To dispense with the joke up front: Congratulations on being named Time’s Person of the Year. (Time, for those who don’t know, named “you” as in everyone Person of the Year this year). As a selectee you join a long, though admittedly now less exclusive, list that includes some of the most famous and powerful people over the last 79 years, including George W. Bush, Winston Churchill, Charles Lindbergh. Time to redo your resume.
Time’s surprising selection complete with a mirror on the cover caused a stir early this week. It was called a copout by some and a late acknowledgement of the power of Web-based media by others. But the magazine laid out the thinking of its editors in the cover story. Thanks to the Internet and things like You Tube, Wikipedia and MySpace, the year was “a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before,” Tme’s editors argued. “We're looking at an explosion of productivity and innovation, and it's just getting started, as millions of minds that would otherwise have drowned in obscurity get backhauled into the global intellectual economy.”
While the selection of you and everyone you know and do not know as Person of the Year might strike you as an odd choice (even though you are probably honored), Time’s Person of the Year (it was Man of the Year until 1936) is full of such picks. Looking at the roster of Time’s people offers insights not only into the state of the world, but also the way the editors of the nation’s oldest newsweekly perceive it and package it.
First, there is evidence that America has been more inward than outward looking in recent years. Despite the new international focus of U.S. policy since September 11, 2001, the magazine has not awarded a non-American the award this century (unless you count U2 lead singer Bono – Irish by birth, but citizen of the world now – who won in 2005 alongside Bill and Melinda Gates). In fact, since 1990, there have only been two international winners: Pope John Paul II (1994) and Nelson Mandela, F.W. de Klerk, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat who all won together as Peacemakers (1993).
What about Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda who altered the course of the world in 2001? Time named New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani as Man of Year for leading “with his heart” after the attacks.
Looking back through the years bad guys don’t make the list that much. All the way back to 1927, only five people have been named Person of the Year for doing something negative according to Time’s website: Ayatollah Khomeini (1979) for leading the Iranian revolution, King Faisal (1974) for roiling the oil markets, Nikita Khrushchev (1957) for scoring “an immense propaganda victory” with Sputnik, Joseph Stalin (1939) for paving “the way for Hitler’s war by signing a secret pact,” and Adolf Hitler (1938).
The passage of time also heals some wounds on Time’s list. Stalin was named Man of the Year again in 1942 as “the U.S.’s new ally in war against Hitler.”
Eleven men have won the award more than once, and eight times it was a U.S. President – George W. Bush (2000 and 2004), Bill Clinton (1992 and 1998, when he shared space with Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr), Ronald Reagan (1980 and 1983, when he shared with Russian Premier Yuri Andropov), Richard Nixon (1971 and 1972 when he shared with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger), Lyndon Johnson (1964 and 1967), Dwight Eisenhower (1944 as a general and 1959), Harry Truman (1945 and 1948) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (1932, 1934 and 1941).
FDR remains the only three-time winner, and since him, every president has appeared at least once.
The man who won with the most years in between is Eisenhower, who won the first time as a general and the second time as a president near the end of this two terms.
The three non-Americans who have won twice were also national leaders: Stalin, Mikhail Gorbachev (1989 and 1987) and Winston Churchill (1940 and 1949).
Time’s selections over the years also show a moving away from honoring authority. From the 1920s through the 1980s Time’s Person of the Year was a politician of some sort 41 out of 63 years, while non-politicians won only 22 times. Since 1990, non-politicians lead in the count, 9 to 8.
And there are selections that speak about America’s past prowess in the world. Before 1960, two heads of big U.S. automakers were honored (Harlow Curtice of General Motors in1955 and Walter Chrysler in 1928). In the last 10 years, the selections from America’s business world represent the technology sector of the economy, Andy Grove,the CEO of Intel (1997) and Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, (1999).
Notwithstanding the sharp comments poured on the magazine for selecting everyone as Person of the Year, Time does have a history of unconventional picks. In 1982 the editors selected The Computer. And in 1988 the magazine selected Earth as Planet of the Year, though it’s not clear what other worlds were in contention.
Groups are not a new thing either. Way back in 1950 the magazine honored G.I. Joe, the American Soldier with its pick. In 1966, it was Young People who “shook up society.” In 1969, the American Middle Class got the award. In 2003, it was again The American soldier.
All of which means that despite the jokes and clever comments from people who say they take pride in receiving the award this year, for a millions of Americans it is actually their second … or third.
View charts for From Charles Lindbergh to ... You at the Project for Excellence in Journalism Web site.