December 19, 2008

President-Elect Barack Obama Part of a Timely Tradition

Charles Lindbergh, Time magazine’s first Man of the Year. (Newseum collection)
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Charles Lindbergh, Time magazine’s first Man of the Year. (Newseum collection)

Barack Obama, Time's 2008 Person of the Year. (Newseum collection)
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Barack Obama, Time's 2008 Person of the Year. (Newseum collection)

In 1927, a young pilot named Charles Lindbergh catapulted to international fame when he became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Later that year, another historic first took place when Time magazine dubbed Lindbergh “Man of the Year,” starting one of the most famous traditions in American journalism.

Each year, the editors of Time select the person or people who, in their judgment, most affected the news over the past 12 months. The magazine’s 2008 “Person of the Year” is President-elect Barack Obama, who will be sworn in as the 44th president of the United States on Jan. 20, 2009, and is the first black person elected to the office.

The annual tradition began almost by chance. In late December 1927, when the magazine’s editors faced a slow news week and could not decide on a cover subject for the first issue of the new year, someone suggested that they make up for an oversight earlier in the year, when they had neglected to put Lindbergh on the cover after he completed his solo flight across the Atlantic in May.

The idea became a hit. Over the years, selections have included the famous and infamous — presidents and dictators, statesmen and scientists, civic leaders and innovators. But after 81 years, Lindbergh, who was 25 when he became the first Man of the Year, remains the youngest person to receive the distinction.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt is the only three-time Man of the Year. Three women received the honor as individuals, most recently Corazon Aquino in 1986, and China’s Madame Chiang Kai-shek was named with her husband in 1937. In the 21st century, four more women have been added to the ranks — three women known collectively as “The Whistleblowers” were named the 2002 Persons of the Year, and Melinda Gates shared the title in 2005 with her husband, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, and Irish musician Bono.

The year’s biggest newsmaker is not always a single individual or even a human. Time has named groups of people, including Hungarian freedom fighters (1956) and American women (1975), as well as the computer (Machine of the Year in 1982) and Earth itself (1988’s Planet of the Year). Perhaps the most unusual recipient came in 2006, when the magazine featured a mirror-like piece of reflective Mylar on the cover and named “You” as Person of the Year.

Time, the first modern newsmagazine, was founded in 1923 by journalists Henry R. Luce and Briton Hadden. The first Man of the Year issue is displayed in the Newseum’s News Corporation News History Gallery, along with Time’s inaugural issue and other first-edition magazines from Luce’s Time Inc. publications empire.

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