Back on Thursday – if you can remember back that far – Time magazine named Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as its “Person of the Year.” This surprised no one, since the POTY has been the winner of the presidential election since 2000: Bush, Obama, and Trump all got the accolade in their election and (for Bush and Obama) re-election years.
That’s as far back as that trend goes. For most of the POTY title, first awarded in 1927, presidents won not for their election but for their tenure in office. When they were named POTY for their election it was usually because the election was noteworthy – think FDR’s 1932 election, Truman’s 1948 upset, Reagan and the conservative revolution in 1980. Eisenhower won in 1959 as a kind of retrospective on his presidency. LBJ won in 1964 not only for his re-election but for civil rights advancements and the Great Society. George H. W. Bush won for the defense of Kuwait in the Gulf War in 1990. Reagan won a second time but had to share with Yuri Andropov; their 1983 POTY title was related to the Strategic Defense Initiative, nicknamed ‘Star Wars,’ that Reagan championed and Andropov fiercely opposed.
In The Week, conservative writer Matthew Walther says, “the conceit has always been a strange one. For one thing it has never been clear exactly what it means to be a Person of the Year. What are the qualities that unite communist dictators, aviation pioneers, presidents, diplomats, civil rights leaders, and popes with Wallis Simpson? Is it, on balance, a good thing to be Person of the Year? If not, why do they occasionally make feel-good humanitarian selections like “Ebola Fighters” (2014)?”
Indeed, Time founder Henry Luce said the Person of the Year was not an honor. Rather, as the magazine explained in 2019, it is “a distinction applied to the newsmaker who most influenced world events for better or worse.” In 1938, the magazine recognized Adolf Hitler, but it didn’t put him on the cover. “Instead he was depicted as a tiny figure with his back to the viewer, playing a massive organ with his murdered victims spinning on a St. Catherine’s wheel. Underneath the stark, black-and-white illustration was the caption, “From the unholy organist, a hymn of hate.””
Joseph Stalin would win under similarly questionable circumstances in 1939 for, while the Nazi invasion of Poland that began World War II was no real surprise, Stalin’s participation in the invasion was (Stalin was later recognized for his role as an ally in World War II in 1942). Saudi King Faisal’s 1974 title came for sparking the oil crisis and Iranian Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini got it for the Iranian Revolution. In 1998, President Bill Clinton and special investigator Ken Starr shared the Person of the Year title for the Lewinsky scandal. This was the last time it was given to someone for dubious reasons.
In 2000, George W. Bush is named POTY for his victory in that year’s hotly contested presidential election. This would kick off the previously mentioned trend of presidents-elect getting the title. And that meant that in 2016, Donald Trump was named Person of the Year.
Remember the description of Hitler’s 1938 cover photo? Well, Trump… didn’t get that. If you wanted to argue that Trump was recognized for some dubious distinction (it does say “President of the Divided States of America” on the cover), the imagery doesn’t support that. Trump is seated in a chair; his body faces away from the camera but his head is turned back to look at the reader. This is, if anything, the pose of someone deliberately making an effort to face you. Compare that to Obama’s 2012 cover, where he is shrouded in darkness, and tell me which is meant to be a representation of someone who was named POTY not for greatness but for fear.
Trump’s selection was not about his divisiveness or about the contentious primary or general election that made his victory possible. He was picked because he was the president-elect and then Time wove his personality into the story to justify it. Likewise, in the selection of Biden as POTY Time also chose to honor his running mate, Kamala Harris, which seems to be an acknowledgment that Harris is the one truly breaking boundaries here. She is the first woman elected vice president, the first Black person elected vice president, the first Indian-American person elected vice president. Biden, by his own admission, is president to set the country right after the Trump era and to pass the torch either to Harris or to another Democrat to lead later on. Feeling forced by this 20-year-old convention to pick the president-elect as POTY, Time’s editors tried to at least include some reason why he matters, how he meet’s Luce’s standard of the “newsmaker who most influenced world events for better or worse.” Biden’s influence was that he picked a nonwhite, nonmale running mate; together, their influence over world events was nothing more than the fact that the presidential election is a widely covered thing.
The “Ebola Fighters” got the title in 2014. Four Americans got Ebola; far more went to West Africa to help fight the pandemic there. This was worthy of Person of the Year recognition. How are the “COVID Fighters” not newsmakers who influenced the world in 2020?
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was named POTY in 2015 for her globally-recognized leadership in the migrant crisis. New Zealand’s response to COVID-19 has been praised by news media on every continent, why is Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern not this year POTY?
In the depths of the financial crisis, Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke was named 2009’s Person of the Year for leading the government response. Dr. Anthony Fauci doesn’t get to be 2020’s Person of the Year?
2011 saw “The Protester” named POTY, a recognition of Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party movement. It’s not like they couldn’t have named “The Protester” again in 2020; protests against police brutality and against COVID-19 regulations were in the news again and again.
“You” won in 2006 for creating online content. “The American Fighting Man” and “The American Soldier” won for the popular attention on the Korean War and the War on Terror. Whisteblowers won in 2002 for the Enron and WorldCom scandals. Perhaps no one was more widely discussed in 2020 than “The Essential Worker,” nor so vital to the year. In a year of healthcare heroes and grocery store superstars, where we saw just how badly we need sanitation workers to stay on the job in any condition, where pharmacists and delivery drivers and firefighters and social workers took on new roles not just as laborers but as the glue that held society together as a new virus ravages the world, it is unconscionable that Time’s Person of the Year was named by default, picked because that’s who gets picked every four years.
What is even stranger is: who reads Time? This isn’t meant to be a criticism of the magazine, or of print media in general (Time, of course, also has a web presence). Rather, it’s because the Time Person of the Year issue is often one of the magazine’s best-sellers, and there has been criticism that Time picks attention-grabbing figures to move magazines rather than thoughtful choices. But if that were true, “The Essential Worker” would probably move a lot more magazines than a issue dedicated to Joe Biden. Even picked Harris alone would have been more interesting and perhaps more profound; Harris went from a dropout in the primary to the vice president-elect, and did so in a year when a lot of attention was on Black leadership and the role of Black people in American society.
It’s a boring choice and a predictable choice but most importantly it’s a choice that continues to push the question: why do we care about Time’s Person of the Year? Well, it’s for the same reason that we care about the Oscars even though we say we won’t and we care about the Grammys even though we say we won’t. We do care – we care about seeing things that are important to us get recognition for being important to us. In a year when we all had to make sacrifices to keep each other safe, it rings especially hollow that the Person of the Year went to the default choice.