Since 1927, the year Lindbergh flew the Atlantic in his single-engine Spirit of St. Louis, Time has devoted its final cover of the year to the Man of the Year. The Lone Eagle was first.
In the 1930s and 1940s, FDR was the Man of the Year three times. Stalin, Truman and Churchill made it twice, though the selection of Churchill in 1949 seems dubious, as he had been out of power four years, while Mao was seizing China by the throat in the bloodiest revolution of the century.
Hitler was chosen in the year of Anschluss and Munich, 1938. Gen. Marshall made it twice, as did Ike, in 1944 as victor of Normandy and, 15 years later, as president.
In the 1960s and 1970s, JFK made it once, LBJ and Nixon twice. Nixon's 1972 designation was shared with Henry Kissinger. In 1979, the dark and brooding face gracing Time's cover was that of Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini.
And Time got it right. For Time's Man of the Year, now Person of the Year, is the figure who, for good or evil, dominates the news. Yet this year Time could not bring itself to name the obvious choice. Instead, it chose you and me, all of us citizens of the digital democracy who create on the Worldwide Web. Why the copout?
Perhaps it was Ahmadinejad's hosting of a conference of Holocaust skeptics, including David Duke, that caused Time to recoil. Perhaps it was fear that the face of the Iranian president on the cover of Time would repel the American people and be death for sales.
Surely that was the reasoning behind Time's refusal to name Osama bin Laden in 2001, choosing Rudy Giuliani instead, though history is unlikely to conclude that Rudy, his crowded hour notwithstanding, was the central figure of that annus horribilis.
Richard Stengel, editor of Time, as much as concedes he could not bring himself to choose by the traditional standard, if that meant choosing Ahmadinejad: "It just felt to me a little off selecting him."
Understandably. But the refusal to select Ahmadinejad reveals an unwillingness to confront hard truths. For putting his face on Time's cover would have done a useful service, jolting America to a painful realization. Not only George Bush, but the United States, its Arab allies and Israel, had a dreadful year, as Iran emerged as first beneficiary of a war fought by this country at a cost of 25,000 dead and wounded.
What the choice of Ahmadinejad would have said is that Iran is in the ascendancy in the Middle East and it is not inconceivable that the United States is headed for defeat, not only in Iraq but Afghanistan.