The persons at the Weekly Standard, who are persons of a rightist stripe, put their heads together and decided that the "Person of the Century"--the 20th century, if anyone remembers it--was Winston Churchill. But the persons at Time, who are persons of a centrist stripe, put their heads together and decided that the "Person of the Century" was Albert Einstein. As for the persons at the Nation, who are persons of a leftist stripe, they put their heads together and decided to pass.
This no doubt is all to the good, as the thought of Che Guevara as "Person of the Century" is more than the stomach can bear, but on the other hand it's not a whole lot worse than most of the other tommyrot being retailed these days. Run a "Person of the Century" search on the Internet, and you'll come up with enough rubbish to keep the compactor busy for weeks: Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain, Dolly Parton . . . you name it, somebody's voting for it as "Person of the Century."
Mind you, being an ardent admirer of La Parton, one who has spent the past several weeks listening in awe and delight to her new album, "The Grass Is Blue," I'm ready to say "Hello, Dolly!" at the drop of a hat, or whatever. Probably it is true, as well, that Dolly has as much claim on "Person of the Century" as most of the charlatans, mountebanks and self-publicists who've been boosted for the honor.
But the real truth is that there's no such thing as "Person of the Century" or "Person of the Millennium" or person of any other time frame you care to design, with the exception of "Person of the Fourth Quarter of Super Bowl III," who was Joe Namath, unless it was Weeb Ewbank, or maybe it was Matt Snell. "Person of the Century" is a conceit such as could have been born only in the brains of the heirs to the journalistic legacy of Henry Robinson Luce, who was the father of Time, which, as he was wont to remind his faithful readers, Marches On.
Luce was a splendidly simple-minded man, one of the true giants in the long, glorious history of human simple-mindedness. Luce believed that everything could be reduced to an essence so pure that even those more simple-minded than he could comprehend it, which is why he founded Time. And Life. And Fortune. He believed that everything in human existence could be put in lists numbered 1 through 10, and that unto each of us a slogan is given. That is why he dubbed (a favorite Luce-word) the 100 years just ended "The American Century" and why at the end of each year, back in the good old days of rampant, unchecked sexism, he and his underlings at Time dubbed some semi-comatose white male "Man of the Year."
When Luce died in 1967, he went to the Great Pigeonhole in the Sky, the only fit reward for one who had spent his entire career fitting others into pigeonholes. In his stupendous simple-mindedness, he somehow connected to the deep human longing for ABC answers to XYZ questions, and he made himself a considerable fortune off magazines and newsreels and other media in which he promoted the gospel of oversimplification.
The problem was, and is, that life doesn't work that way. Life is complicated, and centuries are complicated, and millennia are so complicated that even the editorial board of Time, each member fortified with a half-dozen Beefeater martinis, cannot get close to grasping them. Yes, Einstein was a great man--so was Churchill--but he was no more "Person of the Century" just ended than was, say, Dick Armey, who was put forward for the honor by the New Republic in a most uncharacteristic fit of whimsy.
In fact, Armey (he is, for those in a state of enviable ignorance, majority leader of the House of Representatives) may be a more paradigmatic 20th-century figure than any of the aforementioned, since the public record suggests that he is a bully and an ideologue. Not, of course, on anything like the scale of V.I. Lenin or Joseph Stalin or Adolf Hitler or Mao Zedong or Pol Pot or the other world-championship bullies of the late and unlamented century, but a miniature version of one of the strongest strains in human behavior not merely in the 20th century but throughout human history.
The 20th century was an unceasing struggle between the dark and light sides of human nature, just as was every century that preceded it; the difference was that knowledge and technology made the opportunities for darkness and light all the more gruesome and splendiferous. The editors of Time and the Weekly Standard, in bestowing their kudos (thanks, Mr. Luce!) on Einstein and Churchill, chose to honor humanity's better side, but that was scarcely the century's true story. Were I foolish enough to make my own choice, it probably would be Lenin or Hitler, for the evil they did far transcended the good worked by others, but doubtless I would be no closer to the Last Word than are those earnest persons in the upper reaches of the Time-Life Building.
The 20th century ended on an up beat: the stock market blissing out, Silicon trillionaires puffing cigars in their tract mansions, BMWs racing Mercedes on the flat highways of Middle America. From such a vantage point, it's easy to look back and see human progress unimpeded. But that, in the words of another paradigmatic citizen of the 20th century, would be wrong.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is email@example.com
Sarah Booth Conroy is away. Her Chronicles column will resume when she returns.