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Person of the Year

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Each December, with a special issue and no shortage of fanfare, Time magazine announces its Person of the Year. The announcement is a gimmick but a good one: it boosts sales and makes news. It is also often a reliable reflection of the person, ideal or event that has come to dominate the cultural conversation. Time’s Person of the Year may not be the Nobel Prize but anticipating the announcement makes for a good guessing game.

Like America itself, the award favours optimism and initiative over tyranny and inhumanity. Many thought Osama bin Laden would receive the honour in 2001, but Time opted instead for Rudolph Giuliani. Albert Einstein was crowned Person of the Century in a special 1999 issue, although Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-tung has a greater impact on shaping the century.

Being Time’s Person of the Year can do wonders for a career. ‘The Computer’ was awarded the title in 1982 and has gone on to do great things. After a year of panic about greenhouse gases and the ozone layer, ‘The Endangered Earth’ picked up the award in 1988, after which everyone forgot about the poor old earth until 2003 or thereabouts.

Time may have awarded the title to ‘American Women’ in 1975, but a woman hasn’t won the award individually since Corazón Aquino in 1986, then in her opening year as the first female president of the Philippines. In the early years of the last century, the award was more receptive to women than it is today: Mrs Wallis Warfield Simpson and Elizabeth II picked up the title in 1936 and 1952 respectively. The prize was as populist in that era as it is today, but it perhaps reflected more honestly the concerns of its time: Hitler was Man of the Year in 1938; Stalin won the award in 1939 and again in 1941. When the Ayatollah Khomeini received the title in 1979, readers protested and the award became less about how things are than how one would like them to be. This conflation of hard-nosed realism and bright-eyed idealism has confused the aims of the award.

In recent years, reading the Person of the Year issue has felt like being in attendance at a charity dinner held by rich people to honour even richer ones: Bono, Bill and Melinda Gates, Jeff Bezos, Ted Turner (who, two months after winning the title in 1991, would sell $31 million worth of shares in his media company to Time’s parent, thus paving the way for Turner Broadcasting System’s merger with Time Warner in 1995, a decade when mega-mergers and so-called synergy were the rage). This year, however, it’s unlikely that anyone will be in the mood to read about the very rich, or, for that matter, the very poor.

Who will be 2008’s Person of the Year? The obvious answer is Barack Obama. Certainly, he is the year’s most notable, quotable, historical and quietly revolutionary personality. As Ian Leslie notes in an article for Granta.com, Time first placed Obama on its cover on October 23, 2006, alongside the headline, ‘Why Barack Obama Could Be the Next President’. Since then, Obama has been on the cover of the magazine so frequently that one could mistake him for its mascot.

Obama is good news for the news industry – and for the publishing industry too. Not only does he move voters, he moves books and magazines and buttons and T-shirts and TV shows and coffee mugs and all kinds of other paraphernalia. In his November 17 column, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz noted that newspapers ‘were stunned and delighted at the voracious demand for post-election editions, prompting the Washington Post and other papers to print hundreds of thousands of extra copies and pocket the change... A barrage of Obama books are in the works.’

Time released its post-election issue a day earlier than usual, printing a hundred thousand extra copies, which quickly sold out; Newsweek had a similar success story. As Variety reported on November 17, Obama’s first post-election television interview, conducted for CBS’s 60 Minutes, drew the show’s largest audience in more than nine years. Time’s sister company, CNN, doubled its election-night audience from 2004.

If you are a fresh, attractive president-elect, who commands a crowd and promises great things, you are almost guaranteed to be Time’s Person of the Year: Jimmy Carter (1976), Ronald Reagan (1980), Bill Clinton (1992) and George W. Bush (2000) all received the award before taking office. (The issue’s publication date is perfectly placed to take advantage of the window between November’s election and January’s inauguration, when public enthusiasm for, and interest in, a candidate is high.)

But what if, after all that, Obama isn’t Person of the Year? What if the editors at Time decide that he’s appeared on too many covers, that there isn’t anything to distinguish this special issue from all the other Obama-centric issues and that the public is in fact suffering from post-election Obama Information Overload? In this unlikely event, here are some 2008 suggestions for Person of the Year.

‘The Vanishing Workforce’: With over a hundred thousand laid off from major corporations in the last couple of months, with the economy shrinking and the effects of a recession being felt more keenly each week, with no end to any of this in sight, this would certainly be a relevant, if downbeat, issue. It may also hit a nerve: in late October, Time Inc, the company that owns Time and close to 100 other magazines, announced they would retrench 600 employees.

‘The American Youth’: They radicalized, revitalized and rescued American politics, rebooted their country’s image after the plunging poll ratings of the Bush years and made it acceptable for America to look at itself in the mirror again. Through both new media (cellular telephones and the Internet, MySpace and Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and grassroots fundraising) and more traditional methods (campaigning door to door, voting drives and spirited, impromptu discussions, offering their services and spreading the word), they created a movement and helped history happen. Perhaps this year’s Person of the Year, come to think of it, should be ‘The American Future’.

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