Posted: June 27, 2005


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle normally talks fast, but Sunday night he was talking really, really fast.

He had 45 seconds to win over the voters -- not for himself, but for Benjamin Franklin, his direct ancestor who was up for "The Greatest American" in an election on the Discovery Channel's live television show of the same name.

Castle has won 13 elections as a Republican state legislator, lieutenant governor, governor and congressman, never losing, but he could not deliver for Ben Franklin, a blood relation going back seven generations, making Castle his fifth great grandson.

The winner was Ronald Reagan. Out of five finalists, Franklin came in fifth.

Castle must have felt like a young lawyer again. His iffy record as a deputy attorney general, trying to win the day for someone else, was a prime reason he went into politics.

The candidates for "The Greatest American" in order of finish were Reagan, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., George Washington and Franklin.

The program was hosted by Matt Lauer with an assist from Al Roker, his colleague on NBC's "Today" show, and the voting was "American Idol" style. Over four Sundays in June, viewers narrowed a list of 100 names by balloting from telephone calls, text messages and online.

Lauer said more than two million votes were cast. Roker noted wittily they had "no hanging chads," but that was about all that could be said for an election that could not have passed muster in a banana republic.

Where is Jimmy Carter when you need him? In this case, somewhere way down on the list of 100.

Ben Franklin did not have a bad run. He made it to the finals, beating out the semi-finalists who included George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Elvis, Oprah and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

"It's hard to be disappointed," Castle told Lauer.

"He apparently ran out of gas, or perhaps electricity in your case," Lauer said.

In this age of sound bites, Castle perhaps was hampered by having too much to say in Franklin's favor. Doris Kearns Goodwin, the historian who made the case for Lincoln, could say simply, "He's the man who saved the union. He's the man who emancipated the slaves."

Not Castle. He was in a rush to list the credentials of Franklin, who molded the early Republic as the sage of the Revolution, the inventor and scientist who ingeniously used a kite and a key to prove that lightning was electricity, the founder of the first lending library, fire company and insurance company, diplomat, printer, abolitionist and so on.

"Without Benjamin Franklin, there might not be an America," Castle said.

Castle has never made much of his connection to Franklin. It was noted occasionally when he was the lieutenant governor, serving with Republican Gov. Pierre S. du Pont from 1981 to 1985, because first lady Elise R.W. du Pont also was descended from Franklin, making her a very distant relation.

As governor, Castle showed the blood ran true. He was known for being so pennywise with the state's money that some of his Cabinet officers were called "bean counters" -- about what could be expected from the descendant of someone who counseled, "A penny saved is a penny earned."

In a telephone interview Friday before the show, Castle said Franklin was part of his family's lore. His grandfather had a collection of Franklin memorabilia but sold it off when he needed the money, although the family still has portraits.

The Franklin lineage is traced back through Sarah Franklin Bache, who was Ben Franklin's daughter. Castle said his mother was a Bache.

Castle said he was chosen for the Discovery program through Walter Isaacson, a Franklin biographer who is the president of the Aspen Institute, a nonprofit organization that provides seminars for members of Congress. About a month ago, in fact, Castle and Isaacson both were on a trip to Istanbul. Isaacson knew of Castle's ancestry and recommended him for the show.

Castle was one of three blood relatives of finalists on the program, which was broadcast from New York. John Augustine Washington V was there for George Washington, and Ron Reagan appeared by satellite hookup for his father.

Ron Reagan put in perspective why Ronald Reagan came in first over Lincoln, King, Washington and Franklin.

"He has more living friends," Ron Reagan said.