You may not have noticed, but Time magazine has just chosen George Bush as its Person of the Year - for the second time. With most of his second term still to go, Dubya could yet equal or overtake Franklin D Roosevelt, perhaps the greatest US President of all time, who won Time's top accolade a record three times.
People ask me what this tells us about Dubya. My answer is that it tells us more about Time magazine. Look down the list of Time's Person of the Year - POY for short - for the past decade, and you won't find a single non-American. Nor will you find anybody who could be described as a "baddy", unless, like some Americans, you believe that Bill Clinton should burn in hell. Gone are the days when Time lived up to its own POY rule: that the accolade be given to the person who had the most impact - for better or worse - on world events. In the past, this emboldened Time to choose Hitler, Stalin and Ayatollah Khomeini.
But things have changed. Saddam Hussein has failed to get the nod, even though he has been a central figure on the world stage. In 2001, Osama bin Laden masterminded the worst-ever terrorist attack on US soil, but Time chickened out and chose the New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani as Person of the Year. Bin Laden was dismissed as a mere "garden-variety terrorist whose evil plan succeeded beyond his highest hopes". Tell that to Americans still risking their lives to track him down. Or to the US soldiers who were collectively made POY last year, and are now being killed in Iraq by Bin Laden-inspired jihadists.
This year, you could make a good case for one of these: Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi. But he got short shrift in Time's deliberations. Incredibly, Time's editors spent more time debating the merits of the White House strategist Karl Rove, until the absurdity of choosing the coach over the champ dawned upon them. The iconoclastic film-makers Mel Gibson and Michael Moore also made cameo appearances in the debate, but, in the end, Dubya was the safe, predictable choice. Time editors - and I have been one of them - would vigorously deny that they take the line of least resistance at POY time. But the choices they have made suggest that an otherwise hard-hitting magazine suffers an annual failure of nerve. Why should that be? There are several reasons, but first, some background.
The whole POY exercise began in 1927, not because Time had the hubris to decide to award this accolade on behalf of the rest of us, but because of an editorial blunder. That year, Charles Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic in the Spirit of St Louis had captured the imagination of the world - with the exception of Time's editors, who failed to reward this feat with the cover story it deserved. To make amends they devoted the year-end issue to Lindbergh's exploits and named him Man of the Year (above left). The rest, as they say, was history.
And it was exciting history, too. Not everybody agreed with Time's often idiosyncratic choices, but, largely, they got the people who mattered, including saints and sinners, Americans and foreigners. Women also qualified. Inexplicably, Mrs Thatcher was never chosen, but Wallis Simpson got the nod in 1936, and Madame Chiang Kai-shek shared the accolade with her husband the following year. In 1952, a soon-to-be-crowned Princess Elizabeth got the award.
Bad guys such as Hitler and Stalin were offset by Mahatma Gandhi (1930), Pope John XXIII (1962), Martin Luther King Jr (1963) and Pope John Paul II, who was chosen in 1994 for no discernible reason other than that the managing editor fancied an audience with him. Some choices have not stood the test of time. Who remembers Owen D Young (1929) or Harlow Herbert Curtice (1955)? Or even Andy Grove (1997) or Jeff Bezos (1999), both products of Time's imprudent cheerleading efforts for the dot.com boom?
Some years, Time editors clearly hadn't a clue. What else can explain the choice of Peter Ueberroth in 1984 for organising the Los Angeles Olympics? Other years, they came up with compromise composite choices. The Hungarian Freedom Fighter made sense in 1956 when Russian tanks were pounding Budapest, but then they gave us US Scientists (1960); Middle Americans (1969); and American Women (1975). Perhaps the best choice came in 1988, when our own dear Earth was named Planet of the Year, which meant that we all shared the glory. Take that, Martians.
The POY process has always been absurdly secretive to prevent rivals from stealing Time's thunder. Towards the end of the year, confidential messages go out from the Time & Life Building to the magazine's bureaux around the world seeking their POY nominations. Their replies are then largely ignored by the New York editors, who go into huddles to decide their own candidate. Their choice makes perfect sense when refracted through the New York prism, but can often leave outsiders puzzled.
Sometimes, the process borders on farce. In 1985, the editors decided on Mikhail Gorbachev. He had come to power that year, initiating the twin processes of glasnost and perestroika that would eventually bring down the Soviet Union. It was, as they say, a no-brainer, and CNN cameras had been invited to immortalise the momentous decision. Instead, they captured an undignified U-turn. Henry Anatole Grunwald, the magazine's editor-in-chief, had just returned from China where he had interviewed Deng Xiaoping. The Chinese leader, he declared, was the obvious POY. Everybody quickly agreed.
The Deng incident was driven by journalism. These days, other forces come into play. In the old days, Time editors and correspondents reported to the editor-in-chief, who sat on the company board and was not beholden to the CEO. This meant that Time didn't have to pull its punches, for example, when reporting on the evils of tobacco, even if this played havoc with the efforts of the business side to sell advertising space to the likes of Philip Morris. The business side hated the system but had learnt to live with it. The editors maintained a lofty indifference to the impact that their choices might have on advertisers and readers.
Then came the 1979 decision to make the Ayatollah Khomeini POY - or Man of the Year, as it was then. With 66 US citizens still held hostage in Iran, and Americans tying yellow ribbons around everything, all hell broke loose. Thousands cancelled their subscriptions and advertisers were incensed. Time robustly defended its decision, reminding everyone of the "for better or worse" clause in the POY rules. But the point had been made - and taken. Henceforth, editors would be more cautious, and inclined to apply the Willy Sutton principle (the US robber who, when asked why he robbed banks, replied "because that's where the money is"). To the best of my knowledge, the business side of the magazine has never overruled the editors, even though the editor-in-chief now reports to the president of Time Inc. It hasn't needed to. The Khomeini fiasco taught editors the commercial importance of the POY issue: it could save a bad year and make a good one great, but only if it found favour with advertisers and readers.
And so it should come as no surprise that this year, George Bush joins the pantheon of those who have been POY twice, a select group that includes Churchill and Stalin. Lauded by Time as "an American Revolutionary", Dubya got the POY for being re-elected as 43rd US President. Don't snigger. To win with a majority of the vote was indeed an achievement. With that kind of mandate, Bush is no garden-variety President. Now, he has the power to impose himself in all sorts of ways - so much so that he should make it next year, too. Don't say I didn't warn you.
Chris Redman was, until recently, editor of 'Time' EuropeReuse content