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.
The Taliban have come back. The Pakistanis have ceded them sanctuary. Some NATO nations are refusing to risk troops in combat. And it has been some time since guerrillas who enjoyed a privileged sanctuary in that part of the world failed to expel European soldiers perceived as imperial occupiers.
Islamists control Somalia. Anti-Americanism is rampant in Lebanon -- after Condi Rice blocked a U.N. ceasefire resolution to stop Israel's bombing last summer in what was supposed to be a campaign to clear Hezbollah from her northern border. The Beirut government could fall at any moment or be forced into a coalition with Hezbollah.
Even Bush's defense secretary concedes we are not winning in Iraq. It may take a "surge" of 20,000 to 40,000 troops to stave off defeat before the end of Bush's term. On the West Bank and Gaza, Hamas and Fatah appear on the brink of civil war. The elections Bush demanded produced dramatic gains for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine and Moqtada al-Sadr in Iraq.
Eighteen months ago, Ahmadinejad was the unknown mayor of Tehran. Today, he is the visible face of anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism, both a cause of and the personification of our failures. He has defied Bush's demand that he give up the enrichment of uranium, split the Security Council, mocked the Holocaust, called for the end of the Zionist state and the expulsion of America from the Mideast, terrified the Sunni monarchs, and united the Arab and Islamic masses behind his defiance.
His trip to the United Nations, where he ran circles around U.S. journalists, was a diplomatic triumph. And he has done it all not with military power -- Iran would not last a week in an all-out war with the United States and has no defense against Israel's nuclear weapons -- but with theatrics and rhetoric.
He inspires all who hate Israel and Bush's America. And, according to the Zogby polling today, that is a majority which, in some once-friendly nations, is approaching near unanimity.
Ahmadinejad, a man of words without real power, is the big winner of 2006, because Bush, America and Israel were the big losers.
Why do a billion Muslims prefer Ahmadinejad to America? That is the question that needs to be addressed.