As 2021 drew to a close, Harry Reid and John Madden died on December 28, and Betty White died on New Year’s Eve. All three were American originals.
Reid and Madden were bookends with completely different personalities. White was one-of-a-kind.
Their stories are uniquely American and help tell the evolving and multifaceted narrative of our American experiment. We need to hear and remember them in order to continue this experiment on its upward trajectory. We begin with Betty White.
Betty White: The First Lady of Television
I didn’t know what Facebook was, and now that I do know what is, I have to say, it sounds like a huge waste of time.
— Betty White, hosting Saturday Night Live at the age of 88
Betty White was ageless, or at least she seemed to be. Her positive personality and comedic skills withstood the test of time. She proved that over and over.
Betty White would have been 100 years old on January 17. She was going to participate in a special feature event to commemorate her birthday. The celebration will still be held and she will be there in spirit.
Her birthday party will be a joyous recognition of White, who was nicknamed “The First Lady of Television.” She was known by this moniker because she was on TV from its beginning, with her television career spanning more than seven decades — which, as Richard Servero and Peter Keepnews report in the New York Times, “the 2014 edition of ‘Guinness World Records’ certified as the longest ever for a female entertainer.”
During her unrivalled career, Ms. White won five Primetime Emmys, one Daytime Emmy, and a lifetime achievement Daytime Emmy.
An interesting fact is that Betty White’s career and name recognition nationally didn’t come until she was around 50, when she played “cagey” Sue Ann on the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” in the mid-‘70’s. She added luster to that recognition playing the “slow-witted” Rose on “The Golden Girls” from 1985 to 1992.
Although the characters were unalike, Ms. White brought the same indelible likability to them both. She was able to do this because, as several of the reviews written following her death attest, she was “saucy” and a combination of “sweetness and spice.” This combination allowed her to stand out not only in the roles she played, but in being herself on many game shows such as I’ve Got a Secret and What’s My Line and when hosting the Betty White Show (in its various incarnations).
For those who don’t have many personal memories of watching Betty White on TV, Travis M. Andrews has put together 7 clips that are a must-see in his wonderful Washington Post article. They include highlights of White from Mary Tyler Moore, The Golden Years, and her 2018 SNL performance.
In conclusion, Betty White may have appeared ageless but she was not faceless. In spite of what she said about Facebook, her dimpled face and her charming smile, even when she might be saying something somewhat naughty, was as beguiling and kind at 90 as it was at 50.
That, along with her talent and zest for life, enabled White to connect with Americans of all ages. How did she feel about that? We close by letting Ms. White speak for herself.
It’s incredible that you can stay in a career this long and still have people put up with you…I wish they did that at home.
— Betty White after receiving a standing ovation during her appearance on the 2018 Emmy Awards telecast
Harry Reid: Maestro of the Senate
I would rather dance than fight, but I know how to fight.
— Harry Reid motto
Unlike White, Senator Harry Reid was not a performer — at least not in the show business sense. But as a master politician he could script, choreograph, and orchestrate what went on in the political arena.
We don’t know if Senator Reid was a good dancer. We do know he was an excellent fighter. To achieve the substantial success that he did, given his background and how he grew up, he had to be.
Harry Reid was born in a very small unincorporated town in Nevada named Searchlight. His father was an alcoholic rock miner who killed himself at 58, and his mother worked doing laundry in a local brothel. The small cabin which he and his three brothers called home had no indoor plumbing.
Reid hitchhiked forty miles to go to Basic High School in Henderson, Nevada. While at Basic, he became a good amateur boxer and loved boxing for the rest of his life. He said in an interview before he was inducted into the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame that the things that he learned inside the ring gave him the discipline and tenacity to succeed in his political career.
After high school, Reid left Nevada to receive his college degree from Utah State University, where he met his wife and converted to Mormonism. He then went East and put himself through George Washington University Law School by working part-time as a U.S. Capitol police officer.
Reid returned to Nevada, and at the age of 28 began his political career when he was elected to the Nevada Assembly in 1968. Two years later in 1970, at the age of 30, he was elected Lieutenant Governor. He had some wins and losses in state races after that.
In 1982, he was elected to the U.S. House, and to the U.S. Senate in 1986. Reid worked diligently in the Senate and when the Democrats took back the majority in 2006, he became the Senate majority leader. He served in that capacity until 2016, using his fighting instincts, determination, and deal-making skills to craft and get important legislation passed.
The most significant of those bills included: The Affordable Care Act; the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to stimulate the economy in response to the Great Recession; and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Reid also helped change the Senate rules to require only a simple majority for approval of judicial nominees.
These legislation actions became part of both Harry Reid’s and President Barack Obama’s legacy. In a letter sent to Reid before his death, President Obama wrote, “As different as we are, I think we both saw something of ourselves in each other — a couple of outsiders who had defied the odds and knew how to take a punch and cared about the little guy…”
We are certain that letter meant much to Senator Reid, but probably much more important were his own thoughts about who he was and what he had done.
I don’t have people saying ‘he’s the greatest speaker’ ‘he’s handsome,’ ’he’s a man about town’. But I don’t really care. I feel very comfortable with my place in history.
— Harry Reid in a New York Times interview after a tough reelection fight in 2010
Harry Reid, the guy from Searchlight.
— Harry Reid in his farewell address to the Senate in 2016
John Madden: A Game Changer
If someone remembers me as a coach, they still call me ‘Coach,’ but if they know me for the video game, they just call me ‘Madden.’
— John Madden, on how people recall him
You got one guy going boom, one guy going whack, and one guy not getting in the end zone.
— John Madden, commenting on a football game
Harry Reid never changed lanes and was a man of few words. He would often hang up on a phone call he had originated — after he had said what he wanted — without waiting for a response or saying goodbye.
By contrast, John Madden led three lives and loved the give and take of interaction. He was a groundbreaking pro football coach, a precedent-setting TV commentator; and an industrious businessman.
Those who are older remember John Madden as the head coach of the Oakland Raiders. Madden held that job for ten years, from 1969 to 1979. Over that decade, his teams had the highest winning percentage in the history of football and won one Super Bowl.
What distinguished Madden as a coach, however, was not that record but the respect with which he treated his players. He treated them as adults and built personal relationships and bonds of trust with them.
Madden’s trust paid off in dividends. In spite of this, Madden, like his hero Vince Lombardi, coached for only ten years. After leaving the Raiders, in an interview with the Washington Post in 1984, he said “Everything was an airplane, a bus, a hotel, a stadium, a bus, an airplane, and back home. One day I said, “There has to be more to life than this.”
There was. It was his second life as a football TV commentator, which is how most who are middle-aged remember him.
Once again, Madden set a new standard. He broke the old mold for commentating and created a new one.
Madden was as meticulous in preparing to comment on a game on TV as he was as a coach preparing his team to confront a competitor on the field. He studied game films, did research and homework. Then, on game day, as the play preceded on the field, he scribbled x’s and o’s on his chalkboard, explaining what had happened, and in his own inimitable style added “boom”, “thud” and “whack” to his commentary when appropriate.
Madden spent 1979 to 2009 in the broadcast booth. Over that time period, he won 16 Sports Emmys including 15 for top analyst.
Madden began to move from that booth in 1984, when he was approached to launch his third life to be the “face” for a football simulation video game. Kellen Browning and Kevin Draper report in the New York Times that Madden insisted that the game be realistic, and brought his attention to detail to ensuring this happened. As a result, John Madden Football was not released until 1988.
The simulated video football game made him a household name for younger generations. To date, it has had more than $7 billion in sales.
Even though Madden led three lives in his career, he loved only one game. It was football. Because of who he was, he also made football more prominent and popular with millions of fans across the nation.
In a 2013 interview, Al Michaels, Madden’s broadcast partner from 2002 through 2008, said, “John Madden is as important as anybody in the history of football. Tell me anybody who did all of the things that John did, and did them over this long a period of time.”
It is well known that Madden feared flying. He had a Madden Cruiser motor coach built so that he could ride across the country instead of flying over it. The rides Madden treasured most though were not the ones in that vehicle, but two others.
I just want to say in closing that it’s been a great ride. …. Speaking of great rides, I was lucky enough to be carried off the field after we won Super Bowl XI. I was told it took like five or six guys to lift me up, then they dropped me. …. But it was the happiest moment of my life.
Today feels like the second time in my life that I’m being carried off on the shoulders of others…. I ride on the shoulders of hundreds of friends, coaches, players, colleagues, family. …This has been the sweetest ride of ’em all. Thank you.
— John Madden, acceptance speech, upon induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006
Betty White (1922–2021), Harry Reid (1939–2021), and John Madden (1936 -2021). Briefly, those are the stories of three American originals who left us last year.
There are many other originals who also left us in 2021. To name just a few, they include: Stephen Sondheim, Colin Powell, Joan Didion, Bob Dole and Vernon Jordan.
Those Americans are well-known people who shaped our country and society and helped it become the great nation it is. There are thousands of lesser known originals in towns and cities throughout this nation who have played important roles and made major contributions who also departed last year.
All of these American originals are gone but not forgotten. In fact, they live on not only in our memories but in the way we live our lives.
More importantly, they have spawned new generations of American originals who will not imitate their predecessors, but innovate and build upon the solid foundations they have been provided. By so doing, they will ensure that this American experiment continues unimpeded into the future.