers in mass two-party democracy.


I had something to do with simplicity myself. When I was at the New York Times, Norman Lear, the television producer, cut off a hostile line of questioning by saying:

"You want to know when television went bad? It was when your . . . newspaper started publishing the Nielsen ratings -- after a while the numbers were all that counted."

After that public service, I was at New York magazine, where we made a profitable business of "Top Ten" lists of everything from brain surgeons to sturgeon stores. I was innocent, however, in the case of USA Today, which can come close to publishing a pretty good newspaper without words, just lists, rankings, graphs and such.

In fact -- or in reality, which is not necessarily the same thing -- numbers are so powerful they do not have to be right; they only have to be accepted, in lieu of thought.

That is the secret of polls. It does not matter whether the questions are right or the answers honest. What matters is that they are accepted as a base for decision-making, whether you are changing the colors of Jello or bombing Iraq.

The numbers made me do it! One set of numbers making people do things, they say, is the Forbes 400, the ranking of the richest. Men and women on the list supposedly buy or sell, or don't buy and sell, to protect themselves from falling on or falling off the list. I believe that.

I don't necessarily believe that Bob Gibson was a better pitcher than Cy Young, but America will because Mr. Gibson finished higher in the numbers collected for baseball's All-Century Team. Many of those numbers, I assume, were from people who think Young is just an award. No matter.

Well, do the Iowa numbers matter? I don't know. While they are the first "people" numbers, we in the politics-watching business have already found earlier numbers to print and ponder. We report now that the real contest can be understood in dollars and cents. The winner, we are saying, is whoever collects the most money.

Sexiest man

And, I ask, who is the sexiest man of the century? The official winners were Sean Connery and Paul Newman; my choice is Grover Cleveland, but he doesn't have the numbers. Perhaps he would do better if we all counted backward like David Letterman. A great American -- both of them, Grover and Dave.

We all are great Americans. Numbers, lists, box scores and line scores save us time -- and thinking. Actually, as Tocqueville noticed, Americans don't think much. We just do.

Richard Reeves writes a syndicated column.

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