Putin: Odd Choice as Person of the Year

Why not Petraeus? He has made an enormous difference in Iraq.

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Time magazine has chosen Vladimir Putin as the person of the year. This strikes me as an odd choice. Yes, Putin has been an important player on the international stage; yes, he has frustrated American efforts to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons; yes, he has been more intransigent on asserting Russian power on the "near abroad," the former Soviet republics, which, like Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltics, seek to take a different course. But he has been doing these things for years, and he has made no important advances, at best incremental progress, in calendar year 2007.

In contrast, Time's fourth runner-up for person of the year, Gen. David Petraeus, has made an enormous difference this past year. With the help of many others (which is true of any leader), he has turned around the military situation and the political situation (if not at the top-down national level, then at the bottom-up local level) in Iraq. What seemed to be an imminent American defeat has been transformed into an imminent American success. And Petraeus has done more than any other person to turn that around.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Time didn't name Petraeus as the person of the year because its editors didn't want to spotlight and honor American success. This was not always so, as you can check by looking at Time's archive of person of the year (originally man of the year) selections over the years. During World War II, Time chose Gen. George Marshall as man of the year for 1943 and Dwight Eisenhower for 1944. To be sure, Time did not always name those admired by its founder, Henry Luce, a liberal Republican and interventionist in the run-up to World War II. For 1942, it named Joseph Stalin for the Soviets' successful resistance to the Nazi invasion that began in 1941, but it had also, justifiably, named Stalin as the man of the year in 1939, because the Hitler-Stalin pact agreed to in August 1939 enabled Adolf Hitler to invade Poland without serious opposition. Indeed, Time also named Hitler man of the year for 1938, when he got Britain and France to appease him by destroying the power of Czechoslovakia to resist conquest.

Luce, always an opponent of Roosevelt and Truman but also a firm believer in the necessity of American triumph in the Cold War as well as World War II, saw that Time honored the contributions of George Marshall in initiating the Cold War in 1947 and the "American Fighting Man" in resisting the Communist advance in Korea in 1950. Luce, born in China and the son of Presbyterian missionaries, lamented the loss of China to the Communists and supported the U.S. effort to prevent Vietnam from going the same way. William Westmoreland was hailed as the man of the year for 1965 (perhaps an unfortunate choice, given the failure of his strategy in Vietnam), and Lyndon Johnson was named, in unhappy tones, as the man of the year for 1967, the year Luce died.

In the post-Luce years, Time has become a far more liberal, even leftist, media organ than Luce would have liked—mirroring the move to the left of what had once been the WASP Ivy League establishment. It hailed Richard Nixon as the man of the year for 1971, for the opening to China, which is hard to quarrel with, whatever your ideological orientation. Nixon set a new policy for China that has been followed, more or less, by every administration since (though denounced by most presidential nominees since). The post-Luce Time was quick to notice the turn in China policy made by Teng Hsiao-P'ing (as he was then transliterated), man of the year for 1978, and gave him the honor again, this time as Deng Xiao Ping, in 1985. Time, has often honored winning presidential candidates who had not seemed such likely winners the year before, bestowing the man of the year designation on Ronald Reagan for 1980, for example. But, oddly, it honored him and Soviet leader Yuri Andropov as co-men of the year for 1983, though they never met and never negotiated. Deeply implanted within the mind of the eastern establishment by that time was that all worldly problems would be solved by negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union, presumably with concessions by the former to the latter. But such negotiations didn't take place, and Andropov's main contribution to history turned out to be his recommendation of Mikhail Gorbachev as his successor, who certainly was a momentous figure but not presumably with the effect Andropov hoped for.

Time left no doubt of where it stood. Mikhail Gorbachev was the man of the year for 1987, an eminently defensible choice, but he was also 1989 declared man of the decade for 1989—an echo of Time's declaration for 1950 that Winston Churchill was the man of the half-century. There's just a tad bit of difference here: Churchill won, and Gorbachev lost. The man of the decade of the 1980s who prevailed and triumphed was Ronald Reagan. Or, perhaps, you might like to mention Pope John Paul II, Time's man of the year for 1994 (not a bad choice for any year during his pontificate).

When I started off in journalism, at the Harvard Crimson in 1963, Henry Luce and Time were considered a prime example of slanted journalism, tilted toward Republicans and against Democrats, toward liberal Republicans and against conservative Republicans, tilted toward Catholics (Luce's wife Claire Boothe Luce was a Catholic convert, and Luce produced hugely favorable coverage of his friend Joseph Kennedy's children and of the Catholic Diems in Vietnam; it turns out the coverage of the Kennedys was inflated and of the Diems was justified, contrary to what we thought at the time).

Now Time is slanted to the left, in an interesting and sometimes original way. In its person of the year designations, it has been alert to changes in the popular culture. It named CNN founder Ted Turner in 1991, five years before Rupert Murdoch founded Fox News Channel, which has long since overtaken CNN; but the latter was the pioneer in cable news. Other interesting choices: It named the "endangered" planet for 1988, when Al Gore was running for president as a foreign policy hawk rather than a global warming alarmist. It named Intel's Andy Grove for 1997 and Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos for 1999, choices that probably look better today than they did at the time. Going back a ways, Time presciently chose the computer as person of the year for 1982; the story unfortunately doesn't name either Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, and though it does mention Apple, doesn't mention Microsoft; but it stands up pretty well.

Politically, Time looks more ham-handed. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush got chosen for the years in which they were elected and, in Bush's case, re-elected: well, yes, but er, um, eh. Time concedes Republicans man of the year status when it can hardly do otherwise: Newt Gingrich for 1995, Rudy Giuliani for 2001. It gets some group awards pretty much right, for the American soldier for 2003 and for "the good Samaritans" Bono and Bill and Melinda Gates for 2005. Other group choices have not stood up so well.

The men of the year for 1993 were the "peacemakers" Nelson Mandela, F. W. de Klerk, Yitzhak Rabin, and Yasser Arafat. Quiz question: Which name doesn't belong on this list? Or 1998 men of the year Bill Clinton and Kenneth Starr, as odd and ill-assorted a pair as Andropov and Reagan. Or 2002's whistle-blowers Cynthia Cooper, Coleen Rowley, and Sherron Watkins. Who can identify more than one out of three?

Which brings us back to the person of the year for 2007, Vladimir Putin. Yes, he's a consequential figure, who has just nominated a successor who looks like his pawn (at least for now; for a contrary view, see this speculation). But Russia ain't what it was when Time saw Ronald Reagan and Yuri Andropov as a dynamic duo. And who are Time's runners-up? Al Gore, who exaggerated the IPCC climate forecast by a factor of 20 to say that New York and London would be flooded by global warming (they weren't in the 13th century, when the weather was a lot warmer than it is now). J. K. Rowling, who has made millions writing books that children and adults love to read; all power to her, but she's not exerting the kind of influence over human affairs that Hitler did in 1938 and Stalin did in 1939. Or Hu Jintao, who is presiding over a system whose initiation, in 1978, was rightly honored by Time as a turning point in history. I have on my bookshelves somewhere (actually, it's not there, because I've just moved and haven't reshelved my books) a book by a China scholar entitled 1587: A Year of No Significance. I bought it because of the title and haven't gotten around to reading it yet. Hu Jintao is, so far as I can tell, like that book, of no significance. David Petraeus, No. 4 on Time's list, has made a much greater—a huger—difference. But Time doesn't want to acknowledge that, because to do so would be to admit that George W. Bush is not an ignorant tyrant and that the United States is not on the losing side of history. Better to elevate Vladimir Putin to a significance he does not deserve. Shame.