When Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year” Meant Something

From a Wall Street Journal column by Lance Morrow headlined “When Time’s ‘Man of the Year’ Meant Something”:

Time magazine’s Man of the Year selection once was a bigger deal. So, for that matter, were the Academy Awards and the presidency. It was a different time.

During my 40-year career at Time, I wrote seven Man of the Year cover stories. It was called Man of the Year in those days but Time by no means excluded women from consideration. In 1976 I did the Women of the Year story about outstanding women in various fields. A man wouldn’t get that assignment today. It would have to be written by a woman.

In earlier generations, Wallis Simpson, who caused King Edward VII to leave the throne, became Woman of the Year in 1936. A year later, Chiang Kai-shek and his wife, Soong May-ling, were Man and Woman of the Year. The title officially changed to Person of the Year in 1999—an ideological smudging that I find a little prissy. I suppose it can’t be helped.

In the old culture, appearing on Time’s cover was a secular version of being beatified by the Catholic Church. To be Man of the Year was equivalent to being canonized a saint—or perhaps winning a Nobel Prize. Maybe better. Time stipulated, however, that the Man of the Year might be a devil. It was the person who had most affected the course of the year’s events “for good or ill.” Thus, Hitler was named in 1938 and Stalin in both 1939 and 1942. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was Man of the Year in 1979.

Whenever Time deemed a monster to be the year’s most consequential figure, the editors braced for an avalanche of angry letters, and hundreds of subscriptions would be canceled. The editors—high-minded, long-suffering—would repeat their formula: “The person who, for good or ill . . .”

The Man of the Year idea originated during a slow week toward the end of 1927. The editors, stumped for an outstanding figure in that week’s news to put on the magazine’s cover, had the bright idea of choosing the outstanding figure in the news of the entire year. That led them to Charles A. Lindbergh, who had flown solo across the Atlantic in May. Time hadn’t made much of the story at the time, and now the editors, in what proved to be a stroke of genius, repaired the error by putting the Lone Eagle (tall, handsome, laconic, daring, all-American and, as the voice of 2022’s wokeness might pipe up, incredibly white) on the cover as Man of the Year.

Henry Luce’s Time nearly always presented a person on the cover. Luce, a missionary’s son and classics major at Yale, had studied his Plutarch. He had absorbed Thomas Carlyle’s theory: “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” The idea made for vivid journalism: The human story captured the reader and served as armature for the Big Ideas, of which Luce was fond. You always mentioned what the presidential candidate had for breakfast. Alf Landon of Kansas, running against Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936, ate a hearty breakfast of porridge, scrambled eggs, orange juice and kidneys. No reader ever forgot the kidneys. Of course, a phenomenon such as climate change or the pandemic may make a fool of the great-man theory.

My best Man of the Year story was my first. It was about “The Middle Americans,” chosen as Man and Woman of the Year in 1969. The piece was a long, cautiously sympathetic discussion of the constituency—almost exactly half the country—that had just elected Richard Nixon president and had started to push back against urban rioting (or protests, if you like) and the rest of the disorderly, libidinous and, in any case, un-Rotarian 1960s.

I recently reread the piece and was astonished to find that the country has hardly changed in the 53 years since I sat down to write it. It’s nonsense to say that, of course, but the mindset of the Nixon-Agnew Middle America of 1969 eerily prefigures that of MAGAland in 2022. Time could reprint my story today and the essence of it would still seem right. The country and the world might have changed in every respect (culturally, morally, electronically), and yet certain passions, patterns of mind, the “ways” of people, remain stubbornly as they were before. The novelist John Dos Passos knew his subject when he wrote (in the mid-1930s, referring to the Sacco-Vanzetti trial of the mid-1920s): “All right, we are two nations.”

These days, Time magazine, though much changed, wisely preserves the Person of the Year franchise. For weeks leading up to the announcement, the editors encourage public participation. Online responders, confronted with a list of possibilities, one after another, click either yes or no to each name in turn. On one recent day when I checked the tallies, Donald Trump came in at 3%, a point ahead of Vladimir Putin, King Charles and Bad Bunny, the Puerto Rican rapper. Beyonce did better, with 5%, the same score posted by Joe Biden, Liz Cheney and Lizzo (the singer, rapper and flutist).

This year, if I had to guess, the editors will choose Volodymyr Zelensky. It’s easiest to write a hero’s tale. If Mr. Zelensky is the choice, Time’s writer will have a hard slog to sort out the geopolitics of the Russian war against Ukraine. But at the core of the Person of the Year piece will be the story of diminutive, indomitable Mr. Zelensky, hero and underdog in his war leader’s T-shirt. The writer will take advantage of another lively character as his foil and villain: Vladimir Putin. The drama is Shakespearean, which is the way that Henry Luce liked to serve up his journalism.

Lance Morrow is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of “The Noise of Typewriters: Remembering Journalism,” forthcoming in January.

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