So you just found out who the Person of the Year is? Congratulations. So did I. I’ve worked at TIME for almost two decades and I’ve never once known the identity of the Person of the Year (or POY, to us semi-insiders) before the printers in Oklahoma do.
Oh, except last year, when Pastor Rick Warren told me. I was interviewing him for the 10 Questions page for TIME’s end of year issue and I asked him if he thought the Pope would be a good person of the year. He swung into an answer so smooth and detailed, even for a preacher from California, that I realized he’d said it before. And there he was a few days later, quoted in our cover.
I’m not entirely sure why I never know who the POY is. It’s not that I’m not good with secrets. (O.K., maybe it is a little bit that I’m not good with secrets.) But the whole operation is carried out with such a level of confidentiality that actually very few people at TIME know much ahead of publication. There’s cloak-and-dagger air to it all: a lot of password protected files, a cluster of secret meetings and sometimes a certain amount of brown paper over office door windows. I could go into more detail, but as mentioned before, I’m good with secrets.
All right, just a little bit: Sometimes you can hazard a guess by figuring out the area of expertise of a colleague who has suddenly gone very quiet. Or if somebody who pitched a good idea at the first POY meeting starts to look very haggard around December, that can be a clue. But I still rarely figure it out.
Every year, way in advance, the call goes out to the staff for suggested candidates for the POY, and every year I try to come up with someone. I’m currently batting 0.00 on getting any of my ideas through. If you don’t want to be POY, give me a call. Ten years ago, I had the job of trying to persuade Mel Gibson, whose The Passion of the Christ had been a huge hit, to pose with Michael Moore, whose Fahrenheit 911 had also been big. If both of them had agreed they had a shot at being POY.
Moore took almost no persuading. Gibson’s publicist agreed to let me speak to the movie star as well. Alas, a few minutes into the phone call it became clear I might as well have been pitching him a sequel to The Passion, only a comedy, about Muhammad. Neither man (nor the Prophet) was POY that year. It was George W. Bush.
I suggested Hillary Clinton in probably her least influential year. In 2001, when it was NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani, I was in Osama Bin Laden’s camp, so to speak. In 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president, I believe I suggested that it should be anybody but Barack Obama. This year, I suggested the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. Since they’ve been in captivity for several months in a remote part of Nigeria, it was a bit of a longshot.
All the finalists for POY have code names, and for this year, they were all flowers: There was Daffodil candidate, the Tulip candidate and so on. When I saw that one of the candidates was named Mum, I thought I’d have to make a quick phone call home to check my mother (she’s British, so she spells it like that) hadn’t done anything special.
Of course she had, and I had to hear about that for a long time. I think she’s walking the dog in a new part of the park or had an important exchange with her Vietnamese pharmacist. I kept trying to explain that I needed to see some evidence of influence, which is what we look for in a POY. Eventually she came up with that she had managed to get dad to see a foreign film. If she keeps up that pace, I’ll probably suggest her next year.
I’ve started to enjoy the process of not knowing who the POY is; it has become an end of year ritual, like buying my last minute Christmas gifts from the all-night pharmacy. And I worry that knowing in advance might spoil the fun, like when I actually buy the presents in advance and the kids poke holes in the too-cheap wrapping paper. So Happy POY day everyone. And congratulations [blank space here]!