TIME's 25 Most Influential Americans

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Imus, 56, is not Howard Stern, his rival for morning radio dominance. But he was, before Howard was, in the early '70s — with the gross-out skits, the monologue rambles, even an irreverent book (God's Other Son, written in the voice of his preacher creature, Billy Sol Hargus). Imus once declared that if Stern got higher ratings than his, he would eat a dead dog's penis; he later said it "tasted good." But if Stern's audience is larger (an estimated 18 million listeners, vs. 10 million), Imus' is richer and better educated. Stern, like a balky kid in therapy, speaks to the inner churl. Imus, the seen-it-all skeptic with a curiosity beyond his groin, speaks to the inner policy wonk.

With his craggy face and curly hair, Imus, hunched over the radio mike, looks like a hip granny playing R&B on the church organ. But what he really plays is people. "Imus is the best political interviewer," says New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. "He's read everything, and he gets to the heart of everything." The host claims that all he wants from guests is to "goad them into saying something that ruins their life." Spoken like a 29-year veteran of shock-jocking. But Imus does more: probing and prodding like a national inquisitor, he translates stodgy politics into vital popular culture.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., professor
Combine the braininess of the legendary black scholar W.E.B. DuBois and the chutzpah of P.T. Barnum, and the result is Henry Louis Gates Jr. At 46, the chairman of Harvard's Afro-American-studies department has emerged as a prolific author, a whirlwind academic impresario and the de facto leader of a movement to transform black studies from a politically correct, academic backwater into a respected discipline on campuses across the U.S. Says Gerald Early, director of African and Afro-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri: "Skip Gates has legitimized black studies in the mainstream."

This year alone, two landmark scholarly works that Gates co-edited — the Norton Anthology of African American Literature and The Dictionary of Global Culture — have been published, along with Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man, a collection of essays. At the same time, Gates has continued to attract new talent like UCLA sociologist Lawrence Bobo to the collection of intellectual superstars who have made the once nearly defunct "Afro studies" one of Harvard's most popular — and glamorous — departments. It now includes such luminaries as philosopher Cornel West, legal theorist A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. and urban sociologist William Julius Wilson. Other universities are scrambling to keep pace with Gates' recruiting, driving up salaries for highly sought-after scholars.

Gates will next edit the Encyclopedia Africana, a project first envisioned by DuBois. "In the past, each generation of black intellectuals has had to reinvent the wheel because we didn't have a set of definitive reference books to build on," says Gates. The encyclopedia "will give us a base of knowledge about black people around the world so strong no one can ever say we have no culture, no civilization, no history."

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