There must be some years when being part of the editorial crowd charged with selecting the “person of the year” at TIME magazine live in happy confusion: a lack of clarity created by a swirl of candidates for being named the person (or planet, or group of people, or machine) which “for better or for worse…has done the most to influence the events of the year.”
In some years, TIME’s editors have used the choice to highlight trends that weren’t led or catalyzed by a single individual. That was true in 1950, when undoubtedly unimpressed with the commander-in-chief, TIME’s “man” of the year was The American Fighting Man. Also selected through the years have been: Hungarian Freedom Fighter (1956), US Scientists (1960), The Generation Twenty-Five and Under (1966), The Middle Americans, to whom then-President Richard Nixon pitched his “Silent Majority” appeals (1969), American Women (1975), The Computer (1982), The Endangered Earth (1988), The Whistleblowers (2002), The American Soldier (2003), and The Good Samaritans (2005).
Interestingly, only named people received the honor from 1927, its inaugural year, to 1955. The fact that groups of people, a planet, and a machine have been named so frequently in the past fifty-one years is probably, in part, the journalistic reflection of a recent trend in the teaching, writing, and presentation of History: a move away from the once-prevalent “great man” (or great person) theory that held that all history is really told in the biographies of great leaders toward a greater interest in the lives of ordinary people throughout history. Yet, it’s undeniable that some people both lead and reflect their times and really do come close to approximating that person who, for better or worse, has most influenced events in a given year.
It’s that “or worse” part that has often brought TIME criticism. Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin (twice), Nikita Krushchev, Deng Xiaoping (also twice), Ayatollah Khomeini, and Yuri Andropov, each despots, have received the recognition. But TIME has never claimed that all of their selectees were good people, just significant people.
Winning presidential candidates have often been selected by TIME. That makes sense and never more so than this year. President-elect Barack Obama seemed to capture imaginations with his call for “change” and his status as the country’s first African-American president signifies that the sin of racial prejudice is being, at long last and still slowly, exorcised from our country.
So, is there any chance that Barack Obama won’t be TIME’s Person of the Year?
Only if TIME is anxious to prove that the media isn’t “in the tank” with Obama, an allegation which even ardent Obama supporters among my acquaintance believes is true.
Still, who else has as clear a claim to the recognition than Obama?
Had she been part of a winning ticket, Sarah Palin would have been hailed as the savior of neoconservatism. But she and John McCain lost. She wasn’t a big influence on events.
Ben Bernanke and Henry Paulson played huge roles in securing the $700-billion bailout package from Congress, but its effects are as yet unknown. Who knows what influence their leadership in the face of the financial crisis will provide?
What about the big mortgage lenders, some of whom went down the tubes in 2008? Well, an argument can be made that they have had the biggest influence (for the worst) on events this past year. (Along with a federal government that, for years, refused to regulate subprime loans or the bundling of same for share-sales on Wall Street.)
You could also make a case for last year’s winner, Vladimir Putin. He got his handpicked successor elected as president of Russia and installed himself as prime minister. He’s still leading his country in fact, if not in title, pushed a war in Georgia, and has signaled his desire to cause continued mischief in the coming year.
But, unless they’re feeling curmudgeonly, TIME’s editors will pick Obama as Person of the Year.
Come January 20, Obama may not think too highly of the honor, though. He’s apt to feel like the man in one of Lincoln’s stories. “You have heard the story, haven’t you,” Lincoln asked, “about the man who was tarred and feathered and carried out of town on a rail? A man in the crowd asked him how he liked it. His reply was that if it was not for the honor of the thing, he would much rather walk.”
[This has been crossposted at my personal blog.]