The over and under on history's legends

Conservatives gauge presidents, mayors and jazz musicians on a sliding scale.

For The Record

September 09, 2001|By James Warren | James Warren,Special to the Sun

There are few journalism rituals as moth-eaten as lists of top 10 this and top 10 that. And, when done with verve, there are few rituals that can be so engrossing.

Take this month's issue of American Heritage magazine. Please!

It's a fourth annual survey of the most overrated and underrated, and it gets very smart folks to opine on matters we surely haven't given much attention to (perhaps justifiably). A few examples:

* Most overrated Adams: According to conservative essayist Richard Brookhiser, it's John, the second president, and his wife, Abigail. Yes, John was a patriot and good diplomat but also a man who "lurched from war hawk to peacenik with an abruptness that finished his career and the Federalist Party." As for Abigail, Brookhiser says she wasn't as smart as everybody assumes, certainly not the "only bright lady of the Founding."

* Most underrated Adams: Brookhiser goes with John Quincy, the sixth president, not as an underrated president ("he was terrible") but as a writer. His diary "is a masterpiece of observation and venom (e.g., Jefferson had 'a memory so pandering to the will that in deceiving others he seems to have begun by deceiving himself')."

* Overrated baseball player: Baseball author John Holway goes with Joe DiMaggio. His "fame rests on a hitting streak that never happened," he writes, citing several "gift hits by friendly New York official scorers on easy bouncing balls in games 30 and 31." A close second, interestingly, is Negro League pitching legend Satchel Paige, with Holway arguing that crediting him with 1,000 wins is bogus, since it has never been verified and probably never will be.

* Overrated jazz musician: Newsday jazz critic and film critic Gene Seymour is very, very interesting with his selection of Sonny Rollins, especially since he concedes that Rollins did record "some of the most daring and imaginative improvisations in jazz history."

* Underrated jazz musician: Well, he also picks Rollins! After contending that critics way overrate him, he makes the case that the larger public undervalues him, since he should be as widely recognized as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Ella Fitzgerald. He rests his case here on a belief that Rollins is deemed too large and remote for a mainstream audience, "someone of whom only the refined and elevated of taste can enjoy." Go figure.

* Underrated mayor. American Heritage staffer Kevin Baker is really fighting growing conventional wisdom with his pick of New York's late John Lindsay, most recently the subject of a very harsh biography.

In large part, he rests his debatable claim on New York not suffering a major race riot during Lindsay's late 1960s tenure, supposedly due to his reaching out to the minority communities. This one is a stretch.

* Overrated mayor: Chi-cago's Richard Daley I. "For all of Daley's vaunted efficiency, his decades-long support of de facto segregation, especially his willingness to pack much of Chicago's African-American population away in dreadful, oversized housing developments cut off from the rest of the city by superhighways, had very costly and negative consequences," Baker says.

James Warren is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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