You won’t often find a “Top 100” list that combines Bruce Springsteen, Paul Wellstone, and Betty Friedan. But not to worry — that long awaited day has finally arrived.
Peter Dreier, a professor at Occidental College, is the author of “The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame,” a book that celebrates heroes of the progressive and social justice movements. “It’s about the radical ideas of the past have become the common sense of the modern era,” Dreier told me in a recent conversation.
Dreier’s book covers a lot of ground — and so did our conversation. We talked a little alternative history, examining what would have happened if Henry Wallace — and not Harry Truman — had become president following the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Dreier defended the inclusion of artists and musicians like Springsteen in the book, saying that he wanted to feature people who “changed the culture, changed our values, encouraged people to think differently, gave people hope, and inspired people to fight for a better world.” Springsteen, Dreier said, “inspired people to fight for justice. He was much more a central figure than Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp.”
Finally, we talked about Paul Wellstone, the late Senator from Minnesota. “He thought of himself as an organizer who happened to be a member of the U.S. Senate,” Dreier said. He was so popular that he inspired bumper stickers called “WWWD?,” or “What Would Wellstone Do?”
We only managed to crack the surface of this big — and interesting book. I may not agree that these were the “Greatest Americans,’ but they certainly were important. And interesting.