Making the Choice of the Century


“You can’t write off Hitler,” Walter Isaacson is saying. “You gotta consider Hitler.”

This is July, less than six months until Time will have to name its Person of the Century, and the magazine’s managing editor is asking everyone in sight, “What do you think?”

At the moment, he’s at a cocktail reception with, among others, Henry Kissinger, who is for Einstein (“the seminal event of the 20th Century is the scientific revolution”), and the veteran White House correspondent Hugh Sidey, a Roosevelt backer.

Isaacson does not have to ask for an opinion from the Washington-based Churchill Center--it’s been lobbying for a year for Britain’s great war leader. There is a Web crusade for Gandhi, and some have tried stuffing the Internet ballot box for Jesus, Elvis and Bill Gates.


Cyberspace gossip columnist Matt Drudge has weighed in too, with a “World Exclusive” declaring all this a waste of time. It’s a done deal, Drudge insists: FDR has already been anointed Person of the Century--close the books.

Though you have to take Drudge for what he’s worth, Isaacson still is irked by the column. How can anyone say the POC is a lock in July?

Only one person will make the call--he--and he is determined to keep his options open as long as possible. He is prepared to keep the debate going until the last weekend in December if necessary, when he finally will have no choice but to “transmit something to the printing plant.”

Isaacson agreed to let an outside reporter sit in on some of the deliberations and debate leading up to that moment. The only condition was strict secrecy, until the day more than 4 million magazines landed in mailboxes and on newsstands around the world with a cover photo of Albert Einstein. That’s today.

The selection of a Person of the Century was in large part a promotional gimmick, of course, and big business as well. It generated a record 240-page magazine for Time.

But it also proved to be a phenomenon--one that encouraged honest reflection on the legacy of a century and wound up saying a lot about the society of today. It contrasted another era’s Great Man view of history with a “Web culture” that often tries to turn everything into a goof. It underscored the impassioned group politics of our time, when an entire nation (Turkey) is insulted because its George Washington is omitted from a list and a series of religious groups (Muslims, Mormons, Jews) rally their troops on the Internet. And it contrasted the print media that once ruled the realm of news with the visual demands of television.


Public Always Eager to See a List

The public has long had an appetite for lists, whether Hit Parades, Top 10s, the weekly Nielsens--or David Letterman’s nightly spoofs. But this year has seen an unprecedented caboodle of them, with Best of the Century countdowns served up wherever you look: athletes (“Babe Ruth,” says ESPN), movies (“Citizen Kane,” says the American Film Institute), rock videos (“Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller,’ ” says MTV).

It’s not only in America. The Polish weekly Polityka did the 10 most famous Poles (Pope John Paul II, naturally) along with inventions and discoveries (penicillin), actors (Chaplin), and benefactors and villains (Hitler won that one).

It was in 1927, under Henry Luce, that Time instituted a Man of the Year, naming Charles Lindbergh. The next few picks included Owen D. Young and Pierre Laval, showing that selection did not guarantee immortality. But Man of the Year became a Time franchise, even as it evolved, inevitably, into a Person of the Year, a change unveiled in last week’s issue with little fanfare.

No one was surprised when the news weekly announced, two years ago, that it would name a Person of the Century, culminating six end-of-the-century special editions spotlighting 100 figures from the arts, sciences, business, etc. Under the media watchword of the day, “synergy,” there would be a television spinoff--CBS documentaries on the same personalities--and an Internet component, inviting votes in each category and chat rooms to debate Gandhi versus Martin Luther King Jr. or Elvis versus Sinatra.

Did people care? Some 4.5 million votes were cast in the Person of the Century poll alone--not including the legions of votes thrown out as being from “computer robots.”

At the center of all this was the 47-year-old Isaacson, a Harvard history major, Rhodes Scholar and best-selling biographer (on Kissinger) who assumed Time’s top post four years ago. He soon had colleagues arguing not only the 20th Century, but the nine before. Elizabeth I or Copernicus? Gutenberg or Columbus? Who’s this Giotto? “Sometimes it feels like a parlor game and sometimes it feels like a fascinating intellectual exercise,” he said. “In fact, it’s both.”


The evening of the July 13 cocktail reception, he is bothered by many people’s prediction--like Drudge’s--that he is sure to favor Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The 32nd president is a top candidate, of course, having led the United States through World War II and the Depression. But to assume Time would pick him suggests that it has never grown beyond the jingoistic Great Man view of history.

True, it was Henry Luce who branded this “The American Century.” But what about all those cover stories these days on lifestyle trends and pop culture? “Too Much Homework!” “Hip-Hop Nation.” “The Truth About Women’s Bodies.”

That’s why he reacts quickly when a partygoer belittles the notion that the nation’s largest news magazine would actually consider placing its last red border of the 1900s around, say, Adolf Hitler.

“There are many people who argue he’s obviously the person of the century,” Isaacson retorts, “that he had the most influence on the century by far. To not consider him would be”--his tone says he means it--”intellectually dishonest.”

The next day, the CBS people come to lunch at Time headquarters, led by Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News. Isaacson reports, “We are playing with five or six names at the moment.”

Heyward accepts that he and his producers are guests at this party. “It is a Time franchise,” he says. But . . . with an hour locked in for a Person of the Century show right in “the hothouse atmosphere of prime time”--10 p.m. tonightthe CBS team is not shy about hinting how certain names are “more television-onic,” as Heyward puts it, than others.


“FDR is certainly at the top of the list, I would think, in television terms,” says David Browning, senior producer of the project for CBS. “I mean, the richness of the story, and the fact that there are a lot of pictures of him”--not to mention the backdrop of WWII and the Depression.

“There’s a wealth of visual material on Einstein,” Browning adds, “but he’s not terribly television-friendly.”

Linda Mason, a CBS vice president for public affairs, says Martin Luther King Jr. might work also, because his story “looks toward the next century, when less and less of the world is going to be white.”

Someone asks if Gandhi could do that as well. “Gandhi?” she says. “Tougher television.”

Over turkey and tuna sandwiches, Isaacson offers his POC short list: First, FDR (over Churchill) in the category of “leaders who won the battle for freedom,” and either King or Gandhi (“we’re still up in the air”) as an exemplar of “the notion of the citizen who is resisting authority in order to get liberty.”

“Einstein,” Isaacson says, pointing out how the man’s influence spread far beyond his theoretical breakthroughs: He’s a refugee in an era of refugees. He writes Roosevelt warning that the enemy may develop an atomic bomb, setting off America’s drive to do it first. He becomes a pacifist. His concept of relativity can even be seen as inspiring modernism in the arts. “He symbolizes a lot of what this century is about,” Isaacson says. “I’m not saying we’re there yet, but he’s breathtakingly interesting.”

The CBS trio has already voiced qualms. But Heyward says, “Great.”

They are not so polite when Isaacson names another scientist, James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA. He could be “the person of this century who will most influence the next,” Time’s editor says.


“At a certain point the ‘Who’s He?’ is really a problem,”’ Heyward says.

“OK, Hitler,” Isaacson says, and makes the case for a century dominated by totalitarianism and genocide. “The argument against Hitler, which for me is persuasive in many ways,” he adds, “is, he lost.”

By Oct. 20, here’s where things stand:

* Time is being sued in Eskisehir, Turkey, by a man who complains of “substantial and moral harm” because he campaigned “six months day and night” for his nation’s founding hero, Mustafa Ataturk--who was left out of the magazine’s top 20 “Leaders & Revolutionaries.” Isaacson may have to fly an editor there to show the nice stories, and two covers, on Ataturk over the years.

* Isaacson has changed his mind--about the 19th Century. Out is Darwin, “this great theoretician.” In is Thomas Edison, whose inventions, “had more impact on our lives.”

* Elvis is dominating the Internet poll. This is happening after Time took heat when it ruled that Jesus--who was leading--was not a live 20th century personality. Richard Duncan, the editor of, later sums it up: “Jesus was followed by a couple of wrestlers whose names I forgot, and the Prophet Muhammad. I took them all off. Hitler then led, setting off a movement for assassinated Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin. “But by midsummer he was overtaken by Elvis,” said Duncan, “and Elvis never looked back.”

Duncan had to install two programs to detect, and invalidate, mass votes generated by computers. “Before Labor Day, a bunch of Irishmen got up one morning and got some Irish soccer player, Ronnie O’Brien, leading the list. The next week, someone did it for “Dustin The Turkey.”’

Of the more serious candidates, Einstein, King and Gandhi all have Web constituencies putting them in the top 10. But Roosevelt has a hard time cracking the top 20--he has less than half the votes of Madonna.


In the print world, meanwhile, Isaacson is down to three finalists: Roosevelt, Gandhi and Einstein. He has separate teams simultaneously preparing packages on each, thinking theirs might be “the one.”

He got an essay for the Gandhi package from someone who had been influenced by Gandhi’s philosophy of civil disobedience--Nelson Mandela. President Clinton has agreed to write on Roosevelt. Isaacson is still exchanging e-mails with “the most amazing person to do Einstein,” if physically able, Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking.

Not that everything is set. “I’ve been worrying about Churchill,” Isaacson confides.

The Churchill Center began making its case from the day Time announced plans for a POC in 1997, sending Opinion Page pieces to any publication that would print them. Its argument begins with the simple fact that, in January, 1950, Time itself named the British leader “Man of the Half Century.”

“The question is: who since 1950 has eclipsed Churchill’s accomplishments?” the president of the organization, Richard M. Langworth, wrote Isaacson Sept. 8. Roosevelt and Gandhi were dead by 1950. Einstein’s scientific epiphanies were decades past. But the old English cigar-chomper still was not done. “Churchill was again elected Prime Minister, promoted peace through preparedness, published eight further volumes of history, won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and became the most-quoted statesman who ever lived.”

Isaacson agrees that Churchill was probably a grander person than Roosevelt and more important in standing up to Hitler--alone--when “without him, everything could have fallen apart.”

But when you look at the other themes of the century, he reasons, Churchill seems like “a 19th century Romantic who happened to get stuck in the 20th century. Somebody who opposed very condescendingly the notion of the civil rights movement, referred to Emmeline Pankhurst and other suffragists in Britain in terms that were very rude, talked of Gandhi as being a half-naked fakir, and was fighting hard to keep the British empire together . . . “


Go With Einstein; Roosevelt as Backup

On Dec. 10, CBS news anchor Dan Rather taped four potential openings for the documentary that will air this evening: Einstein, Gandhi, Roosevelt--and one pairing Eleanor Roosevelt with her husband. But Isaacson said he had already confided in Linda Mason, the CBS vice president: “Proceed as if it’s Einstein, with a backup plan for Roosevelt.”

The TV people had figured out a plan for the documentary that did not depend so much on the who anyway. They would use a series of fast-paced montages to lead into themed segments. A series of one-liners (“Ask not what your country can do for you” “I had a dream” “I never had sex with that woman”) would introduce the theme of celebrity. A montage on the history of flight to get into science and medicine. Even one on necklines and hemlines as a way into individualism. FDR, Gandhi and Einstein weave through them all.

On Thursday afternoon, Isaacson invites Time staffers to join him in the conference room by his office. “This is still, of course, a secret,” he says, but there it is: the magazine’s first-ever Person of the Century edition, with Einstein on the front. The pages, many being tinkered with, are posted along the walls.

Five bottles of champagne are ready to be popped.

“There wasn’t any one moment when we said ‘Eureka!’ ” Isaacson says. “It’s not simply that you pick Einstein over the other two people. We also looked at the three great themes of the century . . . “

He discloses that, almost to the end, there were strong arguments for Hitler, especially from former Time editor Henry Grunwald, who experienced the Nazi leader’s wrath as a refugee from Austria. “I finally said, ‘Henry, if you were in our shoes, would you put Hitler on the last cover?’ ”

“He said, ‘Well, no.’ ”

Isaacson admits he became “obsessive” during the long process, when he had to fend off both those who want to turn everything into a joke and those who take everything too seriously. He has no illusions that the Einstein issue will sell as well as, say, Time’s Princess Di special. What can you do?


Talking to the staff, he’d rather share the thinking about the century, how the deciding factor was the “explosive scientific revolution” that reverberated into everyday life, how “you have people suddenly understanding the forces of the atom, the forces of the electron . . . and out of that grows microchips, lasers, atomic bombs” and forms of communication crucial even to “the rise of freedom.”

He proposes a toast “to a great century.”

“Any arguments?” he asks the staff as glasses rise, “Because we can still . . . “

After the laughter dies, someone asks, “How about a ‘Person of the Millennium?’ Can we do that next year when the actual millennium starts?”

Readers Picks

While Time deliberated on its Person of the Century, the magazine’s Web site invited readers to vote. After Time editors ruled Jesus inelligble, Elvis Presley moved to the top. The numbers as of Sunday afternoon:

1. Elvis Presley: 624,574

2. Yitzhak Rabin: 599,557

3. Adolf Hitler: 516,408

4. Billy Graham: 470,477

5. Albert Einstein: 443,630

6. Martin Luther King Jr.: 381,462

7. Pope John Paul II: 372,015

8. Gordon B. Hinckley*: 255,026

9. Mohandas Gandhi: 163,940

10. Ronald Reagan: 81,262

* President of the Morman Church


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